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Veteran St. Louis Activist Threatens to Sue EPA

Veteran St. Louis Activist Threatens to Sue EPA 
Our group and others are filing a legal notice with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today demanding immediate action to stop oil and gas companies from dumping drilling and fracking waste in ways that threaten public health and the environment. We’ll like file a federal lawsuit in 60 days.
Statement of Laura Barrett of St. Louis, Executive Director, Center for Health, Environment and Justice
“Our group, CHEJ, and others are filing a legal notice today with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanding immediate action to stop oil and gas companies from dumping drilling and fracking waste in ways that threaten public health and the environment. We’ll likely file a federal lawsuit in 60 days.
The oil and gas industry is growing by leaps and bounds.  EPA must do its job and update and enforce these vital regulations. Our water and air are threatened by toxic waste from the improper storage of fracking wastes while corporate polluters are allowed to run wild. Homes, small businesses, and low income and indigenous communities are being laid to waste by an industry that is virtually unregulated.”
More information is available here.

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Backyard Talk

DuPont Chemical potentially facing charges and Keystone XL on the ropes again

One of the most leading chemical companies in the United States, Dupont, is in legal crosshairs for allegedly exposing workers at a Houston area Pesticide plant with dangerous fumes  for numerous years. This comes in the wake of the death of four employees who died on Nov. 15th of last year from exposure to the chemical methyl mercaptan.

Acording to the Washington Post, “Based on state records and the company’s own disclosures, the newspaper concluded that workers could have been exposed to the gas far above the levels deemed acceptable by OHSA since 2008. As much as 600 parts per million of the gas an hour could have filled a poorly ventilated room, but federal guidelines say workers shouldn’t be exposed to more than an average of 10 ppm per day of the gas, which is used to manufacture insecticide and fungicide.”

DuPont, as of now, has declined to comment on the news.

Meanwhile Keystone XL is potential facing a lawsuit from Nebraska farmers. Ranchers in Nebraska whose property lies in the path of the pipeline have come out in a video declaration on Youtube from lawyers representing landowners.

According to the Gaurdian, “The threat of a new lawsuit, delivered in a video ultimatum from the ranchers’ lawyers, is almost certain to extend the saga of the Keystone XL in Nebraska – and in Washington, where open debate was scheduled to begin in the Senate on Monday afternoon ahead of an expected veto threat from Barack Obama.”

Its seems the winds have changed in regards to Keystone since the past few years when it seemed its construction was almost certain, now it’s fighting for a mere chance.

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Backyard Talk

Kids Tuna Surprise

Tuna it turns out is still filled with toxic mercury.  A recent article focused on studies that underscore health risks for children consuming the mercury-tainted tuna  fish. Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist writes that “Based on two recent reports, Adam Finkel, a University of Pennsylvania professor who is also a national expert on human health-risk assessment, fears many of the nation’s kids are eating too much tuna – aided and abetted by being offered it at school.

Tuna has a lot going for it. It’s popular and cheap, loaded with protein and low in fat. And federal health guidelines are simple and direct: We should eat more seafood. But tuna also is the biggest source of mercury in the American diet.

Mercury is emitted by coal-fired power plants and other industries. It gets into waterways, then into fish, accumulating as it moves up the food chain to top predators such as tuna. Mercury can harm memory, intelligence, and hand-eye coordination, so federal guidelines advise limited consumption for young children and women who are or may become pregnant. Note: Albacore tuna has more mercury than light tuna.

But the guideline is broad. And a report issued in September by the Mercury Policy Project, a Vermont nonprofit, found that mercury levels in institutional-size cans of tuna, the kind used in schools, vary widely.

The report, “Tuna Surprise,” tested 59 samples of institutional tuna from 11 states. The author, environmental health expert Edward Groth, found that children eating the same amount of tuna from different sources could get mercury doses that vary by tenfold. Tuna from Latin America has more mercury than tuna from the United States and Asia…..Finkel considers tuna “a needless risk” and says the smaller the child, the less tuna he or she should eat. Groth’s report recommends that children weighing less than 55 pounds eat tuna no more than once a month.

Even in schools where tuna is served sparingly, the problem is the unusual kid who loves it and eats it at every opportunity, Groth and Finkel say. Adam Finkel, a Penn expert on human health-risk assessment, recommends parents ask their school district these questions:

How often is tuna served? Worst is if it’s on a salad bar every day, so a kid who loves it can load up, Finkel says.

What kind is it? Chunk light has less mercury than albacore.

Where is it from? The “Tuna Surprise” report found that tuna from Latin America has more mercury than tuna from the United States and Asia.

The FDA’s information page on mercury and fish: http://alturl.com/fbo2r

The EPA’s information page: http://alturl.com/an7wy

“Tuna Surprise” Report: http://alturl.com/m2emc


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Backyard Talk

Pipeline Spill in a Small Arkansas Town May Shift Opinions on Keystone XL

As we anxiously await President Obama’s decision on TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, new concerns have emerged regarding detection of leaks and other potential hazards the pipeline could pose to public health. Last year alone roughly 364 pipelines had spills in the U.S., leaving a total of 54,000 barrels of oil to clean up, according to PBS, quoting the Department of Transportation.

An increasing number of Texas and Oklahoma residents worry about pipeline spills. One, of the more recent ones occurred in March, when ExxonMobil’s Pegasus Pipeline near Mayflower, Ark., ruptured and flooded streets and yards in nearby neighborhoods.


Although ExxonMobil said nearby lakes and air quality weren’t affected, local scientists remain skeptical. A 2010 spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River left residual amounts of tar sands in the river bed.

As in the 2010 spill in Michigan, residents of Mayflower immediately began reporting health complications–including headaches and coughing fits—and worry about lingering effects from benzene, linked to respiratory illness and cancer. A month after the Arkansas spill, the Pegasus Pipeline again ruptured in the neighboring state of Missouri, adding to the count of incidents this year. Some justice may be served on behalf of Mayflower residents, as last week Arkansas’s attorney general filed suit against ExxonMobil for improper waste storage and water contamination.


These disasters serve as a chain of omens as Keystone XL’s approval looms near. Despite the spills, TransCanada refuses to adopt additional safety measures such as infrared leak detection equipment for helicopters performing fly-overs, according to Bloomberg, even after TransCanada found a series of “anomalies” and dents in the pipeline, requiring workers to dig up segments near Douglass, Texas, part of the final stretch of the project.

Now, on the edge of a landmark decision, President Obama has, as New York Times reporter John Broder put it, “a rare opportunity to set the parameters of the energy debate for the rest of his term.” Many, including former Obama aides, former Vice President Al Gore, and even Nobel Prize winner the Dalai Lama have all called for the president to veto the project. Any appeasement of environmental groups with a smaller, side deal by the administration cannot offset the damage the pipeline will reap on communities and ecosystems.

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Backyard Talk

Plant erupts in flames while chemical industry booms due to cheap natural gas

Less than two months after the disaster at West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas, another chemical plant erupted in flames Thursday just south of Baton Rouge, La.  The explosion at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar killed at least one person and injured over 73 employees, according to the Washington Post. The cause of the explosion remains too early to determine— and as of Friday the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had yet to visit the site. The  plant produces the  combustible and flammable chemicals ethylene and polymer grade propylene—used to make a range of plastic products– according to Reuters.

I’ve worked in plants for a few years, but I’ve never been that up close and personal with an explosion before. It felt like heat, intense heat,” plant worker Shavonne Stewart told The Advocate in an interview.

The explosion at the Williams Olefins plant is the latest in a  series of similar incidents  this year –, notably,  the disaster in West, Texas, which killed 15 people, and a  train blast in Maryland. The explosion at Williams Olefins stands apart, however, due to its direct tie to the natural gas boom.

The production of ethylene and propylene requires natural gas—explicitly, the use of methane. . This past December the chemical juggernaut Dow Chemical Co. restarted a previously closed plant in Hahnville, La., according to Bloomberg. Like Williams, owner of the plant in Geismar, Dow saw the abundance of cheap shale gas as an opportunity to restart  a previously unsuccessful venture. The Hahnville plant will be used to “boost ethylene and propylene capacity through 2017 because of cheap gas, used as a raw material and to power plants. Hydraulic fracturing of shale rock formations caused a glut of gas supplies and sent prices to a decade low in April,” Bloomberg reported.

It is safe to assume chemical disasters such as the one this past Thursday will become more common as the availability of cheap natural gas encourages more expansion in the  chemical  industry.  A  Center for American Progress report on the 101  most dangerous chemical facilities in the United States—two of them in Louisiana– found that 80 million people  “live within range of a catastrophic chemical release”.

Moreover, despite the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), many facilities remain vulnerable to any manner of industrial sabotage or disaster. The DHS currently monitors over 4,000 “high-risk” facilities—which did not include West Fertilizer Co. despite its clear vulnerability–under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program,   which critics say is full of loopholes.

With the string of disasters in the last two months, the need for change in both  the types of chemicals produced  and the level of oversight provided by the DHS—which does not require companies to seek safer alternatives —is clear. How many more Wests can we tolerate?

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Backyard Talk

Fracking operation set to break ground after the state of Tennessee passes new regulation on Hydraulic Fracturing

The relatively untapped Chattanooga shale field—which runs from southern Kentucky through central Tennessee—will soon see a long awaited incursion of major gas and oil companies such as CONSOL Energy, CNX Gas and GeoMet and Atlas Energy. Tennessee’s General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Government Operations passed a series of rules on hydraulic fracking on May 22st, set to go into effect June 18th.

CONSOL Energy—which has gas leases in on rough 240,000 acres in the state–already is preparing to begin horizontal drilling in Anderson County which borders Kentucky. Soon workers will shoot gallons of water and nitrogen into the shale rock in order to release and collect the natural gas within. Some of the most glaring issues regard the notably high bar on when the rules actually apply—of which most operations will not meet due to low demand and the state’s geography.

Unlike the Marcellus shale field in Pennsylvania, Tennessee’s’ Chattanooga field is significantly shallower, which warrants less water to be used. Part of the controversy with the new rules is that public notice only applies when operations exceed 200,000 gallons of water, which is unlikely in the case of Chattanooga as significantly less water is necessary. In addition general notice of the operations themselves only is required for those living half of a mile from the site, which would excludes many.

In September local environmental groups pushed for a ban on fracking operations that would use water exceeding 200,000, the board dismissed the ban but kept 200,000 gallons as a marker for public notification. The board, at that time called the Oil and Gas Board—now merged with the Water Quality Control Board making the Board of Water Quality, Oil and Gas—ignored the cries of the groups for tighter regulations.

Serious questions have arisen about the effectiveness of the new set of rules, in assuring proper safety of local population and environment. Groups such as the Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Sierra Club’s Tennessee Chapter were less enthused. Concerns were raised by the safety of local ground water, as fracking produces significant quantities of waste water—also known as “flowback”—which contains salt, oil, grease and occasionally radioactive material depending on the location and method of fracking.

Meg Lockhart of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation contends, “Wastewater disposal is a significant issue in the Northeast where fracking occurs.  The amounts of liquid we’re dealing with in Tennessee are much, much smaller, if liquid is used at all.  But, if water in any significant quantity is used, some of it would come back up the well”. Renee Hoyos, Excecutive Director of the Tennessee Clean Water Network

It is a bit hyperbolic at this stage to assume that fracking operations in Tennessee will reach the level that of Ohio or Pennsylvania, but if gas prices resume to increase in the near future we can expect to see more and more companies expanding into previously ignored areas of the country.

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Backyard Talk

A Toxic Haven for Refugee Children?

According to the Refugee Council USA, each year about 98,000 refugees enter the United States. Fleeing from war and the threat of persecution, these individuals have left their homelands to seek shelter. Leaving one threat behind, is it possible that they face a new danger in their safe haven?

Overall only about 2.6% of U.S. children aged 1-5 years have blood lead levels (BLLs) above the CDC reference level while refugee children from developing countries often have BLLs several times above the national average. According to Jean Brown, chief of the CDC’s Healthy Homes/Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, several practices in developing countries contribute to the elevated BLLs that many refugee children have before coming to the U.S. After arriving in the U.S, high BLLs often persist due to traditional customs and because refugees often end up living in older housing with flaking lead-based paint.

Lead poisoning is extremely hazardous and is especially detrimental to the neurological development of children. According to the EPA, lead poisoning in children can result in damage to the brain and nervous system, anemia, liver and kidney damage, developmental delays, and in some cases lead poisoning can even be fatal. “Refugee kids in particular can be malnourished and anemic, and that boosts lead absorption and heightens the potential for neurological effects,” states Brown.

Many refugees may not fully understand or be aware of the danger associated with lead. Some never faced lead hazards before arriving in the U.S. The CDC found that nearly 30% of 242 refugee children in New Hampshire experienced elevated BLLs within 3-6 months of coming to the United States, although their initial screenings displayed non-elevated levels. Paul Geltman, a pediatrician with Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance, found that living in zip codes dominated by pre-1950s housing was associated with a 69% increase in the risk of a child’s BLL rising within 12-15 months of arrival. Clearly the housing available for many refugees poses a serious health risk.

Language barriers present another problem in communicating the issue of lead toxicity to refugees. The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Disclosure rule requires that landlords reveal lead hazards and give their new tenants the pamphlet “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home,”  published by the EPA. Although this pamphlet is available in several languages, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement discovered that many landlords only have the English version which is of no use to refugees that cannot read English.

In addition, a few herbal remedies and practices traditionally used by certain cultures intentionally contain lead. According to Tisha Titus, a physician at Federal Occupational Health in Atlanta, Georgia, states, “They’re based on recipes handed down for generations. So for a Western doctor to come in and say ‘what you’re doing can make your child sick’ isn’t going to sit well. You face a delicate balance of trying to maintain the integrity of the culture while at the same time providing a safer alternative.”

Clearly steps need to be taken in order to reduce the BLLs of refugee children. Brown says that the CDC’s lead screening for refugees is one way to confront the issue of lead hazards. Identifying high BLLs early and appropriately following up on the problem is the best way to see a timely reduction. Working to better inform parents of the serious threat that lead poses is a necessity.

For more information see: http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/121-a190/


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Backyard Talk

While the Keystone XL Decision Looms, a Series of New Pipelines Will Flood Ohio and Kentucky




A wave of anxiety and outrage grips Newton County, Kentucky, as a proposed natural gas pipeline would rend a path through Ohio and Kentucky. The Bluegrass Pipeline—put forward as a joint venture by Williams Companies Inc. and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners, LP—would carry an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 barrels a day of shale gas from western Pennsylvania to Texas, where it will likely be shipped to overseas markets; construction is expected to be completed by late 2015.

“Bluegrass would include building a new NGL pipeline to a Hardinsburg, Ky., interconnect with Boardwalk’s Texas Gas Transmission LLC system and converting a portion of Texas Gas from Hardinsburg to Eunice, La. (the TGT Loop Line) to NGL service,” Christopher Smith of the Oil and Gas Journal noted.

In addition to new pipeline infrastructure, the project would necessitate construction of additional facilities throughout the South—including a facility in Louisiana. The project would also upgrade older infrastructure incapable of handling the potential influx of Marcellus Shale gas from Pennsylvania.

“As development in the region’s Marcellus and Utica shales has ramped up, producers have found themselves stuck with an underdeveloped infrastructure that can’t yet handle processing or transporting all the oil and gas extracted here,” Erich HYPERLINK “http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/business/news/venture-proposes-bluegrass-pipeline-to-the-gulf-coast-678443/”Schwartzel of Pittsburgh’s Post-Gazette wrote.


Much like Kentucky, Ohio has been swept up in the massive oil and gas boom. In addition to the Bluegrass Pipeline, Ohio will see the construction of the Hickory Bend cryogenic processing plant, a $150 million project developed by Pennant Midstream LLC–a joint venture of NiSource Midstream Services LLC and HilcorpHYPERLINK “http://www.hilcorp.com/” Energy.

An additional $150 million will go toward building a pipeline for Utica shale gas from western Pennsylvania to Mahoning County in eastern Ohio. The project could exceed $1 billion in the future, according to the BusinessHYPERLINK “http://businessjournaldaily.com/drilling-down/nisource-exec-300m-gas-project-could-grow-1b-2013-5-1” Journal Daily.

The feverish rush by oil and gas companies to exploit the apparently lacking infrastructure that begs for new pipelines offers an easy opportunity for companies to get in the game. Despite efforts by the aforementioned ventures to address concerns of environmental damage—Pennant Midstream LLC paved two roads in Mahoning County and claims it will use electric rather than diesel fuel– many questions remain as to what long-term effects, including leakage and explosions, both pipelines could have in Ohio and Kentucky.

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Backyard Talk

New Bill Circulating in New Jersey General Assembly Could Offer Much Need Relief for Communities Battling Polluters

A new bill circulating in New Jersey’s General Assembly is drawing controversy for its tough stance against industrial pollution in low-income neighborhoods.

Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D) introduced  Assembly Bill 3836 in February. The bill would bar industrial plants from being built in any neighborhood deemed to be a “burdened community.”  If passed, it could offer a much-needed reprieve for low-income residents of neighborhoods such as Ironbound in Newark. Ironbound has long struggled with pollution from local chemical plants, incinerators and Newark Liberty International Airport.  In this year’s State of the Air report card by the American Lung Association gave Essex County – where Newark is located — an “F” for poor air quality.

Ironbound is under constant siege of industrial expansion. This year its residents face a proposal calling for the construction of the Bayonne Bridge, which would carry legions of commercial trucks that pass through Newark’s East Ward. “Parents, community leaders and medical researchers say asthma is a particularly serious problem in the Ironbound, a hot spot for the chronic respiratory disease within a city whose asthma-related hospitalization rate is already more than double Essex County’s,” wrote reporter Steve Strunsky in the Star-Ledger.

In addition, construction has begun on a 655-megawatt natural gas plant, operated by Hess Corp, approved last year by the Newark Planning Board. Despite claims by Hess engineers of the plant’s low impact, many community activists remain outraged over the plant’s use of natural gas derived from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The use of such gas warrants concern for Ironbound residents, as it contains considerable amounts of methane (CH4), found in a study by the Air and Waste Management Association to “include organic compounds that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone (smog), as well as hazardous air pollutants like benzene.”

Long-stressed Ironbound is just one of the many communities in New Jersey locked in a perpetual battle with industrial polluters. If passed, Assembly Bill 3836 would mark a major turning point in the struggle against industrial polluters and hopefully serve as a model for other similar struggles being waged across the nation.

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Backyard Talk

Superfund Under Attack

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, chaired by Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), held a hearing this week on three legislative proposals that pose a serious danger to the Federal Superfund toxic waste site cleanup program.  Earthjustice, Sierra Club, CHEJ and others are sending a letter to the policymakers this week to express strong opposition to the “Federal and State Partnership for Environmental Protection Act of 2013,” which weakens the nation’s Superfund law  and places American communities at risk of increased toxic exposure. The bill will increase litigation that will cause delays in cleanups and establish roadblocks to listing new toxic waste sites. The amendments contained in the bill will place our communities and their environment in danger and increase the cost of hazardous waste cleanup for U.S. taxpayers. 

While the Republicans are attacking Superfund, they are also continuing to oppose refinancing the financially ailing program, which means hundreds of leaking toxic waste sites are not being cleaned up.  This is a travesty and a public health crisis.