Analysis: Last tango for nuclear?


The U.S. nuclear power industry’s three-step: It’s revival, a long goodbye, or state-aided life support.

First of three stories on the nuclear power industry.

January 31, 2015

By Peter Dykstra

Everybody loves a comeback story. If you like the U.S. nuclear power industry, it’s a Michael Jordan-type gallant return. If you don’t like nukes, it’s more of a Gloria Swanson gruesome comeback in Sunset Boulevard.

Similar to both Jordan and Swanson’s character, Norma Desmond, the industry has tried more than one revival. The current one may be more about salvaging economically dicey nuclear reactors than building new ones.

Promise and peril

There is some promise for nuclear: projects in Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee may yield the first new nuclear plants in decades. The industry and its advocates are touting new, safer reactor designs.

In addition, thanks to a Federal Appeals Court decision, utilities no longer have to add to the $30 billion burden of paying for the abandoned Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository. And the Environmental Protection Agency is pressing hard for its rules to reduce carbon emissions, which would squeeze competing coal-fired plants.

The World Affairs Council
Former Exelon CEO John Rowe

But on the flipside, Wisconsin, California, Florida and Vermont are shuttering aging nuclear plants, and some planned new ones have been shelved in Maryland, New York, Texas and Florida. Closing and decommissioning isn’t cheap – usually a billion dollars or more. As many as seven reactors in Illinois, Ohio, and New York could close this year if not rescued by ratepayers.

Everybody loves a comeback story. If you like the U.S. nuclear power industry, it’s a Michael Jordan-type gallant return. If you don’t like nukes, it’s more like Gloria Swanson’s gruesome comeback in Sunset Boulevard.Nukes also have been getting their lunch eaten in the deregulated electricity marketplace, mostly by cheaper natural gas. More on that in a bit.

Those new nukes, particularly the ones in Georgia, are falling behind schedule and soaring over budget, making an already-jittery Wall Street even more skeptical. The demise of Yucca Mountain means there’s nowhere for the industry to permanently store its waste. And just when you thought it was safe to atomically boil the water, Fukushima provided the first nuclear mega- disaster since Chernobyl a quarter-century earlier, fairly or unfairly reviving public unease about nuclear energy’s safety in the U.S.

And it didn’t help when the longtime CEO of America’s biggest nuclear player stuck the financial fork in shortly after his retirement.

John Rowe, a longtime nuclear booster and former CEO of Exelon, the Chicago-based offspring of mergers between Commonwealth Edison of Illinois, Philadelphia’s PG&E, and Baltimore-based Constellation, oversaw 23 reactors. “I’m the nuclear guy,” Rowe told a gathering at the University of Chicago two weeks after his 2012 retirement. “And you won’t get better results with nuclear. It just isn’t economic, and it’s not economic within a foreseeable time frame.”

Rowe was commenting on plans for newly built reactors. But old ones, including up to six of Exelon’s fleet, may be on the block.

States to the rescue

In the 1990’s, the Federal Government and many states moved to deregulate electricity. Leaving every potential power source free to marketplace dynamics, it was reasoned, would serve ratepayers well and promote competition among generators. The biggest boosters of deregulation were heavy industries looking to reduce their enormous power bills, and an up-and-coming energy trader called Enron, which thrived for a few years before collapsing in scandal.

Nukes also have been getting their lunch eaten in the deregulated electricity marketplace, mostly by cheaper natural gas.The industry’s embrace of deregulation isn’t universal, though. In at least four states, nuclear utilities have sought state government assistance to benefit nuclear plants, if not keep them alive and running.

Officials at Chicago-based Exelon say the free market may soon kill off several of its nukes. Exelon’s CEO has been outspoken about its opposition to subsidies for its wind industry, but the company is not shy about seeking short-term help for their own financially troubled nuclear plants.

Illinois may be nuclear’s short-term ground zero. Exelon operates nukes at six sites in the state and acknowledged that three – the two-reactor complexes at Quad Cities and Byron, and the Clinton single reactor site – may have priced themselves out of the market. Closure of the three could mean 7,800 job losses at the plants and related industries, according to Exelon’s spokesman Paul Adams. A report earlier this month by several Illinois state agencies cited a smaller job-loss figure, 2,500, but added that the state could add 9,600 jobs in the next four years through energy efficiency and a renewable energy standard.

Quad Cities Nuclear Power Station, Units 1 and 2

While Exelon CEO Chris Crane insists that the company is not seeking a bailout, and Exelon spokesman Adams said that all “energy technologies should compete on their own merits,” Crain’s Chicago Business and other publications have reported that the company is pushing state regulators to restructure power markets in a way that critics say could stack the deck for their beleaguered nukes. Exelon senior vice president Kathleen Barron told the Illinois Commerce Commission last September that the company needs rate increases that would bring in$580 million in additional revenue to keep its nukes afloat. That extra cash would come from ratepayers, particularly at times of peak power usage.

While Exelon bristles at mention of the word “bailout,” others see it as exactly that. “We don’t think Illinois consumers should be called upon to bail out Illinois nuclear plants,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Exelon also is pushing the state for a carbon tax, which would hit its fossil fuel rivals in the energy market but leave nuclear plants unscathed. Years ago, the company swore off coal for electricity, selling its coal assets. Its Illinois nukes comprise 95 percent of the power Exelon sells in Illinois and neighboring states. Exelon also is banking on its nukes in Illinois and elsewhere to help states meet the EPA’s proposed carbon reduction mandates.

Another Exelon nuke, the Ginna plant near Rochester, New York, is on the brink. Facing a deadline on power purchases from the 45 year-old plant’s biggest buyer, Rochester Gas & Electric, Ginna will close without a rate hike, according to Exelon. The plant’s license doesn’t expire till 2029.

Georgia Power Company
Vogtle unit 3 nuclear island.

Ohio is considering rate hikes to save several aging coal plants and the Davis-Besse reactor near Toledo. FirstEnergy, operator of the trouble-plagued Davis-Besse, calls for an estimated $117 million “power purchase agreement” for its ratepayers. Longtime energy activist Harvey Wasserman called the potential rate hikes a “pillaging” of Ohio.

The utilities have spiced up the battle by resisting efforts to disclose financial data that could shed light on the plants’ financial health, and the need for a rate hike. And while the state ponders lending a hand to coal and nuclear, the Ohio Legislature effectively smothered wind and solar in the state by killing renewable energy standards last June.

Florida also has pitched in to help the industry: In mid-January, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection drew fire from conservationists when they loosened oversight over hot water discharges from the Turkey Point energy complex south of Miami. Turkey Point’s two reactors and three fossil-fuel plants dump heated water into a four-decade-old network of cooling canals, where algae blooms and rising salinity are believed to threaten to coastal waters, public drinking water wells and Everglades recovery. In writing a new permit for the plant, the DEP cut local water officials out of the regulatory process, leaving the state agency in sole command of the canal field, a radiator-like matrix of 165 miles of waterways extending south from Turkey Point.

Unlike the reactors in Ohio, Illinois and New York, there’s no talk of imminent financial demise at Turkey Point. In fact, Florida Power and Light has state approval to build two more, larger reactors at the site, and is awaiting a green light from the NRC, expected in 2016.

But with the potential expansion, Tropical Audubon Society Executive Director Laura Reynolds sees the state DEP enabling a catastrophe for South Florida’s ecosystems.

“The amount of water they use is insane,” she said, adding a little gallows humor: “DEP’s new name should be “Don’t Expect Protection.”

Part 2 next week: Seeing nuclear power as a low-carbon solution to climate change, many high-profile people with science and environmental credentials have bucked the tide to support nukes. We’ll give you a Field Guide to Nuclear Environmentalists.

This series is funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation.

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author’s name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN’s version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Peter Dykstra at pdykstra@ehn.org or Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Recent Studies State Chemical In Plastic Liquid Containers Contain Tox

For BPA, Does the Dose Make the Poison?


For those who keep up with environmental health research and chemical regulations, it is no surprise to come across conflicting reports on the safety or risk of various compounds. This week, in the case of the compound bisphenol A (BPA), these conflicting reports happened to emerge almost simultaneously. On January 21st, the European Food Safety Authority declared that BPA “poses no health risk to consumers of any age group…at current exposure levels.” The next day, a study published in the journal PLoS Genetics showed that even low and short-term exposures to BPA and other hormone-mimicking compounds could alter stem cells and lead to lower sperm counts.

BPA is a common ingredient in plastics used for food and drink containers. Its hormone-like properties allow it to disrupt the endocrine system, with potential health effects ranging from reproductive issues to cancer. Though BPA has been banned in baby bottles in the U.S., and BPA-free products have become widely available since concerns about the compound were first raised in 2008, it remains in products from water bottles to the inside coatings of cans.

David McNew via Getty Images

‘The dose makes the poison’ is a well-known adage in toxicology, implying that even hazardous chemicals can be harmless at low enough concentrations. However, decades of research have shown this to be an overly simplistic way of analyzing toxic exposures.  Dr. Theo Colborn, who passed away on December 14th, 2014, was a pioneering researcher in the field of endocrine disruption and a tireless advocate for precautionary chemical regulation. Her research on endocrine disruption demonstrated that even very low concentrations of harmful chemicals could result in changes to the reproductive system, particularly in developing babies and children who have less of a tolerance for exposure than adults. She also demonstrated that not all effects of toxic chemicals are immediately apparent, but can occur decades and even generations later.

The study published last week focused on both questions of concentration and timing. The researchers tested estrogenic compounds including BPA on mice, and found that they alter the stem cells, or undifferentiated cells, which are responsible for sperm production later in life. Patricia Hunt, the researcher who led the study, told Environmental Health News that exposure to even low doses of estrogens “is not simply affecting sperm being produced now, but impacting the stem cell population, and that will affect sperm produced throughout the lifetime.”

Uncertainties remain in the wake of this study. For instance, the researchers are still investigating whether the changes observed can cross generations, or whether the same changes can occur in human reproductive stem cells. The EFSA also recognized uncertainties in non-dietary sources of BPA, and they are still conducting long-term studies in rats. While scientists and regulators continue to chase answers, this past week shines a spotlight on the complicated realm of environmental health risk assessment, and shows the continued relevance of Dr. Theo Colborn’s work and legacy. Dose is indeed important in making a poison, but so is timing of exposure, and time itself in revealing the chronic and transgenerational effects of chemicals.


Furniture retailers phase out of toxic flame retardant chemicals brings safer choices


- Advocates Urge Other Leading Retailers to Adopt Timelines and Policies to Eliminate Harmful Chemicals

Several of the nation’s largest retailers have eliminated or begun phasing out furniture with chemicals known as toxic flame retardants, which have been linked to cancer and learning and developmental disabilities in children. However the pace of the phase-outs and disclosure of the contents of the furniture remains a muddle according to public health advocates, and they are urging the nation’s biggest furniture retailers to provide better disclosure.

The nation’s largest furniture retailer and manufacturer, Ashley Furniture, for example, has announced it will be phasing out such products, but declined to publicly say when. For years, public health advocates said the chemicals threatened human health and the environment, and did not provide an added fire safety benefit as claimed by the chemical industry.

Mike Schade, Mind the Store campaign director for Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families said:

“For years, consumers were saddled with few safe choices when they wanted to buy a couch or other foam-padded furniture. Thankfully big retailers are beginning to remove toxic flame retardants.  The nation’s top furniture retailer Ashley has recognized that these toxic flame retardant chemicals are not necessary and will be manufacturing and selling furniture products that are safer as they meet the new California flammability standards. But customers want and have a right to know what they are buying. It’s vital Ashley take the next step by announcing a clear public timeframe for phasing out these chemicals in furniture foam and fabrics.

“Eliminating toxic flame retardant chemicals makes our homes safer while improving our health. The industry is responding, but with varying degrees of success to consumers.  We urge other leading furniture retailers to adopt policies with clear timeframes to phase out these unnecessary and dangerous chemicals.”

Today the Chicago Tribune reported that major furniture retailers including Crate and Barrel, Room and Board, Williams-Sonoma (Pottery Barn, West Elm) have mostly eliminated chemicals known as toxic flame retardants from their furniture. They also reported that the Futon Shop, Scandinavian Designs and Walmart “have told vendors to stop adding flame retardants to furniture” and that Ashley Furniture, the largest furniture retailer and manufacturer in America, is “committed to designing furniture … without the use of flame retardant chemicals.”

Ashley’s announcement was triggered by a recent letter to the company from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families’ Mind the Store campaign urging the retailer to identify and phase out the use of toxic flame retardants.

The vast majority of couches and upholstered furniture across the U.S. contain high levels of toxic flame retardant chemicals. Since 1975, furniture foam sold across the U.S. has been laden with these substances to meet the standards of a California “technical bulletin” called TB117. Despite being called “flame retardants,” research by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and other groups have found that these chemicals are not necessary to ensure that furniture is fire safe.

In daily use, the chemicals do not stay in the furniture. They migrate out of the products and collect in indoor dust where they enter people’s bodies by being inhaled, ingested and touched. Some toxic flame retardants do not break down easily, and have been found to persist and travel to waterways and ecosystems virtually everywhere. Firefighters, who already have a higher risk of certain cancers, are exposed to these harmful chemicals in a fire, and the highly toxic byproducts that result when they burn.

While TB117 only applied to California, it soon became the industry standard in all 50 states. After years of advocacy by public health groups, TB-117 was revised at the direction of California Governor Jerry Brown to allow manufacturers to phase out toxic flame retardants without compromising fire safety. The policy was renamed TB117-2013 and became mandatory as of January 1, 2015.

A 2014 Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) survey of 16 major furniture stores found a wide degree of variation. Three chains – Crate & Barrel, The Futon Shop, and La-Z-Boy – have flame retardant-free furniture now available for purchase. Others said they would start offering safer alternatives, with some committing to a 2015 time frame.  Other retailers including Target, Pier 1, Restoration Hardware, American Signature, Cost Plus, Macy’s, Rooms-to-Go, and Sears did not indicate they have flame retardant free furniture available in the survey published as of September 2014.

The Mind the Store campaign is now planning on sending letters to these and other major furniture retailers urging them to also eliminate toxic flame retardants.

Helpful Links from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families

Safer Chemicals News Release: http://bit.ly/1D04ubS

Chicago Tribune story: http://trib.in/15mGrIL

Ashley Furniture Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/AshleyHomeStore

Ashley Furniture Twitter Page: https://twitter.com/AshleyHomeStore

Safer Chemicals Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaferChemicals

Safer Chemicals Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/saferchemicals

Our Letter to Ashley Furniture


One study finds BPA linked to changes in stem cells, while another declares it safe


Environmental Health News reports on a study that shows BPA and other estrogenic compounds may affect stem cell development in mice. Writes Brian Bienkowski, “The study, published in PLoS Genetics, is the first to suggest that low, brief exposures to bisphenol-A, or other estrogens such as those used in birth control but found as water contaminants, early in life can alter the stem cells responsible for producing sperm later in life.” Read more here.

Another study, from the European food safety authority, has recently declared BPA as not a considerable health risk. Says NBC News, “The European Food Safety Authority’s review of BPA shows that people in general – from babies to the elderly – are not getting enough BPA in their systems to harm their health. But it says more research is needed it some areas, such as exposure from cash register receipts.Read more here.

A complicated picture emerges, but perhaps BPA is an instance of a chemical that poses few immediate risks, but can alter health in the future.


North Dakota Pipeline Leaked 3 Million Gallons Of Brine In Oil Drilling


Cleanup is underway after nearly 3 million gallons of brine, a salty, toxic byproduct of oil and natural gas production, leaked from a pipeline in western North Dakota, the largest spill of its kind in the state since the current energy boom began.

The full environmental impact of the spill, which contaminated two creeks, might not be clear for months. Some previous saltwater spills have taken years to clean up. A contractor hired by the pipeline operator will be on site Thursday, assessing the damage.

Read more from Regina Garcia Cano at Huffington Post Green.

ferc shut down

Heroes Shut Down FERC Meeting


BXE (Beyond Xtreme Energy) heroes SHUT DOWN the monthly FERC meeting. Kendall Hare spoke for about 5 minutes to FERC commissioners, appealing to their better angels, telling them they could be heroes. She told them they should heed the FERC mission statement, which is to provide SAFE, EFFICIENT, SUSTAINABLE energy for the country. FERC chairwoman Cheryl LaFleur thanked Kendall for her remarks–and said the commissioners were aware of BXE (Beyond Xtreme Energy). Others also spoke and were each told to be quiet or leave. Steve Norris and one of the others tried to raise a banner behind the commissioners but were stopped.  Then FERC commissioners decided they just had to adjourn the meeting.

In the photo are – from left, Paul Sherlock, Jimmy Betts, Steve Norris, Kelsey Erickson, Lee Stewart and Kendall. Herbert Clarke was also there. Herbert said about 15 in all.

Children have higher exposures to some phthalates, which are found in some PVC plastics and personal care products.

Good news/bad news: Some phthalates down, some up


By Lindsey Konkel
Staff Writer
Environmental Health News

January 15, 2014

Children have higher exposures to some phthalates, which are found in some PVC plastics and personal care products.

Scientists have documented for the first time that several phthalates – controversial chemicals used to make vinyl and fragrances – are declining in people while several others are rising. The study, published today, is the first comprehensive, nationwide attempt to document trends in exposure to these widely used chemicals over the past decade.

Anne Petersen/flickr
Most nail polish no longer contains the phthalate called DBP.

The researchers said the results suggest that manufacturers may be reformulating products in the wake of a federal regulation and environmental groups’ campaigns.

Three compounds banned in U.S. toys and other children’s products in 2008 have declined. But since other phthalates are increasing, it’s possible that industries have substituted them in some products.

“Our findings suggest that interventions may be working, though legislation didn’t entirely predict which levels went up or down,” said Ami Zota, a George Washington University assistant professor of environmental and occupational health who led the research when she was at the University of California, San Francisco.

Phthalates have been linked to a variety of health effects in animal tests and some human studies, including hormone disruptionaltered male genital development,diabetesasthmaattention disorders, learning disabilities and obesity.

Chemical industry representatives said that the traces found in most products are small, and not likely to cause harm.

“Despite the fact that phthalates are used in many products, exposure is extremely low – much lower than the levels considered safe by regulatory agencies,” said Liz Bowman, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers of phthalates and other chemicals.

The researchers analyzed the urine of more than 11,000 American adults and children between 2001 and 2010. They discovered that people are still widely exposed to phthalates; some were found in 98 percent of people tested.

Breakdown products of three phthalates that Congress banned from toys and other children’s products were significantly lower in 2010 than in 2001. One of the compounds, known as DEHP, found in some toys, blood bags and medical tubing, decreased 37 percent.

“Despite the fact that phthalates are used in many products, exposure is extremely low – much lower than the levels considered safe by regulatory agencies.” –Liz Bowman, American Chemistry CouncilWhile DEHP remained higher in children than adults, the levels dropped faster in children, narrowing the gap over time, according to the study, which was published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The study did not look at children under 6, who may be more highly exposed to phthalates and more susceptible to adverse health effects.

“Today phthalate usage is virtually nonexistent in toys. They have been replaced by non-phthalate substitutes,” said Alan Kaufman, senior vice president of technical affairs for the Toy Industry Association. He added that the toy industry began to transition away from phthalates years ago, but that the trend has been accelerated by regulatory actions in the U.S. and European Union.

However, three other phthalates used in some children’s products increased between 2001 and 2010. DiNP rose 149 percent, while DnOP increased 25 percent and DiDP rose 15 percent. The three were temporarily banned in 2008 in U.S. toys and childcare products that could be put in a child’s mouth. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is currently debating whether to lift the restrictions or make them permanent.

In addition, last month, California added DiNP to a list of chemicals known by the state to cause cancer. That could lead to warning labels on consumer products sold in the state.

Diueine Monteiro/flickr
Phthalates are used as fragrances in some shampoos and lotions.

DBP, which dropped 17 percent in people in the decade studied, was used in nail polish until a few years ago, when most major manufacturers eliminated it. Benzylbutyl phthalate, used in vinyl tiles and sealants, decreased 32 percent. Both compounds were part of the 2008 ban for children’s products.

A phthalate used primarily for fragrance – diethyl phthalate or DEP – decreased 42 percent. While it is not subject to U.S. bans, advocacy groups have pressured the cosmetics industry to remove it from products with initiatives such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

The study authors saw a steeper decline in DEP in adults and adolescents than in children, who may be less likely to use personal care products.

Joe Braun, an epidemiologist at Brown University who was not involved in the study, said “the age-dependent patterns confirm what we suspect about where these exposures are coming from.”

“These findings are not as reassuring as they could be,” Braun added.

For instance, DiBP, used in some nail polishes and personal care products, increased 206 percent in the decade studied.

Manufacturers may be using some phthalates as substitutes for the ones that declined, the researchers said. But it’s hard to know because they aren’t required to list ingredients on many consumer products.

“We are not confident that cosmetics manufacturers are replacing toxic phthalates with safer alternatives,” said Janet Nudelman, co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

The Personal Care Products Council, a Washington D.C.-based trade group, did not respond to requests for comment on the findings.

“There’s a clear need for better data reporting on ingredient composition of everyday consumer products so that we can fully understand the impacts of legislation and consumer pressure,” said Zota, who co-authored the study with UC San Francisco Professor Tracey Woodruff and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist Antonia Calafat.

Source: Zota et al. 2014


New – and worrisome – contaminants emerge from oil and gas wells


Researchers find alarming levels of ammonium and iodide in fracking wastewater released into Pennsylvania and West Virginia streams

By Marianne Lavelle

The Daily Climate

Two hazardous chemicals never before known as oil and gas industry pollutants – ammonium and iodide – are being released into Pennsylvania and West Virginia waterways from the booming energy operations of the Marcellus shale, a new study shows.

Treatment plants were never designed to handle these contaminants.

The toxic substances, which can have a devastating impact on fish, ecosystems, and potentially, human health, are extracted from geological formations along with natural gas and oil during both hydraulic fracturing and conventional drilling operations, said Duke University scientists in a study published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

WV drill site-550The chemicals then are making their way into streams and rivers, both accidentally and through deliberate release from treatment plants that were never designed to handle these contaminants, the researchers said.

Implications for stronger regs

The findings have major implications for whether stronger regulations are needed to curb water pollution from fracking and other oil and gas industry operations. Over the years, the industry has faced questions about unsafe well design that allows methane to seep into drinking water, and about lubricants and other chemicals it adds to frack water. Duke researchers have conducted a number of studies on these problems.

Now add to the list of concerns ammonium and iodide – two naturally occurring, dangerous chemicals that are essentially unregulated in oil and gas wastewater.

“We are releasing this wastewater into the environment and it is causing direct contamination and human health risks,” said study co-author Avner Vengosh, professor of water quality and geochemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “It should be regulated and it should be stopped. That’s not even science; it’s common sense.”

Steve Everley, spokesman for the oil and natural gas industry group, Energy in Depth, pointed out that a tightening of Pennsylvania regulations in 2011 had ended deliberate discharges of untreated fracking wastewater to the state’s rivers or streams – a point that the Duke study also makes. But some oil and gas wastewater, primarily from conventional drilling sites, is released into waterways after treatment at industrial brine facilities. Also, state records show more than 50 accidental spills of fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania last year, according to the group, Fractracker Alliance.

Nevertheless, Everley said there are already regulations in place to penalize hydraulic fracturing companies that spill wastewater, and the study confuses the issue by lumping them together with conventional producers.

“I’m not sure if the intention was to malign ‘fracking’ by cleverly presenting data on wastewater that doesn’t come from fracking, or if the report was just poorly written,” he said in an email. “In any event, it’s difficult to see how this can provide a meaningful contribution to the public dialogue, seeing how it does more to confuse the public’s understanding of wastewater treatment than anything else.”

Scientists, however, see a serious – and previously unheralded – public health concern.

Fracking’s federal loophole

When dissolved in water, ammonium can turn to ammonia, highly toxic to aquatic life. The Duke team found ammonium levels in streams and rivers from energy industry wastewater outflows at levels 50 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water-quality threshold. Under a loophole created by Congress in a 2005 energy law, fracking wastewater isn’t regulated under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act.

Meanwhile, the Duke scientists found that the iodide contamination from energy operations – while not toxic by itself – promotes the production of disinfection byproducts when it comes in contact with the chlorine that is used to treat most drinking water systems. Previous studies have shown that such disinfection byproducts have toxic and carcinogenic properties, but only a few are regulated.

“As far as we are aware, iodide and ammonium are not regulated, nor monitored in any of the [oil and gas] operations in the United States,” the researchers said in their paper.

Increased cancer?

Terrence Collins, director of the Institute for Green Science at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, was not involved in the study but said findings of iodide contamination are particularly worrisome, especially if stream or river water is extracted downstream for drinking water.

“Widely practiced chemical treatments to kill pathogens are likely to cause the iodide to become incorporated into organic matter in the drinking water, and I am concerned that this could result in increased incidences of cancer,” he said in an email.

WV Water sampling-650The recent boom in U.S. oil and gas production has been accompanied by a surge in wastewater production. Fracked wells produce about 1 million to 2 million gallons of wastewater per well. For conventional wells, the volume is less but the risk of contamination with ammonium and iodide is the same. “The method doesn’t matter,” said Vengosh.

“Fracking fluids are not much different from conventional oil and gas wastes,” said Jennifer Harkness, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at Duke.

Off to the rivers

The researchers collected and analyzed 44 samples of wastewater produced from conventional oil and gas wells in New York and Pennsylvania and 31 samples of “flowback” – the highly saline and polluted fluid that flows back to the surface during and after fracking – from shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. They also collected and analyzed oil and gas effluents being directly discharged into streams, rivers and surface waters at three disposal sites in Pennsylvania and a spill site in West Virginia.

In states like Texas and Oklahoma, with long histories of conventional drilling, oil and gas wastewater is disposed by injection in deep underground wells. But in Pennsylvania, a hotbed of fracking, there are few such sites. Some oil and gas wastewater is discharged to waterways after treatment at commercially operated industrial brine treatment plants, which were not designed to remove ammonium or iodide.

There also have been wastewater spills, including seeps from illegal disposal, leaking from surface impoundments, and truck tanker accidents. Some states even have purposely spread the salty oil and gas wastewater on roads to suppress dust or for de-icing.

The estimated volume of oil and gas industry wastewater generated in the U.S. is now more than 837 billion gallons (3.18 billion cubic meters) per year. For comparison, that’s nearly three times the volume of all the oil and gasoline that the United States consumes each year (291 billion gallons).

The researchers said their study adds to a growing body of evidence that government action is needed. “There are significant environmental and ecosystem impacts of current [oil and gas wastewater] disposal practices in the U.S.,” they wrote, “Regulatory action is needed to address these concerns.”

Marianne Lavelle is a staff writer for The Daily Climate. Follow her on Twitter @mlavelles. The Daily Climate is a nonprofit news site covering energy, the environment and climate change.

Photos: West Virginia unconventional shale drilling site courtesy Avner Vengosh/NSF. Water sampling in West Virginia courtesy U.S. EPA.

Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org

Find more Daily Climate stories in the TDC Newsroom

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Based on a work at www.dailyclimate.org


Locals, activists slam EPA proposal to clean Georgia Superfund site


From Al-Jazeera

BRUNSWICK, Georgia — An Environmental Protection Agency proposal to clean up an 801-acre Superfund sitein Brunswick, Georgia has come under scrutiny, with activists saying it is insufficient to protect locals already exposed to pollution — including a small Geechee community of Creole-speaking descendants of slaves on Sapelo Island, 25 miles from the site.

Honeywell International, which purchased the site in 1998 after LCP Chemical filed for bankruptcy, reports that 225,000 tons of contaminated soil and material and 13 acres of contaminated marshland have been removed from the area. However, unsafe levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, lead and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) remain present.

The EPA’s 1994 target action for total PCB levels on the site was 25 parts per million (ppm). A 2014 public health assessment of the site by federal public health organization the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that six half-acre grids exceeded this concentration and 36 half-acre grids had PCB concentrations of 1 to 24 ppm.

The EPA presented its proposed plan (PDF) at a public meeting in Brunswick on Dec. 4. The plan calls for three remedies: removing sediment from 7 acres, capping 6 acres “with layers of sand, silt, gravel and rock,” and covering 11 acres with a layer of sand. In all, roughly 24 acres will be remedied.

Daniel Parshley, executive director of environmental watchdog Glynn Environmental Coalition, said, “There is a long history of ignoring how big the site is and lowballing the acres.” The coalition recommends removal of 81 of the most contaminated acres.

The EPA holds that the contamination levels do not justify dredging and removing additional acreage because of concerns about disturbing the marshland. However, Parshley and Peter DeFur of consulting firm Environmental Stewardship Concepts were quick to point out that marshland restoration has become a common practice.

According to the ATSDR, exposure to PCB concentration levels exceeding 1 to 5 ppm for children and 10 to 25 ppm for adults may cause harmful effects, including altered hormone levels, impaired neurological development, low birth weight and damage to skin, liver, pancreas and cardiovascular systems. It has also been linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

The ATSDR reports that PCBs persist in the environment and find their way into humans through the consumption of small organisms and fish, which take contaminated sediment into their bodies. PCBs will continue to accumulate in fish and wildlife regardless of efforts to cap or cover them unless the contaminated material is removed. The EPA reports that PCBs in fish, “can reach levels hundreds of thousand[s] of times higher than the levels in water.”

The ATSDR tested nine of the 47 Geechees on Sapelo Island and found that the median person had higher blood levels of PCBs, including Aroclor 1268 — a chemical released specifically at the LCP site, according to the ATSDR — than 95 percent of the general population. It determined that the levels were caused by the LCP Superfund site, primarily through consumption of contaminated fish, and said that the contamination from the site may be spreading and fish consumption guidelines may need to be expanded. The island is well outside the area governed by such guidelines.

DeFur said the particular type of PCB found in the subjects’ bloodstreams, Aroclor 1268, is so distinctive, it’s like a fingerprint.

None of the EPA reports on the site reveal the source of Aroclor 1268. Brunswick attorney Robert Killian, who represented property owners, Glynn County (which encompasses Brunswick) and employees of LCP in suits against Allied Chemical — now Honeywell — beginning in the mid-1990s, said it came from Honeywell, which produces products and technologies for a variety of industries, including chemical, automotive, transportation and aerospace.

Killian said the suits ultimately settled for $50 million split evenly between homeowners and the county.

John Morris, project manager for Honeywell, said by email, “The specific PCB [Aroclor] 1268 was only used by Allied for approximately seven years in Brunswick. PCB 1268 was used in many different applications, and it is found in the environment throughout the world.”

Jim Brown, program manager for the Georgia Environmental Protection Division’s hazardous waste corrective action program, pointed out that Aroclor 1268 was used in marine paint. DeFur said, however, that Aroclor 1268 was not widely used in marine paint and its use was confined to military and some merchant marine applications. Chapter 5 of the ATSDR toxicological profile for PCBs states that Monsanto, which produced 99 percent of the PCBs used by U.S. industry, ceased production of Aroclor 1268 in 1971.

Morris said the allocation of cleanup costs among “potentially responsible parties” has not been determined.

Killian, who attended the Dec. 4 meeting, said residents became hostile after learning what the plan entailed. He said that there hadn’t been a cost-benefit analysis of the plan and was concerned about the transparency of the drafting process. “The hearing was the first time that the public had the chance to speak,” he said, adding that he believed negotiations over the past 20 years have favored Allied and Honeywell rather than locals potentially affected by the site.

The proposed plan is one of six remedies the EPA considered, ranging from taking no action to removing 48 acres at an estimated cost of $64.8 million. With an estimated cost of $28.6 million, the plan is the second-cheapest option that involved taking any action to clean up the site.

Asked to explain its reasoning for choosing this cleanup plan, the EPA did not mention whether or to what extent cost factored in its decision.

Brown said the proposed cleanup is sufficient and pointed out that the site will continue to be monitored and further cleanup may be required if the contamination persists.

But many believe the plan doesn’t go far enough to protect the local population.

J.R. Grovner, a father of two and a native and current resident of Sapelo Island, said that while the island’s inhabitants became aware of the fish contamination after the ATSDR testing, there has been little to no change in their consumption habits.

The residents of the Geechee community, often called the Gullah-Geechee, who remain on the island and try to keep up the traditions passed down for over 200 years. Hunting, fishing, faith and family make up the cornerstones of their community.

Grovner said most residents consume at least one meal, at times as many as several, of local seafood per week. It’s the way of life on the tiny island, which is accessible only by boat. “A situation like that, I guess we get the end of the stick,” he said.

A multiagency 2009 study of dolphins around Brunswick and Sapelo Island found that they had as much as 10 times the levels of PCBs, including Aroclor 1268, than dolphins from any location previously tested. PCBs, which are found in the sediment on the site, tend to accumulate in top-level predators like dolphins — and humans — because they are stored in fat and persist up the food chain.

ATSDR researchers revealed their study on the high PCB levels of nine islanders at a Sept. 3 meeting at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) campus in Chamblee, Georgia, that was attended by representatives from several Georgia and federal government agencies but was not open to the public.

Brown, who was in attendance, said the ATSDR conclusions regarding the spread of PCBs from the site, the sufficiency of fish consumption advisories and the source of the contamination of the residents of Sapelo were not supported by the data presented.

fact sheet added in January to a website Honeywell maintains about the LCP site states, “The [ATSDR] study concluded that there is no demonstrated link between Sapelo Island and any contaminants discharged at the LCP site.” However, the presentation from the Sept. 3 meeting, where the interim results of that study, which has not yet been issued in its entirety, were discussed, states, “Residents of Sapelo Island have been exposed to specific PCB also found at the LCP site.”

The fact sheet also alleges that a Monsanto plant in Anniston, Alabama, “released thousands of pounds of PCB 1268 into the air over a 40 year period,” noting that the plant is “upwind from Brunswick.” Anniston is approximately 340 miles northwest of Brunswick.

A representative from Monsanto responded to the allegation, “We are confident that no significant or even detectable amounts of PCBs could have blown from Anniston, Alabama, more than 300 miles away, to Brunswick, Georgia.”

Additionally, there is debate over whether the current fish consumption guidelines protect residents of the Brunswick area.

In 1999 the Glynn County Health Department, in cooperation with the ATSDR, tested 316 individuals through interviews, food diaries and urine to determine the local residents’ rates of consumption of fish and wild game and develop the consumption guidelines. Results from target group of 211 people who reported consuming local seafood and wild game from affected areas were compared with those of a control group of 105 who reported that they did not consume seafood and wild game from affected waters. Only 4 percent of the target group were African-American.

African-Americans account for 26 percent of the population of Glynn County and 40 percent of the population within 4 miles of the site. In its 2014 public health assessment for the site, the ATSDR stated that “African-Americans are underrepresented in the Brunswick fish study” and because of that and the likely frequency and amounts of their consumption of fish, the “results of the Brunswick fish study should not be applied to African-Americans in the Brunswick area.”

In the target group, 101 people reported the kind of fisher they were; just one was a subsistence fisher, and only three were commercial fishers. Accordingly, the health assessment states that the fish consumption guidelines do not necessarily apply to subsistence or commercial fishers.

The public has until Feb. 2, 2015, to submit comments to the EPA regarding the proposed plan. After that, the EPA will make a final decision and “negotiate a cleanup agreement with parties responsible for the pollution, which will then design and implement the cleanup, with EPA oversight.”


Former DNR Official Issues Open Letter About Handling of Burning Bridgeton Landfill


A former official with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources writes a sizzling farewell letter about the burning Bridgeton landfill. He has issued an open letter claiming politics – not science – is dominating the state’s handling of the landfill crisis. Norris says within the DNR, scientists are “losing their minds because they are fighting their own management structure,” which seems more concerned with politics than public safety. He says there is “an overall cozy relationship between the landfill owner and the DNR.” Read more.