Backyard Talk
Teresa

Ohio Governor flip flops on shale boom.

By Teresa Mills : February 26, 2015 12:51 am

Strange, this is what citizens have been saying about the shale boom for years, good thing the governor finally caught on.  Taken from Ohio Governor John Kasich’s State of the State speech.

GOVERNOR KASICH: …okay. So we’re talking about not just saving money in government spending, but we’re talking about tax reform. Some things go up, other things go down, but to provide the incentive for the least negative impact on the private economy.

Severance taxes, that’s another place where we need tax reform. The reason is simple. Our current system doesn’t reflect our current reality. Ohio’s severance tax was created decades ago, long before Ohio’s shale boom was ever envisioned. Its current low rate: 20 cents on a barrel of oil.

I don’t know anybody who lives in Ohio who would not like to sign up for this, twenty cents on a barrel of oil. It’s unconscionable as far as I’m concerned. It’s not right. It isn’t fair to Ohioans, because these resources are being depleted. They’re never coming back. Ohio’s being made poorer as a result of the depletion of our resources. It’s like oil and gas itself.

Much of the wealth the shale boom is generating is being shipped out of our state, being shipped out of Ohio.

We need to change that while at the same time making sure that Ohio’s long time small drillers—the ones who have been around for years and make very little money. We want to just get rid of their income taxes altogether but we also want to make sure that local governments are supported when their calls for first responders and infrastructure or other essential services are forced to go up because of the oil and gas activity. Okay? All of it.

(Applause.)

GOVERNOR KASICH: The prosperity created by our oil and gas deposits can be great not just for shale country. This is not just for part of Ohio but for all of Ohio because it makes possible the income tax cuts that provide an economic boost statewide.

I’m disappointed by those who say the severance tax reform will kill the industry. That’s a joke. That’s a big fat joke because I’ve talked to them in private. And I’ll tell you what, our severance tax will still be competitive with our energy-rich states. And you know what? Let’s reform the severance tax so all Ohioans can have lower income taxes and we all benefit from this whole industry. That’s what it should be all about.

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Sharon H.

Staying Safe (Probably): Risk, Hazard and Chemical Regulation

By Sharon H. : February 23, 2015 11:54 pm

Risk’ and ‘hazard.’

These two words are often used interchangeably, but they have distinct meanings in the context of chemical safety assessment. When we say a particular chemical is ‘hazardous,’ we are noting its mere potential to cause negative health or environmental effects. On the other hand, ‘risk’ describes the probability that these negative effects will actually occur under specific circumstances. In order to generate a measurable risk, some exposure to the hazard in question must occur.


Both a hazard and an exposure are necessary for a risk to exist.


If you have followed my last several posts, you’ve probably caught on to the idea that attempting to declare a chemical ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ is an exercise in futility. To comprehensively determine risk, we must know not only the detailed structure and function of a chemical, but also understand the intricacies of its interactions with the environment and the human body. Current chemical regulation in the United States operates within a risk-based framework. We establish standards and criteria for acceptable levels of hazardous compounds in products, in the environment and in our bodies; we enact bans and restrictions on chemicals in order to limit our exposures. These regulations are the product of risk assessments, which report not only the hazardous properties of chemicals but also the likelihood of human exposure.

My recent post on BPA illustrates the complexity of risk assessment. Though BPA has demonstrated hazardous potential, the levels to which humans are exposed to the compound, and therefore the actual risks of its use, are uncertain. Exposure may seem like a simple factor to evaluate, but our understanding of exposure is continually evolving, particularly with consideration for the special vulnerability of developing babies and children.  The ban on BPA in baby bottles reflects this emerging awareness of long-term effects of chemical exposures. However, the replacement of BPA with BPS illustrates the shortcomings of an approach that controls risk by limiting exposure to specific high-profile hazardous compounds.

The replacement of BPA, a known hazard, with BPS – an untested and unregulated compound with a nearly identical structure – may be considered an example of what scientists and regulators refer to as “regrettable substitution.” Regrettable substitution occurs when we eliminate one hazardous chemical from consumer products, only to replace it with a similar or even more hazardous alternative. Our risk-based chemical regulation enables us to remove demonstrably dangerous chemicals from consumer products, but also leaves profound loopholes for new chemicals, untested and unregulated, to enter the market in their stead, as long as risk assessments have not proven them dangerous. In a 2010 post on his Environmental Defense Fund blog, Dr. Richard Denison refers to this process as playing “whack-a-mole” with chemicals. No sooner have we knocked one hazardous chemical back into its hole, than a replacement rears its likely-hazardous head…until we generate evidence of its actual risk and seek to replace it with another unknown quantity.

Is this game of “whack-a-chemical” inevitable, or do more precautionary approaches exist? In Europe, regulators are striving for a balance between risk assessment and the more protective approach of hazard classification. While risk assessment relies on scientific studies to determine the risks of chemicals under different exposure scenarios, hazard classification groups chemicals based on their inherent hazard potential. It is this potential to cause harm that guides regulation, not demonstrated adverse effects.  A hazard classification regulatory scheme might have prevented BPS from entering the market, since its structural similarities to BPA make it a likely health hazard.

Hazard classification is essentially a more precautionary approach to chemical regulations. And when we operate in a framework of precaution rather than risk, the regulatory question itself changes. “A precautionary approach asks how much harm can be avoided rather than asking how much is acceptable,” write Dr. Ted Schettler and coauthors in a 2002 essay on the role of the Precautionary Principle in regulation and policymaking.

How can we better incorporate the Precautionary Principle into the chemical regulation process in the US? This question has been at the epicenter of the debate on reforming the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which I will cover next time on Backyard Talk.

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jaguayo

Why The West VA Oil Spill Will Not Be The Last

By Jose Aguayo : February 19, 2015 4:26 pm

A ball of fire engulfed the town of Mount Carbon West Virginia. In a freaky déjà vu moment reminiscent of the events of April of last year in Lynchburg VA, a train hauling more than 100 tankers derailed during a snowstorm on Monday in West Virginia. Just like last year, the train operator was CSX. Just like last year, a local river was contaminated. And just like last year, the train was carrying crude oil from the increasingly fracked Bakken formation in North Dakota.

These moments of déjà vu are increasingly becoming common. In a 10 month period from March 2013 to January 2014, 10 major crude oil spills occurred due to train accidents. In the last week alone, two major oil railcar incidents made headlines – one being the incident in West VA and the other a similar accident in Ontario, Canada.

Why is all this happening? Simple. Oil and gas production has increased exponentially in the past few years mainly due to the fracking boom that has taken over the country. The amount of oil being transported through rail has increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008, to over 400,000 in 2013 according to the Association of American Railroads; and 2014 figures are expected to far surpass this number. More oil equals more trains – and more trains equal more accidents.

The oil and gas industry has spent millions of dollars to convince the nation that fracking is safe and environmentally friendly. Its several potential dangers, from groundwater contamination and exhaustion to public health and social issues, are unquestionable truths that are clouded in the eyes of the public by constant streams of money from the industry. Now, the increase in railroad accidents, like the Mount Carbon spill, are a new threat to add to the long list of hazards due to fracking. And as this new danger gains more media attention, the oil and gas industry will be the reason why this oil spill will not be the last.

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Steve

Health Studies: What you can expect and what you can do

By Stephen Lester : February 16, 2015 3:16 pm

Whether your group is new or has been organized for years, one of the most pressing questions you’ll face is about health problems in your community. Typically, if you raise enough public attention and pressure, the state will ask the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) to do a health study. While you may initially be excited, be careful what you ask for. ATSDR has a poor track record at investigating health problems in communities. You are more likely to get a result that is “inconclusive by design” than you are to get an honest answer to your questions. At least that’s what history tells us.

You can expect at least two things from ATSDR: First, the agency is going to treat your community like every other community that they have gone into. Second, ATSDR is going to use the standard methods they use to evaluate and investigate the health problems in your community.  Unfortunately, these scientific methods cannot answer with any accuracy or assurance the questions that people have about health problems in their community. The best state-of-the-art scientific methods that ATSDR will use cannot determine what’s causing an increase in cancer, birth defects or any other adverse effect in a population of people.

In 99 out of 100 instances, health studies conducted by ATSDR or other government agencies are inconclusive or at best incapable of determining what might be causing an observed increase in a disease found in a community. Given this likely outcome, it’s critical to have a plan for how to get the most from a health study done in your community.

One important step is to define as a community what you want. Do you want a typical epidemiological study where a questionnaire is distributed throughout the community asking about health problems and the results are then compared to a matched unexposed community? Do you want a clinic set up in the community where people could be tested to evaluate their health? Maybe some portion of the community wants to be relocated or evacuated and you want ATSDR to recommend such action.

Once you’re clear on what you want, then you need to figure out how to achieve these goals. This will take some strategic planning and a strong organized community effort. Ask these three questions about the health study, the answers to which will give you a good sense of the intent of the investigators and the limits of the study:

  • What are the goals of the investigation?
  • How will the investigators get the information they need?
  • How are they going to release the results?

Based on what you find out, you may decide that you don’t want to participate in this study. Or you may decide you want to change the agency’s plan to something that will be useful to your group. Changing their plan will require a strong organized community effort and a plan to get your points across to the agency. CHEJ can help you develop a plan to address a health study. Contact us at chej@chej.org

Also, tune in tomorrow at 12 noon EST to participate in a training session on Health Studies: What can they tell you about health problems in your community?


(RSVP Online Now
)

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Sharon H.

When ‘Safer’ isn’t Safe: BPA and BPS

By Sharon H. : February 10, 2015 11:08 pm

Two weeks ago on Backyard Talk, I wrote about BPA, a major plastic component that has been linked to number of health impacts, particularly endocrine disruption. The jury is still out on BPA; the European Food Safety Authority has declared that BPA does not pose a health risk at normal exposure levels, while recent studies have emerged showing that BPA affects stem cells and may impact reproductive health later in life. In the face of all this scientific uncertainty, it’s lucky that we have access to BPA-free products. Or is it?

I have a few new water bottles from Christmas sitting in my cabinet, stamped with a leaf design and a guarantee that their plastic is BPA-free. Our eco- and health-conscious readers probably have similar items in their homes. BPA-free products have proliferated since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the sale of baby bottles containing BPA in 2012. Unfortunately, studies over the past few years have shown that even BPA-free products release estrogenic compounds, some of which can even be more potent than those released by BPA-containing products.

One common replacement for BPA, or bisphenol A, is BPS, or bisphenol S, which has been shown to disrupt cell functioning at very tiny concentrations. It’s no surprise that the compounds might have similar effects, because they are close in structure as well as in name. A brief organic chemistry interlude:




Image from the blog ‘Science Minus Details.




To the right is an image of BPA side-by-side with a particular estrogen, estradiol.

This image highlights the structural similarities between BPA and estradiol, which enable BPA to mimic the hormone and cause disruptions to the endocrine system.

Below is the structure of BPS:




BPS molecule









Though the two molecules are not identical, BPS contains the essential ring structure, called a ‘phenol’ group, which is highlighted in both BPA and estradiol. Structural similarity between BPA and BPS is what enables them to play a similar role in conferring hardness to plastics. It also enables them to interact with cells in similar ways. According to Scientific American, BPS is thought to be more resistant than BPA to escaping from plastics when they are heated. However, studies have demonstrated that it is prevalent in human urine, and that even small amounts can cause changes to cells.

We are caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to developing safe, or safer, alternatives to chemicals that have been linked to adverse health or environmental impacts. When replacing chemicals in products, we often first look to chemicals that share properties with the ones we are seeking to eliminate. As in the case of BPA, however, these similarities that preserve the function of a product can also preserve its toxic effects. When health risks are demonstrated for a given compound, is it prudent to bring in a replacement, even if this new player has not been vetted by scientific studies? Should we settle for lesser risk and continue working towards an even safer ideal? What does ‘safe’ mean, anyway? Tune in next time!

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