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by Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune
September 2, 2015

While filling a cattle trough 15 months ago, Ashley Murray noticed something odd occurring in the shack housing her family’s water pump. High-pressure water was spraying everywhere. She switched off the pump, went into the house and asked her husband to take a look. So out walked Cody Murray with his father Jim.

Ashley stood holding the couple’s four-year-old daughter just outside the wood-and-stone pump house. As Jim Murray flipped on the pump, it let out a “woosh.” Cody, a former oilfield worker, knew the sound signaled danger. He threw his dad backwards — just before a fireball shot from the wellhead and transformed the Murrays’ 160-acre Palo Pinto County ranch into an emergency scene.

Somehow, everyone survived the explosion, detailed in legal filings. But the flames severely burned each of the four.

Now, as the Murrays continue their recovery, the family wants to hold someone accountable for the blast, sparked by a buildup of methane gas. They say blame lies with a pair of companies that drilled and operate two gas wells roughly 1,000 feet away from their water well.

Those gas wells are among thousands that dot the Barnett Shale, which stretches some 5,000 square miles beneath at least 25 North Texas counties.

The wells drilled and operated by Houston-based EOG Resources and Fairway Resources, a partner of Goldman Sachs, “are the only possible sources of the contamination,” the Murrays allege in a lawsuit filed last month.

(Family members were not immediately available for interviews.)

“I have scientific testing showing that Mother Nature did not put this gas in the Murrays’ well,” said Christopher Hamilton, the family’s attorney, who called it “a landmark case in Texas.”

Through a spokeswoman, EOG Resources declined to comment on the litigation, citing company policy. Fairway Resources did not respond to messages left at its Southlake office. As of Tuesday, neither company had responded in court.

Scientifically proving the case, a difficult task, would put pressure on the state’s oil and gas regulator — the Texas Railroad Commission — and could reboot an emotional debate about whether years of frenzied drilling in one of the country’s largest gas fields has put groundwater at risk.

The agency has quietly investigated the Murrays’ case over the past year, its records show.

The agency — which straddles the line between industry champion and watchdog — has not openly linked groundwater contamination to drilling activities, and it frequently repeats a refrain that it has not implicated hydraulic fracturing, in particular — the revolutionary method of blasting apart rock to free up gas.

“To be clear, Commission records do not indicate a single documented water contamination case associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing in Texas,” Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman, said in an email.

Lasts spring, the agency effectively shut the door on a high-profile case dating back to 2010 — once reopened — concerning methane-tainted wells in Parker County. The last agency analysis said evidence was “insufficient” to determine whether the accused driller unlocked deep-resting Barnett gas, or if the methane naturally bubbled up from shallower depths.

A few months later, five universities published peer-reviewed research concluding that oil and gas activities (but not fracking itself) tainted some of the same water wells in Parker County. High levels of methane escaped poorly constructed natural gas wells and migrated into shallow aquifers, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science paper said. Substandard cementing likely caused the problem, said the researchers, relying on a set of geochemical tracers different than what the Railroad Commission used.

The Parker County gases arrived in the aquifer without undergoing typical geologic changes, data showed, leading researchers to conclude that they came up through a pipe — likely part of a gas well — and didn’t interact with any water or rocks below the surface.

The commission panned that study and declined to reopen its investigation.

Hamilton, the lawyer for the Murrays, said his evidence points to cementing problems similar to what researchers at the five universities identified, implicating the energy companies.

That analysis, he claims, comes from a team of highly recognized scientists who are working for free, save for travel costs.

“This is the first case I’ve ever had where none of my experts will accept compensation,” said Hamilton. “These guys won’t take any money because they’re totally in it for the science and they don’t want anyone to question their credibility.”

However, the attorney said he could not immediately reveal his data, or the names of his experts because of the discovery timeline in his lawsuit.

The family’s complaint details the explosion’s grizzly results, including several first and second degree burns for Cody, Jim and the child. With burns on his arms, upper back, neck forehead and nose, Cody spent a week in a hospital’s intensive care and burn units. With his nerves damaged, the 38-year old cannot drive — because he can’t grip a steering wheel — and cannot work, the document says.

The Murrays are seeking more than $1 million in relief.

So far, the Railroad Commission has documented high methane levels in the Murray well, and others nearby. One family’s well registered methane at more than five times the federal limit. But the data were “inconclusive with respect to specific migration pathways from shallower sources,” that analysis said.

Nye said the agency is looking at records for local oil and gas wells to make sure companies built them correctly.

After examining the Railroad Commission water well analysis, Hugh Daigle, an assistant professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s department of petroleum and geosystems engineering, agreed that the data was inconclusive, and said it looked like the agency was on the right track in investigating the contamination.

“There’s a lot of different places that gas could be coming from,” he said. “They’re doing the right thing to try to figure this out.”

Meanwhile, water concerns extend beyond the Murray ranch.

Rebecca and Larry Norris, a couple living just west of the Murrays, said their water has been turning everything orange — the sinks, the tub — for the past few years, beginning around the time the drilling companies arrived.

They reported the problem to the Railroad Commission shortly after the explosion, but haven’t heard back — “not a peep,” Rebecca, 65, said. (Nye said the agency was looking into why it may not have responded.)

In her house sitting near six wells, Rebecca, said, “you wonder, just wonder” what’s in the water.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2015/09/02/well-explosion-could-put-pressure-texas-regulators/.

What: Rail Safety Community Meeting
When: Monday, August 31 @ 6:30pm
Where: Magnolia Multi-Service Center (7037 Capitol St, Houston, TX, 77011)
Why: Join Congressman Gene Green, Senator Sylvia Garcia, and industry experts for a community meeting to discuss improving rail safety in urban areas.

When oil trains derail we all pay the price. How close are you and your family to a disaster waiting to happen? Use the blast zone map below to find out and take action. If you live in a blast zone, you may want to attend this meeting on Monday.
Where oil trains travel into Houston. See Forest Ethics interactive map http://explosive-crude-by-rail.org/

Where oil trains travel into Houston. See Forest Ethics interactive map http://explosive-crude-by-rail.org/

 

Check out this story by Clayton Handleman about the impact that the buildout of transmission lines from the Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ) has had on wind power in the state.  Warning, this is a bit technical and wonky so if you looking for entertainment, this is probably not it.

http://cleantechnica.com/2015/08/20/upgrades-to-texas-transmission-lines-slashes-wind-curtailment/

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations says July was Earth’s hottest month on record with an average temperature of 61.86 degrees Fahrenheit, beating the previous global mark set in 1998 and 2010 by about one-seventh of a degree. That’s a large margin for weather records that go back to 1880.

Nine of the 10 hottest months on record have happened since 2005 and it is quite likely that 2015 will end up the hottest year on record, beating last year.

 

UPDATE

The Texas electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) is experiencing extremely high electricity demand. Operating reserves dropped below the target threshold of 2,300 megawatts.  This is bad news for consumers on a couple of levels.  The ERCOT system has hit several new demand records in recent weeks, most recently reaching 69,783 MW on Monday. During high-demand periods voluntary conservation can help ERCOT reduce the potential for additional measures, such as rotating outages, to ensure reliability throughout the ERCOT grid, but high demand also means the spot market price of electricity recently has risen to two to ten times the average price.  For consumers who have fixed rate plans, you won’t see a financial impact other than from your increased use of electricity.  For those who don’t you could see significant price increases this time of year.

ERCOT is asking electric consumers to limit or reduce electric use where possible during the 3-7 p.m. peak demand hours Thursday.

Although ERCOT has set new peak demand records without needing to issue a conservation alert during the past week, the high temperatures statewide continue to drive high levels of electricity use.

Consumers can help ensure the system is able to continue serving today’s power needs by taking the following steps to help support system reliability during peak demand:

  • Turn thermostat up 2-3 degrees during the peak hours of 3 to 7 p.m.
  • Set programmable thermostats to higher temperatures when no one is home.
  • If home, use fans to feel 4-6 degrees cooler.
  • Schedule pool pumps to run in the early morning or overnight hours; shut off between 4 to 6 p.m.
  • Limit use of large appliances (dishwasher, washer, dryer, etc.) to morning or after 7 p.m.
  • If you cook indoors from 3 to 7 p.m., use a microwave or slow cooker.
  • Close blinds and drapes during late afternoon.

According to the Texas Energy Report, wind generation during peak electric demand today, hovered around 800 megawatts (MW) around 4:30 p.m., and continued moving upwards, according to the ERCOT, while both coal- and natural gas-fired generating units experienced generation outages.  In fact, the system had to import power from the eastern United States.

Republished from the Texas Tribune –
http://www.texastribune.org/2015/08/12/report-deregulated-electric-utilities-narrowing-pr/.

Deregulated Electricity a Mixed Bag for Consumers
by Jim Malewitz
Aug. 12, 2015

More than a decade ago, Texas lawmakers set the state’s power market free. Longstanding rules limiting who sold electricity to whom — and how much they charged for it — were cast aside so private companies could chase customers, competing for business in a free-market bonanza that would supposedly push down prices for consumers across the state.

So did it work?

graphic by: Texas Coalition for Affordable Power

graphic by: Texas Coalition for Affordable Power

Texans who take the time to sort through the options are finding decent deals in the state’s deregulated electricity market, a new report says. But the average customer in deregulated Texas — about 85 percent of the state — continues to pay far more for electricity than folks served by monopoly utilities in cities like Austin and San Antonio, according to the most recent data available.

In a report released Wednesday, the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, which advocates for cities and other local governments, analyzed U.S. Energy Information Administration data on residential prices stretching back to 2002, the first year most Texans were allowed to choose their electricity provider under deregulation.

In 2012 and 2013, the analysis showed, Texans in deregulated areas for the first time paid lower electric bills on average than most Americans.

But from 2002 to 2013, the average household in deregulated areas paid a total of about $4,800 more than residents of cities — like Austin and San Antonio — served by just one municipal utility, or those served by electric cooperatives, the analysis said.

Though pricing data for 2014 and 2015 was not available, the report said, Texans are increasingly finding individual deals on the deregulated market that are cheaper than what regulated utilities offer.

“Texans living in deregulated areas have paid too much for electricity — and the lost savings has been substantial,” Jay Doegey, the coalition’s executive director, said in a statement. “But the deregulated market is improving, and the good news is that if you shop carefully, you can find good deals. These relatively low-cost deals are more common than they were in previous years.”

Nationally, Texas was the 18th cheapest state to power homes between 2002 and 2013, the analysis said. Residents in just nine states saw cheaper prices than Texans in regulated areas during that period. Twenty-six states averaged cheaper prices than Texans in the competitive market.

Why the discrepancy? The coalition and other consumer groups suggest that continued inefficiencies, customer confusion and relatively high prices from legacy electricity providers could be to blame.

A spike in natural gas prices shortly after deregulation, followed by steep decline could have also helped shape the trend, since competitive providers locked into high-cost gas contracts and took years to recover. The coalition acknowledges that factor, but says that it doesn’t account for the trend by itself.

John Fainter, president and CEO of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, bristles at any suggestion that monopoly utilities offer Texans better deals, but agrees that the competitive market is rapidly evolving and consumers are getting used to it. A state website called Power to Choose allows consumers to compare companies’ prices and complaint history.

“There’s a lot more efficiency. People are better able to manage their electric use,” Fainter said. “The [retail electric providers] are developing more products to take advantage of.”

Wednesday’s report also showed that the steadiest increase in most Texas utility bills isn’t the cost of electricity, it’s the fees charged to deliver it.

Customers can choose whom to buy power from, but monopoly power transmission companies still have to deliver it to homes and businesses. Between 2003 and 2015, the rates of two of Texas’ biggest power line companies — which are regulated by the Public Utility Commission of Texas — rose far higher than inflation, making up an increasing share of consumers’ bills.

CenterPoint, which serves the Houston area, charges nearly $43.94 on the average monthly bill (for those using 1,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity), compared to $24.61 in 2003.

Oncor, which serves the Dallas-Fort Worth area, increased charges to $38.59 from $23.01 during the same period.

One dollar today in 2002 has the buying power of $1.30 today.

Texas rapidly grew during that time frame, Fainter pointed out, embarking on many huge transmission projects, including building new power lines to carry renewable energy and installing millions of “smart meters” to track energy use in hopes of boosting efficiency.

“All of that has to be paid for,” he said.

 

 

Protecting our Workers from Climate Change by Christina Hausle

Protecting our Workers from Climate Change by Christina Hausle

The world is getting hotter. And for those who work outdoors, climate change could mean very dangerous working conditions. As the heat index increases, stricter regulations and safety practices need to be implemented to ensure the health of our workers. Not doing so could be the difference between life and death.

People working jobs that require time outside, especially those working strenuous jobs outside must protect themselves from heat illness. The body is vulnerable to heat illness when our natural cooling mechanisms are not enough, allowing out body temperatures to rise to dangerous levels if precautions are not taken such as drinking water and resting in shade or air condition. Heat illness can take many forms, such as heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke which requires immediate medical attention, and can result in death. Extreme heat increases the chances of deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory disease as the raised levels of ozone and other pollutants  in the air from climate change exacerbate these diseases along with increased pollen and other aeroallergen levels.

Most employers understand the risk of heat illness and prepare by establishing a heat illness prevention programs that provide workers with water, rest, shade and modified schedules for those who need to acclimatize to the hot conditions such as new workers or those who have not been working for a week or more. The danger increases when workers have to wear bulky protective clothing or take part in intensive work tasks; similarly, working in full sunlight can increase the heat index values by 10 degrees Celsius.

Though both employers and employees should understand these risks, there are still cases where heat illness caused death. Between 2008 and 2014, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) had 109 reports of workers’ deaths due to heat illness with 15 of those recorded in Texas. Though employers do not have to legally comply with the OSHA standards for heat illness prevention, they must have some version of such a program to protect their workers.

With recent increases in the global temperature due to climate change, conditions only become more and more dangerous for workers. In the last 100 years, the world has warmed by .75 degrees Celsius with the last 3 decades successively warmer since 1850. These increased temperatures are expected to cause about 250,000 additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria and heat stress between 2030-2050. With increased average temperatures, more frequent and more intense heat waves are expected to occur. Throughout the U.S. the number of days with high temperatures above 90F is predicted to increase, especially in the Southeast and Southwest.

If the frequency of heat waves and extreme heat days follows this prediction, then all workers will be at risk for heat illness and even greater measures must be taken in order to protect their health. But more importantly, measures must be taken to prevent the increase of climate change in the first place—this problem that has the power to negatively affect every single aspect of our lives.

Firefighters training for oil train disaster at A&M facility

Firefighters training for oil train disaster at A&M facility

Rural Texas communities are having to consider preparing for a first responder nightmare scenario, a train derailment involving the ever increasing number of trains carrying crude oil (or bombs on rails).  As the amount of  crude oil being shipped by rail increases, it is only a matter of time before Texas experiences an accident involving exploding rail cars.  This could take place in a rural area on the way to Houston, or right in the midst of the city of Houston.

Read about the firefighter training facility located on the outskirts of the Texas A & M campus.  Known as “Disaster City”,  firefighters from around Texas and other states are learning techniques for fighting fires and rescuing people when this scenario happens.  See Forest Ethics interactive map at http://explosive-crude-by-rail.org/

Where oil trains travel into Houston.  See Forest Ethics interactive map http://explosive-crude-by-rail.org/

Where oil trains travel into Houston. From Forest Ethics

Statement of Tom “Smitty” Smith, Director of the Texas office of Public Citizen.

The final climate rules are a win-win for Texas consumers who will save cash while reducing climate change. The rules will increase the speed with which money saving renewable energy is deployed in Texas. The latest bids for solar and wind renewable energy is 40-60% less than the cost of building and fueling a new natural gas plant, saving money for Texans.

The final program prioritizes early investment in energy efficiency projects in low-income communities by the Federal government awarding these types of projects double the number of credits in 2020 and 2021. An effective state plan would include increasing energy efficiency goals in the already successful state programs and take advantage of the opportunities in the Clean Energy Incentive Program (CEIP).  As energy efficiency is still the most cost effective way to meet the goals, Texas can reduce consumer’s bills, saving energy and dollars, by increasing its energy efficiency program to achieve all cost effective efficiency measures and wasting less energy. Already cities and school districts across the state are improving their buildings to use less energy. Acting now will give Texas a head start and provide a backstop to meeting federal requirements. “Using less energy to power our homes and businesses is critical to building a clean and secure energy future.”[1]

If we don’t act soon, the costs of climate pollution will be devastating. We are all paying more for food, water, insurance and health care as a result of heat trapping emissions from coal plants. The sooner we eliminate dirty coal the sooner we’ll begin to reduce consumer costs.

[1] White House – Texas Factsheet. https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/image/climate/Texas_Factsheet.pdf

If you want to read the 1560 page final rule, CPP Final Rule.

Texas has set four consecutive daily records for July electric demand this week and may set more records by the end of the summer.

“As the Texas economy continues to thrive, ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas – the grid operator for most of the state) serves some of the fastest-growing cities in the country,” ERCOT Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Brad Jones said. “Population and business growth continue to drive up electric use.”

On Monday, July 27, power demand hit 66,677 megawatts (MW) at 5 p.m., the time of day most common for summer weekday peak consumption, easily surpassing the previous record of 65,808 MW set on July 31, 2012.

Daily peaks continued to rise through the week, topping off the trend with a conservation appeal and new record of 67,624 MW on Thursday afternoon. Tuesday’s peak was 66,827 MW, and Wednesday’s was 67,590, breaking 67,000 MW for the first time since 2011, when the all-time record of 68,305 MW was set on Aug. 3, 2011, during an extended period of record high temperatures. One MW is enough electricity to power about 200 homes during peak demand.

“Although we are still not seeing temperatures as high as 2011, lack of rain during the past several weeks has resulted in drier ground and temperatures reaching their highest levels thus far this summer,” said ERCOT meteorologist Chris Coleman. “We have seen triple digits in several cities this week, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin.”

“We really appreciate consumer responses to our conservation requests on those rare occasions when we have to request them to limit electric use during the afternoon peak demand hours,” Jones said. “With lower temperatures expected and more generation currently available today, we don’t expect to need additional help, but we encourage consumers to remain aware of system conditions, especially on very hot days during peak demand hours of 3-7 p.m.”

“We also are grateful for all the work generation and transmission providers have put into preparing for this summer. Although some outages are inevitable in these operating conditions, the system overall has performed well, with more than 71,000 MW available during yesterday’s peak,” Jones said.

Consumers can monitor ERCOT system conditions at www.ercot.com or through the ERCOT Energy Saver mobile app, available free for Apple or Android devices.

As hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has become commonplace in many states across the country, the problems it creates have become apparent. There’s the noise, inconvenience, traffic (and accompanying accidents, injuries and fatalities), road damage, wildlife disruption, artificial earthquakes, and air pollution that accompany fracking. Worst of all though, is the impact on water – both the large quantities that are used and water contamination.

From Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress - Water Demand by the Numbers

From Ceres “Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress – Water Demand by the Numbers”

According to a Ceres’ report: “97 billion gallons of water were used, nearly half of it in Texas … [by] 39,294 oil and shale gas wells hydraulically fractured between January 2011 through May 2013”. Texas is more vulnerable than any other state to water depletion from fracking because Texas has the most wells and because much of the state is subject to water shortages.Eagle Ford data summary from Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress - Water Demand by the Numbers

From Ceres “Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress – Water Demand by the Numbers”

From Ceres:

Nearly half of the wells hydraulically fractured since 2011 were in regions with high or extremely high water stress, and over 55 percent were in areas experiencing drought.” Across Texas, multiple shale plays (Barnett, Eagle Ford, Permian, and more) are draining the already diminishing reservoirs. Explicitly for Texas, Ceres states, “Total water use for hydraulic fracturing in 2012 was an estimated 25 billion gallons… expected to reach approximately 40 billion gallons by the 2020s.

WASTE

Where does it all go? That filthy, chemical solution once called water has to go somewhere. Possible contamination is always an imminent danger.

From Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources

From the EPA’s “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources”

Most fracking water does not reenter the water cycle, taking billions of gallons out of the water supply annually. Sometimes wastewater from fracking is sent to central waste treatment facilities, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that most of these facilities cannot significantly reduce TDS (totally dissolved solids) or other contaminants. It’s up to well operators to decide whether to reuse the water if it cannot be released into water supplies. Because Pennsylvania limits disposal wells, about 70-90% of Marcellus Shale wastewater is reused. In Texas, only 5% of wastewater is reused, while the other 95% is disposed of in underground injection control (UIC) disposal wells.

An injection well, as defined by the EPA, “is a device that places fluid deep underground into porous rock formations…These fluids may be water, wastewater, brine (salt water), or water mixed with chemicals.” So rather than reusing or recycling toxic water, it is shot deep underground into porous rock that could be near any number of water formations. An Environment America report stated that 2010 testing of these wells “revealed that 2,300 failed to meet mechanical integrity requirements established by the EPA”. Beyond that, injection well pressure “may cause underground rock layers to crack, accelerating the migration of wastewater into drinking water”.

CONTAMINATION

Fracking is growing a network of toxic waste that is bleeding into our drinking water.

Two scientific papers offer impartial evidence of this toxicity. While neither can say with certainty that oil and gas activities are responsible for this contamination (because proving the source of water contamination is very difficult), both rule it as a prominent possibility that requires more monitoring and research for that certainty.

The first paper, published by UT Arlington researchers in 2013, provides data from 100 private wells. The authors analyzed the links between contamination, distance, depth, and time in relation to a well. The data showed that concentrations of arsenic, strontium, and selenium (all toxic) were significantly higher in samples from active extraction areas compared to historical data. Concentrations of Arsenic, selenium, strontium, and barium were highest in areas near to natural gas wells. Arsenic, strontium, and barium contamination was highest near to the surface, indicating that this could be due to contact with surface sources, including fracking wells.

Another paper by UT Arlington researchers in 2015, examined 550 groundwater samples were taken within the Barnett Shale region. Arsenic, strontium, and beryllium contamination appeared in 10, 9, and 75 samples, respectively. All of these metals present a range of serious health issues.

Thirteen of the thirty-nine dangerous, volatile (can easily change between gas and liquid phase, which means they can cause water and air pollution) organic compounds analyzed were found in the region at least once.

Certain contaminants were detected more frequently in the counties that have the most oil and gas activity within the Barnett Shale region – Montague, Parker, Tarrant, Wise, and Johnson. Methanol and toluene (both toxic) data showed increasing concentration closer to the surface, meaning the source is more likely surface-based (perhaps from fracking well pads or waste ponds). Dichloromethane is a common and abundant chemical at well pads, and it was detected in 122 samples, 121 of which above the EPA federal limit, and 93% found within the active Barnett Shale region. The same contamination has been discovered in the Permian Basin, and “has also been implicated in air quality contamination events associated with unconventional drilling in Colorado”.

Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene (BTEX) are four volatile, organic compounds that also commonly exist in fossil fuels retrieved by fracking. Their composition and volatility make them a major health hazard: benzene is a known carcinogen, and all four have kidney, liver, and blood effects with prolonged exposure (like drinking contaminated water daily). At least one of these compounds was detected in 69% of collected samples, and 10 wells had detectable amounts of all four BTEX compounds.

83% of samples within Montague County (55 of 66) contained a BTEX compound. This area houses underground injection wells for drilling waste disposal across north-central Texas and Oklahoma… Furthermore, this area is also vulnerable to contamination because it occupies the unconfined outcrop zone of the Trinity aquifer.

Oil and gas has long been a staple of the Texas economy, but that does not excuse the industry’s reckless depletion of natural resources and contamination of our state. Unacceptable waste and contamination of our water supplies is happening all across the nation – the same water that supports our entire country; the same water used for drinking; the same water that farmers use to feed the country. Once the water is all gone or tainted, the infrastructure of our society will collapse.

When an industry is draining the life blood of our land, people, and civilization, it is time for change.

HOUSTON – Public Citizen, Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, the Texas Campaign for the Environment and the Healthy Port Communities Coalition co-hosted a neighborhood meeting in Houston’s East End on June 27 to discuss the dangers posed by oil trains passing through the community and call for stronger safeguards.

Between two and six million gallons of highly volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale pass through the Houston metropolitan area every week in fundamentally unsafe rail cars. A U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) report found than an oil train explosion in a major population center like Houston could cost billions of dollars in property damage and injure or kill thousands of people.

About 30 people attended the June 27 meeting including Texas state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, state Rep. Maria Delgado, a representative from state Rep. Carol Alvorado’s office and several public affairs representatives from the rail industry. The meeting was held at the Immaculate Conception Church on Harrisburg Street.

To gain deeper insight into the problems oil and chemical trains pose to East End residents, Public Citizen interviewed Bridgette Murray, a local resident who attended the meeting.

PC: Start by telling us a little about yourself and your community.

BM: I am a registered nurse, spending my adult life taking care of other individuals, and I am now the primary caretaker for my elderly mother.

My family has had a presence in the Pleasantville area since 1957. I returned to the community 20 years ago because I felt safe returning to the neighborhood surrounded by individuals that were like my family in many regards. I chose to live in a community that contributed to my upbringing and support, and I remain active in my community to ensure a better quality of life.

Pleasantville continues to be a community with 78 percent occupancy by actual home owners. In spite of the industrial build up on our periphery, we have easy access to both I-10 and 610 freeways. This is a landlocked community with three rail line entrances (two of them Union Pacific).

PC: Why are you worried about trains in your neighborhood? How do these trains put your community at risk?

BM: The trains have been with us from the beginning. But we recently experienced an incident of a Union Pacific train that blocked all three entrance and exit points to the community for nearly one hour, and the other exit was under construction. If we encounter a train derailment in our community, over 3,000 individuals will not be able to safely evacuate.

In addition, a significant percentage of our community is within one mile of the blast zone. My own home is within half a mile. Not only are we concerned about the oil trains, but the use of rail for other hazardous materials left unattended on the rail line without notification is a growing concern.

PC: What changes would you like to see to fix these problems?

BM: Let’s start with improved safety. How often are rail lines inspected and serviced? I am aware that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is recommending changes to the cars used for transporting oil, but this is after the fact. In the agency’s own words, “Accidents demonstrate that the DOT-111 tank cars moving these flammable liquids are not up to the task.”

It is my understanding from prior events, allowing the trains to burn out is the standard approach. In our community that will mean death for many. Implementation of NTSB’s recommended preventative measures should be considered critical.

The community successfully petitioned and partnered with The Metropolitan Organization of Houston for another entrance without rail to improve access for emergency vehicles. But much more needs to be done.

Again, in NTSB’s own words: “Preventing tragedies similar to Lac-Mégantic and Cherry Valley will require a systems approach that keeps trains from derailing, especially in sensitive areas, and preserves tank car integrity if a derailment occurs. Adequate emergency preparedness is also crucial. One of the first steps industry can take is to appropriately plan and select routes to minimize the amount of hazardous materials that travel through highly populated areas.”

PC: If you could send a message to the train, oil and chemical companies, what would you tell them?

BM: Safety always seems to follow the profit margin. Lives do matter and residents living near rail lines should be protected. The increase in oil trains should also come with increased safety in how, where and when oil is transported. There should be more community outreach to high-risk areas regarding emergency evacuation training and education.

Living near the Port of Houston, I accept the risk that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security speaks of regarding terrorist threats, but I do not accept as reasonable a sanctioned domestic threat of oil train cars when there is something that can be done to improve the situation. My only request is that industry demonstrates some respect for middle and lower income America.

PC: Thank you for sharing your story.

BM: Thank you for keeping the public informed about this major issue.

Global demand for U.S. coal exports continues to sag, and domestic demand at power plants has been sliding as well.

According to a recent SNL Energy report, for the first time ever, natural gas has passed coal as the top fuel source for electric power generation in the U.S. with 31 percent of electric power generation coming from natural gas and 30 percent, down from 44 percent in 2010, coming from coal.  The transition away from coal has been stunning.

Natural gas and renewables have been coming in cheaper than electricity from coal.  That coupled with a growing list of federal regulations restricting the emission of greenhouse gasses and utilities have had plenty of motivation to abandon coal. In last 18 months, 17 gigawatt hours of coal-fired capacity has been retired completely.

Coal has been used for heating for thousands of years, as far back as the cave man.  The burning of coal to generate electricity is a relative newcomer in the long history of this fossil fuel, It was in the 1880s when coal was first used to generate electricity for homes and factories, but it may finally be on its way out.

Photo by Maciek Jasik

Photo by Maciek Jasik

The air we breathe is no longer safe. It is it filled with millions of tiny particles of toxic pollution about 36 times smaller than a grain of sand that may cause or accelerate degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Particle pollution’s role in lung disease is well known and backed by years of scientific research; but, recent research correlating pollution and brain trauma has resulted in compelling evidence of its negative role on the brain, despite the research being in its preliminary stages.

Particle pollution contains toxic combinations of sulfate, nitrate and ammonium ions, hydrocarbons and heavy metals – all that reek havoc on the brain’s immune system. But only the fine and ultra-fine particles can reach the brain as natural defenses of sneezing, coughing or running noses eject larger particles. The remaining particles can embed themselves in the lungs to foster infection and cancer or may infiltrate the bloodstream and create dangerous byproducts that can travel throughout the body.

The particles can take a more dangerous lesser know path: they can travel through the olfactory nerves directly to brain. Once there their toxic metals or compounds corrupt the microglia, which are the brain’s special immune cells. The particle pollution causes chronic inflammation which leaves microglia unable to remove waste from the brain or to overproduce chemicals meant to kill unwanted bacteria. Chronic inflammation puts the immune system on over-drive, which has harmful long-term effects and consistently is associated with neurological degeneration. Doctors even use early breakdowns in the olfactory system – through which all of these harmful processes occur – as an indicator of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, further reinforcing the correlation of pollution to degenerative brain diseases.

This information is unsettling as pollution levels rise every year. About 15% of Americans are exposed for extended periods of time to levels of particle pollution about the Environmental Protection Agency standards with another 14% exposed to similar levels on bad air days. This air pollution in the United States affects mostly those who live in undesirable areas such as next to high traffic roads and overcrowded urban areas which happens to be the poor, the elderly and people of color which means the people who can lease afford medical costs, breathe in the most unhealthy air.

Even worse, some cities in China and India face air pollution levels 3-6 times higher than World Health Organization standards. Research from the environmental journal Health and Technology estimates that cleaning up the world’s air could save about 2 million deaths globally. But so many people are already reaping the negative effects of pollution on our brains. 50 million people worldwide are living with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s with 6 million of those in the United States. Right now the United States is about to experience the highest number of degenerative brain diseases as the Baby Boomers reach the age where these diseases emerge and since they were born before the Clean Air Act in 1970, their generation has been exposed to the most air pollution than any generation before or after them.

Research is still unclear on whether particle pollution sparks degenerative diseases or accelerates them; however, the research is clear that there is a relationship – one strong enough to be the most potential cause of brain disease.

Happy 4th Ya'll

Happy 4th Ya’ll