NC moves to fine Duke over coal ash pollution


Michaael Biesecker, Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Toxic air in Louisville not being monitored


James Bruggers,

For the first time in 15 years, there is no monitoring for a variety of toxic chemicals in Louisville’s air — even though Jefferson County accounts for nearly 20 percent of all industrial emissions of those types of pollutants in Kentucky.

Largely with state Energy and Environment Cabinet funding, the University of Louisville’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainable Development had taken air samples every 12 days at at least six locations since the late 1990s, in a partnership with the West Jefferson County Community Task Force, a nonprofit environmental justice group.

At issue are what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calls “hazardous air pollutants,” involving dozens of chemicals and metals that can cause cancer and other illnesses.

The sampling and analysis of them locally in 2000 and 2001 had been used to help justify Louisville’s landmark Strategic Toxic Air Reduction program in 2005, after a study found health risks hundreds of times higher than what state and local officials considered safe.

Since then, a scaled back U of L monitoring program has revealed significant improvement, while showing that residents of western Louisville still have greater health risks from toxic air than residents in eastern Louisville.

But last November, U of L officials halted the monitoring when a key employee retired, said Russell Barnett, director of the U of L institute. U of L then shut down the program’s laboratory in the J. B. Speed School of Engineering and moved it to U of L’s Health Sciences Center downtown, where Barnett said he has been trying to get the lab’s aging equipment functioning properly again.

Now there are also concerns about the program’s funding.

Dwindling state dollars for the program have been shifted to other purposes, said Arnita Gadson, executive director of the Kentucky Environmental Quality Commission, which is part of the energy cabinet.

“We do need to get it back up,” said Gadson, a former executive director of the West Jefferson task force, of the air monitoring. “It was kind of a security blanket,” she said, allowing the community and Rubbertown area chemical companies alike to check on the effectiveness of STAR.

It’s “a U of L issue,” said Sean Alteri, director of the Kentucky Division for Air Quality. But he also said there was no reason for the state to pay for the air monitoring after U of L stopped collecting and analyzing air samples.

Alteri said the state provided about $1.6 million to the program over the years, adding that there is a “legitimate question” of whether Louisville officials should take over the funding. But he did not rule out resumed state funding and said state officials will continue talking with representatives from U of L, the Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District and the task force about how to best resume monitoring.

ENVIRONMENT: Louisville air fails tougher EPA soot standard

WATCHDOG EARTH: NASA visualizes better air quality

Search for funding

Funding was once about $150,000 a year and included money to support a task force employee and office. But support has lagged in recent years as state budgets have been cut. This past year the program was funded at $80,000, including $25,000 for the task force, Barnett said.

The loss of funding for monitoring also means a loss of the only source of money for the task force, which has worked as a liaison between government, industry and the community since the 1990s. Most recently, the task force has been an advocate for residents who live near the former Blackleaf pesticide plant and have had contaminated soil removed from their yards.

Carl Hilton, the task force’s part time executive director, has said he will work as a volunteer until the budget matters can be worked out.

State Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, who has helped secure funding for the program, said he’s worried it might be faltering and wants to get some answers.

“It’s on my radar,” Neal said.

The air district has its own air monitoring network, sampling and analyzing for pollutants like ozone and soot as required by the EPA.

But the district is not required to monitor hazardous air pollutants, with the exception of lead, and does not fund that kind of monitoring, said Tom Nord, district spokesman.

The district also has no money in its budget to take over or fund the U of L monitoring, said Keith Talley Sr., district executive director.

Still, Talley said there is value in monitoring. “There is some fairly nasty toxic stuff out there,” Talley said. “We are looking at all the issues (and) options.”

The original monitoring was called for by the task force in the late 1990s, amid a clamor for pollution cuts at Rubbertown area companies. The EPA was involved at first, along with the air district, in a health-risk assessment of air samples taken in 2000 and 2001.

Chemicals and some of the monitoring locations have changed over the years. But generally every dozen days, U of L took 24-hour samples at five locations in western Louisville and one on Cannons Lane. Canisters of air went to the U of L lab, where they were analyzed, and numbers entered into a computer.

Cannons Lane data allowed U of L to compare the Rubbertown area with an area that’s not industrial, where Barnett figured that the predominant pollutants are likely coming from motor vehicles.

ENVIRONMENT: Looking for air pollution hot spots with micro-monitors

WATCHDOG EARTH: Appeals Court upholds Obama EPA rule on toxic air emissions

Louisville mentioned

The original monitoring identified the human carcinogen 1,3-butadiene as the community’s biggest toxic air risk, but followup air sampling showed butadiene levels in the air had been reduced more than 80 percent.

The largest industrial source of butadiene, American Synthetic Rubber Co., began installing new pollution controls in 2006, sharply reducing its butadiene output.

“We think any program that accurately helps monitor the emissions in the community where we do business and where our families live and other families live is of value,” said Tony Fouladpour, spokesman for Michelin North America, the corporate parent of American Synthetic Rubber in Rubbertown.

The followup data also revealed that concentrations of some chemicals were still 10 times higher near Rubbertown than at Cannons Lane, a decade after the initial study.

While the program is down, Barnett said it’s reasonable to assess whether to change the number or locations of its monitors, or the chemicals it studies. As communities change, so can their pollution patterns and sources, he said.

While the program has focused on the Rubbertown area, industrial plants there are not the only sources of toxic air. Louisville is also a transportation hub for rail and air cargo and an interstate highway crossroads, also identified by the EPA as sources of toxic air.

Interstate 65 from Louisville to the Watterson is the heaviest travel corridor in the state, and it might be helpful to have a toxic air monitor there, Barnett said.

“The airport would be another logical place,” he said. “It’s something that could be of concern.”

The data provide useful information, he said. “The purpose … is to look at and identify health risks, as well as look at trends, to see what they can tell you.”

The EPA last week issued its second report to Congress on hazardous air pollutants. Overall, EPA said, toxic air emissions from all sources have declined at a rate of 1.5 million tons per year since 1990.

The report called out Louisville’s effort as an example of success, noting that the city had “developed local air toxics requirements designed to address the impacts of air toxics that pose elevated risks to human health in their area.”

Basic RGB

Corporate Espionage Non Profits Without Legal Consequences


Greenpeace received word that the DC Court of Appeals has ruled against them in their lawsuit against Dow Chemical, Sasol, Dezenhall Resources, Ketchum, and the former operates of the now-defunct Beckett, Brown, Inc. corporate espionage firm. The court dismissed the case because Greenpeace rents its office space and the court ruled that as tenants and not owners, Greenpeace had no standing to sue the burglars for intruding on our premises.

Some of you that have been with CHEJ for a while might remember this is the same suit in which CHEJ and Lois Gibbs was targeted with both her home address listed in the espionage firm’s documents as well as photos of the front of her house.  Too bad the case was dismissed but not surprising.  CHEJ knows that they are watched and our phone and internet wires cut a few years ago also went unsolved. For a recap of the case read Ralph Nader’s recent article.

Like other firms specializing in snooping, Beckett Brown turned to garbage swiping as a key tactic. BBI officials and contractors routinely conducted what the firm referred to as “D-line” operations, in which its operatives would seek access to the trash of a target, with the hope of finding useful documents. One midnight raid targeted Greenpeace. One BBI document lists the addresses of several other environmental groups as “possible sites” for operations: the National Environmental Trust, the Center for Food Safety, Environmental Media Services, the Environmental Working Group, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an organization run by Lois Gibbs, famous for exposing the toxic dangers of New York’s Love Canal. For its rubbish-rifling operations, BBI employed a police officer in the District of Columbia and a former member of the Maryland state police. Ridgeway Mother Jones Article.

benzene exposure site

Benzene Exposure Can Exceed Workplace Standards Fracking Sites


Findings suggest that benzene exposure can exceed the NIOSH REL and STEL and present an occupational exposure risk during certain flowback work activities. Based on these preliminary studies, primary point sources of worker exposures to hydrocarbon vapor emissions are opening thief hatches and gauging tanks; additional exposures may occur due to fugitive emissions from equipment in other areas in the flowback process (e.g., chokes, separators, piping, and valves), particularly while performing maintenance on these items. The NIOSH research found that airborne concentrations of hydrocarbons, in general, and benzene, specifically, varied considerably during flowback and can be unpredictable, indicating that a conservative approach to protecting workers from exposure is warranted. Hydrocarbon emissions during flowback operations also showed the potential to generate flammable and explosive concentrations depending on time and where measurements were made, and the volume of hydrocarbon emissions produced. Read more.


Cindy Crawford Pulls Kids Out of School Due to Elevated Levels of PCBs


Better safe than sorry! Cindy Crawford is not taking any chances when it comes to the health and safety of her two kids Presley and Kaia, whom she shares with husband Rande Gerber. The celeb kids missed their first day of school at Malibu High School after testing showed elevated levels of PCBs at their school and others in the county.

PCB is a chemical typically found in the window caulking of older buildings that was outlawed by Congress in 1976. Over time it can cause cancer, damage the immune and reproductive system, and negatively impact brain development in children. Crawford, 48, spoke on the Today Show with special correspondent Maria Shriver about her concerns for her children on Tuesday, Aug. 19.

“I don’t feel 100 percent safe,” she said during the interview. “I look 10 years down the line, what if my kid, God forbid, had a problem? How could I live with myself if I knew that it was a possibility, and I still sent them there?”  Read more.


Up in Flames: Flares emitting more pollution than refineries


By JENNIFER HILLER and JOHN TEDESCO, Staff Writers San Antonio Express News

Amber Lyssy used to love driving to her family’s Wilson County farm.

“I would roll my windows down and smell the fresh country air,” Lyssy said.

But lately, she’s not sure what she’s breathing as oil wells and natural gas flares from the Eagle Ford Shale boom creep up to the farm’s property line.

“The flaring is ridiculous,” Lyssy said.

She and husband Fred raise cattle, lambs, goats and pigs on a 564-acre property owned by Fred’s mother, who has turned down repeated offers from oil and gas companies to drill.

“There’s millions of acres, and they want it all,” Fred Lyssy said.

Grassland Oasis, their organic farm, is dotted with mesquite, oak, huisache and Jerusalem thorn, but it also has a monitor to detect hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas.

The monitor hasn’t sounded yet, but summer’s southerly winds sometimes carry a stench to the farm.

“It doesn’t make any sense that their emissions can cross private property lines and be allowed to pollute. I don’t want to smell it,” Amber Lyssy said.

She also doesn’t want her three young children to breathe the emissions.

Hemmed in by the oil field, the Lyssys this month decided to leave his mother’s South Texas property and start over somewhere beyond the reach of oil field pollution.

The Lyssys and other South Texas residents only can guess at the emissions released by the gas flares spreading across the shale region south of San Antonio.

But a San Antonio Express-News analysis of flaring data, government pollution estimates and hundreds of pages of public documents paints a picture of deteriorating air quality in the Eagle Ford Shale.

The Express-News obtained flaring data from the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil and gas industry, and plugged the numbers into Texas Commission on Environmental Quality formulas to find out how much pollution is emitted from Eagle Ford flares.

Since the drilling boom began in 2008, thousands of flares have burned in the 20,000-square-mile oil patch. Each flare is small enough to escape government reporting requirements on air emissions.

But collectively, the Eagle Ford flares emit more pollution than oil refineries.

In the early days of the boom, flaring released 427 tons of air pollution each year. By 2012, pollution levels shot up to 15,453 tons, a 3,500 percent increase that exceeds the total emissions of all six oil refineries in Corpus Christi.

The pollutants include a precursor to acid rain known as sulfur dioxide, which smells like lit matches and can cause breathing problems.

The flares also emit carbon monoxide, a toxic gas formed from combustion; nitrogen oxides, or NOx, which can produce ground-level ozone; and volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, which include a variety of pollutants such as benzene, a sweet-smelling carcinogen.

Neil Carman, a former TCEQ scientist who now works with the Sierra Club, said he has “very serious public health concerns” about the amount of flaring in the Eagle Ford.

“People are smelling carcinogens,” Carman said. “When you talk about a cancer-causing substances like benzene, the only safe level is zero. Anything more than that, you put a person at risk.”

Click a picture for larger view and for cutlines

TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said air monitoring stations in South Texas haven’t detected “any significant impact on air quality.”

He emphasized that flaring pollution is spread across the entire region, although the newspaper’s analysis shows some counties fare better than others.

A quarter of all the Eagle Ford flaring pollutants came from La Salle County, which flared the most gas in Texas in 2012.

The TCEQ has focused on the pollution impact in San Antonio.

“At any given time, depending on wind direction, emissions from the Eagle Ford Shale area either may not be impacting San Antonio at all, or only a certain portion of the Eagle Ford Shale may be upwind of the San Antonio area,” Clawson said.

Flares burn natural gas because venting it to the atmosphere is more environmentally harmful. It’s also a safety measure to relieve over-pressured equipment or piping.

But some flares accidentally vent raw gas. And Carman said many flares in South Texas are not efficiently burning gas the way they should.

“This idea that everything is burned is just a lie,” he said. “I’ve been on a number of trips in the Eagle Ford and seen smoking flares. If you see a smoking flare that’s not complete combustion … If it’s not completed, you get a smorgasbord of chemicals. Some of them are carcinogenic.”

While flaring is the most visible source of air emissions in the Eagle Ford and one of the most noticeable changes in the rural region, it’s just one source of air pollution at drilling operations.

A recent government study estimates that combined air pollution from everything from gas flaring to hydraulic fracturing to seismic testing emits more nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide than two dozen Texas petroleum refineries.

Despite the increasing pollution, Texas operates only seven air monitoring stations near the Eagle Ford — less than half the number of monitors in the Barnett Shale area near Fort Worth area and its affluent suburbs.

The state’s environmental agency promises a 12-hour response time to complaints in the Barnett Shale. TCEQ makes no such promise in rural South Texas.

Since September 2012, TCEQ has done about 900 investigations related to oil and gas activity in the Eagle Ford Shale. It usually takes regulators a day or two to arrive in person to investigate complaints about smoking flares and strange odors.

Sometimes, it takes as long as 10 days.

Flaring complaints in the Eagle Ford Shale 

A ‘lower priority’

Environmental and health complaints about oil and gas operations have included everything from headaches caused by the odor of crude oil to coughing caused by dust clouds from the construction of caliche drilling pads.

Smoking flares, visible over the tops of mesquite, pecan and oak trees, have prompted residents to email the state with messages like this in 2011: “Black smoke billowing from flare, we have flares all around us and it smells TERRIBLE.”

While the Railroad Commission regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, the TCEQ oversees air permits and complaints about odors.

Michael Honeycutt, the TCEQ chief toxicologist, said after a presentation at a conference in San Antonio in March 2013 that the Barnett Shale’s 12-hour response time isn’t possible in South Texas.

“We can’t do that in the Eagle Ford because it might take hours to get there,” Honeycutt said. “I kind of hate to say this, but those are lower priority than the ones where there’s hundreds of people living within a short radius.”

More than 1 million people live in the Eagle Ford region, the most recent Census Bureau estimates show. Although the Eagle Ford has become one of the world’s most rapidly developing oil fields, the TCEQ still has no accelerated response time in South Texas.

In one instance last August, someone in La Salle County complained of smelling a natural gas odor and getting headaches. The unidentified resident said wildlife was avoiding the area.

It took nine days for the TCEQ to arrive at Murphy Exploration and Production’s Nueces Central Facility, a production site for natural gas, condensate and crude oil.

Investigator Paul Alford found “moderate to strong” intermittent odors that were “unpleasant” but not consistent enough to warrant what the state considers a nuisance.

For that, an odor has to be unpleasant for 10 straight minutes at “very strong intensity” on a weekly basis.

But Alford did discover that the pilot light to a flare wasn’t lit. Hydrocarbons “routed to the flare were uncontrolled and vented to the atmosphere,” his report said.

On another walk-through of the same site in early September, the investigator said the flare wasn’t combusting properly.

The company was given notices of violation, and several of its officials met on site with Alford, where they watched his infrared camera and saw what appeared to be “un-combusted hydrocarbons.”

Murphy made changes to the flare’s operation and the investigation was closed.

North of Cotulla in La Salle County in April 2013, a resident complained about excessive smoke coming from a flare at a Chesapeake Oil Inc. natural gas gathering facility off Interstate 35.

Investigators Alford and Christian Achonye arrived 10 days later.

They saw visible emissions from the flare for the entire inspection and measured emissions from the flare, a separator tank and two hatches. Light hydrocarbon odors were noted.

The company was cited for violations that included failure to maintain all emissions control equipment in good order.

Chesapeake was given a common warning: fix the problem and submit proof, or be sent to “formal enforcement,” a process than can lead to a fine.

But financial penalties are rare.

The TCEQ says its policies are geared more toward bringing companies into line with the rules than in racking up fines. So far, the agency has issued 21 fines in the Eagle Ford region totaling $131,269, an amount that may be reduced to $70,011 if companies agree to make required fixes and pay on time.

In Chesapeake’s case, the TCEQ closed the investigation after the company fixed the problem. The agency didn’t pursue any penalties.

Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, said the TCEQ doesn’t have enough investigators, making it hard for the agency to get to sites in rural areas in time to confirm the possible problems people report. Weather or site conditions change. Winds shift.

“They’re understaffed,” he said.

Companies also are required to report emissions events, and Metzger said the agency could fine companies when they exceed the pollution limits of their permits, but doesn’t.

“The agency should use the records to show that companies are exceeding permits,” Metzger said “All too often they just get a warning. They don’t get any penalty. There’s no incentive.”

Infrared view of Eagle Ford pollution

‘My side of the fence’

Cynthia Dupnik sometimes sees flares at night that create such bright halos it looks like forest fires burning in Karnes County.

“It’s like I’m in the middle of a huge industrial site,” Dupnik said. “Someone told me, ‘They’re going to squeeze you. They’re all around you. You have to get out of there.’

“It’s a toxic cesspool. That’s what it is.”

Dupnik said she developed a litany of health problems in the wake of prolific drilling near her home. She suffers headaches that last for days. There have been persistent coughs and sores in her nose.

“Excruciating,” she said. “And it takes forever for them to heal.”

Dupnik lives in the small community of Hobson in Karnes County off FM 81, a narrow roadway that’s being battered by heavy truck traffic.

Dupnik purchased rural property there in 1991 with plans to pay it off and leave it to her daughters.

“I liked the idea of a country life,” she said.

On a winter afternoon, Dupnik could see drilling rigs and a hydraulic fracturing operations from her property. Short drives from her home in any direction reveal the heart of the Eagle Ford, known as a “sweet spot” where oil and gas operators are finding some of their best results.

There are drilling rigs, fracking spreads, pumpjacks, tank batteries, disposal wells and gas processing plants. Trucks ferry crude oil, frac sand and gravel.

Doctors have prescribed Dupnik round after round of antibiotics. One of her previously healthy dogs has been sick with allergies and skin problems, which Dupnik attributes to the strange smells that drift across her property.

“My family didn’t leave me anything,” she said. “I bought this land for my kids. This is what I’m leaving them and I’m not real proud of it.”

Dupnik owns the surface but not the mineral rights to her property. If she did, she said she would walk away from her home and buy a small plot of land elsewhere.

“It costs you to relocate. I’ll never to be able to go buy 25 more acres of land so I don’t owe on it,” she said. “I had this land for my girls. The intention of purchasing it was to leave it to them. I took a lot of pride in that.”

One of several well sites and processing facilities near Dupnik’s property is Marathon Oil’s Challenger Central Facility, which includes separators, compressors, vapor recovery units, flare and storage tanks.

Last fall after Dupnik reported getting sick, TCEQ investigators checked oil and gas sites near her home and found possible violations at the Challenger Central Facility that included a tank releasing uncontrolled emissions and a high pressure flare not operating properly, also resulting in uncontrolled emissions.

Marathon switched to a temporary flare when told about the problem, but didn’t have a permit for it, which got it flagged for another possible violation.

There was no financial penalty. Instead, the TCEQ in December recommended this:

“The company shall properly operate all pollution abatement equipment.”

“The company shall operate as represented in the permit application.”

“The company shall obtain permit authorization for the third flare.”

The TCEQ recently said it has new information and is evaluating its investigation.

Marathon’s recent Corporate Social Responsibility report says that in response to violation notices in the Eagle Ford, the company did some redesign, installed new recovery units on equipment to prevent the release of vapors, installed several flares “to assist smokeless operation” and had employees and some contractors go through refresher training.

The report said that this year, Marathon will identify sources of flaring and evaluate emissions reduction projects.

Like many in South Texas, Dupnik said she isn’t opposed to oil and gas drilling.

“Do it the right way. I don’t think that’s asking too much,” Dupnik said. “You stay on your side of the fence and I’ll stay on mine. But don’t come on my side of the fence.”

In February, Dupnik and her husband, Thomas, sued Marathon Oil Corp. and Marathon Oil EF LLC.

The lawsuit mentions the Challenger Central Facility and Marathon’s North Longhorn Central Tank Battery, which in 2012 reported two emissions’ events to the state.

In one of the instances, the company reported the release of 29 pounds of benzene as well as thousands of pounds each of propane, pentane and butane.

Lee Warren, spokeswoman with Marathon, said she couldn’t comment on the suit other than to say, “We do deny the allegations contained in the plaintiff’s petition and we’ll vigorously defend our position.”

A judge dismissed a similar lawsuit this month, leaving the status of Dupnik’s case in limbo.

Rural town’s dirty air

The TCEQ has positioned permanent air monitors on the outskirts of the Eagle Ford Shale — not in areas with the most drilling and flaring.

One was installed in Floresville in Wilson County southeast of San Antonio last summer.

There’s no drilling in Floresville, but southern Wilson County is part of what’s called the Eagle Ford’s crude oil “window.”

Operators hunting oil flared one-third of the gas produced in Wilson County in 2012, the highest percentage of all Eagle Ford counties.

In the first half of the year, the Floresville monitor measured higher monthly averages for several pollutants, including the natural gas liquids ethane and propane, than the monitor in Deer Park in the Houston area, one of the state’s major centers for refineries and chemical plants.

The TCEQ said that no volatile organic compound concentrations at either monitor reached the level of a health risk.

The higher concentrations in Floresville for some toxics weren’t surprising, given the different sources — the petrochemical industry in Deer Park and drilling south of Floresville, population 7,021, the agency said.

But Louisiana chemist Wilma Subra, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1999 for helping poor communities understand the science of air and water pollution, found the readings troubling.

“You expect to see those compounds in the air when you have methane flaring and venting,” Subra said. “As you know, Deer Park is horrible and large. The Eagle Ford is large but has nothing like the facilities in Deer Park.”

Of the 31 Texas air monitors that measure hourly pollutant concentrations, Floresville in June ranked second statewide in the average concentration of propane and third in the average concentration of n-Butane, a gas that targets the central nervous system and commonly is used as lighter fluid.

Floresville had the state’s sixth-highest concentration of ethane, the second-largest component of natural gas after methane.

TCEQ has no plans to install more fixed monitoring stations in the Eagle Ford. The agency says on its website, “Overall, shale-play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health.”

It does have a research project with the University of Texas at Austin to develop a mobile-monitoring program, but that will measure emissions upwind and downwind of the field, not within the field itself.

TCEQ also periodically flies over the Eagle Ford and other shale fields with infrared cameras to look for emissions from oil field equipment that would be invisible to the naked eye.

On the black-and-white images, pollution from seemingly benign sources appears to pour across the countryside like smoke.

Last summer, it flew over the Eagle Ford and surveyed about 10,210 tanks, flares and separators. It detected emissions in about 500 of them, or 5 percent.

“Some of those emissions may be authorized,” TCEQ Commissioner Bryan Shaw said in a speech at the recent Eagle Ford Consortium conference in San Antonio. “There’s a very small universe of any leaks that are occurring or any emissions that are occurring at these facilities.”

Shaw said air monitoring and testing shows there’s no reason to be alarmed about pollution from the Eagle Ford.

“They’ve been leaks and seals that were failing and allowed escapes of materials to occur,” Shaw said. “They were those types of things where hatches are left open, things that are just a maintenance and routine maintenance and inspection type of fix to that, not something that calls for a wholesale change in the regulatory process.”

Rates of flaring in Eagle Ford counties 
Most flared gas comes from oil wells, not gas wells. It’s called casinghead gas. Click on any bar in the chart to view figures for the total amounts of casinghead gas that’s produced and flared in each Eagle Ford Shale county.

More than refineries

Flares aren’t the only source of pollution in the shale.

In 2012, drilling activity from the Eagle Ford boom produced an estimated 111 tons of nitrogen oxides and 229 tons of volatile organic compounds daily between April and October — more than all the cars and trucks on the road in the eight-county San Antonio metropolitan area, according to an environmental report from the Alamo Area Council of Governments.

The report anticipates worsening Eagle Ford air pollution in the next five years.

By 2018, depending on how many wells are drilled, emissions of volatile organic compound emissions could nearly quadruple. Nitrogen oxide emissions could rise as much as 69 percent daily during ozone season, the report estimates.

Under every development scenario imagined by AACOG — low, moderate or aggressive drilling and production — the Eagle Ford region by 2018 would produce more volatile organic compounds than the entire San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area. It also could produce more nitrogen oxides.

The study looked at the ultimate impact on the air quality in San Antonio, a metropolitan area teetering on the brink of nonattainment for federal clean air standards.

That pollution could create a slight increase in ground-level ozone in the city, but so far TCEQ officials say they don’t see “any significant or obvious impact of oil and gas emissions” and that some of the worst ozone days in San Antonio happen when the wind is not coming from the Eagle Ford.

The study didn’t consider ground-level ozone formation in the Eagle Ford and the risk posed to its residents.

Already, flaring and other drilling activity in the shale appears to be creating more air pollution than the state’s refineries, according to a comparison of the Eagle Ford’s estimated emissions and the pollution data from the refineries.

Daily air pollution releases are only available for 24 of the state’s 27 petroleum refineries. In 2012 during the “ozone season” — the warmest months of the year when air quality dips — the Eagle Ford activity every day was releasing twice the nitrogen oxides as all of those 24 refineries combined.

The Eagle Ford also emitted nearly six times the amount of volatile organic compounds than the refineries and nearly three times the amount of carbon monoxide.

Yet drilling, exploration and production the so-called “upstream” part of the oil and gas industry hasn’t garnered nearly the attention of the “downstream” refineries, which are fixed sites that are clustered in more populous port cities.

The EPA in May announced plans to crack down further on air pollution from oil refineries, including a new requirement to measure the levels of benzene at a refiner’s fence line.

The rules resulted from a lawsuit filed by environmental groups on behalf of people living near refineries in Texas, Louisiana and California.

In May, 64 environmental groups filed a petition asking the EPA to use its authority under the federal Clean Air Act to set pollution limits on oil and gas wells and associated equipment, arguing that 150 million people now live in areas with shale drilling and production.

The petition focuses on “population centers” but notes the Eagle Ford field reaches near the metropolitan areas of San Antonio, Bryan-College Station and Laredo.

“There’s tens of thousands of people living next to the refineries so it’s gotten much more scrutiny,” Metzger said. “I think better monitoring is something we should be looking at for other parts of the industry, too. There’s evidence that pollution travels pretty far.”

Diana Hinton, an oil field historian and professor at University of Texas of the Permian Basin, said the fast pace of American oil and gas drilling can lead to problems between residents and industry.

“In an American boom, the pace is fast,” Hinton said. “If you don’t move fast, someone is going to get there before you.”

By the time oil and gas start flowing, there often are no pipelines, disposal sites or worker housing, Hinton said. Everyone plays catch-up.

And a rural region like South Texas may look unpopulated to outside companies.

“Sometimes, they look at rural areas and they think of it as the proverbial blank slate, and we can do anything,” Hinton said. “All of the sudden, you have a gas processing plant every five miles. You are going to have a problem.”

Idyllic ranch no more

In southern La Salle County, rancher Charles Covert relished the remote silence of his 2,000-acre property when he bought it more than 20 years ago.

Riding in a camouflaged, electric-powered cart on a spring day, Covert chanced upon deer, hawks, ducks and a rafter of turkeys. White prickly poppies had started to bloom, but fresh growth had yet to emerge on the mesquite trees.

But the Eagle Ford energy boom is at his doorstep and impossible to ignore. Along his fence line, a tank battery on a neighbor’s property hums with the sounds of generators and a flare incinerating gas.

In late 2012, Covert and his employees started complaining about odors from the facility.

The TCEQ investigated and found numerous problems at the tank battery, which is close to Covert’s house and other buildings. The agency’s investigator confirmed nuisance odors and emissions that had the potential “to affect human health and safety and impact the environment unless immediate action is taken.”

Air samples measured benzene, a carcinogen found in tobacco smoke and car exhaust. State investigators themselves noted a sour gas smell and ended up with irritated eyes on visits to the ranch.

Pollution at the Covert Ranch

TCEQ eventually fined Houston-based Swift $14,250, which could be reduced to $11,400 with corrective measures.

Covert compared the sound of Swift’s loud flare to a 747 passenger jet.

“It was frightening,” he said. “I mean we’ve had episodes literally where we thought there was an explosive event. If you can keep a straight face while it happens, you’re a better man than me.”

Covert, a psychiatrist who practices in Houston and spends extended weekends working at the ranch, has considered selling the property because of health problems.

He said he lost his sense of taste and needs to use inhalers and eye drops.

He and his doctors believe that releases of hydrogen sulfide, which has a rotten-egg smell and is known as sour gas, caused his health problems. Sour gas is corrosive to equipment and can be deadly for people and animals.

“When all your doctors tell you never to come back you have to think about that. It’s not anything you want to do,” he said.

The Swift facility is 1,293 feet from Covert’s nearest building. The state requires a quarter-mile distance, 1,320 feet, between a facility that handles sour gas and a home, recreation area or other types of structure.

Swift’s initial permits for the tank battery said the site was a sweet gas facility, meaning it handled only trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide.

After complaints from Covert Ranch, Swift shut in the tank battery and installed hydrogen sulfide scavenging equipment at several wells to lower the hydrogen sulfide content.

By March 2013, its technical paperwork filed with the state said the site handles sour gas, but that the level had been reduced to 4 parts per million.

Among the changes Swift made was upgrading the existing flare gas supply line and installing a larger regulator for proper combustion. Now the flare is concealed in a cylinder. The company also installed hydrogen sulfide monitors at the facility and near the fence line.

“In hindsight, perhaps we could have found a better location,” a Swift executive told the Express-News last year.

The company recently declined to comment further because Covert filed a lawsuit against Swift Energy Operating LLC in April that says he has suffered more than $1 million in damages.

“Swift Energy is Texas-based, works hard to be a good neighbor in its operations and has continually responded to and tried to accommodate Dr. Covert,” the company said by email. “We are saddened that Dr. Covert has decided to file a lawsuit related to these matters.”

In court documents, Swift Energy Operating said it acted with reasonable care and that Covert’s “alleged injuries, disabilities and/or damages, if any, are the results of a pre-existing or subsequent condition for which Defendants should not be held responsible.”

The company also asserts an “Act of God” defense.

More than a year after his first complaint, Covert’s ranch remained a place of contradictions. Turkey ran down a gravel road before taking flight to hide in the brush. Sandhill cranes circled and landed near a deer feeder. La Salle County is part of what hunters call the Golden Triangle, a region with iron-rich soil and trophy deer.

But Covert holds his breath as he drives by the tank battery. Just in case.

coal train

Oregon Rejects Proposed Export Terminal


Oregon has rejected Ambre Energy’s plan for barging coal down the Columbia River to be exported to China, the fourth Northwest shipment terminal project to bite the dust.

The denial of a dock permit by the Oregon Department of State Lands leaves just two proposals on the table, the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point north of Bellingham, and the Millennium Terminal at Longview on the Columbia River.  Read more.


Frackers are sending sludge to the Mitten State


About a week ago, LuAnne Kozma got an email from a friend. “Have you seen this?” the friend wrote. It was the sort of message that usually accompanies, say, an animated GIF of a pug dancing with a vacuum cleaner. But in this case it was an article from the Observer-Reporter, a newspaper in Pennsylvania. “Drilling Sludge to be Shipped to Michigan,” the title read.

The article was about some leftover fracking sludge that had been hanging out in Pennsylvania. Back in 2002, the state, concerned that people were dumping radioactive medical waste, equipped all the state’s landfills with radiation detectors. Since then, deliveries of sludge and drill cuttings from the Marcellus Shale had been triggering the alarms several hundred times a year.

While low levels of radiation are common in fracking waste (and in the world at large), the Marcellus Shale does have more radium than your average geological formation. Back in 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) banned wastewater treatment plants from accepting any water used to frack the Marcellus Shale, which the plants routinely did at the time. Months later, the DEQ reported it was still finding elevated radium levels downstream from the plants.

Now, the radioactive sludge that was being turned away by Pennsylvania was on its way to Michigan, home to 84 percent of the country’s aboveground freshwater supply. LuAnne Kozma began to do some digging. She had begun studying up on and organizing against Michigan’s nascent fracking boom two years ago, after hearing ominous stories from family in New Jersey. This was a new wrinkle.

The sludge, it turned out, was the property of Range Resources, a company that prided itself on “pioneering the Marcellus Shale play” but that was having trouble getting rid of the byproducts. It had also had shipments blocked in West Virginia. The landfill in Michigan, Wayne Disposal, was one of only two landfills in America that could take waste with that level of radioactivity. (The other one is in Grand View, Idaho.)

Curious to find out more about what was going to happen to this waste, Kozma called Wayne Disposal. But Wayne Disposal told her it only talked to people with hazardous waste to dispose of — i.e., “clients.” So she called the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, where the man who answered the phone said that he wasn’t aware of any new shipments of radioactive sludge coming in to Wayne Disposal.

“What do you mean ‘new?’” said Kozma. “How many shipments do you know about?”

The connection wasn’t great, so she couldn’t tell if he said “a thousand,” or “thousands.”

Right now, no one in Michigan is exactly sure when the sludge will arrive. If the number of shipments really is in the thousands, pinpointing the moment of precise sludge arrival is kind of irrelevant. After an article published in the Detroit Free Press brought the story to a wider audience, Democrats in the Michigan state senate began circulating a petition asking the governor to ban the sludge.

Kozma, in the meantime, is part of a network of volunteers who are keeping an eye out for any suspicious shipments headed for Wayne Disposal. “I literally have my car packed and ready to go,” she said, in an interview.

“Drill cuttings, mud, sludge — we don’t want any of it coming here. I’m not saying that we wish this on other people. Pennsylvania has enough to deal with. My hope is that, if it doesn’t have a place to go, that this will stop.”


Three new reasons retailers must ban triclosan


Last week, Bloomberg News broke a major story that shined the light on the dangers of triclosan, a hormone-disrupting chemical commonly used in antibacterial soaps and even Colgate Total toothpaste.

#1 – FDA approved use of triclosan, despite evidence to suggest harm

Bloomberg News’ story reveal an all too common practice in Washington – where chemicals are approved to be used based on limited studies conducted by the same companies that profit from their use. The expose revealed how In the case of the FDA’s approval of triclosan in Colgate Total toothpaste, the agency approved the chemical despite the fact that there was early evidence suggesting it could be harmful to consumers. These revelations have come to light only after NRDC sued the FDA to make these documents public, after the FDA withheld them from public view.

I had the opportunity to appear on live national TV to discuss this breaking story, and talk about our Mind the Store campaign, which has been challenging the nation’s largest retailers to eliminate the worst-of-the-worst chemicals like triclosan. Check out the video below to see the story. Bloomberg News also ran a great follow-up story on our campaign’s work to get retailers to scrub their supply chains of unnecessary dangerous chemicals like triclosan.

#2 – Brushing teeth with Colgate Total = 5 time the level of triclosan

The Bloomberg story came on the heels of a brand new study which found that brushing your teeth with Colgate Total toothpaste can lead to higher exposures to this dangerous substance. Our colleagues at NRDC wrote:

“It’s a study of hospital workers at two different hospitals. One hospital used triclosan-containing soap, the other did not. Not surprisingly, the study shows that people who washed their hands with the triclosan-containing soap had higher levels of triclosan in their urine.

The really interesting part of the study showed that the numbers were skewed heavily by brushing with Colgate Total toothpaste. As it turns out, people who brushed their teeth with Colgate Total had more than five times as much triclosan in their urine as people who didn’t use it.“

#3 – Babies and pregnant women exposed to triclosan

Along with these new reports come yet another brand new study which found that pregnant women and fetuses in the womb are being exposed to triclosan and its cousin chemical, triclocarbon. Every single one of the women tested had triclosan in their bodies, and half of newborns tested were also exposed to triclosan.

“We looked at the exposure of pregnant women and their fetuses to triclosan and triclocarban, two of the most commonly used germ-killers in soaps and other everyday products,” says Benny Pycke, Ph.D. “We found triclosan in all of the urine samples from the pregnant women that we screened. We also detected it in about half of the umbilical cord blood samples we took, which means it transfers to fetuses. Triclocarban was also in many of the samples.”

Will Retailers Mind the Store?

In the absence of real federal chemical form, many leading brands are filling the regulatory void and have already taken precautionary steps to eliminate triclosan, such as Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, and Avon. Even Colgate has eliminated it from their dish and hand soaps. Colgate Total should join them and move swiftly to remove triclosan.

Alliance Boots, who Walgreens is merging with, has banned triclosan as part of its its corporate chemicals policy. We’ve been calling on Walgreens to adopt Boots’ chemicals management program as a first step in developing a comprehensive chemical policy, and are hopeful Walgreens will do what’s right for American consumers. Both Target and Walmart have identified over 1,000 chemicals to reduce and work to eliminate, though it’s unclear whether triclosan has made it onto their priority lists.

In light of the Bloomberg story and the ever-growing evidence that triclosan is harmful to our health and getting into our bodies, big retailers like Walgreens should leverage their purchasing power to eliminate this unnecessary toxic chemical from products on their shelves once and for all. Will you join us and call on the nation’s top retailers to Mind the Store?

TAKE ACTION: Tell the nation’s biggest retailers to ban dangerous chemicals like triclosan.

Protect yourself from triclosan:

1. Check the label: avoid products with the words triclosan and triclocarban on the ingredient labels of personal care products, soaps and hand sanitizers. Triclosan may also marketed under the trade name Microban™ when used in plastics and clothing, and Biofresh™ when used in acrylic fibers.

2. Be wary of products like cutting boards that are labeled as “anti-microbial” or “anti-bacterial.”

3. Stick to washing your hands with hot water and soap and alcohol based hand sanitizers when on the go.

Written by Mike Schade, Mind The Store Campaign

Spanish Village Playground Air Monitor

St. Louis Injustices & Bill Gates


As I write this I’m on my way back from St. Louis, Missouri. Yes, I there are riots in the street

Spanish Village Playground Air Monitor

and it was a bit risky to go now rather than postponing the trip for another day when the city settles down. But, this is a city of so many injustices, and honestly the “quiet” after the protests only means the world stopped paying attention. The problems don’t go away when the media leaves. It’s because people took the voices and bodies to the street that a light is shining on one of the problems today, but there are many serious injustices that exist in St. Louis. The local group Just Moms STL have been planning this training and educational event for six months, so I needed to go.

Just a short distance from the center of the unrest is another form of injustice, a landfill which is burning underground. The fire is slowly moving beneath the surface toward the neighboring landfill which contains radioactive wastes. What happens when the fire reaches the nuclear waste, no one knows? It’s very scary for families with small children who have no idea when the fire will reach the radioactive material or what will happen when it does. This waste travels through Ferguson but originates from a neighboring subdivision.

The truth is, all of North St. Louis is in a fight for justice. CHEJ is moving forward to provide assistance, but only where we have expertise. Our work is focused on the families living in the Mobile Homes Park and single family homes that have been exposed to smoke, odors, toxic chemicals and likely radioactive waste for over a decade without relief. Their children are sick, the community riddled with cancers and nothing has been done. The fire continues to burn and release toxins into the air, government continues to test and continues to find dangerous chemicals, and the responsible company, Republic Services, is doing less.

What makes this site even more symbolic of injustice—on one side is the rich, powerful, protected people and on the other side the poor. Bill Gates, the wealthiest man in this country is the largest shareholder in Republic Service. He alone has enough money to move the families who need to be evacuated out of harm’s way. He wouldn’t even miss the funds. Certainly, as the largest shareholder, he could convince Republic Services to pay him back. Or with his power as the largest shareholder get Republic Services to move the innocent families and permanently clean up the sites. But he hasn’t lifted a finger to help.

I have to wonder if Bill and Melinda Gates saw the story of unrest on T.V. or if either of them realizes that the company that is paying him over $30 million dollars a quarter in dividends is responsible for another form of violence on the local people. They both give generously to children’s hospitals across the country (and should continue) but in St. Louis children are the being made sick daily because of the fire and landfill related pollution in which he could do something about. He has the power to get Republic Services to move the families that live in harm’s way and clean up properly the dump sites.

One participant at the community training said, we need to tell Bill Gates, “We can’t open our windows.” They aren’t describing his windows program but rather that the pollution and odors are so bad that they need to keep the windows of their homes closed and air conditioning running, for those who can afford air conditioning.

Try to imagine living in a community with a burning landfill moving slowly toward a radioactive waste site and no one seems to care. Although I do not support violence, however, it seem people raising their voices in the street is the only way people can expose their suffering to the public and their best hope of getting ant action.