Mahoning River Tributary

Citizen Groups Urge W.Va. Governor to Rethink Oil and Gas Drilling Under Ohio River


Yesterday, citizen groups on both sides of the Ohio River sent a letter to W.Va. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, requesting that he withdraw a proposal that would allow drilling for natural gas under the Ohio River. They also requested a meeting with the governor.

In late August, the groups alerted one another to a disturbing legal notice in area newspapers: Until September 25, the W.Va. Department of Commerce, Division of Natural Resources is taking bids that will allow the successful bidder to drill for Marcellus- and Utica-shale-derived natural gas beneath the Ohio River in Pleasants, Marshall and Wetzel counties.

Although a news report quotes W.Va. Governor Early Ray Tomblin as saying, “The proposed development is in the best economic interests of the state and will not unreasonably disrupt use and enjoyment of the Ohio River or the division’s opportunities to develop other mineral interests in the area,” the citizen groups are highly skeptical of the wisdom of drilling under the Ohio River.

“The 981 miles of the Ohio River provide drinking water to more than five million people. Ten percent of the country lives in the Ohio River Basin. Considering the multiple dire water situations we are seeing nationwide — such as drought out west, coal-chemical contamination of 300,000 people’s water supply in West Virginia, drinking water at peril from fracking waste around the country — we should be doing everything possible to safeguard our water. Drilling under the Ohio River is a huge risk,” says Roxanna Groff of the Athens County Fracking Action Network.

Groff’s group and several others recently successfully worked together to convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to extend the comment period on a fracking waste barge dock permit proposed for Portland, Meigs County, Ohio.

In coming together to question this latest threat to the Ohio River, the groups point out that since 2005, according to federal law (42 U.S. Code § 15941), “No Federal or State permit or lease shall be issued for new oil and gas slant, directional, or offshore drilling in or under one or more of the Great Lakes.”

“There are protections for the water in Lake Erie needed for drinking water in the northern part of the state — why not the same protections for the water in the southern?” says FreshWater Accountability Project Managing Director Leatra Harper.

“One state’s governor shouldn’t be able to sell off drilling rights at the peril of the millions who depend on the Ohio River for drinking water,” says Mary Greer of Concerned Citizens Ohio, based in Portage County.

“Fracking related activities have been causing earthquakes and there’s a fault line running under the Ohio River,” says Teresa Mills with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. (See

“We’ve heard before that some outrageous plan is ‘safe’ when it wasn’t. There needs to be a comprehensive environmental study done before drilling under the Ohio River is even considered,” says Patricia Jacobson with FaCT-OV.

“How can one division of state government rush into such an enterprise without consulting the people of West Virginia, or indeed anyone living in any downstream state, as well as the federal government? How can it be in the best economic interests of a state to jeopardize a major source of drinking water for millions of people?” says Robin Blakeman of the Huntington, W.Va.-based Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

In reporting on the proposal, the website wrote, “Drilling and fracking above or near the Ohio River will result in hundreds of acres of disturbed land, toxic chemical leaks, increased water pollution run-off and contaminated storm water, as well as significant air pollution from diesel trucks, pumps and/or compressors, gas leaks and flares. The chances of fires, explosions, fish kills, worker injuries, and public health exposures are very real.”

The Department of Commerce will hold a public opening of all bids on Friday, September 26, at 1:00 p.m. in Room 525, 1900 Kanawha Boulevard East, State Capitol Complex, Building 6, Charleston, W.Va.

Groups signing the letter: Athens County (OH) Fracking Action Network, Concerned Citizens Ohio, CHEJ, FaCT-OV, Fresh Water Accountability Project, OVEC, Southwest Ohio No Frack Forum, Wetzel County (W.Va.) Action Group and the WV Chapter of the Sierra Club.


Severe black lung returns to 1970s levels


WASHINGTON – Coal miners in Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia are contracting serious cases of black lung disease at rates not seen since the early 1970s — just after preventive regulations were enacted, according to a study published Monday.

Only 15 years ago, progressive massive fibrosis — an advanced form of black lung for which there is no cure — was virtually eradicated, health researchers say. But now, the prevalence of the disease in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia is at levels not seen in 40 years. .

“Each of these cases is a tragedy and represents a failure among all those responsible for preventing this severe disease,” wrote researchers for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in the latest issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Black lung is caused by the excessive inhalation of coal dust.

“So this increase can only be the result of overexposures and/or increased toxicity stemming from changes in dust composition,” wrote researchers David J. Blackley, Cara N. Halldin and A. Scott Laney.

Such a finding could re-open the debate over how well coal-dust limits and enforcement of those limits by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration are protecting American coal miners.

“Some way or another, they need to do something,” said Gary Caudill, 64, of Blackey, Ky., who was a miner for nearly 35 years and now suffers from severe black lung. “Only thing I could figure out is they ain’t doing what they’re supposed to do,” he said, referring to mine operators.

RELATED: Labor Dept.: black lung claims problems being fixed

RELATED: Kentucky coping with black lung backlog

Caudill worked on the large machines called continuous miners that cut into the coal seams, operated roof bolting machines, and “a little bit of everything.”

“You cannot get fresh air all the time” in a coal mine, Caudill said in a telephone interview. The coal dust gets thick and “I worked in quite a bit of it.”

His breathing at times was labored and he explained: “I can talk for a long period of time, I just run plum out of air.”

He now takes three kinds of medicine daily to help him breathe and sleeps with the aid of an oxygen machine at night.

MSHA, which is part of the Department of Labor, announced lower coal-dust limits just last April, although the agency stopped short of recommendations that the exposure levels be cut in half. It was the first time the limits had been lowered in 45 years.

Under the new rules, the government is requiring miners to wear real-time dust monitors, expanding dust sampling, closing sampling loopholes, instituting faster enforcement against violations and increasing medical surveillance of miners.

The agency also is cutting by 25 percent the concentration limits for breathable coal mine dust, to 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter of air, effective Aug. 1, 2016.

“Our goal is to lower dust levels that miners breathe … to a level that we’re comfortable with,” MSHA chief Joseph Main said at the time. “All of these changes collectively get us there.”

Main, a former coal miner, said in a statement Monday that his agency is reviewing the study.

“However, as I have said, when the Upper Big Branch investigation concluded and we found out that 17 of 24 miners tested had pneumoconiosis (black lung), that was enough to tell us there was a serious problem here,” Main said, referring to MSHA’s probe of the 2010 West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 miners.

Main said the new study’s results are “further evidence that our efforts to lower miners’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust was the right thing to do.”

But health and safety advocates said the study’s findings reveal a disturbing trend.

“For more than 10 years we’ve been hearing about the resurgence of black lung. Sadly, there’s been little sense of urgency to address the problem,” said Celeste Monforton, professorial lecturer at The George Washington University School of Public Health and a former MSHA policy adviser.

Noting that MSHA’s new dust limits are two years away, Monforton said that “without tough enforcement and much steeper penalties for poisoning miners’ lungs, the problem will continue.”

“This data is truly frightening,” said Wes Addington, deputy director at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a non-profit law firm in Whitesburg, Ky., that represents miners in black lung and worker safety cases.

“A decade ago it would have been unimaginable that we would see rates of severe black lung back up to 1960s levels,” he said. “We have broken our promise to protect our miners.”

Because black lung is a latent disease, miners will be suffering from the illness for decades to come, said center staff attorney Evan Smith.

“Severe cases of black lung should not exist in the 21st century, but this data shows it’s actually worsening,” Smith said.

Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, which represents mine operators, said he was studying the report.

During health checks of coal miners in the three states between 1998 and 2012, the occupational safety and health institute discovered 154 cases of the severe form of black lung, most in miners who had worked for a long time underground. But some cases involved surface coal miners.

In all, 3.23 percent of working miners in 2012 had contracted the severest form of black lung.

Just 15 years ago, severe cases constituted just .08 percent of all miners in a federal health surveillance program and just .33 percent of active underground miners with at least 25 years of experience, the researchers said.

Congress in 1969 passed a sweeping law, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which set limits on the amount of coal dust miners could be exposed to.

“Despite readily available dust control technology and best practices guidance, recent findings suggest dust exposures have not been adequately controlled and that a substantial portion of U.S. coal miners continue to develop” the advanced form of black lung, the study said.

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center said there is another reason miners are contracting severe black lung: mining operators are fraudulently reporting dust levels, placing sampling devices in parts of mines that are less dusty rather than in places where miners are exposed to illegal levels of dust.

Black lung has caused or contributed to the deaths of more than 75,000 coal miners since 1968, according to the Government Accountability Office. The government also has paid out more than $45 billion in black-lung benefits since 1970.

Kentucky had 11,181 underground coal miners in 2012, second in the nation only to West Virginia’s 17,065 miners, according to the National Mining Association.

Even though he’s had lung cancer and was diagnosed a year ago with the severe form of black lung, Caudill said mining is “a way to make a living, and I enjoyed it.”

“I can’t say nothing bad about it,” he said. “I would go back tomorrow if I was able.”

Caudill said his prognosis is uncertain.

“I’ve known people live maybe 12, 15 years after they get it, some longer than that,” he said.


Fracking workers exposed to dangerous amounts of benzene, study says



me workers at oil and gas sites where fracking occurs are routinely exposed to high levels of benzene, a colorless gas that can cause cancer, according to a study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The agency, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommends that people limit their benzene exposure to an average of 0.1 of a part per million during their shift. But when NIOSH researchers measured the amount of airborne benzene that oil and gas workers were exposed to when they opened hatches atop tanks at well sites, 15 out of 17 samples were over that amount.

Workers must open these hatches to inspect the contents of these tanks, which could include oil, waste water or chemicals used in high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The real-time readings taken by researchers show that benzene levels at the wells “reached concentrations that, depending on the length of exposure, potentially pose health risks for workers,” the researchers reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene.

The study examined exposure risks for oil and gas workers during a phase of oil and gas extraction known as flowback. After a well is drilled in a tight geological formation such as shale and then hydraulically fractured to encourage the flow of hydrocarbons, fluids return up the well bore over the course of a month. The flowback contains fracking fluid, waste water, sand, oil and gas dissolved in water.  The liquids are separated into constituent substances, including valuable fracking chemicals that can be reused, oil and gas that are stored in production tanks, and waste fluids that are held in flowback tanks.

Workers measure the volume of liquids in flowback and production tanks by opening top hatches and inserting so-called gauging sticks  into flowback tanks. If the tanks are very deep, workers use hand-cranked gauging tapes to make their measurements.

Researchers visited six oil and gas sites in Colorado and Wyoming in the spring and summer of 2013, spending about two days at each site. They outfitted 16 workers at flowback tanks with small devices attached to their shirt collars that sampled the air throughout the day. The key measurements were taken when these workers were standing above the hatch.

Over the course of a 12-hour shift, workers open the hatches and stand above them one to four times per hour, breathing in the fumes for two to five minutes each time. This could add up to dangerous levels of exposure to various volatile organic compounds from the chemicals used in fracking, or from the hydrocarbons themselves.

Benzene, a component of crude oil, “is of major concern because it can be acutely toxic to the nervous system, liver, and kidneys at high concentrations,” the study authors wrote. As the CDC explains, benzeneinterferes with the normal workings of cells.

“It can cause bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can lead to anemia,” according to the CDC. “Also, it can damage the immune system by changing blood levels of antibodies and causing the loss of white blood cells.”

Although all but two of the samples recorded average daily benzene exposure above the NIOSH limit, the amounts were still below the far higher limit of 1 part per million set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The OSHA limit is “the only legally applicable limit,” said John Snawder, a NIOSH toxicologist who worked on the study. OSHA limits often tend to be higher than NIOSH standards, in part because of input from industry and other stakeholders.

About 562,000 people worked in the domestic oil and gas extraction sector in 2012, and nearly half of them worked for companies that perform fracking and flowback operations, the study said.

Little is known about the long-term effects of benzene exposure on oil and gas workers, said Dr. Robert Harrison, director of Occupational Health Services at UC San Francisco. “With the rapid expansion of oil and gas production in the U.S.,” the risks posed by benzene are ones “that we would want to pay attention to,” he said.

NIOSH’s research on benzene is part of an ongoing project that it launched in 2005 to assess the scope and variety of chemical exposure risks for oil and gas workers at the extraction phase of industry.  Much of the research on oil and gas development’s effects on worker health is from the 1980s and 1990s and doesn’t take into account new risks that workers might face amid an energy boom spreading through the country, driven by fracking.

“Industry has changed  and is changing very rapidly,” Snawder said. “This is an updated base line of where we stand at this moment.”

The benzene study follows research NIOSH issued in 2012 indicating that workers were exposed to crystalline silica from sand used at fracking sites. Exposure to crystalline silica can lead to a deadly lung disease called silicosis, lung cancer and other respiratory ailments.  OSHA is in the process of finalizing a new silica rule after years of delay, but its tougher standards are being fought by a range of industries.

Katie Brown, a spokeswoman with the trade group Energy In Depth, said that the oil and gas industry was committed to worker safety and had worked with NIOSH to allow them on well pads to test workers’ exposure risks.

The oil and gas sector also has fewer injuries than other industries, she said. “The number of nonfatal injuries and illnesses in the oil and gas industry has significantly declined while production has ramped up to unprecedented levels,” Brown said.

The oil and gas industry, however, has a fatality rate “of 27.5 per 100,000 workers (2003-2009) – more than seven times higher than the rate for all U.S. workers,” according to NIOSH.  Most fatalities are the result of accidents.

“At least four workers have died since 2010 from what appears to be acute chemical exposures during flowback operations at well sites in the Williston Basin (North Dakota and Montana),” NIOSH reported on its blog.

The NIOSH scientists cautioned that the results of their new study were “preliminary,” given the small number of workers involved. But despite the limitations, they recommended comprehensive measures to address exposure to benzene, including the development of alternative tank gauging procedures to limit exposure and outfitting workers with respirators.

The breadth of the recommendations indicate how serious NIOSH believes the benzene  threat to be, said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, a health scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has spotlighted the enviornmental effects of fracking but is not opposed it altogether.

“Their recommendations are pretty pointed,” Rotkin-Ellman said. “They aren’t saying we need to study this issue at 15 more places before making these recommendations. These measures are warranted based on these investigations.  You read their recommendations, and they say, ‘Get these people out of the way of benzene.’”


DEP rule significantly weakens tank inspections for some tanks


September 9, 2014 by Dave Boucher

State environmental regulators will allow pretty much anyone to inspect the majority of aboveground storage tanks covered by a law created after the massive chemical leak and water contamination earlier this year, according to a new rule released today.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, committee attorney Robert Williams and Delegate Barbara Fleischuaer, D-Monongalia, talk Sunday evening during a marathon committee meeting.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, House Judiciary Committee attorney Robert Williams and Delegate Barbara Fleischuaer, D-Monongalia, talk about Senate Bill 373 during a marathon committee meeting earlier this year.

They must abide by “industry standards” and a checklist provided by the state, but there is no auditing or impartial process in place that actually ensures that’s happening.

The state Department of Environmental Protectionannounced Monday it would create an “interpretive rule” that would ease the inspection burden that oil, natural gas and other industries complained lawmakers created by issuing Senate Bill 373.

The rule creates a three-tiered system for tanks. Tanks that fall in “Level 1″ must be inspected by a registered professional engineer. Here’s the definition for “Level 1″ tanks, where “AST” means “aboveground storage tank”:

Level 1 AST” means an AST that is determined by the Secretary to have the potential for high risk of harm to public health or the environment due to its contents, size or location, except for ASTs containing potable water, filtered surface water, demineralized water, noncontact cooling water or water stored for fire or emergency purposes, food or food-grade materials, or hazardous waste tanks subject to regulation under (state law).”

Any tanks that’s located in a “zone of critical concern” (as defined in the bill), that contains “hazardous” materials, a tank that can hold 50,000 gallons or more and any other tank the head of DEP deems relevant also fall under the “Level 1″ category.

(Just to emphasize the last part of the “Level 1″ definition, it doesn’t include tanks that hold hazardous waste. They’re considered “Level 3″ tanks, the lowest level in this system, because they are already subject to a different set of regulatory requirements.)

The rule provides drastically different inspection requirements for tanks in the second two levels. The law outlines who can conduct an inspection, but also says it can be done by “a person holding certification under another program approved by the secretary.”

According to the interpretive rule, that really does mean anyone for the initial inspection of tanks in levels 2 and 3. The rule states professional engineers can inspect the tanks, but inspections can also be done by “the owner or operator of the AST; or by any person designated by the owner or operator of the AST.”

If the owner or his designee does the inspection, then only the owner of the tanks needs to certify the inspection, according to the rule.

The rule does state all inspections for all tanks “shall be conducted in accordance with the industry standard appropriate to the tank or tank facility” and should conform to a checklist included in the rule. The checklist includes eight items, with several subsections that could be included in the inspection.

However, the rule doesn’t include anyway for the DEP to verify the inspection actually happened. That includes inspections conducted by the registered professional engineers as well, but these inspectors are subject to well-defined training standards that a tank owner or his friend conducting the inspection may not meet.

All inspections still need to be completed–and proof of inspections submitted to the state–by Jan. 1, 2015.

The rule also allows people who own tanks that fall in levels 2 and 3 to submit information they are already supposed to have pertaining to groundwater and site protection, instead of the Spill Prevention Resource Plan outlined in the new law. “Level 1″ tank owners still need to submit the plan. All spill prevention paperwork is still due Dec. 3.

Definitions for each tank level, more information about inspections and the prevention plans is available in the rule.

In a statement this morning, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin commended the rule:

The proposed rule released today provides guidance to owners and operators of aboveground storage tanks for complying with two key parts of Senate Bill 373: inspection and certification of tanks, and spill prevention response plans. It protects the health and safety of all West Virginians, and our environment, from the risks of leaks of hazardous materials from above ground storage tanks.

All affected aboveground storage tanks still must be registered by October 1, 2014. This rule establishes a risk assessment approach to inspecting aboveground storage tanks in West Virginia and requires all aboveground tanks located within zones of critical concern, wellhead protection areas or groundwater intake areas to be professionally inspected and certified by the January 1, 2015, deadline.

Interpretive rules don’t need legislative approval, unlike emergency or traditional administrative rules. They essentially show how an agency will interpret the law.

The rule will be out for public comment for 30 days and a public hearing will be held on Oct. 9 at 6:30 p.m. at the DEP’s headquarters in Kanawha City, according to a DEP news release.

This is a developing story. Check back in throughout the day as more information becomes available.

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TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Algae that turned Lake Erie green and produced toxins that fouled the tap water for 400,000 people in the Toledo area are becoming a big headache for those who keep drinking water safe even far beyond the Great Lakes.

But with no federal standards on safe levels for drinking algae-tainted water and no guidelines for treating or testing it either, water quality engineers sometimes look for solutions the same way school kids do their homework.

“We are Googling for answers,” said Kelly Frey, who oversees a municipal system in Ohio that draws drinking water from the lake. “We go home and spend our nights on the Internet trying to find how other places manage it.”

The contamination left about 400,000 people in parts of northwestern Ohio and southeastern Michigan without clean tap water for two days in August.

Spurred by the water emergency, that saw thousands lining up for water for two days in early August, a growing chorus is calling for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a national standard for allowable amounts of microcystin, the toxin that contaminated Toledo’s water.

Ohio, Oregon, Minnesota, Florida and Oklahoma have set their own drinking water standards for microcystin, which can cause headaches or vomiting when swallowed and can be fatal to dogs and livestock. Most of those states rely on a measurement suggested by the World Health Organization.

“There needs to be one consistent standard,” said Dan Wyant, director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Environmental regulators from Ohio, Indiana and Michigan met with U.S. EPA officials last month, asking the agency to press not only for clear water quality standards, but also a strategy for reducing the pollutants that help the algae thrive.

But it may be several more years before the EPA is able to come up with a new benchmark because a great deal of study is still needed to determine how different amounts of the algae-related toxins affect people of all ages, said Craig Butler, director of the Ohio EPA.

“That puts the states in a tough spot,” Butler said. “We wish there was more data and information, as does U.S. EPA.”

The federal agency is working toward developing drinking water advisories and testing methods that would be released sometime next year and give treatment plants and states guidance for dealing with microcystin and another toxin, said Laura Allen, a U.S. EPA spokeswoman.

Water plant operators contend there’s also a need for more guidance on how often to test the water and more sharing of information on combating the toxins.

Some cities where there’s a known threat of harmful algae take samples daily, while others getting water from the same source might run tests once a week. Sometimes, it depends on when the testing lab is available, said Frey, the sanitary engineer in Ohio’s Ottawa County.

The EPA did announce this past week that it would put more money toward helping cities along Lake Erie monitor their water. Ohio’s environmental regulators also have pledged help and have been taking a bigger role in assisting water plants as of late, Frey said.

That includes routine conference calls over the past year between Ohio EPA administrators and water plant operators on the front line of the algae threat, Butler said.

Algae outbreaks — some that leave behind a variety of toxins and some that don’t — are popping up increasingly in every state, fouling rivers and lakes of all sizes.

In Iowa’s largest city, water plant workers decide when to sample based on “instinct and experience as opposed to requirement,” said Bill Stowe, chief executive of the Des Moines Water Works. “We have a public health need that tells us we have to go beyond regulations.”

Des Moines uses water from two rivers, both of which have had high levels of algae-fueled toxins on a few separate occasions in recent years. The worry is what would happen if those two drinking water sources are contaminated at the same time.

“It’s not a matter if, it’s a matter of when,” Stowe said. “We’ve had near misses, and realistically they were near misses by the grace of God.”

How many city water supplies could be vulnerable to toxins from algae is difficult to pinpoint. Those that use groundwater are not at risk, but about two-thirds of the nation’s public drinking water comes from lakes, rivers and manmade reservoirs.

Still, conditions have to be just right for harmful algal blooms. The water needs a large dose of nutrients feeding the algae, such as phosphorus from farm fertilizers, livestock manure and sewage overflows. Heavy rainstorms washing pollutants into the water and warm weather help the algae grow, too.

Scientists say research suggests that climate change and the increasing amount phosphorus may be why there have been more harmful algae occurrences documented in recent decades.

The lake that supplies drinking water for Waco, Texas, has been plagued by algae since the mid-1980s. It hasn’t reached a dangerous level, but did make the water smell and taste so bad that restaurant waitresses used to warn customers about the “Waco water.”

The city completed a new $50 million treatment plant last year that uses tiny bubbles to remove algae from the water and ozone gas to destroy the toxins.

Those plants are common in Europe, but there are just four in the U.S., said Tom Conry, the city’s water quality manager. “We finally realized we cannot control our watershed, and evidently no one else can,” he said.

Conry doesn’t think the process will work for every city and believes the real solution is protecting drinking water from pollutants that give life to the harmful algae. “We’re treating the symptoms, but we’re not addressing the cause,” he said.

Groundbreaking Study on Chemicals in Fracking Wastewater


A new study by in the science journal, Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts, has come out with groundbreaking report on the health and environmental impact of fracking wastewater and the potential hazard it poses to the environment. According to InsideClimate News, “while fracking-produced water shouldn’t be allowed near drinking water, it’s less toxic than similar waste from coal-bed methane mining. It also revealed how the contents of this waste differ dramatically across three major shale plays: Texas’ Eagle Ford, New Mexico’s Barnett and Pennsylvania’s Marcellus.”

“The study defines produced water as the water that flows out of a well after fossil fuel extraction starts. It includes some of the slurry first injected down a well, as well as naturally occurring water and materials from deep underground, such as salts, heavy metals and radioactive material.”

The study by Rice University in Houston, Texas, identified roughly 25 inorganic chemicals in the waste. Of those found, six were determined to pose significant health risks. Among the list of known toxins were barium, chromium, copper, mercury, arsenic and antimony. According to Inside Climate, “Depending on the chemical, consuming it at high levels can cause high blood pressure, skin damage, liver or kidney damage, stomach issues, or cancer.”

More than twice as much mercury in environment as thought



Erik Stokstad Science Magazine

The most comprehensive estimate of mercury released into the environment is putting a new spotlight on the potent neurotoxin. By accounting for mercury in consumer products, such as thermostats, and released by industrial processes, the calculations more than double previous tallies of the amount of mercury that has entered the environment since 1850. The analysis also reveals a previously unknown spike in mercury emissions during the 1970s.

The finding doesn’t indicate a greater risk to human health; scientists already know how much mercury most people are exposed to. But it does show how tighter regulations over the past 4 decades have lowered the total amount of mercury emitted to the global environment—even as some industries in the developing world continue to expand.

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin, and it is most harmful when microbes convert the element into a compound called methylmercury. This form of the metal accumulates in food webs, concentrating in fish, which is how most people are exposed. Researchers in developed countries typically know how much methylmercury is in fish, which they use to set consumption advisories.

But scientists and public health advocates also want to know how mercury is used and where it eventually ends up in the environment. This knowledge can help inform policy and regulations.

First, some key figures in mercury accounting. Researchers have estimated that about 720,000 metric tons of the element have been taken out of the ground since 1850, when major silver and gold rushes were under way. Mercury is particularly useful for extracting silver from pulverized ore.

Mercury has also been used in many products and devices, such as thermometers and switches, and in various industrial processes. In addition, coal contains trace amounts of mercury, so burning this fossil fuel has spewed a lot of mercury into the atmosphere. All told, analysis of sediment cores and other research show that background levels of mercury have risen threefold since the Industrial Revolution.

The hard work for experts has been to figure out how much mercury all of these products and processes have used and what happens to the waste and pollution. Previous studiesfocused on emissions into the atmosphere. Roughly 100,000 tons of this pollution came from the use of mercury in silver mining, which peaked in the 1890s. Since then, most atmospheric mercury has been emitted by power plants, smelters, and chlor-alkali plants, which use it to make chlorine and sodium hydroxide for industry.

Environmental modeler Hannah Horowitz, a graduate student at Harvard University, and her colleagues wanted to account for all the uses of mercury over time, quantifying for the first time how much mercury has been released worldwide since 1850. The team found the largest peak in the 1970s, instead of the late 19th century. This time frame matches what is seen in sample cores taken from lake sediments and peat marshes.

Adapted from H. M. Horowitz, et al.Environ. Sci. Technol. (August, 2014)

A previous study found that emissions of mercury to the atmosphere (light and dark gray) peaked in 1890. The new work found additional air pollution (light blue). Combined with mercury pollution in soil (green), water (dark blue), and landfills (purple), the 1970s were the time of the greatest mercury releases to the environment.

To produce their new estimates, Horowitz and colleagues compiled historical information from the scientific literature and various government reports. Along with commercial products, a major source in the 20th century was latex paint, which used mercury compounds as a preservative. After the 1970s, this use declined in the United States, until it was finally banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1991. Another important source in the 20th century continues to release mercury into the environment: the production of vinyl chloride, an important ingredient in plastics and vinyl.

All told, Horowitz and her co-authors say, they have accounted for 540,000 additional tons of mercury in the environment, including in soil and water. That’s two-and-a-half times more than the amount suggested by the previous estimates, they report in the 2 September issue of Environmental Science & Technology.

“This is quite a high number,” says Jozef Pacyna, a research director at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, near Oslo, who was not involved in the research. “It’s good they took this big picture.”

About 57% of the mercury released since 1850 continues to circulate in the environment; the remainder is locked away in sediments or landfills. Horowitz says it was “really difficult” to come up with an error range around the estimates. “I think the uncertainty is quite large,” she says. Indeed, in the latest Global Mercury Assessment, by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the estimate of annual emissions ranged by a factor of 4.

This research “helps to fill some of the many holes in our understanding of mercury flows historically,” says Peter Maxson, a consultant based in Brussels who advises the European Commission, UNEP, and others on mercury issues. “Once mercury is brought into the environment, it doesn’t just go away but becomes everyone’s problem for a very long time,” says Maxson, who was not an author of the new paper.

Michael Bender, who directs the Mercury Policy Project, an advocacy organization in Montpelier, and who did not participate in the study, and others say it is crucial to continue encouraging companies to phase out their use of mercury and to tighten regulations for dealing with mercury wastes.

One of the largest concerns today with mercury is small-scale gold mining in the developing world. Environmentalists and public health advocates are pinning their hopes on an international treaty, agreed to in 2013, called the Minamata Convention, after a town in Japan where citizens suffered from severe mercury poisoning. The treaty would require countries that ratify it to ban mercury in batteries, light bulbs, and other products, and cut emissions from power plants, incinerators, and factories.


Coal, petroleum coke debris found in Plaquemines marsh restoration projects


By Mark Schleifstein, | The Times-Picayune

Pieces of coal and petroleum coke – some as large as fists – have been found dotting mile-long stretches of elevated marsh platform created by coastal restoration programs that are pumping sediment inland from the Mississippi River into open water near Lake Hermitage and Bayou Dupont on the west bank of Plaquemines Parish.

The coal and coke debris was spotted at both restoration sites by a reporter and photographer with | The Times-Picayune, including lumps of coal mixed with sediment flowing from the end of a pipeline at the Lake Hermitage restoration project on Aug. 28.

That same day, representatives of the Gulf Restoration Network also found coal and coke debris at the Lake Hermitage site during their own tour of the restoration project. The environmental group filed a complaint about the materials, which it believes is an environmental threat, with the Coast Guard’s National Response Center. The center coordinates pollution responses in federally controlled waters.

The sediment for the Lake Hermitage restoration project is mined at borrow sites along the western edge of the Mississippi’s navigation channel downstream from two terminals that load and unload coal and coke from and to barges and ocean-going vessels. Both terminals, however, are downstream from the Bayou Dupont project.

Dupont Hermitage restoration mapView full sizeDan Swenson, | The Times-Picayune

In his complaint, the Gulf Restoration Network’s Scott Eustis said that in roughly half of a 5-acre area at the Lake Hermitage, the ground was “coated in dice-sized pieces of coal and petroleum coke, at about 25% of the visible surface.” The complaint also said that, “About every meter or so, there was a golf ball sized piece or a baseball sized piece. Softball sized chunks were found.”

“This material contains heavy metals like arsenic and mercury, residual oils and (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and can make soils acidic,” Eustis said. “While not an emergency, it is entirely inappropriate, in violation of the Clean Water Act, LDEQ permits, and responsible parties are liable for clean up of all spilled material as this discharge is unpermitted.”

A spokesman for the Coast Guard said the coal and coke debris question would be under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Environmental Quality, which enforces federal Clean Water Act and state rules governing emissions from land-based industries that enter the river.

A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which chairs a task force that oversees federal-state diversion projects, also said DEQ was the agency responsible for regulating the coal debris.

DEQ did not immediately respond to a request for information about the contaminants found in the restoration sites.

The state Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which participates in both the Lake Hermitage and Bayou Dupont restoration projects and is the sponsor of the Bayou Dupont long distance pipeline project, discounted the potential for environmental effects from the coal and coke, but said it needs further study.

“CPRA has not observed any negative environmental effects on our projects that have been restored with Mississippi River sediment; however, this is an area that warrants further analysis,” said a statement released by the agency.  “The future of our coast is dependent on the efficient and effective use of our riverine resources, which is evident in the 25,704 acres of wetlands benefited by our work since 2008.  CPRA is committed to understanding the environmental effects of our projects.”

The Lake Hermitage project will have 653 acres of new marsh platform when it is completed, with all but 104 acres paid for by the federal-state Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act. The additional acreage is being paid with an advance payment by BP under the federal Oil Pollution Act’s  Natural Resource Damage Assessment program.

The Bayou Dupont marsh creation project near Ironton also began as a Coastal Wetlands Act project and built 471 acres of new marsh platform. State officials plan to extend the marsh platform westward with a state-funded long distance pipeline that will eventually extend more than 25 miles across Plaquemines, Jefferson and Lafourche parishes.

One of the coal and coke transger terminals located upriver from the site mined for the Lake Hermitage project is United Bulk Terminal-Davant, which recently entered into a consent agreement with DEQ. The agreement was part of the settlement of a January penalty notice  for illegally dumping coal and coke on the east bank Mississippi River batture at United Bulk’s storage yard less than a mile upriver from the dredging borrow area.

Company officials told state inspectors that when the river rose above the debris on the batture, it wasn’t retrieved.

The state inspected the facility in June 2013 and reviewed company records in December 2013 and concluded that the firm had failed to dispose of spilled coal and coke immediately, according to the consent agreement.

“Specifically, at the downstream end of the facility, coke and coal fall from the conveyer belts onto the batture,” says the consent agreement.

“According to the facility representative, the cleanup occurs as long as the river is low,” the consent agreement said. “When the river is high, the piles of coal and coke are submerged in water and cleanup does not occur. At the time of the inspection, the river was high. Each failure to utilize all reasonable methods to minimize any adverse impact, and clean up and dispose of all spilled product and spilled waste immediately is a violation …”

As part of the consent agreement, United Bulk has agreed to donate $16,500 to the Woodlands Conservancy, which operates the Woodlands Trail and Bird Park Sanctuary in Plaquemines. The conservancy will use the money to remove invasive species from its land and replace them with native species.

The company also has agreed to raise 3 ½ acres of the batture area beneath its conveyer belts “to enhance the removal of coal/coke that may fall from the conveyer belts to the batture area in order to enhance compliance with existing permits during times of high water,” according to an Army Corps of engineers coastaluse permit request filed with the consent agreement.

The firm also has agreed to improvements to its conveyer system aimed at reducing spillage that are part of an $80 million upgrade of the terminal.

“Since United Bulk Terminals Davant acquired the facility in June of 2012, we have demonstrated our commitment to minimizing the impact of our operations on the environment and have invested substantial time and money to ensure compliance with our air and water permits,” the firm said in a statement issued in response to questions about the coal and coke found last week in the restoration projects.

The statement said the firm has invested nearly $50 million to upgrade its facility ”in accordance with the latest technology and practices in terms of safety and environmental impact,” and plans to invest another $30 million. The improvements included spill pans for secondary containment under the conveyers, the statement said. The agreement with DEQ also includes modifications to the batture to prevent spillage regardless of the river stage, the company said.

The DEQ complaint was filed two months after the Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana Environmental Action Network and Sierra Club informed United Bulk that they planned to file a complaint in federal court against the company under provisions of the Clean Water Act that allow citizens to attempt to enforce the law.

The groups filed suit against the firm in March, even though the company had already indicated it would agree to a preliminary version of the state consent decree. The suit said that based on DEQ’s past track record, it wanted to assure that the company complied with all provisions of the federal clean water law.

That lawsuit is still pending.

On the east bank of the river, International Marine Terminals operates a similar coal loading facility just below Myrtle Grove, with conveyer belts that also extend out over the river.

A check of DEQ records indicates that company has reported inadvertent spills of coal into the river, including one spill of as much as 3,000 pounds in 2010. But there’s no record of any enforcement actions by DEQ for such spills.

Battle Against Fracking Wrongs Continues in Colorado.


The fight against fracking in Colorado has reached a fever pitch.  The Ecologist, an environmentalist site and paper since 1970 has been covering the emerging controversy in Colorado.  According to community activist Duke Cox, “as fracking for gas became more common across the state, he has found more and more of his time taken up with the cause. “We are ground zero for natural gas and fracking in this country”, he told the Ecologist.

A study that he sites as conclusive of the detrimental impact natural gas causes in communities can be founding in this study, “This study suggests a positive association between greater density and proximity of natural gas wells within a 10-mile radius of maternal residence and greater prevalence of CHDs and possibly NTDs, but not oral clefts, preterm birth, or reduced fetal growth. Further studies incorporating information on specific activities and production levels near homes over the course of pregnancy would improve exposure assessments and provide more refined effect estimates. Recent data indicate that exposure to NGD activities is increasingly common. The COGCC estimates that 26% of the > 47,000 oil and gas wells in Colorado are located within 150–1,000 feet of a home or other type of building intended for human occupancy (COGCC 2012).”


NC moves to fine Duke over coal ash pollution


Michaael Biesecker, Associated Press

RALEIGH – North Carolina environmental officials moved Tuesday to fine Duke Energy over pollution that has been seeping into the groundwater for years from a pair of coal ash dumps at a retired power plant outside Wilmington.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources issued a notice of violation to Duke over the ongoing contamination at the L.V. Sutton Electric Plant in New Hanover County. The site includes a pair of unlined ash dumps estimated to hold 2.6 million tons of ash.

The state says monitoring wells near Duke’s dumps at Sutton showed readings exceeding state groundwater standards for boron, thallium, selenium, iron, manganese and other chemicals. Thallium is highly toxic.

The state environmental agency did not immediately respond to requests for details about the levels of chemicals detected or the dates the samples were collected.

The notice of violation is the first regulatory step toward fining the utility for violating of the state’s groundwater contamination laws.

The state filed a series of lawsuits against Duke in state court last year after a coalition of environmental groups gave notice they intended to take the company to federal court for violating the Clean Water Act. In its court filings, state officials said all 33 of Duke’s coal ash dumps statewide are contaminating groundwater.

Duke is fighting the state in court and there are no dates yet scheduled for when the cases might go to trial.

As the case drags on, N.C. Division of Water Resources director Tom Reeder said his agency would use its authority under state law to start fining Duke up to $25,000 a day.

“We said in court last year that the groundwater around the Sutton Plant was contaminated by Duke’s coal ash ponds,” said Reeder, who wrote and sent the notice Tuesday. “But as the legal process for stopping the violations drags on, we will take what action we can using our existing authority to hold the utility financially accountable for damaging the public resource.”

Duke has 15 days to formally respond to the violation notice from the state.

The company did not immediately respond Tuesday to requests from the Associated Press seeking comment.

Duke and state regulators have been under intense scrutiny after a massive Feb. 2 spill from one of the company’s ash dumps in Eden coated 70 miles of the Dan River in gray sludge.

State water quality officials had known for years about the contamination at Sutton’s unlined ash pits, but took no enforcement action until August 2013 — after the citizens groups tried to sue Duke. The company has denied its coal ash stored at Sutton and 13 other coal-fired power plants is a threat, but Duke agreed in October to pay at least $1.5 million to help cover the cost of running new water lines to a nearby residential neighborhood where residents relied on well water.

In September 2010, a portion of the earthen dike at one of Sutton’s coal-ash dumps collapsed after a heavy rain, spilling waste down an embankment. A study by Wake Forest biology professor A. Dennis Lemly found that selenium from coal ash was triggering mutations and deaths in fish living in nearby Sutton Lake.

Sutton is one of four Duke plants designated as “high risk” in a coal ash cleanup bill passed earlier this month by state lawmakers — one of the others is the Lake Julian plant in Buncombe County. The bill requires Duke to dig up and remove all of the ash stored at Sutton and remove it to lined landfills by 2019. Gov. Pat McCrory has not signed the bill into law.