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Judge temporarily halts fracking approvals in North Carolina

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A judge has halted the approval of fracking operations in North Carolina until a higher court weighs in on the legality of the appointment of several boards that manage state resources and the environment.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald W. Stephens’ decision earlier this month prevents the Mining and Energy Commission from approving drilling units for hydraulic fracturing until the state Supreme Court decides a separate case regarding how the state panels are formed. No drilling units had been approved before the judge issued his order.

Stephens issued a preliminary injunction that stops the commission from accepting or processing applications for drilling units for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process involves injecting water, sand and chemicals to break apart underground rocks so oil and gas can escape.

Stephens also delayed proceedings in the lawsuit filed against the state’s Mining and Energy Commission pending the other case’s outcome.

The state’s highest court will hear arguments in late June on the separate lawsuit by Gov. Pat McCrory and two of his predecessors that challenged how several other state commissions were appointed. A panel of judges sided with McCrory earlier this year in striking down the way lawmakers appointed those boards, and the decision was appealed to the high court.

While the Mining and Energy Commission wasn’t challenged in McCrory’s lawsuit, Stephens wrote that both cases hinge on the same legal issue.

“Based on the decision of the three-judge panel in McCrory v. Berger, Plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that legislative appointment of a majority of the members of the MEC is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of powers …,” the judge wrote in the order, signed May 6.

The fracking lawsuit, filed in January on behalf of plaintiffs including the Haw River Assembly, argues that the Legislature usurped the authority of the executive branch by forming the Mining and Energy Commission in 2012 as an administrative agency and then appointing eight of its 13 members. The governor appoints the rest.

One of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the fracking case, Derb Carter of the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he’s pleased with Stephens’ ruling.

“The important thing to us is to not allow fracking to proceed under rules and regulations adopted by this commission,” said Carter, the law center’s director for North Carolina.

McCrory, a Republican, signed a law last summer clearing the way for permits to be issued this year for fracking. Scientists believe pockets of natural gas exist in layers of shale under Chatham, Lee and Moore counties southwest of Raleigh, but there are disputes over how much.

Rules governing fracking that were developed by the Mining and Energy Commission took effect in March, clearing the way for the state to start issuing drilling permits. Before asking the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for a permit, applicants must acquire mineral rights for several hundred acres of land — a parcel known as a drilling unit — and have the unit approved by the commission.

The lawsuit also asked the judge to throw out the commission’s rules and void their actions, but Stevens said the commission can continue other work pending the case’s outcome.

The commission’s chairman, Vik Rao, said the judge’s order “is fair in the sense that it doesn’t shut us down from doing good work, but it does shut us down from allowing permits to go forward.”

For example, the commission is taking a closer look at air emissions from hydraulic fracturing, which Rao said was in response to the plaintiffs’ concerns.

The state’s march toward hydraulic fracturing has prompted a passionate debate. Proponents say the extraction method can be done safely and that cheaper gas will help manufacturers and increase jobs in the state. Detractors fear that toxic chemicals could escape the wells and pollute soil and water.

The Mining and Energy Commission received nearly 220,000 public comments on the rules and considered them during revisions this fall. The commission has been debating and rewriting rule proposals since mid-2013.


Workers prepared a containment boom Thursday after an oil spill fouled the waters off Refugio State Beach. Credit Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Oil Again Fouling California Coast Near Site of Historic Spill

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GOLETA, Calif. — Refugio State Beach is one of the treasures of the California coast, a little-known curve of beach in the hills that on weekends like this one — Memorial Day — would be sprinkled with people who made their way up from Santa Barbara, about 20 miles down the Pacific Coast.





Workers prepared a containment boom Thursday after an oil spill fouled the waters off Refugio State Beach. Credit Jae C. Hong/Associated Press





But not on Thursday. Refugio was filled not with vacationers, but with teams of workers in white coveralls and masks, scooping up sand fouled with oil that had washed in after a pipeline broke earlier this week. The smell of oil, not surf, was in the air as Coast Guard riggers off shore, using yellow buoys, tried to corral and clean up the oil before it reached the shore. Read More from and  at the New York Times.

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Bacteria making meds in wastewater outflows

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Microbes that clean our water may also be piecing some pharmaceuticals back together

May 13, 2015

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

Wastewater treatment plants not only struggle removing pharmaceuticals, it seems some drugs actually increase after treatment.

When researchers tested wastewater before and after treatment at a Milwaukee-area treatment plant, they found that two drugs — the anti-epileptic carbamazepine and antibiotic ofloxacin — came out at higher concentrations than they went in. The study suggests the microbes that clean our water may also piece some pharmaceuticals back together.

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Benjamin Blair

Carbamazepine and ofloxacin on average increased by 80 percent and 120 percent, respectively, during the treatment process. Such drugs, and their metabolites (formed as part of the natural biochemical process of degrading and eliminating the compounds), get into the wastewater by people taking them and excreting them. Flushing drugs accounts for some of the levels too.

“Microbes seem to be making pharmaceuticals out of what used to be pharmaceuticals,” said lead author Benjamin Blair, who spearheaded the work as a PhD. student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Blair is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado Denver.

Blair and colleagues found 48 out of 57 pharmaceuticals they were looking for at the South Shore Water Reclamation Facility in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, which serves the greater Milwaukee area.

The researchers have a clue as to how this might happen: microbes.

After removing the solids from incoming wastewater, treatment plants use microbes — tiny single-celled organisms — to decompose organic matter that comes in the sewage.

Blair’s best guess is that people take the drugs, their body breaks them down into different metabolites that are excreted, and the microbes take these different parts of the drug and put them back together.

“It’s a fascinating idea,” Blair said.

Tanja Rauch-Williams, principal technologist at the environmental engineering company Carollo Engineers, said it was a strong study but cautioned that this doesn’t mean wastewater treatment plants are acting as pharmaceutical factories.

“It’s a large amount of pharmaceuticals that we [wastewater treatment plant researchers] look at, it’s not a trend that the plants generate higher compound concentrations,” she said. “It’s very specific compounds.”

“Microbes seem to be making pharmaceuticals out of what used to be pharmaceuticals.”-Benjamin Blair, University of Colorado-DenverShe said that this apparent piecing back together of metabolites into pharmaceuticals could, in principle, also happen in the environment after effluent discharge.

It’s not the first time researchers have noticed this trend. Canadian researchers foundcarbamazepine more than doubled its initial medicinal load after treatment at a Peterborough, Ontario, plant.

“When others have found this, people thought it was due to things like sampling errors,” Blair said. “But we found a clear upward trend over time.”

What remains unclear is why only certain drugs would increase post-treatment. Blair and colleagues saw the trend in just two of the 48 pharmaceuticals found in their wastewater samples.

“We need to look for what the structural or metabolic commonality is in these compounds. And then we could possibly predict whether some would increase [after treatment],” Rauch-Willlaims said.

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It seems that the microbes that clean our water at wastewater treatment plants piece some pharmaceuticals back together.

Even with the increases, the pharmaceuticals are at levels far below what could impact humans if they consume the water, she said. But the ubiquity of the drugs in wastewater is a concern for fish and other aquatic creatures.

Carbamazepine, used as an anti-epileptic drug, impacted the enzymes in gills, livers and muscles of common carp, according to a 2011 study. Such enzyme changes are indicative of tissue damage and impaired cells. The drug also has been linked to endocrine disruption and reproductive problems in zebrafish.

Rauch-Williams said the wastewater industry is getting more efficient at removing pharmaceuticals. “Things like advanced oxidation, UV disinfection coupled with peroxide, different membrane processes … these remove a large majority of these compounds,” she said.

Blair said the drawback to many of the more effective treatments is expense. And there’s no urgency for plants to upgrade because there aren’t any U.S. regulations for pharmaceuticals in water, he added.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency evaluates substances that may be in drinking water by developing Contaminant Candidate Lists and periodically issuing a Regulatory Determination.

The EPA’s latest drinking water contaminant candidate list — water pollutants not subject to regulations yet but that might render water unsafe — includes several pharmaceuticals that act on hormones.

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 Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.


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Waterways May be Contaminated with High Levels of BPA Released into the Atmosphere

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Our water may be contaminated by hormone-disrupting pollutants. Scientists have discovered that harmful concentrations of Bisphenol-A (BPA) may have been deposited directly into rivers and streams by municipal or industrial wastewater.

“There is a growing concern that hormone disruptors such as BPA not only threaten wildlife but also humans,” said Chris Kassotis, one of the researchers, in a news release. “Recent studies have documented widespread atmospheric releases of BPA from industrial sources across the United States. The results from our study provide evidence that these atmospheric discharges can dramatically elevate BPA in nearby environments.”

Read more.

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Plan EJ2020 – Conference Call with EPA EJ Staff

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PLAN EJ2020 & YOU

CONFERENCE CALL WITH U.S. EPA ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE STAFF


FEATURING

CHARLES LEEDeputy Associate Administrator for Environmental Justice

MATT TEJADADirector for the Office of Environmental Justice


TUESDAY MAY 26, 2015

2:00 PM-  3:30 PM EST


RSVP SMADDIN@EARTHJUSTICE.ORG by Friday May 22nd


Call In Number1-866-740-1260 Access Code: 7455210



EPA is seeking input on its draft EJ 2020 Action Agenda framework.  With this plan EPA aims to advance environmental justice through its programs, policies and activities, and support a cross-agency strategy on making a visible difference in environmentally overburdened, underserved, and economically distressed communities. At this session, ask questions, get answers and learn more about how communities can share their recommendations.


From EPA:

EJ 2020: over next five years, EPA is considering what to focus on in the following areas it has identified as priorities:

  • ·         Deepening environmental justice progress in EPA’s programs to improve the health and environment of overburdened communities
  • ·         Collaborating with partners to expand our impact in overburdened communities
  • ·         Demonstrating progress on outcomes that matter to overburdened communities
  • ·         EJ 2020 is a strategy for advancing environmental justice … It is not a rule.

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Mind the Store, get phthalates out of flooring

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Over the last two weeks we have achieved tremendous victories – the nation’s two largest home improvement retailers, Home Depot and Lowe’s, have committed to phase out toxic phthalates in flooring by the end of the year.  

This is HUGE as together they sell billions of dollars worth of flooring a year! This is a lot to celebrate, but we’re not stopping there. 

We’re now turning our attention to Menards, the 3rd largest home improvement chain in the country with sales of over $8 billion and 280 stores in 14 states. If Home Depot and Lowe’s can ban phthalates in flooring, so can Menards!  

TAKE ACTION: Tell Menards to phase out toxic phthalates in flooring.

Testing has found some vinyl flooring Menards sells contains toxic phthalates, chemicals linked to asthma and birth defects in baby boys. Chemicals that are so toxic they have been restricted in children’s toys.

This may not be easy. Menards has earned a reputation for violating environmental laws in their own home state of Wisconsin. The were fined $1.5 million after their CEO, John Menard Jr.  ”used his own pickup truck to haul bags of chromium-contaminated incinerator ash produced by the company and dump it into his trash at home.”1 That’s who we’re up against.

Help us turn up the heat on Menards and leverage the victories we’ve achieved to date. Take action today!

Act Now!

For a toxic-free future,

Mike Schade, Mind the Store Campaign Director
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families

PS — Help us continue the momentum by calling on the nation’s #3 home improvement chain Menards to ban toxic phthalates in flooring!


Just Moms march to EPA headquarters on Thursday

Technical Difficulties: The Long Road toward Superfund Site Remediation

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Toxic environmental pollution is unfortunately widespread. If you follow Backyard Talk, by now you have probably heard the story of the West Lake Landfill near St. Louis, Missouri, a dumping ground for nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project toward which an underground fire is slowly creeping. Just last week a contingent from Just Moms St. Louis spoke at a D.C. press conference about the health challenges they and their children have faced while living near this polluted site. The following video shows footage from the press conference and the subsequent march: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpSchIhnYdE.

One commenter on this video asked me whether homeowners could potentially avoid a situation like this through diligent research into the history of where they plan to live. Shouldn’t it be relatively easy to identify whether a site near your home is on the National Priorities List? The story of this site illuminates some common complications that arise during the process of identifying a toxic area and moving toward eventual remediation. It is exceedingly difficult for environmental scientists, let alone community members, to identify pollutants and quantify risks. This post summarizes just a few of the factors that make this process so complex.

Just Moms St. Louis demonstrate outside EPA Headquarters

Many polluted sites go unrecorded and undetected. When you think of contaminated sites, what comes to mind? We might expect the ground under a former gas station to be loaded with organic contaminants, or predict pollution downstream from a factory. However, not all sites have a clear usage history with easily predictable exposures. This is especially true in the case of places like the West Lake Landfill where waste has been illegally dumped. Radioactive waste was illegally discarded in 1973, but wasn’t uncovered until 1977.

It’s a long road from detection to Superfund designation… The West Lake Landfill was discovered to be contaminated in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1990 that the site wound up on the National Priorities List, which designates it as a Superfund Site. How does a site end up on the NPL? There are several different mechanisms that the EPA uses to list sites on the NPL, all of which require extensive characterization of the hazards that are present, and of potential routes for human exposure. At the end of the day, not every polluted site ends up on the Superfund list – leaving still more undocumented but polluted areas. During these interim years, the West Lake Landfill was still polluted – it just wasn’t listed.

…And it’s an even longer road to remediation. Once the West Lake Landfill was placed on the National Priorities List, it was another 18 years until a cleanup plan was ultimately developed. The process of developing a remediation plan involves countless scientific studies, and meetings with PRPs (Potentially Responsible Parties) who are tasked with devising a cleanup strategy that makes sense for the site. During this time, communities are placed in limbo. They live in a documented toxic area, making it difficult to sell their homes, and while cleanup is planned or underway, their potential exposure to toxic compounds continues.

Even then, the unexpected can happen. Much of the current concern surrounding the West Lake site stems from the presence of a smoldering underground fire in an adjacent landfill, which is slowly making its way toward the radioactive waste. It took well over a decade for the EPA to reach a decision on what to do with the West Lake site, and now that this new factor has been introduced, the risks at the site have changed considerably. Any remediation will now have to account for the fire, and underground fires are notoriously difficult to stop.

It is difficult enough for environmental scientists and managers to detect environmental pollution, to determine the urgency of remediation activities, to decide on a plan, and to revise that plan if the unexpected occurs. It is nearly impossible for potential homeowners to keep abreast of the slow-moving yet unpredictable process of listing and remediating a Superfund Site.

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State agency puts BPA on Prop. 65 list, says it harms reproductive health

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Metal can liners are made from plastic that contains BPA. The Can Manufacturers Institute opposes the listing of Bisphenol-A on the Prop. 65 list as a female reproductive toxicant, or as harmful to women's reproductive health. Once listed the manufacturers and retailers will have 12 months to institute warning labels based on what level is considered safe to consume.Metal can liners are made from plastic that contains BPA. The Can Manufacturers Institute opposes the listing of Bisphenol-A on the Prop. 65 list as a female reproductive toxicant, or as harmful to women’s reproductive health. Once listed the manufacturers and retailers will have 12 months to institute warning labels based on what level is considered safe to consume.NEO VISION/GETTY IMAGES/AMANA IMAGES RM

The chemical Bisphenol-A goes on the Proposition 65 list this week after a unanimous vote by a state scientific panel concluded the element is harmful to women’s reproductive health, according to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

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Poor in Pennsylvania? You’re fracked.

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Hydraulic fracturing wells and the pollution from them are more likely to impact poor communities in Pennsylvania

May 6, 2015

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

Fracking wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region are disproportionately located in poor rural communities, which bear the brunt of associated pollution, according to a new study.

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Nancy Adams from Penn State’s University Libraries touches residue leftover from drilling at the Marcellus Shale drilling site

The study bolsters concerns that poor people are more likely to deal with hydraulic fracturing in their community and raises concerns that such vulnerable populations will suffer the potential health impacts of air and water pollution associated with pulling gas from the ground.

“This trend is not one we’re surprised by, we see this in a lot of industries,” said Mike Ewall, founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a nonprofit organization that works with U.S. communities dealing with pollution from energy.

However industry groups say hydraulic fracturing is in rural farming regions of Pennsylvania out of necessity and is providing some much needed economic stimulus.

Researchers from Clark University mapped areas in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to identify areas with a lot of Marcellus Shale hydraulic fracturing wells and then examined some local demographics: age, poverty and education levels, and race.

The Marcellus Shale is a large rock formation — almost 95,000 square miles — that stretches across parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia and holds trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. It’s experienced a surge of drilling as techniques have advanced. The most common method, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, works by drilling and injecting fluid at high pressure, which fractures rocks and releases the natural gas.

One thing was clear from the Clark University study: poverty levels are strongly associated with active fracking wells in Pennsylvania.

“Our analysis shows that environmental injustice was observed only in Pennsylvania, particularly with respect to poverty: in seven out of nine analyses, potentially exposed [census] tracts had significantly higher percent of people below poverty level than non-exposed tracts,” the authors wrote.

The researchers used different tests to estimate exposure to potential gas well pollution — varying the distance from the wells since there is no definitive distance that makes someone safe or exposed. “No matter how you estimate proximity, it always came up as exposure was significantly, much higher” in poor Pennsylvania communities, said lead author of the study Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger, a Clark University assistant professor of Geographic Information Sciences for Development and Environment.

Elias Schewel/flickr
Communities throughout Pennsylvania have protested fracking near their homes.

She said the study raises environmental justice concerns as people under the poverty line often “have less mobility and access to information” about the potential ills of fracking, especially since the communities she looked at were rural areas without the amenities of larger cities and towns.

She also found local clusters of gas wells disproportionately impacting the poor, elderly and those with lower education in West Virginia, and children in Ohio.

Most concern about proximity to gas wells stems from the potential for air pollution from drilling and leaks, and water pollution from the mix of chemicals pumped into the ground, radiation from the fractured rocks, or methane.

And recent headlines have only stoked alarm in Pennsylvania fracking communities.

This week the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences released a study that found traces of a common fracking chemical in water from three homes in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, where the median household income is 10 percent lower than the rest of the state’s.

In addition, last month researchers reported that radon — the world’s second leading cause of lung cancer — is much more prevalent in Pennsylvania buildings near natural gas development than in other parts of the state.

And a week after the radon study, the state released data that showed sulfur dioxide emissions soared 57 percent from 2012 to 2013 at Pennsylvania natural gas sites. Sulfur dioxide harms the respiratory system and can cause or worsen illnesses such as asthma.

Industry has long maintained that fracking is environmentally safe and cleaner than other fossil fuels. In response to the new study, Joe Massaro, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America’s outreach program called Energy in Depth, said in an email that industry presence is helping poor Pennsylvania communities.

“A majority of people living in these rural areas are hardworking, generational farmers. According to the Pennsylvania farm Bureau the average net cash income per farm is $18,567, just below the poverty line,” Massaro said. “By signing leases with oil and natural gas operators here in the Commonwealth, these farmers have been able to buy new state of the art equipment and pay off debt which has made their lives that much easier.”

Massaro added that the oil and gas industry also provides local tax revenue and jobs.

But Energy Justice’s shale gas program coordinator, Alex Lotorto, disagrees and said that small farmers may have seen a short-term boost from oil and gas leases but the negative impacts of the industry far outweigh any perceived benefits.

He said that the new study just reinforces what his group has been seeing on the ground for years.

“Residents in these poor counties have been under assault for generations,” he said.

“Rural poverty is real in the shale fields.”

Follow Brian Bienkowski on Twitter @BrianBienkowski

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 Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.


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Urgent Action Needed on Asbestos

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Asbestos-related disease kills up to 15,000people in the U.S. each year.

And if you’re thinking that this lethal substance has been banned in the U.S., you’re wrong. It is still legal and continues to pose serious risks to millions of American families every day.

That’s why we at EWG Action Fund launched Asbestos Nation, a national campaign to increase public awareness about the pervasiveness of asbestos and to fight on Capitol Hill for justice for its victims.

Right now, we’re up against a terrible bill in Congress that has the backing of special interest groups, big chemical companies and Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas).

Rep. Farenthold’s industry-backed “Furthering Asbestos Claims Transparency Act” – also known as the “Asbestos Death Database Act” – would delay and decrease compensation for victims of asbestos-related disease and their families.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on Rep. Farenthold’s bill THIS WEEK, and we need your help immediately to shut it down.

Your representative must hear from you today: Click here to contact your member of Congress and tell him or her to oppose Rep. Farenthold’s industry-backed bill.

In addition to lung cancer and other illnesses, exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, an extremely painful and fatal form of cancer that attacks the lining of the lungs, stomach and other organs.

Mesothelioma requires expensive medical treatment and often kills victims within months of diagnosis. Victims of these horrible illnesses deserve justice – and Rep. Farenthold’s bill would provide them anything but.

This atrocious bill would not only significantly delay and deny payments to victims and their families, it would also require that individuals seeking compensation publicly disclose detailed, personal information including medical information.

Absurdly, the asbestos companies claim the legislation would protect victims. If that’s so, why do asbestos victims’ groups uniformly oppose it?

Click here to help us fight for justice for the victims of asbestos: Tell your representative to oppose Rep. Farenthold’s bill today.

Thank you for taking action.