Backyard Talk

My Halloween Nightmare

By Teresa Mills : October 22, 2014 10:54 am

I dreamed that just as I entered a Halloween haunted house the first monster I ran into was Frackenstine. Just like the book Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley about a creature produced by an unorthodox scientific experiment, I noticed that the Frackenstine that stood before me was also made up by combining many parts. Frackenstines legs turned out to be the Ohio legislature that gave the monster his legs to make his way around Ohio, his torso was made of the Ohio oil and gas industry, his arms were the different state agencies that gave the monster the strength to strong-arm Ohio communities by not allowing citizens or local government to have any say into whether or not they wanted this massive industrial process to destroy their community. The Frackenstine monster was so big I was having a hard time seeing who or what made up the head but as I moved farther away from the monster I could see that the monsters head was Ohio’s own governor, Governor John Kasich who has become the mouthpiece and cheerleader for industry.

Down a long dark hallway I came to a closed door, as I opened the door I saw a room full of bubbling cauldrons. As I looked around the room I saw thousands of Material Safety Data Sheets with all of the toxic chemicals blacked out. There was also a flashing sign that warned of radiation. While trying to read all of the signs I was suddenly approached by someone dressing in a hazardous materials moonsuit telling me that bubbling brew was safe and not to worry. Even though he was dressed in protective garb he informed me that I was not allowed to know what was in the bubbling toxic brew and the door was quickly closed in my face. As the door closed I could hear the sinister laugh of a crazy person who had spent too much time inhaling the toxic vapors of the bubbling cauldrons full of fracking fluid.

As I continued down the dark hallway I turned a corner and was face to face with a Vampire with blood dripping from his fangs. NO wait, it wasn’t blood dripping, I realized his fangs are drilling rigs that were dripping oil and he is hungry for more and more. He can’t get enough; he is sinking his rigs into hundreds of thousands of acres of Mother Earth just to see if he can find more oil or gas to feed his needs. I thought if I can just hold out until dawn the sun will destroy this vampire, but I was so wrong.

As I was about to exit the haunted house I heard the screams of the banshee foretelling the death of life as we know it. No longer will we have local communities where we can cross the street without worrying about being hit by one of the thousands of trucks or being harassed by out of state workers that have no since of pride for the community. We face industrial facilities in places where they have no business being in.

But wait, I suddenly realized I was not asleep, I was not having a nightmare. What I had thought was a horrible nightmare was indeed reality for many communities in Ohio and across the nation that are faced with the nightmare known as fracking.

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The Easy Way — NOT Most Effective Way

By Lois : October 20, 2014 11:28 am

Sign a petition or write a letter? It is true that many signatures on a petition is meaningful but such petitions also has its limits. Legislators look at the petition signatures and note the number but essentially ignore what activists see as their “powerful voice” they intended the petition to represent.

It’s a case of “the easiest way is also not the most effective.” Clicking on to a form letter ends up to be not only a very soft message to the targeted audience. Moreover, the person signing thinks that they have done their good deed of the day and takes no further action. For example, last year, almost 4,000 comments were submitted to a legislator in Pennsylvania and 95% of them were rejected as “form letters.” That doesn’t mean they didn’t represent some level of people’s voices but were not as meaningful.

When you look at what citizens did in NC around fracking regulations, where they worked to get specific comments from people who may have use a model predefined set of issues, but many comments were personalized, you get a very different story. According to an article in the NC paper News Observer the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission is plowing through a mountain of public comments on its proposed fracking standards with less than a month left to fine-tune the safety rules for shale gas drilling. State officials estimate that more than 100,000 comments flooded in by the Sept. 30 deadline and the finally tally could approach 200,000.

The number of submission was so large that the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) officials are not sure they have sufficient memory space on the agency’s hard drives to post the comments online for public view. DENR have assigned at least eight extra staffers, including from Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, to sort through public remarks and enter them into a database.

That action made a difference at a very high level. However the people power could have been even stronger if everyone said a little more than “don’t frack.” According to the commissioner, “about half of the comments are repetitive ‘don’t frack’ and they don’t really count, if you know what I mean.”

This was successful with the chairman of the commission saying, there is no question that we will recommend some adjustment to the rules, how much is not clear. It was the volume and the individual comments not just signing on to a model set of comments that made the difference and has moved the needle. So think about giving people talking points to actually submit individual comments that are not all exactly the same and you may see the difference, next time you want to move a person with authority or regulations. Some people will only act with a sign-on but encouraging one more step, making that step as easy as possible could increase your power. No one ever said that activism was easy, but it’s not all that hard either.

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EPA Selects Bogus Remedy for LDC Site

By Jose Aguayo : October 16, 2014 1:09 pm

Once again, EPA manages to get it all wrong! The Record of Decision (ROD) for the Lower Darby Creek Superfund Site was signed by Region 3 and released to the public at the end of last month. Despite criticism from the affected community and CHEJ in the form of public comments during the remedy selection process, EPA selected a remedy that is not at all suitable for the environment of Pennsylvania.

This remedy is termed an Evapotranspiration (ET) Cap and is essentially a dense cover of about four feet of sand with vegetation planted on top of it. The idea is that rainwater will be stored in the sand and the plants will absorb it, use it and ultimately evaporate it into the air. This concept works but, as EPA themselves pointed out in a study conducted in 2005 by William Albright and Craig Benson, it works in areas where rain levels are similar to evapotranspiration levels (the level at which plants evaporate water from their bodies) such as the West. Here, average precipitation levels range between 10 and 15 inches per year, and evapotranspiration rates range from 8 to 12 inches per year. Darby Township receives 42.5 inches of rainfall on average every year, while its evapotranspiration rate is only slightly above 20 inches per year.

I could go on and on about why the ET cap is a very bad idea for the region, from the fact that it will take years to work half-decently to the fact that its leachate treatment consists of dumping it into a man-made swamp… but EPA will not listen to me. What they will listen to is the voice of the community that has to live with this engineering disaster. Citizens from different groups in from the affected area are getting together to attend a public meeting on October 23 to discuss this bogus remedy. CHEJ will attend this meeting and help the citizens voice their concern. Let’s see if EPA has the nerve to ignore their comments to their face.

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Not So Simple Science

By Stephen Lester : October 13, 2014 4:50 pm

It’s common to think that in science and technical information lies the answer to the many questions that people have about their problems and how to solve them. At CHEJ, we have not foundthis to be the case. We have learned many lessons about science and how it is used. Science and technical information is important and has a role in helping to achieve your community goals. Identifying this role and learning how to use scientific and technical information is critical to the success of your group.

The most important lesson is that science and technical information alone will not solve problems. It’s common to think that if you hire the best scientists and engineers and make solid technical arguments, the government will do the right thing. Those of you who have been there know it doesn’t work that way.

When the government discovers a problem, it’s reluctant to determine the full extent of the problem. This is because if the government documents contamination that threatens people’s health, it then has to do something about it—like evacuate people and cleanup the contamination. This costs money that government doesn’t have or want to spend. Such action might also set a precedent by establishing cleanup standards or unsafe exposures levels that would mean spending more money at other sites.

Deciding what action to take is complicated by the fact that there are few answers to the many scientific questions raised by exposures to toxic chemicals. Scientists actually know little about the health effects of exposure to combinations of chemicals at low levels. As a result, when politicians and bureaucrats look for answers, the scientists don’t have them.

Most scientists however, are reluctant to admit they don’t know the answer to a question. Instead they introduce the concept of “risk” and begin a debate over what’s “acceptable.” This process hides the fact that scientists don’t know what happens to people who are exposed to low level mixtures of toxic chemicals. This uncertainty gets lost in the search for what’s “acceptable.”

Because of the lack of scientific clarity, bureaucrats and politicians use “science” cloaked in uncertainty, not facts, to justify their decisions which in truth are based on the political and economic pressures they face. Whether this is right or not is not a scientific question but an ethical and moral question. It is foolish to think that in this setting, science can be anything but a tool used by politicians and corporations to get what they want.

While science and scientific information have failed to provide clear answers and solutions to the hard questions about the health and environmental impact of the chemicals we use, we cannot abandon science. Science and scientific information can be a powerful tool for community groups, but only if you recognize what it can tell you and what it can’t, and only if you learn how to use the information and not just collect it. The right information used in the right way at the right time can be very powerful. Learning how to use scientific and technical information strategically is an organizing skill that will help you win your local fight.

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Sharon H.

No Simple Cause or Cure for Toxic Algal Blooms

By Sharon H. : October 8, 2014 8:20 pm

Algae blooms across the surface of Lake Erie. Image captured August 3, 2014 by NASA satellite

Two months have passed since a toxic algal bloom on Lake Erie forced the city of Toledo, Ohio to shut down its water supply for two days. This incident revealed the surprising vulnerability of our nation’s water systems to algal toxins, and has spurred Ohio lawmakers to push for new regulations on microcystin, the toxin to blame for the bloom. While setting guidelines for algal toxins will help states and cities more effectively regulate their water supplies, further action is required to address the root causes of toxic algal blooms – pollution and climate change.

Nitrogen and phosphorus, key nutrients for agricultural production and major water pollutants, are chiefly to blame for the green film of cyanobacteria (commonly referred to as ‘blue-green algae’) that covered a large swath of Lake Erie this summer. Pollution from agricultural fields is not currently regulated under the Clean Water Act, and there are no national standards in place to regulate nitrogen and phosphorus in bodies of water. Since 1998, the EPA has instead urged states to set their own guidelines, a hands-off approach that was declared ineffective by the EPA Inspector General in 2009.

Watersheds do not follow the boundaries of states or nations, and neither do the pollutants that place our lakes and rivers at risk. Since major bodies of water like Lake Erie are affected by actions in multiple states, regulations for phosphorus and nitrogen runoff must be established at the national level. The NRDC and a coalition of other environmental organizations have advanced this argument for over a decade, and in 2008, they petitioned the EPA to control nutrient runoff that is responsible for toxic algal blooms across the country and for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. No standards have yet been set, and the EPA has yet to respond to the petition.

The incident in Toledo has inspired some action on the regulatory front. On September 10th, three Ohio legislators introduced a bill that would require the EPA to issue standards for algal toxins in drinking water. The EPA has responded that they plan to develop drinking water health advisories for cyanobacteria by May 2015. Hopefully the aftermath of the summer will inspire further movement toward national standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.

Yet another environmental crisis on which we have too long delayed action may be contributing to our toxic algae problem. While blooms are directly caused by nutrient runoff, warmer temperatures also facilitate cyanobacteria growth. This has led scientists to believe that climate change is partly to blame for the recent increase in algal blooms. Warmer water temperatures may also cause blooms to be more toxic. While not all Microcystis aeruginosa is toxic, a 2011 study showed that toxic strains were more prevalent at warmer temperatures. Studies like this suggest that our efforts to control algal blooms may be incomplete without also addressing global climate change.

Like most environmental issues, the causes of harmful algal blooms are complex, and finding solutions will require a comprehensive and collaborative regulatory effort.

NASA image courtesy of Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE EOSDIS MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

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