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EPA Takes Baby Steps in Acknowledging Fracking Dangers

The US EPA released a draft Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources earlier this month. Although still only a draft, the document marks a noticeable shift in how EPA views fracking – from basically denying that fracking posed any risk to drinking water and human health, to acknowledging that, “there are above and below ground mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing activities have the potential to impact drinking water resources”. I, for one, cannot believe that EPA had the guts to do this.

Don’t get me wrong; the draft assessment still makes a weak statement with regards to the real impacts of fracking on drinking water. However, the statement carries major credibility and importance due to the fact that the draft assessment is the most comprehensive review of literature on the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water to date, having examined nearly 1,000 different science and engineering journals, federal and state government reports, nongovernmental organization reports, industry publications, and federal and state datasets.

Although EPA states that there is no evidence that fracking activities have led to “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States”, they clearly acknowledge that they have the ability to do so at the local level. This is a bit obvious, since we are not experiencing massive water shortages or national pandemics due to fracking (at least not yet), yet it is well documented that millions of people across the nation have experienced water contamination due to fracking activities in their local environments. Therefore, if we take EPA’s statement into perspective, they are effectively saying that fracking can and has affected local drinking water sources across the country.

This is heresy for industry, and the full wrath of their criticism is sure to fall on EPA in the coming weeks. During the document’s public comment period, the oil and gas industry will move mountains to ensure that EPA’s modest claims attributing fault to fracking for drinking water contamination are removed from the final document.

As an idealist, I have hope that EPA will withstand the storm and stand up for what the science has revealed. However, in all likelihood, the billions of dollars at the disposal of industry will ensure that EPA softens their already weak stance or retracts it altogether.

My hope is that environmental organizations and the public at large fight this and tell EPA not to be bullied by corporate interests. Public comments on the draft assessment are open until August 28, so we can all weight in on the fight. EPA is taking baby steps towards finally accepting that fracking has huge inherent dangers to public health and this is among the first of these steps. It falls to us to take EPA’s hand and help it learn to walk.

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Backyard Talk

Deepwater Horizon, 5 Years Later

On April 20th 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers and triggering the spill of nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The accident wreaked massive damage on marine and coastal ecosystems, caused myriad negative health effects in cleanup workers, and gutted the Gulf Coast economy. Five years later, it remains the largest offshore environmental disaster in the history of the United States. Environmental effects from the disaster linger and the debate around offshore drilling for oil continues. Meanwhile, Gulf Coast residents are still writing a story of resilience and recovery in the years following the disaster.

In the immediate aftermath of the spill, water quality was drastically impaired in the Gulf of Mexico. Concentrations of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS) skyrocketed in the waters off the coast of Louisiana, and were also found at elevated levels in the ocean near Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. The spill threatened dozens of marine species with elevated risks of extinction. Residents and cleanup workers experienced health effects from exposure to both the toxic organic compounds that composed the spill, and from the cleanup process itself. Toxic dispersants were used in the cleanup process, causing illnesses that gravely affected cleanup workers.

After five years the acute effects of the spill have passed, but marine species are still dying at accelerated rates and tar balls continue to wash up on the shores as oil that was buried under sand at the time of the spill resurfaces. Researchers have also begun to investigate the possibility of long-term health damage in cleanup workers. As debate surrounding offshore drilling continues, the BP oil spill has added a horrific cautionary tale to the annals of what many hope will be the key to solving our energy crisis.  The lingering environmental and health effects from the spill ensure that the BP oil disaster will not soon be forgotten…and thanks to one groundbreaking citizen journalism initiative, neither will the stories of those most closely affected by the disaster.

The Bridge the Gulf Project is a community media project founded in 2010 following the BP disaster. For the past five years, the organization has worked to elevate the voices of Gulf Coast communities as they work to enhance sustainability and social justice. The Project is organized by a network of community leaders, experts and writers, and spotlights stories that are seldom heard in the mainstream media, while providing training and support for those engaged in regional movement-building. Many of the stories center on environmental activism. On April 19th, one blogger wrote of being arrested at BP America’s headquarters; another recent post covers environmental justice mapping initiatives; and last month, one BP spill cleanup worker spoke out about his health issues. However, media featured on the site also cover topics ranging from immigration to racial justice.

In the immediate and long-term wake of environmental disasters, it is often the stories of failure and tragedy that dominate the mainstream media. Bridge the Gulf offers an alternative to this often dehumanizing coverage, elevating the voices of those most responsible for the complex recovery from an environmental accident that intersects with many other social and economic injustices.

To learn more about the Bridge the Gulf project, visit http://bridgethegulfproject.org/about.

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Backyard Talk

Environmental Justice – Learning from Ecuador

In a previous blog by CHEJ’s Science Director, Stephen Lester, we saw that Environmental Justice (EJ) communities are not at all confined to the US. In fact, they may be even more prevalent in developing countries, and their struggles can help us better learn how to fight for justice in our own communities.

One such example is in the South American country of Ecuador, where Texaco, later annexed by oil giants Chevron, polluted massive portions of the Amazon rain forest with their oil drilling operations for nearly 40 years during the later half of the past century. Between 1954 and 1990, the amount of contamination dumped in Ecuador’s Amazon portion is estimated to be over 30 times greater than the oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster.

In 2003, over 30,000 affected Ecuadorians – many of them indigenous people – filed a class-action lawsuit against Chevron, accusing the oil company of being directly responsible for more than 1,000 cancer deaths. Years of legal battles and stalling tactics by Chevron ensued, but in a recent development the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that a prior decision by an Ecuadorean court fining Chevron $9.5 billion in 2011 should be upheld.

Although it is still unclear what body would have the authority to enforce the ICJ’s ruling, this decision is a massive victory for the people of Ecuador. Their perseverance – over 10 years of struggle and activism – lead to this development. In addition, despite having severely limited monetary resources and little education as well as political influence, they found strength in numbers. More than 30,000 individuals came together and organized for the cause. They used the small connections they had to draw in NGOs and other organizations to help them in their cause.

In the end, the people from Ecuador may yet achieve retribution and justice from the multibillion company that polluted their homes and killed their loved ones. As for us, we should congratulate and learn from their hard work and determination.

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Backyard Talk

Fracking and Common Sense

Does fracking really have the potential to contaminate our country’s drinking water supply? Can a process that occurs thousands of feet below the surface really affect it? The gas and oil industry has spent millions and millions of dollars to convince regulators and the American public that fracking is safer than a Volvo. And although their millions have largely succeeded in raising debate on the issue, it only takes some common sense to see how drinking water can be contaminated by this process. Here are only a few (of the probably thousands) of the ways in which drinking water contamination may happen:

  1. 1. Fracking Fluid: Fracking fluid is a toxic soup of different chemicals that together act to prime and dissolve the shale, as well as force gas/oil towards the surface. Oil and gas companies have kept the exact contents of the fracking fluid they use a secret, claiming that it is confidential business information. However, a new ruling in the state of California has pushed companies to reveal over 200 distinct chemicals used in fracking fluids. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens and neurotoxins such as toluene and formaldehyde. Workers can easily be exposed to these chemicals and communities surrounding drilling sites are at risk from accidental spills.
  2. Drilling: Fracking pipelines dig down to depths of over 10,000 ft. belowground. All throughout, they are encased by rings of cement or other similar materials to prevent chemicals from seeping into the drill-hole’s surrounding. How the heck can you fully encase a 10,000-foot hole that is barely a foot in diameter in cement? It’s like inserting a 10-foot paper straw into beach sand and expecting it not to break along the way. The simple logistics of it mean that there are bound to be cracks and other imperfections that will inevitably allow fracking fluid and collected gases to leech out into the surroundings. In fact, a study published by experts from Duke, Stanford, Dartmouth and the University of Rochester found direct evidence that linked groundwater contamination to faulty casings in gas wells. Other reports estimate that between 5-7% of new gas wells leak due to structural deficiencies, and that number skyrockets to 30-50% as they age.
  3. Wastewater: Wastewater, or “produced water” as the industry calls it, is the byproduct of fracking. It contains the mix of chemicals found in fracking fluid as well as other naturally occurring contaminants from groundwater that are washed out of the fracked shale. This wastewater is then either re-injected into the ground to help force more oil to the surface, heated to make steam and injected to soften heavy oil deposits, stored in surface reservoirs, or most of it is injected underground. Here is where it does it’s damage. Trucks carrying wastewater oftentimes leak it out as they transport it, storage ponds are notoriously porous and injection wells suffer from the same structural problems as gas wells. In short, wastewater will likely find it’s way out and into our groundwater reserves.

There are many, many more ways in which groundwater may be contaminated by fracking. The vast amounts of money spent by industry have led some people to believe the lie that it is a safe and clean technology, but we only need to use our common sense to see just how it can take away one of our most prized resources.

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President Obama Holds the Power to Protect America from Keystone

In the first week of 2015, President Obama sent a clear message to the new Republican congress that he intends to stand firm in his commitment to uphold the health of environment and the American public. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on January 6 in a public statement that president Obama would veto any effort to move forward with the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline Act. Now, after the Keystone Act was passed in the House and is scheduled for a vote in the Senate, we hope that the President will stand firm by his promise.

This Keystone XL Pipeline Act is an effort that pushes for the completion of a pipeline that would transport oil tar sands from the Canadian province of Alberta, through Montana and South Dakota, and into Nebraska. Republican leads have been pushing for the Keystone pipeline since 2008, with a virtually identical bill failing to make it through the Senate as recently as last November. However, with the newly shaped senate in place and an already approved vote of 266-153 in the House of Representatives, the President faces a tough task in keeping the pipeline from harming the health of millions of Americans.

The concerns surrounding the Keystone pipeline are staggering. Firstly, the type of oil being mined and moved, oil sand tar, produces as much as 22% more carbon emissions than other fuels according to a Stanford University study commissioned by the EU in 2011. Secondly, the potential for a spill is highly likely, as is evidenced by the previous A tar sand spill in Mayflower AR, and could contaminate drinking water and agricultural land with toxic chemicals as the Environmental Working Group’s Poisons in the Pipeline investigation revealed.

Now that the Keystone Act is in the Senate floor and multiple amendments that would mitigate the pipeline’s destructive effects are being shot down by the Republican majority, the President’s resolution will be tested to its fullest. Although the Act has every chance of making it through the Senate, the president still hold the ultimate say. His veto power may be the only thing that stands to protect the American public from the unthinkable harms that the Keystone Pipeline would bring.