Fighting Va. flooding linked to rising seas will be complicated, costly


Rex Springston | Richmond Times-Dispatch | Posted Yesterday

Col. Paul B. Olsen, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Norfolk District, showed a slide of Holland Island.

The once-populated spot in the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland is now abandoned, the victim of rising sea levels and flooding.

“As Holland was, Tangier (Island) is, and Hampton Roads will be,” Olsen said, making a grave assessment for low-lying parts of Virginia.

Olsen and others spoke at the General Assembly Building Tuesday during the first meeting of a legislative panel studying recurrent flooding in coastal Virginia.

The theme that emerged during the meeting is that flooding linked to rising seas is dangerous, complicated and hugely expensive to address.

“There is no doubt that Virginia is at significant risk for property damage and loss of life from flooding,” said Del. Chris Stolle, R-Virginia Beach, summarizing what he learned at another meeting on rising seas. “We know we have a problem; we have studied it thoroughly, and it is time to take action.”

Stolle teamed this year with Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton, on a resolution to create the study panel. Stolle was elected the group’s chairman Tuesday.

Virginia has become a hotbed of concern over rising seas, flooding and climate change.

In addition to the study panel, a group called the Secure Commonwealth Panel is working to advise Gov. Terry McAuliffe on flooding and other issues, and McAuliffe has created a climate-change commission to explore ways to address global warming.

Rising seas and coastal flooding pose threats to waterfront development, historic areas like Jamestown, lots of communities in lots of localities, and military bases like Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base.

Potential options include restoring beaches, building floodwalls, abandoning some flood-prone areas and barring people from building near some waterways in the first place.

Bryan Pennington, director of intergovernmental relations for Norfolk, said in an interview that his city alone faces nearly $1 billion in potential costs for such things as beach restoration, flood gates and pumps.

With so many other localities at risk, the price tag would surely run into billions more, Pennington said.

Pennington would like the General Assembly to authorize a governmental authority in southeastern Virginia that could raise money, perhaps by issuing bonds and seeking grants.

“We need for decisions to be made at the regional level by our designated regional leaders,” Pennington said.

So far, localities have been working as “free agents” seeking federal grants, he said.

Flooding, during storms big and small, is an increasing problem in coastal Virginia. The main cause is rising seas, and seas are rising at least partly because of global warming, experts say. Among other effects, warming water expands.

In Virginia, sea levels are rising faster than the global average because the land is sinking, primarily from natural causes.

To make things worse, there’s evidence that sea levels will rise faster and faster in coming decades. If current trends hold, scientists project Virginia’s waters could go up 1.5 feet in 20 to 50 years and 5 feet or more by 2100.

fracking general

Halliburton delayed releasing details on fracking chemicals after Monroe County spill


By Laura Arenschield The Columbus Dispatch

A fracking company made federal and state agencies that oversee drinking-water safety wait days before it shared a list of toxic chemicals that spilled from a drilling site into a tributary of the Ohio River.

Although the spill following a fire on June 28 at the Statoil North America well pad in Monroe County stretched 5 miles along the creek and killed more than 70,000 fish and wildlife, state officials said they do not believe drinking water was affected.

But environmental advocacy groups said they wonder how the state can be sure.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report obtained by The Dispatch shows that the federal and state EPA officials had to wait five days before they were given a full list of the fracking chemicals the drilling company used at the site.

Halliburton, the company hired by Statoil to frack the horizontal well, provided a partial list up front that included most of the chemicals. Others, which are protected by Ohio’s trade-secrets law, were omitted.

“How can communities know that they are being protected when an incident like this happens?” said Teresa Mills, an environmental activist and Ohio organizer with the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

“We need more transparent laws.”

To pull oil and natural gas from shale, companies drill vertically and then turn sideways into the rock. Then they blast millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the shafts to free trapped oil and gas in the process called fracking.

During the process, fluids bubble back up to the surface with the gas.

Once a fracking job is finished, drilling companies have 60 days to disclose what chemicals they used to the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees drilling and fracking operations in Ohio.

Ohio law says that companies have to disclose the contents of proprietary fracking mixes only to firefighters or Natural Resources if there is an emergency, such as fires or spills. In this case, both were given the full list but did not share the details with other agencies.

Halliburton has yet to finish fracking the Monroe County well that caught fire.

Chris Abbruzzese, an Ohio EPA spokesman, said that on the day of the fire and spill, a representative from a group that represents the federal and state EPA offices, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Monroe County emergency management and fire workers asked Statoil and Halliburton for a list of the chemicals.

“Once they realized that the proprietary information wasn’t included, there were additional (requests) made,” Abbruzzese said.

Natural Resources, which regulates drilling in Ohio, has authority under state law to see the entire list and asked on its own two days after the fire.

Halliburton, the company hired by Statoil to frack the well, gave the list to the single agency.

But Natural Resources did not share that information with either EPA office.

“Internal communication is something we’re going to work on,” said Bethany McCorkle, a Natural Resources spokeswoman.

Kirsten Henriksen, a spokeswoman for Statoil, said the company hired an outside toxicology firm to test both the creek and the Ohio River for toxic chemicals. None were found in the Ohio River, she said.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, a multi-state agency that tests the river, also found no contaminants.

“Based on the chemicals that we were aware of, if there had been any other chemicals that would have been there, they all would have showed up (in tests),” Abbruzzese said.

Kelly Scribner, a toxicologist with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, which was hired by Statoil to perform the tests, said she wasn’t given a full list of chemicals either.

But, she said, the tests would have shown abnormalities in the water either way.

Fracking chemicals include ethylene glycol, which can damage kidneys; formaldehyde, a known cancer risk; and naphthalene, considered a possible carcinogen.

The water tests showed elevated levels of chlorides, salt and acetone in the creek near the well pad.

By the time federal and state EPA officials were given the full list, those chemicals likely flowed past towns along the Ohio River that draw in drinking water.

That worries some state lawmakers and environmental advocacy groups.

“We’ve got 70,000 or so fish that died,” said Nathan Johnson, an attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council. “Clearly, something was wrong with the water.”

The group has been lobbying the Ohio legislature to pass laws that would force companies during emergencies to immediately disclose the full list of chemicals to all state agencies.

Oil and gas industry officials and regulators have pushed back against additional regulations, saying Ohio’s laws are more than adequate to protect people.

In a speech on Tuesday outside Mansfield, Gov. John Kasich said Ohio has “very tough regulations” concerning fracking. “If the accidents happen, and we’re not minding the store, or we’re looking the other way, that would be a disaster for us,” he said.

Kasich told The Dispatch it would be unacceptable for emergency responders, including federal and Ohio EPA officials, not to know the full list of chemicals that might have spilled into the river.

“We want people to know what the fracking fluid contains,” he said.

Other states, including Pennsylvania and Texas, make companies disclose the full list of chemicals within 30 days of wrapping up a fracking operation. In Oklahoma, they must disclose the chemicals to state regulators before a well is drilled.

The Statoil fire started on the morning of June 28 when, according to preliminary reports, a hydraulic line used during the fracking process broke.

The broken line sprayed fracking fluid onto hot equipment, igniting it.

The fire spread to 20 trucks, which went up in flames. No workers were hurt, but one firefighter was treated for smoke inhalation. About 25 people who live near the wells were evacuated.

The fire continued to smolder for six days. As it burned, firefighters doused it with water and foam, washing chemicals from the site into the tributary, which flows for five miles before reaching the Ohio River.

Legislators and environmental groups say the Statoil fire illustrates a gap in the law that allows fracking companies to determine when they release information and to whom.

“It is a huge problem,” said Johnson, the Ohio Environmental Council attorney. “We’re essentially at the behest of the company with the chemical information.”

Dispatch Public Affairs Editor Darrel Rowland contributed to this story.


16VwOp.AuSt.156 (1)

Toxic cleanup shifts from dirt near RDU to region’s streams, lakes Read more here:


An 8-acre mound of oven-baked dirt – so sterile that no worms or weeds can live in it – is all that remains after an $82 million Superfund cleanup at the site of Ward Transformer Co., the Triangle’s nastiest industrial polluter.

But Ward’s half-century legacy of toxic PCB contamination will linger in the Raleigh area for years to come in creeks and lakes from Raleigh-Durham International Airport west of the city to the Neuse River on the east side.

In the next few weeks, environmental scientists will start the most extensive round yet of tests to determine how much more cleanup work will be needed to remove cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in 6 miles of stream beds and lake bottoms downstream from the former Ward plant near RDU. And they will check to see whether there are still dangerous PCB levels in the flesh of fish that swim as far as 32 miles downstream in Crabtree Creek and part of the Neuse.

Bilingual public health outreach workers also will begin walking the banks of Lake Crabtree and Crabtree Creek to interview anglers who may be catching PCB-poisoned fish to feed their families.

Children, nursing mothers and pregnant women face the worst risks of cancers, infections, skin problems and learning disabilities that have been blamed on PCBs. But there are concerns that some Wake County residents do not see, do not understand or simply ignore the few posted signs that warn against eating these fish.

“You’re talking subsistence fishermen, and a lot of these are minority or Hispanic people,” said Matthew Starr of the nonprofit Neuse River Foundation, which is working with the UNC Superfund Research Program to survey and educate residents fishing in these waters. “This is food for the table, for the family.”

Scientists do not worry about people who swim where PCBs have been found in the muddy stream bottoms. The only PCB public warnings issued in North Carolina are aimed at people who eat contaminated fish.

Persistence – both in the environment and in our body tissues – is what makes PCBs a public health threat. The chemicals become concentrated in fat tissues as they climb the food chain: minnows eaten by fish, fish eaten by birds and people, mothers nursing their children.

“They just stay in your tissues and build up,” said Kathleen Gray of the UNC Superfund Research Program.

Instead of dissolving in streams and groundwater, PCB molecules usually attach themselves to soil particles and then lie undisturbed for years in streambeds – without breaking down – until a storm comes along and washes them farther downstream.

“PCBs do not degrade very easily,” said Nile Testerman, an environmental engineer with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “They’re always there. Once they’re in an environment, they’re hard to get out.”

Thousands of gallons spilled

Before Congress banned them in 1979, PCBs were used in insulating oils to keep electric power transformers from overheating. Ward Transformer began operation in 1964 at its plant near RDU, eventually employing 50 workers to repair and recycle transformers for customers including the electric utility now known as Duke Energy Progress.

Scientists concluded later that, over 15 years, Ward spilled thousands of gallons of waste oil containing PCBs and other toxins into the soil and downstream waters. When they bored into a streambed near the Ward site in 1997, a black oily liquid oozed from the sand.

Ward Transformer also found a way to dump some of this waste oil far away from the plant. In 1978, two men in a tanker truck sprayed an estimated 30,000 gallons of PCB-laced oil along rural roadsides in 14 counties.

Buck Ward, the company president and one of four men convicted in the dumping, served nine months in federal prison in 1982. He died in 1996.

The Environmental Protection Agency got serious about cleaning the Ward Transformer site in 2003, when it was added to the Superfund national priority list of hazardous waste sites.

Environmental scientists expected they would handle about 100,000 cubic yards of poisoned soil, but in the end, they dug out four times that much. Workers kept digging as long as they found contamination. They had to stop when they reached bedrock, 29 feet below ground.

Some of the soil was hauled away to special landfills, but most of it had to be detoxified at the Ward site in a two-stage thermal process, which heated the soil and converted the PCBs to harmless gases. For three years, passers-by saw water vapor emitted from the thermal operation and mistook it for toxic smoke, or perhaps a plane crash at the nearby airport.

The clean, sterile soil was returned to the ground, shaped into a gently sloping, 8.7-acre mound, and topped with a one-foot layer of honest, organic topsoil that had to be trucked in. The topsoil is planted in grass and shrubs.

In June, the EPA and other officials made a walk-through inspection and agreed that the PCBs have been cleaned from the soil at the Ward site and adjoining acreage used by Estes Express, a trucking firm.

Next stage: Streams and lakes

Years have passed since new toxins washed into the streams from Ward Transformer. Now the EPA is ready to address the PCBs that have been found over the past decade in the creeks and lakes.

“The EPA typically cleans up a sediment site in a logical manner from upstream to downstream,” said Hilary Thornton, an Atlanta-based EPA engineer overseeing the Ward Superfund project.

More excavation is planned in this second phase of the cleanup. According to plans the EPA outlined in 2008, workers will dig out the worst sediment contamination in streams between the Ward site and Lake Crabtree. Where they dig and how much they haul away will be determined by results of the new streambed testing, expected to start by mid-August.

In earlier testing, scientists also found PCBs on the bottoms of Brier Creek Reservoir at RDU and Lake Crabtree. But current plans call for leaving this sediment in place. Digging it out could cost tens of millions of dollars, the EPA said in 2008, and the sediment disturbance could flush more of the toxins into the water downstream.

“Time has passed, and other sediments have come in and been laid down on top of the last particles of PCBs from the Ward site,” Thornton said. “It may be, in EPA’s judgment, better for the stream and the environment for some of these sediments to remain undisturbed and contained, so that humans and (natural organisms) are protected from these sediments.”

That could be a short-sighted decision, said Drew Cade, the Lake Crabtree County Park manager. The lake is not as deep today as it was in the 1980s, when it was built to reduce flooding along Crabtree Creek. It could lose its usefulness in future years unless the county digs out the lake bottom, to make it deeper again.

“We’re a flood-control lake, so we might have to be dredged anyway at some point,” Cade said. “So this might be akin to sweeping the problem under the rug.”

A big black truck

North Carolinians first learned about Ward Transformer and the hazards of PCB pollution in the summer of 1978. An unusual environmental crime wave sparked a public health panic in 14 counties and eventually gave birth to the environmental justice movement.

Federal regulators had halted the manufacture of PCBs earlier in the 1970s. The only legal disposal was by incineration at 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit at one of the two U.S. sites licensed for that purpose, in Missouri and New Jersey.

Ward Transformer found a cheaper alternative. It involved a big, black tanker truck driving up and down rural North Carolina highways at night, spraying PCB-tainted oil along the roadsides.

The dark, noxious oil left waves of sick people in its wake, with complaints of skin rashes and eye, nose and throat irritations.

State officials recognized in August 1978 that they would have to spend millions of dollars to dig up the PCB-contaminated dirt and dispose of it. But it took years of anguish and political tumult to get it done.

The state picked a rural Warren County tract to build a special landfill for the PCB dirt. The choice prompted alarm across the county. Public hearings ran for days, with black and white residents across the county stopping work to tune into the nonstop broadcasts on a small, black-owned public radio station.

The Rev. Ben Chavis, then serving as the national NAACP president, argued that state leaders had picked Warren for the toxic dump site for cynical reasons: a political calculation that its poor, rural and largely African-American community would not offer serious resistance.

Hundreds of residents were arrested in sustained protests, and there were several years of legal challenges. But the state succeeded in building the landfill and filling it with 13,000 truckloads of PCB dirt in 1982.

Despite promises that it would be safe, the Warren County landfill leaked.

Starting in 2001, the state spent an estimated $24 million to render the PCB dirt harmless, using a thermal process similar to the method that would be used later at the Ward site in Raleigh.

Catch and release

Lake Crabtree was popular for years with local residents, including large numbers of Latino families, who brought their fishing rods and five-gallon buckets to catch fish for their supper tables.

State public health officials warned the public in 2004 to stop eating carp and catfish from the lake, and to eat other fish only once a month. The county commissioners thought that was too confusing, so in 2005 they passed a “catch and release” ordinance with a simpler message: You can catch fish here, but you can’t keep it.

“Now when I see someone with a bucket of fish, I have the authority to dump it back in the lake,” Cade said.

Swimming has never been allowed at Lake Crabtree, but boaters there get wet all the time – along with park employees who stand in the shallows to help them. PCBs have been measured in the lake bottom, but not in the water itself. Officials say that the lake water and its muddy bottom pose no health risks.

“I still get questions from parents who bring their kids out here to attend the YMCA camps,” Cade said. “What’s going to happen to Billy when he falls out of the canoe? I say, ‘Well, nothing.’ ”

When the fish warnings were issued a decade ago, health officials enlisted the help of Spanish-speaking church leaders to get the message to anglers. Cade says he has seen more people fishing around the lake in the past few years, and he suspects that more people are eating the fish they catch.

Starr sees anglers with buckets of fish, too, when he paddles the Neuse and Crabtree Creek. He says Cade and county officials have done a good job at Lake Crabtree, but there are only a few faded signs on Crabtree Creek as it meanders through Umstead State Park and across North Raleigh.

“If they’re feeding it to their children or their pregnant wives, then there’s a real problem,” Starr said. “A child who has been eating the fish for 10 years, that’s where you’re going to start to see the health impacts.”

No PCBs have been measured in water or stream sediment in Crabtree Creek downstream from Lake Crabtree, but earlier tests found the toxin in fish swimming in the creek and part of the Neuse. The UNC outreach workers will survey anglers to find out whether they actually are eating the tainted fish.

The World Health Organization has confirmed that PCBs cause cancer. Studies have found other serious health problems for people exposed to PCB pollution – and for wildlife.

“Up on the Hudson River, they found it was altering the songs of songbirds, which was consistent with affecting brain development,” said Peter deFur, a Virginia Commonwealth University environmental scientist working as an environmental consultant for the Neuse River Foundation.

Boys with increased concentrations of PCBs had learning disabilities and lower IQs, deFur said. Other health problems include diabetes and asthma.

“And there are problems with immune systems, so people get sick more easily,” deFur said.

Before it went out of business years ago, Ward Transformer paid the state $3.5 million to help clean up the highway shoulders that were sprayed with PCBs in 1978. To cover most of the Superfund cleanup costs at the site near RDU, the federal government was able to tap the deeper pockets of some of Ward’s former corporate customers.

“You could argue that the Ward (companies) are the most responsible party,” Thornton said. “But because of the financial situation they find themselves in, they’ve been able to get off lightly. Others have the misfortune to have more fortune. They can be required to pay for all of it if the other parties cannot.”

Duke Energy Progress, PCS Phosphate and CONSOL Energy are partners in a trust set up to pay most of the $82 million cost for the cleanup work so far.

Other former customers of Ward Transformer will pay an expected $6 million for the downstream work getting underway with testing this summer and streambed excavation next year, Thornton said.

“It will be with us for some time longer, for sure,” Thornton said. “PCBs are a long-lived contaminant.”

Read more here:

PCB clean up North Carolina Set to Begin


In the next few weeks, environmental scientists will start the most extensive round yet of tests to determine the amount of clean up needed in the removal of the carcinogen-linked PCB in roughly 6 miles of stream beds in Lake Crabtree, North Carolina. The site of the contamination is downstream from the Ward Transformer Co. According to, part of the clean-up effort will include, “Bilingual public health outreach workers also will begin walking the banks of Lake Crabtree and Crabtree Creek to interview anglers who may be catching PCB-poisoned fish to feed their families.”

“You’re talking subsistence fishermen, and a lot of these are minority or Hispanic people,” said  Matthew Starr of the nonprofit Neuse River Foundation, which is working with the UNC Superfund Research Program to survey and educate residents fishing in these waters. “This is food for the table, for the family.”
The Environmental Protection Agency got serious about cleaning the Ward Transformer site in 2003, when it was added to the Superfund national priority list of hazardous waste sites.

“Environmental scientists expected they would handle about 100,000 cubic yards of poisoned soil, but in the end, they dug out four times that much. Workers kept digging as long as they found contamination. They had to stop when they reached bedrock, 29 feet below ground.

Some of the soil was hauled away to special landfills, but most of it had to be detoxified at the Ward site in a two-stage thermal process, which heated the soil and converted the PCBs to harmless gases. For three years, passers-by saw water vapor emitted from the thermal operation and mistook it for toxic smoke, or perhaps a plane crash at the nearby airport.

The clean, sterile soil was returned to the ground, shaped into a gently sloping, 8.7-acre mound, and topped with a one-foot layer of honest, organic topsoil that had to be trucked in. The topsoil is planted in grass and shrubs.”


‘A serious corrosion problem’ found: As Freedom tanks come down, CSB says MCHM started leaking before Jan. 9 discovery


Written by Ken Ward

Citing “extensive corrosion,” federal investigators said an MCHM chemical storage tank at the Freedom Industries site along the Elk River likely was leaking prior to the Jan. 9 spill that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 people across the region.

U.S. Chemical Safety Board investigators said Wednesday they aren’t sure how long Tank 396 could have been leaking, or if material from it was contained in soil, or if additional chemicals from the tank made their way into the river prior to the day state inspectors discovered a spill while investigating a citizen complaint of a licorice-like odor in the area.

Johnnie Banks, the team leader on the CSB investigation of the Freedom spill, said agency officials are collecting soil samples and performing additional analysis that might help answer those questions.

“If you’re of the mind that Jan. 9 was the first time that material leaked from that tank, stay tuned,” Banks said. He said the CSB hopes to complete its investigation of the Freedom spill by the first anniversary of the incident.

Banks discussed the board’s concern about the extent of time the tank could have been leaking during a public meeting held to release a report on a Hancock County industrial fire that killed three workers and to provide Kanawha Valley residents an update on the Freedom Industries probe.

“An underlying root cause in many of our investigations, including these latest two in West Virginia, is the lack of thorough inspections and hazard reviews, and the need for stricter regulations in areas where we find self-policing is not preventing accidents,” board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said.

The CSB met for three hours Wednesday in a Charleston hotel ballroom. Not far away, crews from a Freedom Industries contractor began demolishing the site’s now-empty chemical storage tank as part of a settlement agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection that closed the facility and requires cleanup of the site.

Among other things, CSB investigators said in Wednesday’s update that they found a hole in a second MCHM storage tank at Freedom and corrosion damage in other tanks, findings that provide more evidence of poor inspection practices and a lack of preventative actions at the site of the January chemical spill.

The CSB’s tank analysis focused on two tanks that contained the MCHM-PPH mixture, Tanks 396 and 397, and on a third tank, numbered 395, that was labeled as having contained glycerine, but according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, actually contained the MCHM-PPH mixture.

CSB officials said that they found “multiple pitting,” a type of corrosion that causes small holes in Tank 396, the tank that caused the Jan. 9 spill, and in “other tanks” containing Freedom’s mixture of Crude MCHM and another chemical called PPH.

A second tank containing the same mixture also had a hole in its floor, similar to the holes the CSB identified in Tank 396, board investigators said in the update made public Wednesday during a CSB meeting in Charleston.

“There was a serious corrosion problem growing in all of the tanks,” Banks said in describing the results of CSB examinations of the three Freedom tanks that were used for the company’s MCHM-PPH mixture.

CSB investigators believe the holes “likely initiated from the interior” of the tanks and that “holes on the roofs likely provided a source for corrosion including water into the tanks,” according to the agency’s early findings.

In its preliminary report, the CSB said it found “a lack of engineering inspections, and uncertain inspection frequency or rigor of inspections” of the more than a dozen chemical storage tanks at the Freedom site, located just 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water’s regional drinking-water intake.

During a congressional hearing in February, the CSB noted that an engineering firm hired by Freedom Industries had examined some of the site’s tanks in October 2013 and found them not in full compliance with industry and federal government standards. That evaluation did not include an examination of Tank 396, the CSB has said, and was not as comprehensive or rigorous as required by accepted industry standards.

“To date, we have not found any records of inspection other than those that were developed during the pending purchase of the site in late 2013,” said CSB spokeswoman Hilary Cohen. “The lack of engineering inspections and indications of frequency and rigor is of interest as we move forward.”

The CSB noted in its report that residents “continue to distrust information that the water is safe to drink,” citing the “lingering odor” that remained after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the water “appropriate” for use and the fact that long-term health effects of the chemicals involved in the spill are not known.

“There is limited toxicological information on MCHM, PPH and their chemical constituents,” said CSB investigator Lucy Tyler.

Tyler noted that public health decisions were being made after the spill based entirely on a small number of studies done by MCHM-maker Eastman Chemical Co.

“They had all animal studies for acute or short-term exposure to MCHM at high concentrations,” Tyler explained. “There is very little information available for low concentrations, the types of exposures from the water over several days or weeks.”

The CSB also said chemical data sheets, produced by Eastman and Freedom “did not provide information on the potential health hazards to assist in a timely notification of water usage restrictions.”

Board member Mark Griffon emphasized that he doesn’t think the CSB’s role is to conduct health studies, but to examine whether the existing chemical-regulatory system is adequate or contains gaps that hampered public health officials and first responders in incidents like the Freedom spill.

CSB officials said their investigation includes examining public health effects of the spill, regulation of above-ground storage tanks, emergency response to the incident and an evaluation of drinking-water intake systems and the siting of chemical storage tanks just upstream from such intakes.

“The obvious question is how this came to be — what was the mechanism of failure for this tank — but on a larger scale, how do you get a situation where you have a chemical plant this close to the intake of a water system that treats water for 300,000 people,” Banks said in a video released by the board Tuesday. “We hope to learn from that and share that information broadly so that other systems can use that information and examine their processes and consider their location and proximity to chemical plants.”

- See more at:


Enbridge wrapping up Kalamazoo River oil spill cleanup and restoration, on target for fall completion


COMSTOCK TOWNSHIP, MI — This is the last summer the Kalamazoo River will be the scene of heavy dredging activity, as Enbridge Inc. cleans up the mess from a pipeline leak that sent an estimated 800,000 gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the river.

Nearly four years later since the spill was discovered July 26, 2010 near Marshall, the Canadian pipeline company is wrapping up the cleanup.

Comstock Township Supervisor Ann Nieuwenhuis said the work in her eastern Kalamazoo County township has carried on pretty much out of public view and apparently without a hitch.

“Every two weeks the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) coordinates a stakeholder meeting in Marshall that I attend in person or over the phone,” Nieuwenhuis said. “Two weeks ago I asked to go to the site. My sense is we have the Cadillac version (of dredging operations). The subcontractor put a lot of thought into how to set it up,” she said, resulting in a quiet, efficient, safe operation.

“They are on target on the timeline we set for them, and I have confidence the land will be put back in the condition it was (before the spill) by the end of November, which was the contractual agreement,” Nieuwenhuis said.

Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum said that when removal of contaminated soil from the Morrow Lake delta is complete, which is expected to be mid- to late-summer, the work as outlined under a March 2013 order by the EPA will be complete. Riverbank restoration will continue through the fall along the entire 35-mile stretch of waterway in Calhoun and Kalamazoo counties that was subject to the spill clean-up, he said.

Since the release of heavy crude oil from Enbridge’s pipeline system, the state and federal governments have partnered to oversee containment and removal of oil from the surrounding environment.

“We’re bringing in soils and native plants and trees to make a nice green space like it would look if there had never had been a spill there,” Manshum said, “per our agreement with the (Michigan Department of Environmental Equality and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources).”

Then, aside from periodic environmental monitoring, Enbridge’s work will be finished, Manshum said. “If there is ever a need to address a particular area (we’ll be back), but as far as we know, we are in the final stages.”

The company had originally hoped to be done with the dredging work on Morrow Lake by the end of 2013, but had trouble finding an acceptable site for a dredge pad to temporarily hold the material before it is trucked away. In February, Enbridgereceived approval from the Comstock Township Planning Commission to place a dredge pad at Benteler Industries, which sits to the north of the lake on East Michigan Avenue.

MORE: View a map of the approved work site [PDF]

That approval was contingent on Enbridge using a truck route that avoided the  intersection at Michigan Avenue and King Highway, as up to 200 trucks per day transport contaminated sediment from the site to an approved landfill. Another condition was that Enbridge set up air quality control monitors in the nearby Fleetwood Neighborhood.

Since the dredging work began, Nieuwenhuis said, “only two times have we had calls — on April 22 some people complained about a diesel smell. A lot of trucks were in and out because that was the first day weight limit restrictions were lifted.”

One other time a person called complaining of a smell, she said.

The work being done this summer is out of sight of the Fleetwood neighborhood, hidden by an earthen berm, and air and noise are monitored to assure nothing intrudes onto the Wenke softball complex at River Oaks Park.

Trucks have demonstrated strict adherence to their approved routes, Nieuwenhuis said. “So far, so good,” she said.

Upstream and closer to the site of the pipeline break, where dredging and other cleanup work began, the state is heavily involved in overseeing restoration of the river, said Michelle DeLong, Enbridge Response Unit Chief for the MDEQ Water Resources Division. That entails tapering the sides of the channel, installing logs with root structure attached to create fish habitat, constructing riffle pools with shallow rocky areas and installing brush along the riverbank. Planting will be done in late summer and fall.

In addition, state officials “are still monitoring and will be working with Enbridge as the EPA leaves the site when dredging is done,” DeLong said.

“At some point, when the U.S. EPA leaves the project, we will begin our long-term monitoring and assessment program with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,” she said.

Steve Hamilton, president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, said his 
sense from attending regular stakelholder meetings and touring the Morrow Lake dredging operation a few weeks ago is that the final dredging is going very well.

“Enbridge and their contractors, as well as the EPA and DEQ, have learned a lot from prior experience dredging elsewhere in the river system, and they have developed a very well-designed system for the local conditions,” he said. “And it seems clear to me that they have spared no expense to handle the material properly and safely, and ensure that air emissions are not a problem. So, no complaints from my perspective.”


Elk River Spill Potentially more Toxic Than Previously Thought


While it has been over six months since the devastating spill of the toxic chemical 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol or MCHM, a chemical in the process of coal production, a new study by federally funded research  from the University of Alabama shows that the chemical previously downplayed by the company Freedom Industries for its health risks has turned out to be more poisonous than previously believed.

Lead researcher Andrew J. Whelton, PH.D., “found it to be much more toxic to aquatic life than was reported by Eastman Chemical, the company that makes it. Whelton said he used exactly the same process to test the chemical that Eastman did — the same water chemistry, temperature, quality, and organisms — but found a drastically different result than what was reported on Eastman’s Material Safety Data Sheet for the chemical,” according to Think Progress.

“To be frank, [the drastic difference in results] could be for a number of reasons. It could be is that the composition of the crude MCHM they tested in 1998 was different than the crude MCHM [Eastman] sent us in 2014.”

Approximately 10,000 gallons of MCHM spilled into West Virginia’s Elk River on Jan. 9. Quickly after over 600 people checked themselves into local hospitals for a myriad of health problems such as rash, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

“What is important is that the findings further demonstrate that additional work is needed to better understand the short- and long-term toxicity implications of this contaminated water,” Whelton told Think Progress. “Somebody else needs to replicate Eastman’s work, and if the study that someone else conducts turns out to show that crude MCHM is more toxic, then that calls into question the toxicity data was published that was used as a basis for public health response.”

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How to Stop Burn Pits From Becoming the Next Agent Orange



The Obama administration prides itself on righting the sins of past regimes, including expanding access to health care for Vietnam veterans who suffered from exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.

But veterans groups worry the administration is on track to repeat past mistakes by refusing thousands of disability claims that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans say are related to breathing toxic fumes from open burn pits—which were used for years to discard everything from trash and human waste to vehicles and batteries.

The Veterans Affairs Department finally opened a congressionally mandated online registry for burn-pit victims late last month, and lawmakers are starting to look at how to move forward on helping veterans who believe their illnesses—ranging from bronchitis to cancer—are tied to exposure to the fumes.

Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico is working on legislation that requires the VA to establish a research network to study the impact of open burn pits on soldiers and veterans. And Sen. Bob Corker—who previously worked with Udall to spearhead burn-pit legislation in the Senate—said that “the VA must ensure this law is implemented effectively and fix any remaining problems with the online Open Burn Pit Registry.”

Corker notes that with the ongoing health care scandal, the “credibility of the Veterans Affairs [is] already on the line.”

On the other side of the Hill, legislation introduced last year has stalled. Democratic Rep. Tim Bishop of New York wants the Defense Department to create three “centers of excellence” where ailments from burn-pit exposure would be studied, diagnosed, and treated.

“I’m trying to build cosponsors for that, so that we can show the leadership that this is an issue that has pretty strong bipartisan support,” Bishop said. He calls measures to boost the ability to study and treat illnesses tied to exposure “the next logical step.” But with the clock running down on the 113th Congress, Bishop acknowledged that the proposal might have to be reintroduced next year.

In the meantime, veterans can use the VA’s online registry—if they can get access to it—to document their exposure to burn pits and other airborne hazards, including health concerns that they have.

And though using the registry won’t help veterans in their current battles to get disability pay from the VA, the administration is hoping to use the voluntary sign-ups to help document and track exposure.

“When we have things like metal showing up in people’s lungs, and acute respiratory problems … it’s worth asking questions now to figure that out,” said Tom Tarantino, the policy director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a former Army captain.

Bishop and Tarantino worry that without proper attention, exposure to burn pits could turn into this generation’s Agent Orange. Veterans of the Vietnam War, where Agent Orange was frequently used as an herbicide, waited decades for the VA to recognize that their illnesses were caused by the chemical.

Advocates are hoping the VA will learn from its past mistakes and take a more proactive approach to trying to figure out the potential health impact of burn pits.

“Sort of my mantra is that we don’t want burn-pit exposure to become the Agent Orange of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” Bishop said. “One of the reasons that I and a couple of other members of Congress jumped on this when we did is to try to forestall that from happening.”

Research on burn-pits exposure is lagging, and the findings have been mixed.

The VA, for its part, believes that most illnesses that could be tied to burn-pit exposure are temporary and tend to go away once a soldier gets away from them.

“Research does not show evidence of long-term health problems from exposure to burn pits at this time,” the VA says on its website.

And a 2011 study by the Institute of Medicine—which the VA relies heavily upon to determine what illnesses it considers service-related—found “insufficient evidence” to make a hard link between burn-pit exposure and long-term health effects. But the institute recommended a longer study “to determine their incidence of chronic diseases, including cancers, that tend to not show up for decades.”

A study by Anthony Szema, an assistant professor at Stony Brook School of Medicine, found that the type of material being burned has been linked to a whole host of diseases. For example, Szema told lawmakers as early as 2009 that burning cardboard has been linked to neurological disorders, plastic bottles to deficiencies in the immune system, and particle boards or plywood to certain types of cancers.

The Defense Department publicly falls in line with the VA. The Pentagon backs further research but doesn’t think that burn pits have long-term health impacts. A leaked 2011 Army memo, however, paints a different picture.

Studying exposure to air pollution at an air base in Afghanistan, the internal memo found that “there is a potential that long-term exposure … may increase the risk for developing chronic health conditions such as reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, atherosclerosis, or other cardiopulmonary diseases.”

The main cause of the pollution at the base? A burn pit, according to the report.

“I have been disappointed that the official position of the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs is that there is no conclusive evidence to link burn-pit exposure with the ailments that so many who have been exposed to burn pits are now presenting,” Bishop said. He added that there is a “pretty good body of evidence” that suggests there is a link between exposure and certain illnesses.

And it’s the contradiction between the government’s public stance and anecdotal evidence from veterans—including stories collected on the Burn Pits 360 website—that Tarantino said is a sign that more research needs to be done.

A key focus is trying to determine if metals—which have been linked to cancers—found in the lungs of soldiers returning from Iraq, in particular, are linked to burn pits or dust or both.

“We’re kind of dragging them in kicking and screaming into this,” Tarantino said of the administration. “But we are dragging them.”


Here’s another complication for fracking — radioactive waste


Writer Adam Wernick

At the Chemung County landfill in Elmira, New York, piles of drill cuttings from Pennsylvania shale oil wells are scattered around the yard. The cuttings look like heaps of wet black sand, wrapped in a black plastic liner — and they’re radioactive.

Those radioactive drill cuttings — the waste pulled to the surface when a new well is drilled — are opening a new front in the already-contentious battle over hydraulic fracturing, know as fracking.

All rocks have some radiation in them, explains Matt Richmond, a reporter for WSKG and the Allegheny Front, who has been following the story. But the Marcellus Shale in the eastern US, one of the regions where fracking is booming, is an unusually radioactive underground formation. A recent study found radiation levels three times higher than in other rock layers.

States in and around the fracking boom are trying to figure out what to do about all this naturally radioactive waste from drilling. Pennsylvania is conducting a study of

radiation in the Marcellus Shale. West Virginia passed a law to segregate drill cuttings within landfills. New York State has a moratorium on fracking, but it accepts radioactive drilling waste from nearby Pennsylvania — and that has touched off an intense debate.

Larry Shilling, vice-president of Casella Waste Systems, which operates the Chemung County landfill, says the site has never accepted a load of cuttings that exceeded acceptable levels of radiation. In fact, he wants New York State regulators to allow the company to accept even more cuttings from Pennsylvania.

But not everyone is convinced this landfill is taking sufficient precautions. Gary Abraham, an environmental lawyer in Western New York who is working to block Casella from expanding its landfills, says there’s so much radiation in the deep shale rocks that it must inevitability be entering landfills.

He points to radioactivity readings taken by New York State regulators of the salty water found in the Marcellus Shale. This water, which comes up during and after fracking, is called brine. “The radioactivity of the brine is as high as 15,000 picocuries per liter,” Abraham says. “The background radiation at the surface of the earth in New York is about 1 picocurie per liter.”

Larry Shilling, however, argues that while brine can be radioactive, the drill cuttings he accepts at his site are benign. In fact, he says, testing his site commissioned on the Marcellus cuttings showed very little radiation. “The highest reading we got from any of those four samples was 4.3 picocuries per gram, still under the cleanup standard that EPA set for cleaning up sites,” he says.

Part of the difficulty with this debate is that the parties are talking past each other: Abraham is looking at the brine associated with the Marcellus Shale and raising the red flag; Shilling is focused on the rock and giving the green light.

Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Duke University, looks at both sides. He says there’s a risk that, once radium locked deep underground gets into streams and rivers, it will make its way into fish and eventually into people.

The particular form of radium found in the Marcellus Shale, radium-226, has a half-life of more than 5,000 years. Once it gets into the environment, it’s there for good.

“Radium is very similar to calcium,” Vengosh says. “As a result, it would accumulate in the bone … which would lead to bone cancer.” In a stream near one plant that processes fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania, Vengosh has found radium at 200 times the background level.

Since contaminants started showing up in streams, Pennsylvania has tightened restrictions on the disposal of wastewater. But the treatment of solid waste at places like the Chemung County landfill in New York concerns Vengosh.

“Every contaminant that’s being disposed into landfills — the solids — are subject to numerous attacks of acids and different chemicals, different solutions within the landfill,” says Vengosh. “And they’re creating what we call leachate.”

Leachate is basically “garbage tea.” Anything that’s in the landfill, like radium, can get into it. What happens to leachate? It ends up at wastewater treatment plants — but the Chemung County plant that serves the Casella landfill can’t test for radium.

Casella does its own quarterly radiation test of its leachate. Results showed low levels of radium-226, but each testing showed a small increase.

Fracking is still a relatively new technology and its rapid expansion has outpaced the ability of regulators and activists to track its effects on the environment. It may be years before researchers can gather enough data to draw firm conclusions.

And even then, given the polarized state of the wider environmental debate, we may never agree on what those conclusions suggest we should do.


In Rare Effort, Ohio Scientist to Test Water Before Fracking Soars


As the shale gas boom was making its way into Ohio in 2012, University of Cincinnati scientist Amy Townsend-Small began testing private water wells in Carroll County, the epicenter of the Utica Shale. Her project, which includes samples of more than 100 wells, is one of the few sustained efforts in the nation to evaluate drinking water quality before, during and after gas drilling.

Although it will likely be another year before Townsend-Small releases the results, her work offers a template for other communities worried about how drilling, fracking and producing unconventional natural gas might contaminate groundwater supplies.

Most residents test their water only after they suspect it has been polluted; few have the resources or foresight to conduct baseline testing prior to the drilling.

The tests cost hundreds of dollars, “so it’s not something everybody can afford to do regularly,” said Townsend-Small, an assistant professor in the geology department.

Once her sampling results are published, the data points won’t be matched with specific locations, in order to protect residents’ privacy and to avoid affecting property values.

Townsend-Small’s team offers free water testing about four times a year to interested landowners in and around Carroll County. She uses drilling reports the industry files with Ohio regulators to determine which water samples were taken near active gas wells.

Each sample is tested for methane, the main component of natural gas. Townsend-Small’s lab uses isotopic analysis to “fingerprint” the methane to determine if it’s “biogenic methane” (produced by microbes, and unrelated to natural gas drilling) or “fossil fuel methane” (methane found in oil, gas and coal deposits). The samples are also tested for pH and the presence of salts.

Methane can leak due to poorly-constructed gas wells. Although dissolved methane doesn’t pose a health risk, high levels of methane can lead to explosions. Townsend-Small said some of the baseline samples in Ohio have shown surprisingly high concentrations of biogenic methane, even near levels that might allow people to light their tap water on fire.

The project was inspired by a 2011 peer-reviewed study from Duke University, where researchers found higher levels of fossil fuel methane in water wells within a kilometer—or 3,281 feet—of active gas wells in the Marcellus Shale. The study did not find any fracking chemicals in the water.

Townsend-Small said the Duke study was “a really good paper,” but it was criticized because the scientists hadn’t taken baseline samples. That raised the possiblility that the methane had come from other sources, such as shallow gas deposits unrelated to deep shale extraction.

Ohio law requires gas companies to test water wells for methane prior to drilling, but it only applies to wells within 1,500 feet of a proposed shale gas well. Townsend-Small’s team will sample any resident’s well, regardless of its proximity to active drilling sites.

“It’s a really good opportunity we have in Ohio, to start early” before the drilling takes off, Townsend-Small said.

Last winter, she presented preliminary results from her study at a community meeting, where she explained that some water wells showed biogenic methane. None of the wells in her presentation were located near gas drilling, so she found it frustrating when a local paper said her results showed “hydraulic fracturing has had no impact on water quality.”

Townsend-Small said she had trouble finding financial support for her Ohio project. “The federal government doesn’t fund universities to do [water] monitoring, because that’s the job of the EPA and the state agencies. But they’re also not doing it.”

Her work is currently funded by the Deer Park Foundation, the Alice Weston Foundation and individual donors.