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NOT IN MY BACKYARD: US SENDING DIRTY COAL ABROAD

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Associated Press


NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — Coal from Appalachia rumbles into this port city, 150 railroad cars at a time, bound for the belly of the massive cargo ship Prime Lily. The ship soon sets sail for South America, its 80,000 tons of coal destined for power plants and factories, an export of American energy — and pollution.

In the U.S., this coal and the carbon dioxide it will eventually release into the atmosphere are some of the unwanted leftovers of an America going greener. With the country moving to cleaner natural gas, the Obama administration wants to reduce power plant pollution to make good on its promise to the world to cut emissions.

Yet the estimated 228,800 tons of carbon dioxide contained in the coal aboard the Prime Lily equals the annual emissions of a small American power plant. It’s leaving this nation’s shores, but not the planet.

“This is the single biggest flaw in U.S. climate policy,” said Roger Martella, the former general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. “Although the administration is moving forward with climate change regulations at home, we don’t consider how policy decisions in the United States impact greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world.”

This fossil fuel trade, which has soared under President Barack Obama, threatens to undermine his strategy to reduce the gases blamed for global warming. It also reveals a little-discussed side effect of countries acting alone on a global issue. As the U.S. tries to set a global example by reducing demand for fossil fuels at home, American energy companies are sending more dirty fuels than ever to other parts of the world, exports worth billions of dollars every year. In some cases, these castoffs of America’s clean energy push are ending up in places with more lax environmental standards, or where governments are resistant to tackling the emissions responsible for global warming.

It’s a global shell game on fossil fuels that at the very least makes the U.S. appear to be making more progress on global warming than it actually is, because it shifts some of the pollution — and the burden for cleaning it up — onto another country’s balance sheet.

“It’s not taking responsibility,” said Thomas Power, a research professor at the University of Montana who has worked for environmental groups and clean energy foundations and has pushed for a more honest accounting of emissions. “It’s shifting the responsibility to someone else.”

With companies looking to double America’s coal exports, the nation’s growing position in the global energy trade could make global warming worse, fueling the world’s demand for coal when many experts say most fossil fuels should remain in the ground to avert the most disastrous effects of climate change.

In 2012, about 9 percent of worldwide coal exports originated in the U.S., the latest data available.

White House officials say the U.S. will continue to be a small player with a negligible global footprint and the best way to address global warming is to reduce coal’s use globally. In the meantime, they’re considering adding crude oil and natural gas to the menu of U.S. energy exports shipped abroad.

“There may be a very marginal increase in coal exports caused by our climate policies,” said Rick Duke, Obama’s deputy climate adviser, in an interview with The Associated Press. “Given that coal supply is widely available from many sources, our time is better spent working on leading toward a global commitment to cut carbon pollution on the demand side.”

But as companies plan new coal export terminals, the Obama administration has resisted evaluating the global fallout of those decisions.

It says that if the U.S. didn’t supply the coal, another country would.

In Oregon and Washington state, where three proposed terminals would double U.S. coal exports, the Democratic governors are pressing the administration to assess the global-warming impact of that coal when it is burned abroad. The administration has refused to do so.

Guidance drafted by White House officials in 2010 did outline how broadly federal agencies should look at carbon emissions from U. S. projects. Four years later, that guidance is still under review.

Carbon dioxide, regardless of whether it enters the atmosphere in Germany, India, or Brazil contributes to the sea level rise and in some cases severe weather that is linked to global warming.

The nexus of the challenge, and its international conundrum, can be found here, in Norfolk, Virginia, a low-lying coastal community that exports more coal than any place in the U.S. One of the region’s three coal export terminals, Dominion Terminal Associates, says that it supplies “Coal for the World.” At the same time, Norfolk is already experiencing one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the country.

“Ultimately we would like to leave the coal in the ground. That is the best place for it,” said Joe Cook, a local resident and Sierra Club activist. He is fighting a much more local side effect of coal exports: dust released as it travels along rail lines, is dumped in massive piles by the dock and loaded onto ships. Cook believes that the dust is threatening people’s health.

When asked about the emissions from exports harming the planet, he said, “We have no control over that.”

As for the president, in recent speeches promoting his plan to reduce global warming Obama has highlighted the progress his administration has made driving down emissions at home.

“Together, we’ve held our carbon emissions to levels not seen in about 20 years,” he recently told the League of Conservation Voters. “Since 2006, no country on earth has reduced its total carbon pollution by as much as the United States.”

But that’s only part of the story.

The U.S. has the largest recoverable coal reserves in the world. Over the past six years, as the country has cut its own coal consumption by 195 million tons, about 20 percent of that coal was shipped abroad, according to an AP analysis of Energy Department data.

Last year, global coal use grew by 3 percent, faster than any other fossil fuel, according to the 2014 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

And while less coal being burned here has helped the power sector reduce carbon emissions by 12 percent and left more U.S. coal in the ground, a growing share is finding its way to the rest of the world.

The proportion is expected to get larger as global demand for coal rises and the U.S. continues to clean up its power plants, boost energy efficiency and move to less-polluting sources of energy such as wind and solar. The latest EPA proposal on power plants envisions even less coal being used to make electricity.

The Obama administration, and the world, account only for coal burned inside their own borders when charting their progress on global warming.

“Energy exports bit by bit are chipping away at gains we are making on carbon dioxide domestically,” said Shakeb Afsah, who runs an energy consulting firm in Bethesda, Maryland. Pollution from coal exports has wiped out all the carbon pollution savings the U.S. achieved by switching from coal to natural gas, according to an analysis he published earlier this year. A 2012 report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England said the carbon contained in coal exports put back half the pollution.

On the other side of the Atlantic, in a town on the edge of Germany’s coal-mining region, sits a new power plant burning some of America’s coal. The 750-megawatt Trianel power plant in Luenen relies completely on coal imports, about half from the U.S.

“American coal is simply very attractive for us because of its price, and therefore we’re using a high percentage of it,” Stefan Paul, executive director of the Trianel Kohlekraftwerk Luenen GmbH & Co. plant, told AP.

During a recent visit by an AP reporter, workers unloaded South African coal from two barges docked in an adjacent canal. The canal was built in 1914 to send coal from the Ruhr Valley through Rotterdam to ports overseas. Now the coal comes the other way.

German coal mining has been a dying tradition. The government will end subsidies in 2018, effectively killing it.

However, Germany is experiencing a resurgence in coal-fired power. Five German coal plants have been built since 2008, and more are coming. While the new plants are more efficient and much cleaner than older plants being phased out, they are also larger and are replacing some of the nuclear power that the country has been phasing out since the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

The result: In 2013, Germany’s emissions of carbon dioxide grew by 1.2 percent.

This has happened even as the European continent has clamped down on the emissions blamed for global warming by increasing the use of renewable energy and instituting a cap-and-trade pollution system similar to one the U.S. Congress rejected in Obama’s first term.

Coal is cheaper than alternatives in Germany, particularly natural gas. So, too, are the prices on the carbon market in Europe. Companies can afford to buy the right to release more pollution.

“When coal is available, it is kind of like crack. It is the cheapest, biggest high that an industrial consumer can get,” said Kevin Book, an energy analyst at Washington,-based ClearView Energy Partners LLC.

In the U.S., the opposite is happening. Until recently, coal was more costly than natural gas, which is booming. Environmental regulations also are pushing the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired plants to retirement by adding more costs, and any new coal-fired power plants will have to capture carbon dioxide and bury it underground if the Obama administration gets its way. Few if any new coal plants are expected to be built.

But the U.S. and other countries have no problem supplying Germany and the world with coal. Last year, the U.S. exported coal worth $11 billion.

Of the top five countries receiving power plant-grade coal from the U.S. in 2013, four were in Europe: the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy and Germany. All have seen their coal imports more than double from the U.S. since 2008.

German environmental officials say the reliance on coal-fired electricity will make it hard for the country to meet its climate-protection goals. Activists partly blame the U.S.

“This is a classic case of political greenwashing,” said Dirk Jansen, a spokesman for BUND, one of Germany’s most influential environmental advocacy organizations. “Obama pretties up his own climate balance, but it doesn’t help the global climate at all if Obama’s carbon dioxide is coming out of chimneys in Germany.”

It’s unclear just how much pollution the U.S. is sending abroad or its overall effect on global greenhouse gas emissions. No one, including the administration, has calculated it. It’s a complex equation that includes global demand, natural gas prices, cheaper sources of coal from other countries, even weather. For instance, coal exports are down this year after a colder-than-average winter and higher natural gas prices in the U.S. caused power plants here to use more coal. Exports are forecast to be down slightly for several years before resuming an upward trajectory through 2040.

U.S. coal producers, and the companies that move and sell coal for export, are laying the groundwork for more exports. They see a growth market globally, in spite of efforts by the Obama administration to curb it. The administration has placed restrictions on U.S. financing of coal plants overseas that don’t control for carbon dioxide.

No such limits are in place for coal exporters.

In 2012, the U.S. Export-Import Bank backed $90 million in loans to XCoal Energy & Natural Resources LLC, a Pennsylvania-based exporting company, which plans to increase coal shipments to Japan, South Korea and China for use in steel and other industrial facilities.

Kinder Morgan, which owns one of the three terminals in the Norfolk area, earlier this year expanded its facilities to handle 1.5 million more tons of coal there. The company also spent $388 million to boost exports from Louisiana and Texas, mostly for thermal coal, the type of coal burned in power plants.

In Virginia, a coal-friendly state, the expansion has barely caused a stir. Coal has been leaving these shores for 130 years from Norfolk Southern Corp.’s enormous terminal.

The politics in the Pacific Northwest have been less favorable for coal. Three terminals proposed for Oregon and Washington would double U.S. exports, sending coal mined from mostly federal land in Montana and Wyoming to China and other markets in Asia. The plans have drawn fierce opposition from environmental groups, tribes and others.

And they’ve prompted some of Obama’s allies in the climate fight, the Democratic governors of Oregon and Washington, to point to what they describe as contradictions in the administration’s energy and climate policy and ask for a full analysis of the environmental impact both at home and abroad.

In a 2012 letter, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said, “The impacts of United States coal exports on climate change are an issue of national concern that merits a hard look by a federal agency.”

The administration seems unwilling.

The lead federal agency in charge of evaluating the terminals’ environmental impact, the Army Corps of Engineers, has refused to analyze the contribution that coal from the terminals will have on global warming, despite calls by the Environmental Protection Agency to consider them.

The Council on Environmental Quality, the White House office in charge of overseeing environmental matters, has stood on the sidelines, though saying that the law allows emissions abroad to be part of the analysis.

A 2010 guidance aimed at clarifying how agencies should evaluate greenhouse gas emissions for major projects is still being reviewed.

“They have sat on their hands,” said George Kimbrell, a senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, which has sued the administration over this delay.

Meanwhile, the state of Washington has decided to estimate on its own the quantity of greenhouse gases its two terminals will generate in the U.S. and in the countries that receive the coal.

Independent analyses have come to different conclusions about the impact the West Coast terminals will have.

A study by Power, the Montana professor, found that exports of cheap-to-produce Powder River Basin coal to Asia would depress prices, driving up demand and increasing the amounts of gases blamed for global warming. But another, by the Washington, D.C.,-based think tank Energy Policy Research Foundation Inc., said that expanding U.S. exports will have no impact on world coal consumption or global greenhouse gas emissions, because it will replace higher-cost coal that would come from somewhere else.

A federal judge last month faulted the administration for using similar logic when it failed to fully analyze the greenhouse gases from the expansion of a Colorado coal mine.

“The production of coal … will increase the supply of cheap, low-sulfur coal,” wrote Judge R. Brooke Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. “At some point, this additional supply will impact the demand for coal … and coal that otherwise would have been left in the ground will be burned.”

Changing the global system to start looking at the flow of carbon out of the ground would carry political risks, especially for the U.S., which is trying to boost energy production and exports even as it addresses global warming. America is an outlier among the top coal exporters worldwide, making the most significant public strides to combat climate change. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a visit to Indonesia in February, the largest coal exporter in the world, told the country that if it didn’t do something on climate it would put its entire way of life at risk.

Australia, the world’s second largest coal exporter, recently repealed its carbon tax, in part because the coal industry argued it was making it more expensive to do business.

“The U.S. needs to be pragmatic on this,” said Jason Bordoff, director of Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “If our coal exports are very small and having no or little impact on global greenhouse gas emissions … the government has to take into account the economic and foreign policy costs of restricting exports.” He was a National Security Council energy and climate change adviser to Obama until January 2013.

The United Nations’ climate chief earlier this year warned that three-quarters of all fossil fuels must remain in the ground if the world has any hope of containing the planet’s temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, as the international community, including the U.S., agreed to in 2009.

Norfolk is caught in the middle.

In 2013 alone, coal shipped from here for foreign power plants contained 48 million tons of carbon dioxide, pollution that could come back to haunt this city. The sea level here is expected to rise an additional 1.5 feet in 50 years, even if the world stops releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere tomorrow.

Bob Parsons lives on a half-mile-wide sandbar, just miles from two coal export terminals, and keeps a chart on his garage door chronicling a decade’s worth of battles with rising water.

The highest line marks the 2006 nor’easter that submerged his backyard in more than three feet of salt water from the bays and inlets. Another mark, around a foot, was the brush with Hurricane Ernesto that same year.

“Sure, there is a connection between them, what gets exported out of here and burned and the sea level rise,” said Parsons. “They are still burning it. They are still polluting the atmosphere.”

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Associated Press writers David Rising and Kirsten Grieshaber contributed reporting from Berlin and Luenen, Germany.

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Pennsylvania residents suffering from water woes due to Fracking

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Despite all the economic boom that fracking has brought to the state of Pennsylvania, residents have quickly seen the consequences the practice has had on the quality of living in the state. Residents of the state have learned this all too well after learning that most of the local well water in the area is unfit to drink as it has been found be contaminated by a number of toxic metals and other chemicals linked to both fracking and mining. In a radio interview with one local activist, host of the program Living on Earth, Steve Curwood spoke to local activist Reid Frazier of the Allegheny Front about the situation on the ground.

“The boxes are loaded with gallon jugs of spring water. This is his drinking water for the week. You’ve heard of a food drive? This is a water drive. It was organized a couple of years ago after neighbors in Fair’s community, called the Woodlands, say their water quality deteriorated. They blamed nearby drilling rigs for the water problems. Fair says he drilled a water well three years ago at his home. The water was perfect, he said. Then it started smelling bad like rotten eggs, and it looked like mud.”

“The company drilling the nearby gas wells, Rex Energy, initially provided Fair [John Fair of the Woodlands, Connoquenessing Township] and his neighbors with drinking water, but that ended in 2012, when the state said gas activities were not the cause of the water problems. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection found water had high levels of iron and manganese before drilling began, and the EPA agreed. Some in the Woodlands say they’ve had problems with their well water in the past: that it smelled bad, or that after rainstorms it became dirty. But they say it got worse when drilling commenced, and some of them, including Fair, are suing Rex because of it.”

The entire transcript for the program can be found here.

20090106-chesapeake-bay

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

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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

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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.

larenschield@dispatch.com

@larenschield

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Toxic cleanup shifts from dirt near RDU to region’s streams, lakes Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/07/19/4016489/toxic-cleanup-shifts-from-dirt.html#storylink=cpy

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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: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/07/19/4016489/toxic-cleanup-shifts-from-dirt.html#storylink=cpy

PCB clean up North Carolina Set to Begin

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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 NewsObserver.com, 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.”

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

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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: http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20140716/GZ01/140719518#sthash.4iOxBOuu.dpuf

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

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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.”

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Elk River Spill Potentially more Toxic Than Previously Thought

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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

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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.”