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New map could refocus state’s pollution battles

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By Tony Barboza

April 22, 2014, 10:38 p.m.

The California Environmental Protection Agency has released a statewide list of census tracts most burdened by pollution, providing a first-of-its-kind ranking certain to pressure regulators to clean up neighborhoods with long-standing health risks.

Many of the worst pollution pockets identified and mapped by state officials are in the San Joaquin Valley, Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire. Their residents are largely low-income Latinos who have had little power to force improvements in their communities.

By providing the public with an objective accounting of conditions in areas as small as a few thousand residents, Cal/EPA has created a powerful tool to spur regulators to act in highly polluted neighborhoods, state officials and environmental activists say.

“It is a major breakthrough that will give us a better opportunity to direct or redirect precious resources to the communities that need it the most,” said state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles).

De León wrote a 2012 law that requires the state to spend 25% of the auction proceeds from California’s greenhouse gas-cutting cap-and-trade program to benefit disadvantaged communities that face disproportionate effects from pollution and climate change.

The screening tool, called CalEnviroScreen, was developed by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, a branch of Cal/EPA, to pinpoint the communities with the highest exposure and vulnerability to multiple environmental hazards, including polluted air and water, waste facilities and contaminated soil.

The rankings, however, are not based only on measures of environmental exposure. They also take into account socioeconomic characteristics and health data on residents to assess the overall vulnerability of communities. Those factors include poverty, education, unemployment, rates of asthma and low-birth-weight infants.

Putting all 19 criteria together, state officials say, gives the best indication of the environmental risks faced by California’s most vulnerable populations. Government agencies could address those risks through a variety of measures, including environmental enforcement, cleanups and economic remedies, such as creating sustainable development projects to provide jobs.

Teresa DeAnda, who lives in a house with a view of rows of almond trees in Earlimart, a small agricultural town along Highway 99 in Tulare County, looked up the ranking of her neighborhood online and learned it scored among the worst 10% in the state for fine particle air pollution, contaminated drinking water and pesticide use.

“I was startled but not surprised,” said DeAnda, director of the Committee for the Well Being of Earlimart, a community group formed some 15 years ago to fight pesticides that drift through the air and into the community from surrounding farms. “I wish that they would take the next step and try to make it safer for us and remediate all the pollution that we’re bombarded with here.”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for 2014-15 would set aside $225 million of $850 million in cap-and-trade proceeds for disadvantaged communities.

Budget documents say projects could include energy-efficiency upgrades for homes in low-income areas, improvements to bus and rail systems, urban forestry projects and programs to fund cleaner trucks and equipment near ports, rail yards and distribution centers.

The environmental health assessment, published in draft form this week, was a major update to an initiative that includes an interactive online map and is being refined over time by Cal/EPA. The state’s first such report last year assessed the state by ZIP Code and yielded broadly similar results, showing that Latinos and African Americans make up a disproportionately high percentage of the population in areas most affected by pollution.

But the previous list was criticized by environmental justice groups and researchers who complained that ZIP Codes were too large and arbitrary to reveal much.

California has about 8,000 census tracts compared with about 1,800 ZIP Codes. “This scale of analysis represents a finer level of resolution for many parts of the state,” the Cal/EPA report says.

Manuel Pastor, director of the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, who developed a precursor to the state’s screening tool, agreed.

“This will be an extraordinarily useful tool because it lets us look at the state neighborhood by neighborhood,” he said.

Some of the worst-scoring neighborhoods sit next to busy ports, rail yards and freeways in places such as Boyle Heights, Long Beach, San Bernardino and San Jose, where residents are exposed to higher levels of air pollution from vehicle exhaust.

Topping the list is a tract in Fresno crisscrossed by freeways, where more than 3,000 people live with the some of the state’s highest levels of toxic air releases and asthma rates.

A pocket of homes west of the LA/Ontario International Airport is high on the list because it has some of the state’s worst smog, diesel soot and a high number of cleanup sites and hazardous waste facilities.

Also highly affected by pollution, the analysis shows, are farming communities in the Central Valley and around Salinas and Oxnard, where residents near agricultural fields contend with contaminated drinking water, poor air quality and heavy pesticide use.

It was not a surprise that areas of the San Joaquin Valley ranked poorly in the state’s overall scores and for drinking water quality, air pollution and a variety of other measures “because it’s a huge hot spot,” said Laurel Firestone, who co-directs the Community Water Center, a Visalia advocacy group. “We need a lot more investment and targeted action to address the problem. But now we can see that we’re not alone and that there are pockets across the state.”

High on the list is a census tract in the San Gabriel Valley city of El Monte, where about 2,500 people live in modest houses and apartment buildings interspersed with manufacturing facilities and auto repair shops. Trains rumble past frequently, and cars and trucks whoosh by on the 10 Freeway.

The area was ranked No. 23 statewide because of residents’ proximity to a high number facilities releasing toxic chemicals into the air, contaminated groundwater and underground tank cleanup sites.

“All of these problems around us must be affecting our health, but how would we know?” Hermila Hernandez, a 30-year resident, said in Spanish. “How would you find out if you haven’t studied these things?”

Hernandez, who lives in a small house on Olney Street, said that identifying neighborhoods affected by pollution may be easier than solving the underlying problems.

“What are we going to do?” she said. “The people who will fix this are those with the money and power. Because we can’t do anything about it.”

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ARCADIA, Wis. — In Wisconsin, residents are having an emotional debate over the fuel-drilling technique known as “fracking,” in which a sand mixture is blasted underground to extract oil and gas from rock. Rural Wisconsin is rich in a special kind of sand used in fracking, and mining companies are lining up to get to it. But now, some residents are lining up to stop them.

At a packed town hall meeting in Arcadia, Wis., representatives of the mining company All-Energy sought to assure residents that a proposed 725-acre mine posed no risk.


A mining advocate said, “Six seconds a week is the amount of blasting we’re going to do.”
But the audience was not convinced.

An opponent of the proposed mine said, “Why are we taking top-producing farmland and destroying it to produce — to get sand out?”

Maybe if it was one mine the response would not have been as emotional. But the idyllic farmland of West Central Wisconsin has been transformed by 135 sand mining facilities — up from five just a few years ago.

Oil and gas companies need the special crush-resistant sand to probe for fossil fuels in the process known as fracking.
Resident Brenda Tabor-Adams said, “The trucks drive past here, and there’s sand on the road, there’s sand on the ditch, so I do get a lot in my house.”

All that blowing sand is a health concern for Tabor-Adams. Her farm is surrounded by four sand mines.
“After now dealing with it for a couple of years, I am starting to get some respiratory issues,” she said. “Wheezing. It’ll wake me up at night.”

Professor Crispin Pierce of the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire has been sampling the air near 11 local plants and found elevated levels of dust with crystalline silica, which can cause cancer. He said, “Like asbestos, it’s a component of these small bits of dust that’s particularly dangerous and damaging.”
But while the mining boom here has created concern, it’s also created nearly 3,000 jobs.

Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association, which runs 10 mines, said, “The growth in this industry — as long as it’s done responsibly — is an excellent, awesome opportunity for Wisconsin.”

He told CBS News that if the mining companies just follow existing safety regulations, the threat from blowing sand will dissipate.

[reynoldsgrab8.jpg]Rich Budinger, president of the Wisconsin Industrial Sand Association CBS
Budinger added, “Water wagons are constantly watering down the roads, we have sprinkler systems on our stockpiles.”
Still, over the past two years, Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has issued 22 citations for non-compliance with environmental regulations to 21 different mining companies.

And while the county board eventually rejected All-Energy’s plant for Arcadia, elsewhere in the state there are few signs of a slowdown with 51 new mines already in the works.

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Toxicology: The plastics puzzle

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By Josie Glausiusz for Nature Magazine

A stroll down the aisles of a US supermarket reveals a modest victory for consumer activism. In the baby-products section, plastic baby bottles, spill-proof cups and miniature cutlery are proudly marked ‘BPA-free’ — a sign that they no longer contain the compound bisphenol A, found in many plastics. A range of blenders and water bottles in the kitchenware aisle are also untainted by the chemical, as are a few cans of beans tucked away in the organic foods section. And customers filling their baskets with these BPA-free treasures may even receive a BPA-free receipt at the cash register.

The partial withdrawal of BPA is the culmination of two decades of research and hundreds of studies linking the compound — which mimics sex hormones called oestrogens — to adverse health effects in rodents and humans. The decision by regulators in the United States and European Union to ban BPA from baby bottles, combined with industry marketing campaigns, has convinced many consumers that the plastics and other containers currently used to store food are safe.

It is a false sense of security. BPA is still a constituent of many food containers, especially cans. And when companies did abandon BPA, they often adopted compounds — such as the increasingly common bisphenol S (BPS) — that share much of the same chemistry and raise many of the same concerns as BPA. “People use this chemical to replace BPA without sufficient toxicological information,” says Kyungho Choi, an environmental toxicologist at Seoul National University. “That is a problem.”

Fall from grace

BPA has formed the chemical backbone of most hard, clear polycarbonate plastic since the 1950s. Over time, studies have linked the chemical — which can leach out of plastics and into food — to a host of adverse health effects, including reductions in fertility and birth weight, male genital abnormalities, altered behavioural development, diabetes, heart disease and obesity1 (see Nature464, 1122–1124; 2010).

Establishing a clear connection between a compound such as BPA and human health is complex, notes Geoffrey Greene, who studies oestrogens and their receptors at the University of Chicago in Illinois. “Most studies address only the question of whether such adverse effects can occur in various cell- or animal-based models,” he says, “without addressing whether the amounts that we are exposed to are sufficient to have an effect on human health.” Because many of the potential health effects of BPA are difficult to assess, the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, has launched a US$30-million research programme designed to answer outstanding questions.

A few years ago, mounting evidence and concerned consumers convinced governments to take action. In 2011, the European Union banned BPA from baby bottles; the United States followed suit a year later. But BPA-based linings are still slathered on the insides of most food and beverage cans, and used to coat water-supply pipes in many countries. The compound is also found in dental sealants and in incubators for premature infants.

In the quest to replace BPA, finding an alternative for food and drink cans has proved particularly vexing. Creating a cheap lining for tins suitable for a range of foods — from beans to tomatoes to haggis curry — is no simple matter. Not only must the packaging prevent bacteria and fungi from attacking the food, the can’s lining must also stop the food from attacking and corroding the can. Moreover, when metal comes into contact with food, it can ruin the flavour. “If your food tastes funny, but you tell people it’s safer, are they going to believe that?” says Daniel Schmidt, a plastics engineer at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

Manufacturers also prefer linings that block sulphur compounds — found in proteins, preservatives and pesticides — from reacting with the metal and forming unattractive iron or tin sulphide stains. No BPA-free lining has yet emerged that can accomplish all of this. “You have to have a special can and a special coating for every class of food,” Schmidt says. “It gets extremely cumbersome and quite expensive.”

BPA-based epoxy linings are widely used because they are strong, flexible and cheap. They tolerate the high temperatures needed to sterilize foods during canning, and do not interact with a huge array of foods and beverages, according to the North American Metal Packaging Alliance in Washington DC. The alliance estimates that 95% of all aluminium and steel can coatings are epoxy-type resins: more than 99.9% of these contain BPA.

And although there are alternatives, these are not without drawbacks. In 1999, Eden Organic of Clinton, Michigan, began coating bean tins with plant-based oleoresins. The switch has increased the cost of the tins by more than 20%. Oleoresin linings can also alter the taste of food, and are vulnerable to attack from high-acid foods — such as tomatoes — which have a particular propensity to leach BPA, according to biologist Frederick vom Saal of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Some Japanese manufacturers now use reduced-BPA lacquers to coat cans. Other coatings include acrylics, which are too brittle for use in many tins, and vinyls and phenolics, both of which may have oestrogenic effects.

New options are beginning to surface. Schmidt is developing an epoxy based on a molecule in Tritan — a BPA-free polymer manufactured by the Eastman Chemical Company in Kingsport, Tennessee, that is used in baby bottles. He hopes that his epoxy will be as versatile and cheap as BPA. “The profit margins are so thin in the can-coating industry,” he says. “Unless somebody hands them that solution, it’s going to be tough for them to accept anything.”

In contrast to the can-liner conundrum, replacing BPA in baby bottles and cash-register receipts proved relatively straightforward. When BPA fell from grace, many manufacturers turned to the compound’s structural kin: BPS. A BPA molecule consists of two phenol groups connected by a branched three-carbon group. In a BPS molecule, the two phenol groups are instead connected by a sulphone group (SO2).

BPS was first made in 1869 as a dye. But because it was introduced into consumer goods only recently — into cash-register receipts in 2006, for example — few researchers have studied its toxicity. “The main question, to which we have no answer, is: ‘is BPS as toxic as BPA?’” says René Habert, an endocrinologist at Paris Diderot University.

A key to action

The similarity of BPS’s structure to that of BPA is enough to raise suspicions that it may mimic oestrogens, says Cheryl Watson, a biochemist at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Natural oestrogens are small molecules containing several phenolic rings; these bear chemical adornments that bind to a pocket found in oestrogen receptors in the body. BPA and BPS are about the same size and have similar phenolic rings with similar attachments, so they may slot like keys into oestrogen receptors, Watson says.

Watson and a colleague, Rene Viñas, now at the US Food and Drug Administration, measured the responses of cultured rat pituitary cells to BPS. These cells are particularly sensitive to oestrogens and oestrogen mimics, allowing the team to study concentrations of BPS down to 10−15 moles per litre. The team found that even at these very low levels, BPS triggered the enzyme cascade normally activated by an oestrogen called oestradiol2, an effect also seen with BPA. When combined with levels of oestradiol found in adult women, BPS seemed to over-stimulate the pathway, shutting it down and causing cell suicide. The results, says Watson, were typical of those expected of an oestrogen mimic: inappropriate activation of oestrogen responses, disruption of normal oestrogen-response pathways, and eventual cell death.

Others have seen similar effects. Susanne Bremer and her colleagues at the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection, a European Commission-funded research centre in Ispra, Italy, tested BPS and BPA on an oestrogen-sensitive human cell line. They found that both chemicals behaved like oestrogens, but were 100,000-fold less active than oestradiol3. Choi and his colleagues discovered that zebrafish exposed to 0.5 micrograms of BPS per litre of water — about one-sixth of the maximum concentration detected in the environment — had fewer eggs, more malformed offspring and higher oestrogen to testosterone ratios than untreated zebrafish4. “High concentrations of BPS have the same effect as high concentrations of BPA,” says Habert, who has conducted preliminary experiments on the effect of BPS on mouse and human fetal testis cells. “At low concentrations, the effect is unknown.”

What concentration best approximates human exposure to BPS is not clear. A team led by Catherine Simoneau of the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection analysed a total of 30 BPS-containing baby bottles from 12 countries. After five minutes in boiling water and two hours at 70 °C, none of the bottles released detectable quantities of BPS5. “These materials are far more resistant to hydrolytic breakdown than polycarbonate — that was one of the big selling points,” says Schmidt. “As such, I would consider them to be safer than polycarbonate in a food-contact setting.”

But people are exposed to BPS in many different ways. Kurunthachalam Kannan, an analytical chemist at the New York State Department of Health in Albany, and his team have found BPS on cash-register receipts, and aeroplane luggage tags and boarding passes, all of which are made from thermal paper containing BPS as a colour developer. The scientists also found BPS in products made from recycled paper, including pizza boxes and food buckets.

Kannan’s team estimates that the average daily exposure to BPS through the skin is well below the threshold values for toxic effects. Nevertheless, given the potential for higher levels of exposure from other sources such as food, Kannan urges further studies of the compound. And Watson argues that even small amounts of oestrogen mimics can cause trouble. “The problem is that they are active in such small quantities,” she says. “If you leach even a little, you still leach enough for responses to happen.”

Branching out

Some manufacturers have left the bisphenol family in search of a replacement. In 2007, the Eastman Chemical Company launched Tritan — a new heat-resistant clear plastic — for infant-care products such as baby bottles. This BPA-free plastic has since replaced the old BPA-containing polycarbonate in many water bottles, food containers and children’s cups. Eastman says that the results of testing, analysed by Thomas Osimitz of Science Strategies, a consulting firm in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his colleagues, verified that Tritan’s monomers do not bind to oestrogen or androgen receptors6.

In 2011, George Bittner, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin and the chief executive of Austin-based chemical-testing company CertiChem, reported that 92% of 102 commercially available plastic products leached chemicals with oestrogenic activity7. This included plastics advertised as BPA-free. The reason, Bittner says, is that additives in plastics — such as stabilizers and lubricants — can also bind to oestrogen receptors, as can some of the plastic monomers themselves.

Tritan resins produced by Eastman were among the polymers that showed oestrogenic activity in Bittner’s assays. When PlastiPure, a sister company of CertiChem, produced a brochure publicizing these results, Eastman sued. The company’s lawyers maintained that the in vitro test used by CertiChem — which involved oestrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells grown in culture — is not a definitive assay for oestrogenic activity. In a letter to the editor of the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, Bittner countered that his assays are up to 200 times more sensitive than the tests Osimitz analysed to demonstrate Tritan’s safety8.

Bittner had support: Wade Welshons, who studies endocrine disruptors at the University of Missouri-Columbia, independently tested five Tritan bottles using the same assay as Bittner. In a deposition entered during the trial, Welshons reported that he found detectable oestrogenic activity in each test. But the jury ruled in Eastman’s favour, and the judge barred Bittner, PlastiPure and CertiChem from making claims about Tritan’s oestrogenic activity.

Eastman stands by the results reported by Osimitz. And, unlike Bittner, Welshons suspects that the oestrogenic activity he found is attributable not to the Tritan polymer itself, but to other compounds added during plastics manufacturing. He is not the only one concerned about the complex mixtures of chemicals used to make plastics. In 2012, the world produced some 280 million tonnes of plastic. According to a model based on the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, more than 50% of these plastics contain ingredients that can be hazardous (see Nature 494, 169–171; 2013). Some are carcinogenic; others are oestrogenic.

It is not yet clear how many of these chemicals are dangerous at the concentrations found in the plastics. But mixed together, the chemicals could have synergistic effects. Watson and Viñas recently studied the effect of the oestrogen mimics BPA, BPS and nonylphenol (a detergent precursor) on cultured rat pituitary cells. They found that a combination of two or three of the compounds caused greater disruption to the oestrogen-signalling system — and did so at lower concentrations — than did a single compound9. “We don’t experience any of these chemicals alone,” Watson says. “A lot of other chemicals mimic oestrogens.”

Ideally, says Watson, the next generation of chemicals would be tested for effects on oestrogen signalling before widespread deployment in food containers. To that end, she and a group of biologists and chemists have put together a plan called TiPED, or Tiered Protocol for Endocrine Disruption. Under this testing system, newly synthesized chemicals would be evaluated for endocrine-disrupting potential at five different stages, from initial computational analysis of structure to whole-animal experiments.

The goal is to form a consortium of independent laboratories that would test chemicals on request by plastics companies. Convincing these companies to participate will be a challenge, Watson acknowledges. But there is an incentive, she argues, because companies can suffer from bad press, lost business and lawsuits when a chemical they produce or use is linked to human health concerns. “When it gets proved that an individual chemical is a problem,” says Watson, “they’re going to have to, as an industry, completely retool.”

The TiPED proposal is designed to ensure that endocrine-disrupting chemicals no longer reach the market. For Watson and many other researchers, the current situation raises concern because there are so many untested compounds found in countless plastic products. Those chemicals, she says, “are really all around us”.

Dow Chemicals Vinyl Plant in Freeport, TX.Photo: Greenpeace USA 2011

10,000 Schools Located Half Mile From Chemical Facility

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By Kate Sheppard http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kate-sheppard
A new study released Wednesday finds there are almost 10,000 schools across the country located within a mile of a chemical facility.

The research was released ahead of the April 17 anniversary of an explosion at a West, Texas, fertilizer plant, which killed 15 people and injured hundreds of others. The explosion left many people wondering why schools and homes were located so close to the plant.

The report finds that 4.6 million children attend a school located within a mile of a facility that stores potentially risky chemicals.

The research, from the nonprofit organization Center for Effective Government, maps the facilities covered under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk Management Plan Rule. That rule requires all companies that process, distribute or store certain toxic or flammable chemicals to create and submit an emergency plan. It must describe the potential impacts of an accident, the facility’s accident history, what emergency responders need to know to treat anyone impacted by an accident and any prevention measures that are in place.

There are 12,761 facilities in the U.S. that had registered plans under RMP as of May 2013, including storage facilities, refineries and factories. The RMP rule covers a number of potentially dangerous chemicals. Ammonium nitrate, the chemical that caused the West Fertilizer Co. disaster, is not a listed substance under RMP, but the chemicals used in its production are, as well as certain processes that use ammonium nitrate. The Center for Effective Government report pulls together EPA information on facilities that report under RMP along with school location information from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The number of children who are potentially in harm’s way is deeply troubling,” Katherine McFate, president and CEO of the center, said in a statement.
The center has called for tougher standards for disclosing the presence of chemicals, more oversight and more expansive emergency response planning. It is also calling for inherently safer chemicals and processes whenever possible. The federal government is still in the process of creating policies to respond to last year’s explosion; representatives from a number of agencies released a list of proposals in January.

The report is packaged as an interactive map and also uses U.S. Census Bureau data to show the racial and economic profile of residents in the area around the chemical facilities. Users can search the map by school name, city or state.

This article has been edited to clarify that ammonium nitrate is not specifically listed in the EPA Risk Management Plan rule, but chemicals used in its production are.

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EPA scores big win to limit mercury in power plants

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The Environmental Protection Agency took home a sweeping victory Tuesday when an appeals court upheld the agency’s pollution limits for mercury and air toxics from power plants.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld EPA’s rule,known as MATS, denying challenges from states, utilities and industry groups that argued the rules came out of a flawed regulatory process and illegally imposed exorbitant costs on power producers that will force dozens of power plants to shut down.

Tuesday’s decision, which also shot down arguments from environmental groups that it was too weak, was the latest chapter in a saga that began during the Clinton administration. Its strict pollution control requirements will push many of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants into retirement when it takes effect in 2015.

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The court upheld EPA’s decision to take into account environmental damage from the pollutants, rather than just health-based harms, when it decided to regulate. And the agency based its decision on the impacts of hazardous pollution broadly, rather than just emissions from power plants — a “commonsense approach,” wrote Judge Judith Rogers, to “statutory ambiguity” that was within the bounds of EPA’s discretion.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia lauded the ruling, which will keep in place a rule the agency hassaid will eliminate 90 percent of coal-fired power plants’ mercury pollution, 88 percent of their acid gas emissions and 41 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions.

The standards “will save thousands of lives each year, prevent heart and asthma attacks, while slashing emissions of the neurotoxin mercury, which can impair children’s ability to learn,” Purchia said.

All three judges backed EPA on most of the issues raised by the case, although Judge Brett Kavanaugh wrote a dissenting opinion on when EPA should have considered the costs of the rule.

(Also on POLITICO: Full energy and environment policy coverage)

The coal industry and its supporters have charged EPA with a regulatory assault on the power source, which has long been the primary power source for much of the country.

MATS “imposes enormous costs upon households and businesses but provides little additional environmental benefit. The court recognized the EPA has the authority to consider costs but upheld EPA’s decision to ignore them,” National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said Tuesday, lamenting the court loss.

At the start of 2012, coal made up nearly a third of the U.S. power generating capacity, or about 323 gigawatts, according to the research firm SNL Energy. Coal-fired power plant shutdowns in recent years are approaching 20 gigawatts, according to the Energy Information Administration and are likely to reach 60 gigawatts by the end of the decade.

Environmental groups, who had sought but failed to win even stricter regulations from the court, cheered Tuesday’s ruling.

(Also on POLITICO: EPA’s coal ash rule still not done)

The ruling “upholds significant health protections for women, children, those who live near existing coal-fired power plants, and the environment due to air toxic emissions like mercury, arsenic, chromium and other metals, and acid gases,” said Ann Weeks of Clean Air Task Force, which has represented 10 regional and local environmental organizations in the case since 2005.

“We are very pleased with this ruling, and we look forward to working with the agency to realize these health and environmental protections, as the existing source standards are implemented at power plants in the coming years,” she added.

The MATS regulation has taken a twisted route, depending on the stance of the administration in power.

In December 2000, the waning days of the Clinton administration, EPA issued a determination that it was “appropriate and necessary” to regulate hazardous air pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants under Section 112 of the Clean Air Act. That included not only mercury but also arsenic, chromium, nickel, cadmium, dioxins, hydrogen chloride and hydrogen fluoride.

The George W. Bush administration reversed that decision in 2005, but that effort was blocked by a court that ruled the move was unlawful.

The Obama administration pushed forward with a new rule, which was issued with great fanfareunder then-Administrator Lisa Jackson, including a video statement from President Barack Obama.

In its ruling Tuesday, the appeals court said that EPA’s review of the science behind the regulation was sufficient and legal.

“EPA determined that mercury emissions posed a significant threat to public health based on an analysis of women of child-bearing age who consumed large amounts of freshwater fish,” Kavanaugh said.

The court also denied one of industry’s main complaints about the rule: that EPA cherry-picked the best data to deliver a “franken-MACT,” or “maximum achievable control technology” requirement. The law requires EPA to set a “floor” — the minimum emissions control — based on the best 12 percent of facilities. While approximately 1,100 electric power plants must follow the rule, EPA used data from 388 best-performing sources.

But the evidence doesn’t show that EPA — intentionally or not — used skewed data to set the MACT requirement, the ruling said. EPA had to take into account that some of the best power plants for mercury controls were some of the worst for controlling particulate matter, and vice versa, the ruling said. “In short, EPA’s data-collection process was reasonable, even if it may not have resulted in a perfect dataset,” the opinion said.

And the rule didn’t distinguish between “area sources” and “major sources,” or between some types of generating units, as some in the energy industry had hoped. That, the court ruled, was also a reasonable decision by EPA.

The court also upheld agency decisions about how to regulate acid gases and chromium, despite questions about the health risks posed by the pollutants, and decisions to separate out some types of coal-fired power plants and not others.

The court shot down some environmentalists’ arguments against “averaging” of emissions that EPA allowed for monitoring of pollution, backing EPA’s desire to give power plants flexibility and disagreeing with arguments that it weakens the rule.

The main dispute between judges came regarding the agency’s decision on weighing the costs of regulating the pollutants. The lead opinion by Rogers, who was joined by Chief Judge Merrick Garland, backed EPA’s decision to consider costs during the regulatory impact analysis of the rule, rather than before deciding to regulate.

Kavanaugh disagreed, and he penned a dissent focused on that part of the case, saying that EPA’s failure to consider the costs before regulating “is no trivial matter.”

“The estimated cost of compliance with EPA’s Final Rule is approximately $9.6 billion per year, by EPA’s own calculation. … To put it in perspective, that amount would pay the annual health insurance premiums of about two million Americans. It would pay the annual salaries of about 200,000 members of the U.S. Military. It would cover the annual budget of the entire National Park Service three times over,” he wrote.

And the benefits are disputed, Kavanaugh wrote. The power industry argues that the rule costs nearly $1,500 for every $1 of health and environmental benefits, he said in his dissent. EPA, adding in the benefits from the reductions of fine particulate matter, estimated benefits of $37 billion to $90 billion.

Kavanaugh had said at oral arguments in December that it seemed “weird” not to consider the costs before deciding whether to issue regulations.

“What’s really going on in this case — let’s not sugarcoat it — is bankrupting part of the industry,” Kavanaugh said at the time. Nevertheless, he added, “that may be good. … The benefits may be worth the costs.”

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EPA drastically underestimates methane released at drilling sites

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By Neela Banerjee for The Los Angeles Times


April 14, 2014, 5:44 p.m.

Drilling operations at several natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania released methane into the atmosphere at rates that were 100 to 1,000 times greater than federal regulators had estimated, new research shows.

Using a plane that was specially equipped to measure greenhouse gas emissions in the air, scientists found that drilling activities at seven well pads in the booming Marcellus shale formation emitted 34 grams of methane per second, on average. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that such drilling releases between 0.04 grams and 0.30 grams of methane per second.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds to a growing body of research that suggests the EPA is gravely underestimating methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The agency is expected to issue its own analysis of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector as early as Tuesday, which will give outside experts a chance to assess how well regulators understand the problem.

Carbon dioxide released by the combustion of fossil fuels is the biggest contributor to climate change, but methane — the chief component of natural gas — is about 20 to 30 times more potent when it comes to trapping heat in the atmosphere. Methane emissions make up 9% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions and are on track to increase, according to the White House.

The Pennsylvania study was launched in an effort to understand whether the measurements of airborne methane matched up with emissions estimates based on readings taken at ground level, the approach the EPA and state regulators have historically used.

Researchers flew their plane about a kilometer above a 2,800 square kilometer area in southwestern Pennsylvania that included several active natural gas wells. Over a two-day period in June 2012, they detected 2 grams to 14 grams of methane per second per square kilometer over the entire area. The EPA’s estimate for the area is 2.3 grams to 4.6 grams of methane per second per square kilometer.

Since their upper-end measurements were so much higher than the EPA’s estimates, the researchers attempted to follow the methane plumes back to their sources, said Paul Shepson, an atmospheric chemist at Purdue University who helped lead the study. In some cases, they were able to quantify emissions from individual wells.

The researchers determined that the wells leaking the most methane were in the drilling phase, a period that has not been known for high emissions. Experts had thought that methane was more likely to be released during subsequent phases of production, including hydraulic fracturing, well completion or transport through pipelines.

The airborne readings were a snapshot over two days, Shepson cautioned, and further research over a longer period and at other sites are needed to know whether the Pennsylvania measurements are typical.

Much of the natural gas drilling in southwestern Pennsylvania goes through coal beds, which contain methane that might be leaking out, according to the study. The researchers speculated that underbalanced drilling methods — in which the pressure in the well-bore is lower than the surrounding geology — allows fluids and gases to enter the well-bore and travel to the surface. Energy producers use underbalanced drilling because it allows them to capture valuable supplies of ethane and butane, Shepson said.

The disparity between the researchers’ measurements and the EPA’s data illustrates the limits of the methods used by regulators, Shepson said. The EPA’s approach puts regulators at the mercy of energy companies, which control access to the wells, pipelines, processing plants and compressor stations where methane measurements should be made.

“It’s tough,” Shepson said.

Last year, researchers from Stanford, Harvard and elsewhere reported in PNAS that methane emissions in the continental U.S. might be 50% greater than the EPA’s official estimates. Another study by Stanford researchers, published in February in the journal Science, also concluded that theEPA underestimates methane leakage from the natural gas industry and other sources.

[Updated 10 a.m. PDT, April 15: The EPA said it was aware that non-government scientists had come to “different conclusions about the level of methane emissions from the oil and gas sector.” Some of those estimates are higher than the EPA’s and some are lower, the agency said in a statement.

A slew of new data about methane and drilling is expected over the next few years, and EPA officials will be reviewing all of it and updating its emissions estimates as necessary, according to the statement.]

The new study comes two weeks after the White House ordered the EPA to identify ways to cut methane from oil and gas production. If the agency decides to issue new rules, they must be in place by the end of 2016.

In February, Colorado became the first state to regulate methane emissions from the oil and gas sector, requiring the industry to detect and fix leaks and install equipment to capture 95% of methane emissions. Last week, Ohio adopted rules to get companies to reduce methane leakage from above-ground equipment used in natural gas development, like valves and pipelines. Those rules do not appear to address leaks during drilling.

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HOUSE PANEL LIKELY TO SCALE BACK TOXIC CHEMICALS BILL

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A proposal to regulate toxic chemicals found in products sold in the state would be one of the toughest in the nation, business groups say, and now lawmakers are considering scaling it back.

Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, chair of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said Thursday the bill could soon be “harmonized” with Washington state’s reporting program for chemicals found only in children’s products.

“We want to do what’s helpful to protect the people of Vermont. And if harmonizing with other states gets us a level of protection we do not have now – and gets businesses on board, at least neutral about the bill – yeah, I think that’s where it’s headed,” he said.

Retailers, electronics producers, and automobile and toy manufacturers this week testified against a bill, S.239, designed to give the Vermont Department of Health the authority to require companies to disclose, label or not sell products containing chemicals it considered toxic to human health.

Business groups have cast their weight behind an effort to scale back the bill and let the federal government take on the issue, citing the costs to comply with a “patchwork” of state regulations and reporting fees.

Greg Costa, a lobbyist with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, testified before the committee Wednesday to oppose the bill because he said it would impose costs on businesses that they would then pass on to consumers.

“When we’re talking about duplicating and really starting from square one a process that already exists at the federal level, that can be improved upon, it’s quite an undertaking and I’m not sure it has the same cost-benefit ratio to consumers as it might seem on paper,” Costa said.

Andy Hackman, a lobbyist for the Toy Industry Association, which represents about 35 companies in Vermont, estimated the Washington program will cost the toy industry about $27.6 million in the first year for paperwork and testing. Imposing additional reporting requirements in Vermont will increase that cost, he said.

“Consistency with other states is absolutely critical to try to avoid some of the costs that we have already incurred to show compliance,” Hackman said.

Representatives from the retail industry in Vermont voiced similar concerns.

“Maine, Washington, California and Europe have already taken action. Vermont should harmonize with these efforts,” Tasha Wallis, executive director of the Vermont Retailers Association, told lawmakers. “I really think that that makes sense for a really small state where you really want to achieve something.”

She said it would be time consuming for retailers to understand and identify the chemicals in their products.

“It can take a while for a retailer to figure out what’s in a product if you are looking at a chemical that has not been examined before,” Wallis said.

Deen pointed out the potential cost to the state if it administered a program that regulated all consumer products, such as a program in California.

“They have resources that we simply do not have — they do their own testing, they do their own screening, they’ve got 39 people,” he said.

The program in Washington is weaker than the proposal in Vermont, consumer advocates say, because it only requires companies to report (and not always remove) chemicals found in children’s products.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which supported the original bill, supports looking to other states for a list of chemicals. But a bill that mirrors Washington’s would take away the health department’s authority to require chemicals to be labeled or banned from all consumer products.

“That’s not an achievement we’re trying to bring about here. We’re actually trying to make products safer so that fewer people get sick,” he said. “And that will come when we get rid of those dangerous chemicals.”

Vermont has passed legislation to regulate the use of certain chemicals one at a time, including flame retardants, Bisphenol A (BPA), mercury and lead. The new proposal would allow the health department to expand this list every other year without legislative approval.

“That was an important part of what made this bill different from the power that we already had – to come to the Legislature every year, chemical by chemical. It’s very important to us that the state retain the authority to take action once the chemicals have been identified,” Burns said.

Lauren Hierl, a lobbyist with the Vermont Conservation Voters, a political arm of an environmental research and advocacy group, said stakeholders on both sides of the issue have already worked out a compromise bill to include more involvement from businesses in the decision to regulate chemicals.

She opposes removing the health department’s authority to regulate chemicals.

“That would be a huge downgrade in public health protection if they go that direction,” she said.

Justin Johnson, deputy secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, told lawmakers they should work with other states to regulate the chemicals because little is happening on the federal level.

“There’s a lot going on, but nothing is happening,” he said. “I’m not expecting action anytime soon.”

Johnson chairs the Cross-Media Committee of the Environmental Council of the States, an association of state environmental agency leaders. He has been working with other states to discuss the phase-in of similar programs.

“I would support the idea that Vermont not do this on their own – that Vermont needs to be working with other states,” Johnson said. If the feds can’t get their act together, then Vermont should work with a state or states to do something that is robust and actually gets to the heart of the problem but doesn’t put it all on Vermont, because we don’t have the resources to do everything.”

The Department of Health has said it can compose a list without additional resources.

Deen said Vermont could add additional provisions to Washington’s policy.

“I don’t mean that Vermont would be a carbon copy with Washington,” he said. “There are just some issues that Washington isn’t to going to serve to meet the Vermont’s needs. So there will be difference.”

Nonetheless, he said Vermont’s policy would look like “a children’s product bill, not a consumer product bill.”

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OH Links Fracking & Earthquakes

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Ohio geologists linked earthquakes in a geologic formation deep under the Appalachians to hydraulic fracturing. Ohio state government reacted by issuing new permit conditions in certain areas. This makes Ohio’s restrictions among the nation’s strictest (at least for the limited areas). Read More.

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Federal Cuts to Black Lung Programs Expected to Hit W.Va. Hardest

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By  for West Virginia Public Radio

A McDowell County clinic is worried that federal cuts could compromise care for coal miners and their families.  The concern comes after grants for the Black Lung Clinic Programs were capped at $900,000. Since West Virginia was the only state to receive more than that annually, it’s expected to hit home the hardest.

It’s not yet clear how much money individual clinics will lose as a result of the federal cuts but for Joyce Sherman she worries that any amount of money lost could mean less service for the miners.

“It may even take some of our hours away but we really don’t know what we’re going to be facing just yet and that’s the scary part,” Tug River Health Associates Black Lung Program Director Joyce Sherman said. Black lung, or pneumoconiosis, is a deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust that causes a person’s lungs to fail.

Sherman said funding for the program helps pay for equipment maintenance, staffing and more. She says the program helps miners with everything from medical examinations to education and even filling out black lung benefits applications.

Earlier this week, Tommy Curry, a benefits counselor at Tug River, met with representatives from the United States Department of Labor met at a Princeton hotel to provide help to miners looking to fill out applications for black lung benefits.

The process of applying and even re-applying for benefits can take years. It’s a multi step process that begins with filling out paperwork, trips to qualified doctors, but that’s just the beginning.

Miners undergo what’s called pulmonary function testing to measure their ability to get air in and out of the lungs. Only miners with 60% or less of a person’s vital capacity are eligible for benefits.

Black lung is a progressive disease, so if a miner is diagnosed, the disease will eventually leave them breathless, if they live that long.

“One year they could be fine but next year a year later they could be at a point that they can’t breathe at all,” said Teresa Blackwell, a respiratory therapist at Tug River.

Blackwell said her father was diagnosed with black lung, but it wasn’t bad enough to get benefits.

“Eventually he will make it but I kind of hope he doesn’t make it because … I just want I want him to stay healthy,” Blackwell said.

After the medical records show sufficient pulmonary dysfunction, the Department of Labor has to approve the application. Even so, the coal or insurance companies can fight the claims.

Tommy Curry says he helps with court battles as well.

“If we find out about it that’s when we start fixing them with a lawyer,” he said. “We try to put them with somebody that we know that knows how to fight a black lung case.”


Credit Department of Labor


A recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed even more challenges for miners in the courtroom in which attorney’s use ‘cut throat methods’ to fight the claims.

“A coal company can get the best doctors in the world,” Curry said. “A coal miner he can only get so much.”

In February, about a month before the cuts were announced, the department of labor revealed changes meant to help miners obtain benefits easier and potentially faster as was reported by CPI. The report says that the changes will provide “some miners with an additional medical report” as well as help for government attorneys that represent the miners.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius regarding the expected cuts to clinics. Members of the West Virginia congressional delegation have also expressed concerns through news releases.

If the cuts aren’t reversed, the state will likely lose about $500,000 across eight clinics. Joyce Sherman at Tug River Health Associates fears that her clinic would be forced to cut staff and services, possibly further delaying treatment and care for miners with black lung and their families.

“It will definitely be a problem for the coal miners,” Sherman said. “When they come to see you, you want to be present. But if you don’t have the funds and the funds are cut then that means that you’re going to have to find ways to cut back that you can still provide services but it won’t be to the extent that the miner needs.”

As a coal miner’s daughter who watched her father’s health deteriorate because of black lung, Sherman said she’s disappointed.

“The coal miners have spent their life mining coal for this country not just for West Virginia but for this country,” Sherman said, “and it is our duty to provide services for them and we need funding. These people have paid taxes they’ve worked hard now they can’t breathe and you know it is our duty to help them with their medical problems and provide services for them.”

In 2012 a joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity revealed that black lung cases were on the rise in West Virginia and across Appalachia.

Despite the cuts, Tommy Curry is encouraging coal miners to apply for benefits, even if they were turned down before. Again, black lung is a progressive disease that only gets worse with time so consistent therapy and treatment can be critical for a better quality of life.

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New Report Reveals High Risks, No Reward of Alberta Clipper Tar Sands Pipeline Expansion

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A new report released today by the Sierra Club and 13 other groups including the Indigenous Environmental Network, examines the proposed expansion of the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline and concludes that there are significant threats to water, health and climate. The report, All Risk, No Reward: The Alberta Clipper Tar Sands Pipeline Expansion, comes in advance of a rally to stop the Alberta Clipper expansion that will take place before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission public hearing in St. Paul, MN on April 3.

“The risks are too high, said Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Any spill, leak or explosion could have a devastating effect to the rich biodiversity and cultural diversity of northern Minnesota. The human rights of Native people in northern Alberta, Canada where this crude oil comes from are already being violated. There can be no reward when it comes to dirty oil that ruins the quality of water, ecosystems and the life of people.” 

“This report confirms our worst fears about the proposed Alberta Clipper expansion,” said author Sarah Mine. “This tar sands expansion project is far too risky to communities in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, who would be subjected to extreme environmental degradation, extreme carbon pollution, and tremendous threats to their land, water, and health.”

Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc. plans to pump 800,000 barrels per day of one of the planet’s dirtiest sources of oil through North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. This expansion project would almost double the pipeline’s current capacity and put it on par with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Expanding Alberta Clipper’s capacity would expose communities and tribes to tar sands’ full complement of disturbing climate, safety, and environmental implications; potentially devastate cultural and historical resources; give the landlocked tar sands industry access to ports and enormous new overseas markets; and enable the massive, environmentally devastating tar sands growth planned by the industry.

Tar sands crude can be far more dangerous than conventional crude, especially in water, and the proposed expansion project could put the region’s clean water at risk. The tar sands dilbit sinks in water, where standard cleanup techniques do not work. The Alberta Clipper route crosses many bodies of water that are critical as drinking water sources and cultural and ecological sites. 

Enbridge Inc. has a disgraceful history of spills, including the worst onshore oil spill in U.S. history when a ruptured Enbridge pipeline poured 843,000 gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan’s Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River.


ALL RISK, NO REWARD
The Alberta Clipper Tar Sands Pipeline Expansion


Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc. plans to pump 800,000 barrels per day (bpd) of one of the planet’s dirtiest sources of oil through  North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, endangering our water, health, and climate. Expanding the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline would put federal, state, and tribal lands and waters at risk of devastating oil spills, including the Great Lakes and Anishinaabe/Ojibwe ceded territories. Communities and Native Nations across the Great Lakes region and beyond are fighting this unnecessary and dangerous pipeline expansion, calling instead for clean, renewable energy solutions and a 100% clean energy future.The Alberta Clipper, also known as Line 67, currently pumps up to 450,000 bpd of tar sands crude from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. From the Canadian border, the pipeline traverses 327 miles across North Dakota and Minnesota to Wisconsin and the shores of Lake Superior, passing through state, tribal, federal, and private lands, including prairie, forests, farms, rivers, and lakes. Enbridge seeks to almost double the pipeline’s capacity to 800,000 bpd, nearly the same as TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and to construct two new tar sands storage tanks on the shores of Lake Superior.1 Capacity in an existing pipeline is increased by ratcheting up the pressure inside the pipeline, forcing more tar sands through and increasing the physical stress on the pipeline.

Expanding Alberta Clipper’s capacity would expose our communities and tribes to tar sands’ full complement of disturbing climate, safety, and environmental implications; potentially devastate cultural and historical resources; give the landlocked tar sands industry access to ports and enormous new overseas markets; and enable the massive, environmentally devastating tar sands growth planned by the industry. Click here to Read / Download the full Report (PDF)

Click here to read more about the Alberta Clipper Pipeline Expansion and the fight to stop Enbridge Inc.’s efforts to transport more tar sands oil to the U.S. and eventual export to foreign markets.


Contacts:
Mark Westlund, Sierra Club
415-977-5719mark.westlund@sierraclub.org
Tom BK Goldtooth, IEN Ex. Dir. 
(218) 751-4967ien@igc.org