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January 08 2012

19:59

Fracking Earthquakes Becoming Serious Cause for Concern

For the fracking industry, 2012 is off to a shaky start…literally. On New Year’s Eve 2011, a 4.0 magnitude earthquake was recorded in Ohio, one of the largest fracking-related quakes to date. According to reports, the quake was felt across hundreds of square miles in the state of Ohio, and scientists suspect it is related to hydraulic fracturing wastewater disposal near Youngstown, Ohio.

The New Year’s Eve quake is just the latest in a growing list of fracking-related earthquakes that have made headlines in the last 12 months. From DeSmogBlog’s Year In Dirty Energy: Fracking report:
  

New reports are surfacing that link fracking to earthquakes that occurred in January in Oklahoma. According to a new study by the Oklahoma Geological Survey [PDF], fracking is linked to 50 mini-earthquakes that occurred on January 18, 2011 in Oklahoma.

The occurrence of so-called “induced seismicity” – seismic activity caused by human actions – in conjunction with fluid injection or extraction operations is a well-documented phenomenon. However, induced earthquakes large enough to be felt at the surface have typically been associated with large scale injection or withdrawal of fluids, such as water injection wells, geothermal energy production, and oil and gas production. It was generally thought that the risk of inducing large earthquakes through hydraulic fracturing was very low, because of the comparatively small volumes of fluid injected and relatively short time-frame over which it occurs. As the controversy over hydraulic fracturing has heated up, however, researchers and the public have become increasingly interested in the potential for fracking to cause large earthquakes.

But this is hardly a new phenomenon. Studies show that fracking practices in the 1970s had caused similar seismic activity in Oklahoma, according to E&E News.
 

But the most recent Ohio quake has generated a more-urgent cause for concern than the previous quakes. As The Huffington Post points out:

Earthquakes have a special ability to grab public attention.

That's especially true after Saturday's quake near Youngstown, at magnitude 4.0 strong enough to be felt across hundreds of square miles. Gov. John Kasich, a drilling proponent, has shut down the wastewater well on which the quake has been blamed, along with others in the area, as the seismic activity is reviewed.

Ohio's closure of the well will have little to no impact on drilling, said Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group based in Pennsylvania. Four of the five wells that Ohio shut down were not operational, Windle said.

Kasich told reporters over the weekend that he doesn't believe the energy industry should be blamed for issues arising from disposal of their byproducts (fracking). That would be like blaming the auto industry for improper disposal of old tires, the first-term Republican said.

But Kasich’s actions in this matter speak louder than his words. Sure, he claims that we can’t blame the dirty energy industry, but in the same breath he announces that he’s halting fracking activities in the area until further review. These aren’t the actions of a man who believes that the two events aren’t related.

Kasich has been a long-time supporter of fracking, claiming in January of last year that he would be pushing for more hydraulic fracturing in Ohio because he thinks it will create jobs, and that it would be a “great opportunity” for the state. And just 2 months ago, Kasich announced that he would be opening up federal lands in Ohio to natural gas companies to drill. His proposal included allowing fracking to take place in the state’s national parks, something that 70% of his constituents opposed. The United States Forest Service stepped in an removed 3,000 acres of public land from Kasich’s proposal.

As is always the case, you have to follow the money on Kasich’s fracking push. Kasich has received more than $150,000 from the oil and gas industries, as well as an additional $489,000 from the energy industry (not oil and gas-related companies.) Truth-Out provides the following analysis of the gas industry's lobbying efforts in Ohio over the years:

The fracking industry, on the other hand, has spent $747 million dollars in the past decade to lobby Congress and support politicians in states like Ohio, Michigan and New York as part of a campaign to keep fracking unregulated, according to a recent Common Cause report.

Common Cause reports that fracking companies spent $2.8 million in political contributions to Ohio parties and candidates since 2001. Republican Gov. John Kasich tops the list and has received $213,519 in campaign contributions from the industry.

Additional analysis of campaign records by Truthout reveals that wealthy executives of companies connected to the natural gas industry, including billionaires William "Bill" Koch and David Koch of Koch brothers fame, funneled an additional $127,268 in personal donations through a political action committee (PAC) to support Kasich's election in 2010.

Kasich is not the only Ohio politician who has enjoyed support from the industry. Former Democratic governor Ted Strickland received $87,450 since 2001. The state-level Republican campaign committees for the Ohio House and Senate have received a combined total of $210,250. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted received $84,750.

Truthout found that wealthy businessmen connected to the natural gas industry donated thousands of dollars to a PAC organized by the Republican Governors Association (RGA) in 2010. The PAC used a majority of the money to pay for attack ads against former governor Strickland, whom Kasich defeated in 2010.
 

There’s big money for Kasich if he allows the dirty energy industry to frack the state into oblivion, but for now, the governor has made the right call. The likelihood of the fracking moratorium to last is small, but the earthquakes being felt are growing larger and more needs to be done to prevent the threat of property damage and risks to public health.

December 17 2011

22:27

Report Partially Blames Federal Government For Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig Explosion

Perhaps one of the most honest assessments of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion reveals the numerous failures of both industry and the federal government in the worst marine oil disaster in U.S. history.

The U.S. Department of the Interior sanctioned the report, compiled by more than a dozen experts operating with the temporary group called the Committee for Analysis of Causes of the Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Fire, and Oil Spill to Identify Measures to Prevent Similar Accidents in the Future (The Committee). And while the experts on The Committee identified failures we’ve documented in the past - particularly the shoddy design of the well’s blowout preventer - the committee highlighted plenty of new information as well.

Noting again that it was sanctioned by the federal government, it's interesting that this was one of the first reports to explicitly implicate the federal government’s irresponsible actions as a cause of the massive oil disaster that followed the explosion:

The regulatory regime was ineffective in addressing the risks of the Macondo well. The actions of the regulators did not display an awareness of the risks or the very narrow margins of safety.

As DeSmog has reported in the past, the federal government’s role in the disaster can be traced all the way back to 2001, when then-Vice President Dick Cheney was holding his secret Energy Task Force meetings with oil industry executives. During those meetings, the industry insiders in attendance helped the Vice President draft legislation that would eviscerate basic health and safety standards that protected workers and the public from the oil industry's reckless practices.

Among the regulations that were revoked was the requirement for offshore rigs to maintain an acoustic switch – a device that would explode and seal off an oil well permanently in the event of a blowout. There was no acoustic switch installed on the Deepwater Horizon rig. Triggering the switch makes the well no longer usable.

Another failure of the government involved the actual rig inspections. Again, our previous reports revealed that the regulators charged with insuring the rig’s safety allowed the oil companies to fill out their own inspection reports in pencil, with the regulators going back over them in pen after they were sent back.

While these aspects were not specifically mentioned in the new report, it does at least put some blame on the government.

The new report also lays plenty of blame at the feet of the companies involved with the Deepwater Horizon rig, which were BP, Transocean, and Halliburton:

The actions, policies, and procedures of the corporations involved did not provide an effective systems safety approach commensurate with the risks of the Macondo well. The lack of a strong safety culture resulting from a deficient overall systems approach to safety is evident in the multiple flawed decisions that led to the blowout…

The (blow-out-prevention) system was neither designed nor tested for the dynamic conditions that most likely existed at the time that attempts were made to recapture well control. Furthermore, the design, test, operation, and maintenance of the (blow out prevention) system were not consistent with a high-reliability, fail-safe device.

Earlier this year, rig-owner Transocean attempted to claim in their own report that the blame for the explosion and oil leak should be levied at BP and Halliburton, and that the Transocean-owned blowout preventer was fully operational. An additional Transocean report tried to lay the blame for the explosion on the rig workers.

The new report also comes on the heels of a recent lawsuit filed by BP claiming that Halliburton was attempting to destroy evidence of their shoddy cement work prior to trial.

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December 10 2011

15:15

North American Air Pollution Statistics Will Take Your Breath Away

Two separate reports released this week offer a grim look at the state of air quality in North America. The continent already produces 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from power plants, resulting in an array of health and environmental problems.

According to a joint report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), EarthJustice, and the Sierra Club, the situation in America is getting worse. Their report rated the top 5 worst states for toxic power plant emissions. Some of the chemicals used to rank the states’ emission status included chromium, arsenic, lead, and mercury. These represent four of the most toxic heavy metals found in power plant emissions.

The report, titled "AMERICA’S TOP POWER PLANT TOXIC AIR POLLUTERS" listed the 5 worst states as follows:

Pennsylvania (#1 rankings for arsenic and lead)
Ohio (#2 rankings for mercury and selenium)
Indiana (#4 rankings for chromium and nickel)
Kentucky (#2 for arsenic)
Texas (#1 rankings for mercury and selenium)

This report comes as the U.S. EPA is working on new standards for power plant emissions. The agency is under a court order to establish new emission standards, but action on air pollution standards has stalled, thanks to an attempt by the Republican-controlled Congress to strip the EPA of their court-granted authority to regulate air pollution.


In addition to the toxic metal rankings, the report made numerous other startling discoveries:

Electric power plants comprise a relatively small number of facilities, but, their toxic emissions dwarf other industrial sectors.

Whereas literally thousands of chemical plants and other industries reported toxic emissions to EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory in 2010, only a few hundred power plants reported mercury and hydrochloric acid emissions, and only 59 power plants reported selenium emissions. Yet, despite the relatively small number of facilities, electric utilities emit more arsenic, mercury, selenium, and hydrochloric acid than any other industrial sector, and the utility industry emits the second highest total emissions of chromium and nickel of all industry sectors.

The electric power industry emits almost two-thirds of the nation's industrial arsenic emissions.

Only 59 power plants representing the entire electric utility sector reported selenium emissions in 2010. Yet, the utility industry is still the top selenium emitter of all industry sectors, releasing 250,220 pounds, or 125 tons, of selenium into the nation’s air. That’s 76.3 percent of all industrial selenium emissions.

Some states have seen major drops in reported emissions of dangerous heavy metals, while other states have made little progress to reduce these air toxics.

From 2009 to 2010, power plant lead emissions actually increased in 16 states.

Pennsylvania – by far the largest state in terms of power plant arsenic emissions – has actually increased its reported power plant arsenic emissions over the past decade, from 15,861 pounds reported in 2001, to 17,666 pounds of arsenic reported in 2010.

While the findings of that report do not bode well for the United States, the situation throughout the rest of North America doesn’t look better. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation’s (CEC) new report - North American Power Plant Air Emissions – examines the emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, methane, sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulate matter from coal-burning power plants across the continent. CEC’s report details emissions on a plant-by-plant basis, examining which areas are at a higher risk based on what nearby power plants are pumping into the atmosphere.

From CEC’s report:

These pollutants—especially sulfur dioxide, mercury and greenhouse gases—are linked to a range of environmental and public health problems facing the people of North America today, including acid rain, smog, asthma, and global climate change. For sulfur dioxide alone, the major contributor to acid rain, fossil-fuel power plants are responsible for 71 percent of reported emissions from industrial facilities across North America.

North America’s fossil-fuel electricity generating sector is a major contributor to emissions of greenhouse gases, representing 33 percent of North American and six percent of global emissions, mainly carbon dioxide. The combustion of coal accounts for the bulk of these emissions. Coal-fired power plants in Canada and the United States, along with Mexican oil-fired facilities, produced the largest emissions overall of greenhouse gases (GHGs), particularly CO2, although in Canada and Mexico, natural gas-fired power plants were major sources of methane as well as nitrous oxide, both extremely potent greenhouse gases.


The information contained in these reports is nothing to be hopeful about. And when coupled with information about agencies being prevented from doing their jobs to control these toxic emissions, they paint a very bleak picture for the future of North American public health.

November 14 2011

20:16

New Report: CCPA and the Wilderness Committee on BC's "Reckless" Desire to Frack

If British Columbia wants to pursue economic, environmental and human health then the province must slow its furious pace of unconventional gas production, says a new report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and the Wilderness Committee. The CAPP report, part of their partner Climate Justice Project with the University of British Columbia, concludes that BC’s natural gas sector is putting the industry’s needs before those of British Columbians, and doing so with the government’s help.

Ben Parfitt of the CCPA authored the report and has written extensively on the energy/water nexus surrounding BC’s shale gas boom. According to Parfitt, “BC’s shale gas production is the natural gas equivalent of Alberta’s oilsands oil.” The comparison is due to the tremendous water required to frack deep shale deposits, an extraction process that also releases dangerous amounts of methane, one of the most powerful global warming gasses.
 
As expanded in the report, Fracking Up Our Water, Hydro Power and Climate: BC’s Reckless Pursuit of Shale Gas, the unconventional gas industry enjoys exclusive access to the province’s pristine water resources and the government’s lax greenhouse gas (GHG) policy. Last year, the Pacific Institute for Climate Studies (PICS) announced that if BC wants to meet its climate targets, the regulatory regimes surrounding unconventional gas production must become significantly more strict and forward thinking. But despite such a warning, no meaningful administrative changes have been made to suggest the BC government is listening.
 
Given the favorable conditions, says Parfitt, gas production in BC could amount to 22% of North American annual production by 2020.
 
This steady increase in production will drastically impede BC’s ability to reach its legislated climate targets.  If BC production climbs to these accelerated rates the province’s GHG emissions from fracking will double, reaching an astounding 22 million tonnes by 2020. The tremendous atmospheric pollution caused by fracking means that, if BC plans on meeting is climate targets, “every other sector of the provincial economy will have to cut their emissions in half,” according to CCPA’s press release.
 
But there’s more to fracking the province’s northeast than water and GHG emissions. If the shale gas industry “expands as projected, shale gas companies will need two to three times the amount of power that the proposed Site C dam would provide. In other words, large amounts of publicly owned clean water and hydro power will have to be found to produce more and more dirty fossil fuel,” says Parfitt in the press release.
 
“I don’t think British Columbians are comfortable with that.”
 
As DeSmogBlog reported last week, the province has earned an industry-friendly reputation recently for its generous water policy and nearly absent regulatory structure. Due to the generosity of the government and a total absence of any public consultation process the BC Tap Water Alliance has called for the resignation of Energy Minister Rich Coleman.
 
And although British Columbians will suffer much of the pollution and resource depletion, the gas industry is preparing to export incredible amounts of BC’s gas to Asia via the Kitimat LNG terminal. To worsen the overall deal, Parfitt exposes the heavy reliance of tar sands production on BC gas, making the climate and resource costs associated with the process even higher.
 
Projects from the non-gas industrial sector in BC are subject to scrutiny from the BC water stewardship branch. However, the BC Oil and Gas Commission freely allocates water to the gas industry, often without significant environmental review or charge. The government, not surprisingly, has been accused of facilitating, rather than regulating, the industry.
 
In order to secure BC from the threats to economic, environmental and human health that the rush to extract fracked gas poses, Parfitt recommends a cap on annual shale gas production, an end to all government subsidies of the natural gas industry, that the BC government explain its climate strategy, and that the industry pay full prices for the water and electricity necessary to support their projects.
 
According to Tria Donaldson, the Pacific Coast Campaigner for the Wilderness Committee, “it’s time to curb this industry before it’s too late for our climate, our water and our hydroelectric resources.” There also need to be limits put on the industry as well. “We want firm no-go zones established where industry activities are restricted and we want a moratorium on fracking in undeveloped watersheds, pending full surface water and groundwater studies.”
 
Parfitt seems to agree: “We need to manage this industry for wind-down, not wind-up, and ensure that while the industry is operating the public gets a fair return.”
 
To get a better picture, you can watch this CCPA video of what fracking means in BC's northeast:
See video

September 14 2011

22:02

Deepwater Horizon Still A Massive Headache For BP

The problems facing BP along the Gulf Coast continue to pile up. After more than a year of investigations, the U.S. Coast Guard has finally released their long-awaited assessment of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion. Their conclusion was that the ultimate blame for the disaster rests squarely on BP’s shoulders.

The new report, put together by The Coast Guard-Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), was among the most exhaustive investigations to date, according to Reuters. The report claims that the decisions made by BP in the days before the rig explosion are what led to the catastrophe. Among those were BP’s decision to ignore the safeguarding of the cement plug, and the oil company’s decision to only use one type of cement to seal the well. The report also said that the location that BP chose for the casing was very poor, making it difficult to access in an emergency.

The new report does lay some blame at the feet of other companies involved, including Transocean and Halliburton, but they said that at the end of the day, BP was in charge of the decision-making process, and therefore they are the responsible party. This is a far cry from a recent report by Marshall Islands investigators, who recently pinned the blame for the disaster on the rig workers themselves, rather than the companies involved in the rig’s management. The new report is on par with other reports that also put most of the blame on BP.


But the report wasn’t just another episode of the blame game, it actually offered solutions to prevent further disasters. The Associated Press notes the recommendations of the panel as follows:
  

The panel recommended further changes to offshore drilling practices, including requiring at least two barriers to be placed in a well — one mechanical, and one cement. The Macondo well had a single barrier, the cement seal at the bottom, so when the blowout happened the only thing to stop it was the blowout preventer. That didn't work, the panel says, because the kink in the pipe caused by the force of the blowout kept it out of reach of the safety device's shearing rams. The rams are supposed to pinch a well shut in an emergency by slicing through the well's drill pipe.
 

But the Coast Guard report isn’t the only problem that BP is having to deal with in regards to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. Reports over the last few weeks have been surfacing about oil sheens appearing in the Gulf of Mexico around the “sealed off” Macondo well where the Deepwater Horizon rig was located. Today, a new report by Al Jazeera highlighted the seriousness of the new oil being found in the Gulf:
  

Al Jazeera flew to the area on Sunday, September 11, and spotted a swath of silvery oil sheen, approximately 7 km long and 10 to 50 meters wide, at a location roughly 19 km northeast of the now-capped Macondo 252 well.

Edward Overton, a professor emeritus at Louisiana State University's environmental sciences department, examined data from recent samples taken of the new oil. Overton, who is also a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contractor, told Al Jazeera, "After examining the data, I think it's a dead ringer for the MC252 [Macondo Well] oil, as good a match as I've seen".

While not ruling out the possibility that oil could be seeping out of the giant reservoir, which would be the worst-case scenario, Overton believes the oil currently reaching the surface is likely from oil that was trapped in the damaged rigging on the seafloor. He said the oil could either be leaking from the broken riser pipe that connected the Deepwater Horizon to the well, or that oil is leaking from the Deepwater Horizon itself.
 

Other scientists along the Gulf Coast are worried that the oil could actually be coming from the actual oil reserve itself – speculating fissures developing along the floor of the Gulf of Mexico are leaking oil from the 50 million gallon reservoir beneath the sand. While events like that are actually quite common, none have been known to create sheens as massive as the current one being tracked in the Gulf.

While it will be difficult to prove where the new oil is coming from without extensive underwater surveillance, one thing is for sure: The damage from the Deepwater Horizon disaster will not be subsiding any time soon, and BP’s troubles will linger even longer.

August 22 2011

20:03

Is Deepwater Horizon Rig Owner Trying To Blame Victims For Gulf Oil Disaster?

A new report released by authorities in the Marshall Islands says that the failure of oil rig workers to properly address safety issues led to last year's catastrophic blowout and explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The Deepwater Horizon was registered in the Marshall Islands by rig owner Transocean. Much like large ships, oil rigs are often registered in overseas territories for tax purposes.

The Marshall Islands report is one of the first to explicitly put the blame for the disaster on workers rather than the companies involved – BP, Transocean, Halliburton, and Cameron International. While the new report is not the first to claim that communications broke down in the moments leading up to the Deepwater Horizon explosion, it is the first to place the blame mostly on the backs of the people who did everything in their power to avert the disaster, while only casually mentioning the fact that BP’s actions and those of the other companies with a stake in the rig might have also helped cause the disaster.

From The Star Tribune:

In somewhat of a pass for Transocean, the report concluded that confusion regarding decision-making authority during the incident was not a cause of the disaster.

The report also recommended rig operators ensure that new crew members, contractors and visitors be told when they board about the roles and responsibilities of people in charge of the vessel, and how the chain of command works in emergencies.

The report also makes the claim that the oil rig was completely fit for service during the time of the explosion. This claim is contrary to previous reports that Halliburton’s cement mixture was substandard, that BP cut corners on rig safety to save money and forged inspection documents, and that the design of the blowout preventer made the device utterly worthless.

An investigation this past April also revealed that the Marshall Islands had failed in their duties to inspect the vessel, which could have potentially implicated the nation in the spate of lawsuits surrounding the Deepwater Horizon explosion and subsequent oil leak into the Gulf of Mexico.

This report is similar to a report released earlier this year by investigators at Transocean. The Transocean internal report placed the blame squarely on the backs of both BP and Halliburon for a mix of failures, but also claimed that their rig was fit for duty.

What the report ultimately does is vindicate rig owner Transocean from any wrongdoing in the matter. It also protects the Marshall Islands’ stake in offshore drilling vessel registrations.

As mentioned above, oil rigs are usually registered overseas to help cut down on tax liabilities. Transocean, a company based in Sweden, owns roughly 50% of all deepwater rigs in existence, with countless rigs registered in the Marshall Islands. So the Marshall Islands has a deep interest in making sure that Transocean remains free of blame in the matter – they have a lot to gain financially from the company.

However, a report by the U.S. Coast Guard shows that the two entities might be the ones responsible for the command breakdown that they are now blaming for the disaster. From the Coast Guard’s report:

Because of a ‘clerical error,’ by the Republic of the Marshall Islands, DEEPWATER HORIZON, was classified in a manner that permitted it to have a dual-command organizational structure under which the OIM was in charge when the vessel was latched on to the well, but the master was in charge when the MODU was underway between locations or in an emergency situation. When the explosions began, however, there was no immediate transfer of authority from the OIM to the master, and the master asked permission from the OIM to the master, and the master asked permission from the OIM to activate the vessel’s EDS. This command confusion at a critical point in the emergency may have impacted the decision to activate the EDS.”

The Republic of the Marshall Islands’ (RMI’) “clerical error” in listing DEEPWATER HORIZON as a self-propelled MODU instead of a dynamic positioned vessel enabled Transocean to implement a dual-command organizational structure on board the vessel. This arrangement may have impacted the decision to activate the vessel’s emergency disconnect system (EDS). Even though the master, who was responsible for the safety of his vessel, was in the CCR at the time of the well blowout, it cannot be conclusively determined whether his questionable reaction was due to his indecisiveness, a lack of training on how to activate the EDS or the failure to properly execute an emergency transfer of authority as required by the vessel’s operations manual. U.S. regulations do not address whether the master or OIM has the ultimate authority onboard foreign registered dynamic positioned MODUs operating on the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf.”

In essence, by blaming the crew and the breakdown in the chain of command in the run up to the explosion, both Transocean and the Marshall Islands are actually blaming themselves.

So far, every corporate entity involved in the Gulf oil disaster has attempted to put the blame onto someone else. And as long as oil continues to roll up onto our shores, it is unlikely that the blame game will end.

July 27 2011

18:49

Mountaintop Removal Mining Directly Linked To 60,000 Cancer Cases In Appalachia

A new study from the Journal of Community Health concludes that cancer rates in areas of Appalachia where mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is taking place are more than twice as high as areas that are not near MTR sites. According to the study, as many as 60,000 individual cancer cases can be linked directly to exposure from MTR debris.

As reported on Alternet, the study was the first of its kind to involve a door-to-door questionnaire, where researchers used community members’ own stories and medical records to determine the results. These door-to-door interviews were conducted in mountaintop removal mining areas, as well as non-coal mining counties for use as a control.

From the Alternet report:

According to the new study: “The odds for reporting cancer were twice as high in the mountaintop mining environment compared to the non mining environment in ways not explained by age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure, or family cancer history.” The study found:

Surface water and ground water around MTM activity are characterized by elevated sulfates, iron, manganese, arsenic, selenium, hydrogen sulfide, lead, magnesium, calcium and aluminum; contaminates severely damage local aquatic stream life and can persist for decades after mining at a particular site ceases. In addition, elevated levels of airborne particulate matter around surface mining operations include ammonium nitrate, silica, sulfur compounds, metals, benzene, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and nitrogen dioxide.

Citing extremely high levels of uterine and ovarian, skin, urinary, bone, brain, and others forms of cancers, the study additionally noted:

Arsenic, for example, is an impurity present in coal that is implicated in many forms of cancer including that of skin, bladder and kidney. Cadmium is linked to renal cancer. Diesel engines are widely used at mining sites, and diesel fuel is used for surface mining explosives, coal transportation and coal processing; diesel exhaust has been identified as a major environmental contributor to cancer risk.

The findings of this new study are especially alarming when paired with a recent study about the increasing number of birth defects in MTR areas. The birth defect study, conducted by researchers at Washington State University and West Virginia University, found that birth defects were 26% more likely to be seen in children that had been exposed to MTR wastes while in the womb.

DeSmogBlog reported in a January 2010 post about another study of the impacts of MTR on health:

A group of the nation’s leading environmental scientists is calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop issuing new mountaintop mining permits, arguing that the ecological and human health costs of the controversial mining practice are “pervasive and irreversible.” ...

Along with this environmental devastation, the authors confirm major impacts on human health in the Appalachian region, including “elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease in coal producing communities” according to the study.

As Jeff Biggers on Alternet put it, these studies show that MTR is not only an environmental threat, but now poses a serious, documented threat to human health.

July 26 2011

00:46

Coal Ash Ponds Contaminating Groundwater In Tennessee

The Inspector General of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) released a new report showing that coal ash holding sites at several TVA-owned coal-fired power plants has managed to contaminate groundwater. The report says that chemical concentrations are so high in certain areas that they could pose a serious health risk to residents. Among the chemicals that the Inspector General’s report lists as being found in the water supply were arsenic, cadmium, beryllium, selenium, and vanadium.

While the chemicals found in the water supply show that there is a serious threat to local communities coming from the coal ash repositories, that isn’t the most disturbing part of the report. The real problem is that the TVA knew about the chemicals being leaked into the water supply for at least a decade, and did nothing. The report says that the TVA had found chemicals indicating coal ash leaks in areas in and around Memphis, as well as other sites across Tennessee.

From a report on the IG’s findings:

Arsenic above today’s allowable levels was found repeatedly in a monitoring well on the site, which is in a sensitive location. The plant and its ash ponds lie above a deep, high-quality aquifer that supplies drinking water to Memphis and nearby areas.

TVA quit testing when the EPA tightened its standard — what’s called the Maximum Contaminant Level, the report said. Samples taken before then had showed arsenic levels above the new, higher standard…

The OIG investigation of groundwater contamination at TVA coal ash sites, released June 21, began as a result of questions raised during congressional testimony following the December 2008 ash spill in East Tennessee.

A mountain of damp ash had buckled at TVA’s Kingston plant and 5.4 million cubic yards of the waste, which contains mercury, cadmium, lead, selenium, arsenic and other potentially toxic substances, cascaded into yards, fields and the Emory River.



The findings of the IG’s report echo the findings of a previous report released by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) earlier this summer. According to EIP’s report, coal ash containment ponds in 33 different areas across America have been leaking chemicals into the ground as well as water supplies. From a previous DeSmogBlog entry on EIP’s report:

Some areas reportedly had arsenic levels of 94 parts per billion, over 9 times greater than the legally allowed 10 parts per billion. Selenium levels were recorded at over 50 times the legal level at 1,850 parts per billion. Arsenic is a known carcinogen, and poses significant threats to the liver, cardiovascular system, and kidneys when ingested via drinking water. Selenium has been linked to an increase in Type 2 Diabetes, as well as loss of hair and fingernails, digestive problems, and nerve dysfunction.



The EPA also says that the contaminants found in coal ash can easily make their way from holding ponds, where it is usually stored by coal-fired power plants, into the drinking water supply if the holding pond isn’t sufficiently protected and maintained. However, even with upkeep, strong winds and rain can also spread the coal ash beyond the holding ponds. In spite of these findings, the EPA has yet to issue a ruling on whether or not coal ash is a hazardous toxic substance, and Republican-sponsored legislation is making its way through the House of Representatives that would prevent the EPA from being able to regulate coal ash.

The new TVA Inspector General report, coupled with the previous reports on the dangers of coal ash disposal sites, shows that there are very real dangers associated with the handling of coal ash. If the EPA doesn’t act quickly to regulate it as a toxic substance, the coal ash holding sites across the country that aren’t currently leaking chemicals into the environment are ticking time bombs that could easily contaminate their surrounding areas as these other sites have done.

July 11 2011

16:40

Expert Warns That TransCanada's Keystone XL Pipeline Assessments Are Misleading

An independent analysis performed by University of Nebraska professor Dr. John Stansbury, an environmental engineer, claims that TransCanada's safety assessments for their proposed Keystone XL pipeline are misleading and based on faulty information. The Keystone XL pipeline would carry crude oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas, crossing numerous states in the U.S.

TransCanada, the company hoping to build the pipeline, was required under the Clean Water Act to conduct a complete review and present their data on worst-case-scenario oil spills from their proposed pipeline. According to his new report titled “Keystone XL Worst-Case Spills Study,” Dr. Stansbury’s analysis of TransCanada’s government reports found that their methodology for determining the safety of their pipeline was inherently flawed because the company deliberately relied on information that was known to be false.
Among the major findings from Dr. Stanbury’s report:

While TransCanada estimates that the Keystone XL will have 11 significant spills (more than 50 barrels of crude oil) over 50 years, a more realistic assessment is 91 significant spills over the pipeline’s operational lifetime.

TransCanada arbitrarily and improperly adjusted spill factors to produce an estimate of one major spill on the 1,673 miles of pipeline about every five years, but federal data on the actual incidence of spills on comparable pipelines indicate a more likely average of almost two major spills per year. (The existing Keystone I pipeline has had one major spill and 11 smaller spills in its first year of operation.)

Analysis of the time needed to shut down the pipeline shows that response to a leak at a river crossing could conservatively take more than ten times longer than the 11 minutes and 30 seconds that TransCanada assumes. (After the June 2010 spill of more than 800,000 gallons of crude oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, an Enbridge tar sands pipeline – a 30 inch pipe compared to the 36-inch Keystone XL – was not completely shut down for 12 hours.)

Realistic calculations yield worst-case spill estimates of more than 180,000 barrels (about 7.9 million gallons) in the Nebraska Sandhills above the Ogallala Aquifer, more than 160,000 barrels (about 6.9 million gallons) of crude oil at the Yellowstone River crossings, more than 140,000 barrels (about 5.9 million gallons) at the Platte River crossing and more than 120,000 barrels (about 5.2 million gallons) at the Missouri River crossing.

One of the main categories that Stansbury says TransCanada left out of their computations was the “other causes” category for oil spills. “Other causes” are identified as spills with no apparent cause – pipeline erosion, busted pipes, explosions – and account for as much as 23% of all pipeline spills. By not factoring these potential causes into their analyses, TransCanada was able to downplay the likelihood of a major spill. 

During a media briefing on Monday morning, Dr. Stansbury said that when these factors are calculated, we can expect no fewer than 2 major spills per state during the 50-year projected lifetime of the pipeline.  These spills could release as much as 5 - 7 million barrels of oil each.

Another factor that led to TransCanada's low spill estimate is that they relied on technological improvements to help protect the Keystone XL pipeline. However, as Stansbury tells us, they are only calculating enhanced computer monitoring technology, not enhanced pipeline construction, which will only alert the company to a leak, not help to prevent one. This is a very significant point, because as we reported in June, TransCanada has freely admitted that their oversight of the pipeline is going to be scarce. By their own admission, TransCanada will have very few foot patrols along the pipeline, and most of the monitoring will be done by bi-weekly flyovers which will not be able to identify an underground leak.

Additionally, their proposed computer systems will not be able to identify pinhole leaks, which could potentially lead to thousands of gallons of oil escaping the pipeline for months before the company notices. TransCanada’s own documents, as detailed by Stansbury, show that the company acknowledges that pinhole leaks could take as long as 90 days to detect.

One of the main concerns for the pipeline itself, and one that makes the possibility of spills even more likely, is that the pipeline will be delivering what is known as diluted bitumen (DilBit.) This form of crude oil is much more corrosive than traditional crude oils, meaning that the pipeline will suffer wear and tear at a significantly increased rate.

Stansbury’s report also outlines the dangers of a potential oil spill. Because the pipeline will travel through numerous states, each with their own unique environment and wildlife, it is nearly impossible to fully predict what sort of impact a spill would have. The report says the following about the impacts of a spill near an aquifer:

The primary constituents of concern in surface water are: benzene, PAHs, hydrogen sul- fide, and bulk crude oil. The amounts of these constituents in the surface water are affected by several factors including: the concentration of the constituent in the crude oil, the solubility of the constituent, and the turbulence and velocity of the water. Constituents of special concern are benzene and certain PAHs because they are carcinogenic.

Contaminants from a release at the Missouri or Yellowstone River crossing would enter Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota where they would adversely affect drinking water intakes, aquatic wildlife, and recreation. Contaminants from a spill at the Platte River crossing would travel downstream un- abated into the Missouri River for several hundred miles affecting drinking water intakes for hundreds of thousands of people (e.g., Lincoln, NE; Omaha, NE; Nebraska City, NE; St. Joseph, MO; Kansas City, MO) as well as aquatic habitats and recreational activities. In addition, other constituents from the spill would pose serious risks to humans and to aquatic species in the river.

The worst-case site for such a spill is in the Sandhills region of Nebraska. The Sandhills are an- cient sand dunes that have been stabilized by grasses. Because of their very permeable geology, nearly 100 percent of the annual rainfall infiltrates to a very shallow aquifer, often less than 20 feet below the surface. This aquifer is the well-known Ogallala Aquifer that is one of the most productive and impor- tant aquifers in the world.

Stansbury provided the following maps to illustrate the most vulnerable areas, as well as the main chemicals that would be released into the air, water, and terrestrial environment from a spill:

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In the wake of ExxonMobil’s recent Yellowstone River oil spill, the severity and inevitability of oil spills are fresh on the minds of the American public. But as time ticks on, TransCanada continues to inch closer and closer to getting their Keystone XL pipeline approved by the Obama administration. The political odds are in their favor, as the Checks and Balances Project blog points out the political ties that TransCanada has to the current administration:

TransCanada’s main Washington, DC lobbyist is Paul Elliot, who served as the Secretary of State’s national deputy director for her failed presidential run in 2008. This cozy relationship has resulted in several organization filing requests to see the discussions between Clinton and Elliot throughout this process. Currently, the Secretary of State’s office is in the review stages of the approval process for the pipeline, which if given the go-ahead would allow for 900,000 barrels of crude to be pumped into the United States every day.

If the EPA allows TransCanada’s flawed spill report to pass the test, Americans and Canadians alike could see construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in the near future. Dr. Stansbury’s report raises serious questions about the consequences of approving this unsafe pipeline, which is essentially guaranteed to leak oil into the waterways and properties of nearby communities. Why would the Obama administration approve such a disaster in the making?

June 17 2011

11:45

Pentagon Releases New Clean Energy Strategy

The U.S. Department of Defense has released a new strategy for how the U.S. military will address growing concerns over energy consumption. The military remains the single largest consumer of energy in the world, and accounts for 1% of total consumption in the United States. As concerns continue to mount over oil prices and the instability of oil-rich countries in the Middle East, the Pentagon is looking for new methods to continue to meet the energy demands of the military.

The U.S. military currently relies on fossil fuels for almost all of their energy needs, spending more than $13 billion annually just on fuel. Military operations accounted for 121 million barrels of oil alone, which does not include the amount used for domestic activities such as military housing operations and transports. But the Department of Defense has known for years that their current path is not sustainable, and raised the alarm over peak oil long before the U.S. Department of Energy. Their new report shows that they are actively working to switch to renewable energy sources, and away from dirty oil sourced from unstable parts of the globe.
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From the report:

To protect the Nation and our interests across this wide spectrum of challenges, the United States will need a broad portfolio of military capabilities with maximum versatility. America’s armed forces will have to be as adaptable and agile as they are lethal and robust. They will have to be capable of projecting and sustaining military force and humanitarian assistance in collaboration with allies and partners around the world.

To build and sustain this 21st century military force, particularly in an era of fiscal duress, the Department of Defense must use its resources wisely, and that includes energy resources. Almost every military capability requires energy of some kind, and, as a result, the Department of Defense, as an institution, is one of the single largest consumers of fuel in the world. Nonetheless, the Department tends to treat energy as a commodity that will always be readily available, regardless of the strategic, operational, and tactical costs. Today, those costs can too often be measured in lives lost guarding and moving fuel across the battlefield. In the future, adversaries, including those armed with precision weapons, may be even more capable of targeting military supplies.

At the same time, energy security is important to national security. While the Department is a significant consumer of energy, it only accounts for about one percent of the energy all Americans use. The cost of America’s national energy consumption, particularly of oil, is too high, both in the billions of dollars the Nation sends overseas and in the geostrategic consequences. The Department has an opportunity to reduce these costs, both in terms of real spending reductions and in leading the way for the nation.

The Pentagon has actually been on the front lines in the battle over climate change in the United States for more than a decade. During the Clinton administration, the Pentagon actively worked with scientists to monitor sea ice levels via top secret satellite images. This program was shut down shortly after President Bush took office, but was re-authorized after President Obama was sworn in.

Since at least 2004, the Pentagon has warned the government that abrupt, intense climate catastrophes could play out if the government took no actions, and the Pentagon actually had plans in place for how to deal with sudden disasters. They have consistently ranked global climate change as a “destabilizing force” that would have serious impacts on our national security.

Demonstrating that they aren’t just all talk on climate change, the Pentagon and U.S. military have been working on converting entire fleets of Navy vessels to run on fuel created by algae. They are also working with scientists to develop other biofuels and renewable energy sources to help power the military. Military leaders hope that within the next 10 years, more than half of the energy needs of the military will be met by renewable sources of energy.

June 15 2011

18:52

Report: Broad Bipartisan Support For Action On Climate Change

A new report by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication shows that voters in America are concerned about global climate change, and would support broad action by the federal government to prevent future disaster. The report shows that voters from both major political parties are at odds with most Republicans in Washington, who have made it clear that they are not concerned with climate change and their voting records reflect that lack of concern.

The focus that most Congressional Republicans have had involving climate change revolves around U.S. energy policy. They believe that the only solution to America’s energy crisis and high gas prices is to drill in every available square inch of American soil or American waters. And while the report shows that 66% of Americans are in favor of more domestic oil drilling, it is likely because they are unaware that any new oil produced in the United States would have no impact on energy prices.
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Here are some of the key findings from George Mason University’s report:

71 percent of Americans say global warming should be a very high (13%), high (27%), or medium (31%) priority for the president and Congress, including 50 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Independents and 88 percent of Democrats.

91 percent of Americans say developing sources of clean energy should be a very high (32%), high (35%), or medium (24%) priority for the president and Congress, including 85 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Independents, and 97 percent of Democrats.

Majorities of Americans want more action to address global warming from corporations (65%), citizens themselves (63%), the U.S. Congress (57%), President Obama (54%), as well as their own state and local officials.

Despite ongoing concerns about the economy, 67 percent of Americans say the U.S. should undertake a large (29%) or medium-scale effort (38%) to reduce global warming, even if it has large or moderate economic costs.

82 percent of Americans (including 76% of Republicans, 74% of Independents, and 94% of Democrats) say that protecting the environment either improves economic growth and provides new jobs (56%), or has no effect (26%). Only 18 percent say environmental protection reduces economic growth and costs jobs.

Large majorities (including Republicans, Independents, and Democrats) say it is important for their own community to take steps to protect the following from global warming: public health (81%), thewater supply (80%), agriculture (79%), wildlife (77%), and forests (76%).

84 percent of Americans support funding more research into renewable energy sources, including 81 percent of Republicans, 81 percent of Independents, and 90 percent of Democrats.

68 percent of Americans support requiring electric utilities to produce at least 20% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, even if it costs the average household an extra $100 a year, including 58 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of Independents, and 82 percent of Democrats.

Josh Nelson at EnviroKnow created some charts to help illustrate the findings:

Again, as these numbers from May 2011 show, both Republicans and Democrats support efforts to reduce climate change, and yet the Republican majority in Congress is doing everything in their power to prevent any climate action. This year alone, Republicans have voted 7 times to continue giving billions of dollars worth of subsidies to oil companies every year. They cut almost $900 million from the federal budget for research into renewable energy. They stripped $6 billion worth of ethanol subsidies. And filibustered a bill amendment put forth by Democratic Senator Max Baucus (MT) that would have provided the following:

Tax credits for heavy hybrid and natural gas vehicles and a 30% investment tax credit for alternative fuel refueling stations.

A $1-per-gallon production tax credit for biodiesel and biomass diesel and the small agri-biodiesel producer credit of 10 cents per gallon extended through 2011.

A 50-cent-per-gallon tax credit for biomass and other alternative fuels.

Tax credits for energy-efficient appliances and homes.

Adding $2.5 billion in funding for Section 48C the advanced energy manufacturing 30% tax credit for companies manufacturing advanced clean energy products and materials.

Reinstate the Research and Development tax credit for renewable energy.



The actions being taken by Congress are clearly not in line with the desires of the American public. However, with the economy still performing poorly, these issues will likely take a backseat to economic issues in the next general election.

June 08 2011

19:37

Media Matters Report Shows Network TV Preference For Anti-Environment Guests

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency had the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act, Republicans and other climate-deniers have been given an unprecedented amount of airtime on television to deride the EPA’s new power. The folks over at Media Matters for America released a study showing that between December 2009 and April 2011, 76% of cable news guests were opposed to allowing the EPA to regulate GHGs, while only 18% spoke favorably of the decision.

As their research shows, these views are actually at odds with public opinion, as 71% of the public believes that the EPA should be allowed to regulate global warming pollution, and 76% believe that the government should have a direct role in curbing the emissions from polluters operating inside the United States.

Not only were the elected officials that appeared on most of these shows against regulations, but most also had received money from the energy industry during their careers. <!--break-->

Here are some of the highlights from the Media Matters report:

Media Matters examined TV news coverage that included elected officials, members of advocacy groups, business leaders, pundits, and others discussing EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. Of these appearances, 152 out of 199 -- over 76% -- opposed regulation. The three outlets that hosted the greatest number of guests, Fox News (FNC), Fox Business (FBN), and CNBC, all featured opponents of GHG regulation at least four times more often than supporters.

Of the 35 cable news appearances by elected officials who discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases, 30 were Republicans and five were Democrats. The only cable network that hosted more Democrats than Republicans was MSNBC. CNBC featured eight elected officials, all of whom were Republicans.

Fox News and Fox Business each hosted one Democrat who discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases during their appearance. However, those Democrats, then-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and then-Gov. Joe Manchin (D-WV) both expressed opposition to EPA's GHG rules. By contrast, every Republican who discussed the regulations on cable news opposed the EPA's actions.

According to our analysis, 26 elected officials and candidates for office have discussed EPA regulation of greenhouse gases in TV appearances since December 2009. Of those 26, 23 opposed the EPA's action on greenhouse gases. These 23 politicians collectively received $3,026,041 from companies that generate, produce, or refine fossil fuels from 2007-2010. The three elected officials who supported the EPA received a total of $202,000. On average, the opponents of EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases received approximately $131,500 from fossil fuel companies, while the supporters received, on average, about $67,300.

Of the TV guests who discussed EPA's GHG regulations over 17 months, only one, Patrick Michaels of the Cato Institute, has a background in climate science. Michaels appeared twice on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto and spoke in opposition to EPA GHG rules. Michaels holds a Ph.D. in ecological climatology and was a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Virginia. Michaels has estimated that 40% of his funding comes from the petroleum industry.

You can read the full report at Media Matters for America.

April 23 2011

18:53

Congressional Democrats Warn of Gas Fracking Dangers

Just days after an explosion rocked a hydraulic fracturing site in Pennsylvania, Congressional Democrats released a report detailing the dangers associated with fracking. Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been investigating the dangers of fracking for years, and their new report has some startling new information about the risks, and which areas of the country are facing the biggest threats.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) summarized the major findings of the report as follows:

Over a five-year period from 2005-2009, companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 different chemicals and other components, including chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens or are federally regulated because at certain levels they are known to be quite harmful to human health--such as benzene, lead, and diesel fuel.

Two fracking products contained hydrofluoric acid (hydrogen fluoride in water). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "You could be exposed to hydrogen fluoride if it is used as a chemical terrorism agent.” Hydrofluoric acid can eat through hard rocks. According to the CDC, swallowing only a small amount of highly concentrated hydrofluoric acid or even splashes of hydrofluoric acid on the skin can be fatal. It can cause a wide range of very serious health effects.

Many of the fracking fluids contain chemical components that are listed as “proprietary” or “trade secret,” so the public cannot know what chemicals are being stored, used, or disposed of in their communities or near their drinking water sources.

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In addition to reporting on the dangerous chemicals used in fracking, the House Committee also showed which states are being pumped with the most fluids. At the top of the list is Texas, where more than 3.5 million gallons of toxins have been pumped into the earth, followed by Colorado with 1.5 million gallons over the four-year period studied. In Pennsylvania where the recent fracking well blew, 747,000 gallons of toxic fracking fluid were used from 2005 – 2009.

Over the four year period studied, more than 21.5 million gallons of fracking fluid had been used throughout the United States, utilized by only 14 different oil and gas companies. The industry uses more than 650 different types of fracking fluid solutions, and the report found that at least 95 had 13 different components that are known carcinogens.

The leak in Pennsylvania has been stopped for now, but as this new report shows, there are other areas of America that are poised for even greater disasters than we saw in Pennsylvania.

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