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Archive for the ‘Toxics’ Category

Knowing whether to run or hide is a fundamental survival mechanism that Texans living near chemical plants and refineries know too well.

But it can be impossible to make the right decision without accurate and timely information. Is it safe to go outside? Is it safe to “shelter in place” in the nearest building? Is evacuation the only safe option?

The Legislature is holding a public hearing in the House Environmental Regulation Committee on a proposed law to help Texans get the critical information they need when toxic chemicals are released into our air and water.  The hearing is in the Texas Capitol Extension Room, E1.026 on Tuesday, March 28th at 8:00 AM

Urge the Legislature to move forward on the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System.

Ask the House Environmental Regulation Committee to support HB 1927.

The legislation, HB 1927, would establish a system to alert neighboring communities when a facility releases toxic chemicals.

People in the affected area would get notices on their phones about the chemicals released, what direction they are moving and how to stay safe.

The Toxic Alert Bill directs the State Emergency Response Commission to develop a statewide system to inform the public of chemical emergencies in a timely manner using a multi-media
approach, including traditional media, social media, and wireless emergency alerts.

This statewide system will eliminate patchwork local approaches and relieve local governments of the burden of developing and maintaining their own systems. Residents will be directed to a hyperlink, which will provide:

  • The geographic area impacted by the release
  • Information on symptoms that could require emergency medical treatment,
  • Directionality of plume movement,
  • The chemicals involved in and toxicity of the release,
    and
  • Instructions for protection from exposure to the release.

Just like the Amber Alerts for missing persons and emergency weather alerts available on our phones, the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System should be available to keep our communities safe.

A recent poll of Houston area residents shows that most people are concerned about air pollution and its impact on vulnerable populations. Furthermore, 92% support the creation of a public notification system similar to Amber alerts for leaks of hazardous chemicals. These alerts would warn residents via cellular phone of incidents and let them know what action to take to keep safe.
According to an investigative report published by the Houston Chronicle in 2016, an incident involving hazardous materials in the Houston area occurs about every six weeks.  Nationally, there have been more than 93 incidents involving hazardous chemicals since late 2015, killing 7 and injuring 573 people.

As you can see from the list and map below, the folks in the Houston area are more aware of the issue because of the frequency of such events, but you can see that other parts of the state also experience these types of toxic emergencies.

  • Oct. 2011:   Massive chemical fire at Magnablend facility, Waxahachie. Schoolchildren and neighbors evacuated.
  • Nov. 2012: Massive explosion & chemical fire at Nexeo chemical plant, Garland. Local area evacuated.
  • Apr. 2013: Chemical fire at East Texas Ag Supply, Athens. Hundreds of people evacuated.
  • May. 2014: Massive explosion & chemical fire at West Fertilizer, Co., West. Fifteen people dead and 160 injured.
  • Jan. 2015: Chlorine Spill at Magnablend facility, Waxahachie. Employees and neighbors evacuated.
  • Apr. 2015: Train derailment carrying flammable chemicals, Longview. Neighbors evacuated.
  • Aug. 2015: Massive fire at Century Industrial Coatings, Jacksonville. A neighboring business evacuated.
  • Jan. 2016: Explosion and fire at water treatment plant, Midland. One person dead, local residents evacuated.
  • Jan. 2016: Explosion at PeroxyChem, Pasadena. One person dead, three others injured.
  • Mar. 2016: Explosion at Pasadena Refining Systems, Inc., Pasadena. One person burned.
  • Apr. 2016: Explosion at LyondellBasell, SE Houston. Shelter in-place in SE Houston, including Chavez H.S., Deady Middle School, and Rucker Elementary School.
  • May 2016: Fire and chemical release in Spring Branch. Shelter-in-place. Fish, turtles, snakes, and frogs die from chemical spill.
  • Jun. 2016: Chemical leak & fire, Mont Belvieu. Dozens of people evacuated from their homes.
  • Jul. 2016: Asphalt fire, Century Asphalt Plant, Burnet. Dozens of residents evacuated.
  • Jul. 2016: Propylene leak, ExxonMobil Pipeline, Baytown. Local evacuation and shelter-in-place for nearby community.
  • Jul. 2016: Chemical Release at Pasadena Refining Systems, Inc., Pasadena. Heavy black smoke and sulfur dioxide release, shelter-in-place for Galena Park residents.
  • Aug. 2016: Explosion at Voluntary Purchasing Group, Bonham, woke up neighbors. A second explosion one month later injured 2 workers.
  • Aug. 2016: Fire at Hexion in Deer Park, shelter-in-place for neighborhoods in Deer Park.
  • Sept 2016: Chemical spill in Willow Marsh Bayou, Beaumont. Local shelter-in-place, killed over 1,400 fish, snakes, turtles, racoons, and birds.
  • Dec. 2016: A chemical leak contaminated the drinking water supply for Corpus Christi. A water ban was in effect for nearly 4 days, 7 unconfirmed illnesses associated with the drinking water.
  • Jan. 2017: Naphtha overfill at tank at Valero Texas City Refinery. Residents issues. No shelter in place alert was sent because “the incident happened in the middle of the night.”
  • Jan. 2017: Chemical fire and spill, El Paso. Residents complain to TCEQ amidst concerns of respiratory issues.
  • Mar 2017: Sodium hydrosulfide spill, Brownsville. One injured, evacuation downtown.

In 2014, Iowa implement the Alert Iowa System. Counties that did not already have a system like this in place could opt-in to the statewide system to ensure that Iowans are protected from severe weather, chemical spill, and other potential disasters. The statewide system in Iowa costs about $300,000 per year.

Texas already has a system in place that can send out these type of alerts. The system proposed here is designed to work with OEMs to support them based on their needs. The intention is not for the statewide system to override functional systems already in place.

If such a system saved lives or reduced job and school absenteeism as a result of exposure to toxic chemicals, it would be well worth the cost of extending our existing technology to put in place a toxic chemical emergency system.  Urge your Legislator to move forward on the Toxic Chemical Emergency Alert System.

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Monsanto has a bad track record when it comes to the safety of its products. From saccharin, to Agent Orange, to DDT, Monsanto has a history of producing and distributing chemicals that have serious health consequences. Most recently, the company has come under pressure for its herbicide, Roundup. After years of consumer concern, world-leading scientists at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a study in March 2015, stating they believed glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, is “probably carcinogenic”. These findings have been echoed by the World Health Organization.

Chafer Sentry Herbicide Application

Chafer Sentry Herbicide Application

This news should bring shockwaves in regulatory policy, as glyphosate is by far the most used herbicide in the world. The use of this carcinogenic herbicide has become essential for thousands of farmers who are under contract with Monsanto to use Roundup Ready genetically modified (GM) seeds. Roundup Ready crops are most heavily applied with glyphosate and these include soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, sorghum, and wheat.

Countries such as Sri Lanka, and Bermuda have banned the use and importation of glyphosate, while Germany’s health ministers are spearheading a campaign to have the herbicide banned all across the European Union. For the US, the first instance of this can be seen in the California Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to begin labeling Roundup and other products containing the chemical as carcinogenic. Dr. Nathan Donley, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, stated,

“As far as I’m aware, this is the first regulatory agency in the U.S. to determine that glyphosate is a carcinogen. So this is a very big deal.”

Glyphosate’s carcinogenic potential has been known to Monsanto and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from long term animal experiments since the early 1980s, but the company has repeatedly dismissed such claims and refused to disclose the studies, buy claiming they contain “trade secrets”. After petitioning the EPA, Dr. Anthony Samsel, a research expert who has worked for the EPA, and as a hazardous materials expert, the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the United States Coast Guard (USCG), received the lab documents.

One study shows how mice exposed to glyphosate produced renal tubular adenomas, which are tumors in kidney cancer, along with developing hepatocyte hypertrophy, which is a sign of liver cancer. In addition, lab findings show how glyphosate glyphosate stops the body from absorbing selenium, which leads to thyroid cancer growth. As a result, the EPA labeled glyphosate a Class C carcinogen in a March 4, 1985 EPA review. The Class C carcinogen label means there is suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential. This classification was changed by the EPA just six years later to a Class E category which suggests “evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans”. Is it a coincidence that this change in glyphosate’s classification transpired during the same period that Monsanto was producing its first Roundup-Ready GM Crops?

(more…)

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Public Notice at the site of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits - Photo from TexansTogether.org

Public Notice at the site of the San Jacinto River Waste Pits – Photo from TexansTogether.org

UPDATE:  This bill passed in the House 96 to 44 on Monday, April 27.  There is still a chance to stop it in the Senate.  Call your Texas senator and ask him or her to vote no on HB1794 when it comes up. 

On Monday, the Texas House of Representatives will consider another bill that attacks local control and would protect polluters. HB 1794 by, Representative Charlie Geren would place a cap on the amount that local governments can assess in civil penalties for violators of environmental regulations. The penalty would be capped at $4.3 million in total fines and a five year statute of limitations would be put in place on the filing of such law suits. While Geren describes his bill as a way to curb “lawsuit abuse” these caps would really just erode the ability of local cities and counties to collect on damages from major polluters in cases in which the clean up far exceeds $4.3 million.

This is bad legislation because cities and counties need the ability to force polluters to pay civil penalties because state enforcement of environmental laws is so weak. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) does not have the resources or the guts to go after the biggest polluters, and those are the polluters that are going to get away with penalties that are far less than would be needed to actually clean up their mess.

San Jacinto River Waste Pits' Disposal in the 1960's - Photo from TexansTogether.org

San Jacinto River Waste Pits’ Disposal in the 1960’s – Photo from TexansTogether.org

For example, this legislation comes largely as a response to the high profile litigation between Harris County and three companies liable for the San Jacinto Waste Pits, an EPA superfund site and one of the biggest environmental disasters of the past decade. The pits were first dug in 1965 by a paper company for disposal of its waste from nearby mill. Hundreds of thousands of tons of waste with a highly toxic chemical called dioxin was dumped on the river’s west bank. A few years later the pits were abandoned.

Later, a natural environmental processes took place,-the river moved. What was once a waste dump next to the river became a waste dump in the river. In the following decades, communities were built on the banks of the San Jacinto river and the families that lived there were unaware of the toxins they were living right on top of. New companies moved in who ignored the waste pits, so they did not get discovered until 2005, decades after the dumping began.

Local authorities, environmentalists and citizens of nearby neighborhoods contend that the waste pits have caused incalculable harm to the ecosystem and are responsible for a cluster of cancers and other diseases in these communities. The estimated cost of complete remediation is somewhere between $100 million and $600 million, well above what Geren’s proposed cap. The estimated medical costs for the 17,000 people living on top of these waste pits is incalculable.

The San Jacinto Waste Pit civil court settlement that inspired HB 1794 was for $29 million from two companies.  Far from being excessive, this is an amount that won’t come close to covering the costs to the local community.

Houston Ship Channel - Photo by Bryan Parras

Houston Ship Channel – Photo by Bryan Parras

County or city led lawsuits seeking penalties are relatively rare. In most cases companies pay their fine and clean up their site, however not all of them do. In those cases where the company and the state environmental agency have failed to solve the problem, local governments are all that’s left. We do not need legislation that hamstrings the ability of local governments to penalize the biggest polluters and offenders of the law.  Communities that are home to these polluting industries will suffer.

Email your state representative now to voice your opposition to this bill.

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Blog Post PicTwo non-profit and non-partisan investigative journalism organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News, have concluded through their joint investigation that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Railroad Commission protect the oil and gas industry instead of the public whom they claim to serve.

Fred Wright and Morris Kocurek were two oil and gas regulators working for the Texas Railroad Commission who received praise from their supervisors, promotions, and merit raises throughout their careers. But they may have done their jobs too well. They were fired in 2013 for what they believe to be their insistence in making sure oil and gas operators followed the rules and regulations in place to protect the public and the environment.

Wright was responsible for determining whether oil and gas wells were up to code to prevent groundwater contamination. He was often encouraged or coerced by his superiors to bend the rules, to say that operators had met compliance standards when they had not. In 2013, his superiors told him that complaints had been filed against him by the operators claiming he was “unreasonable to work with” and “does not attempt to offer solutions to bring them in compliance with commission rules”, citing that Fred’s methods for compliance would be “costly”. Wright’s boss at the time, Charlie Teague, insisted that Write approve oil and gas wells despite the fact that they were in violation of statewide rules.

As the enforcer of proper toxic waste disposal in the oil and gas industry, Kocurek faced very similar problems. He said his bosses made it clear that he was supposed to go easy on the industry. The violation notices Kocurek filed were usually processed very slowly and follow-up inspections were assigned to the more lenient inspectors. Eventually, Kocurek realized the influence that the industry had on its supposed regulators and his reports were all ignored. Violations would disappear after the right phone calls were made.

Documents obtained from the Railroad Commission through the open-records corroborate the stories of Mr. Wright and Mr. Kocurek. Wright has filed a civil lawsuit alleging wrongful termination. He has also filed a federal whistleblower complaint. Kocurek, on the other hand, hasn’t taken any legal action and would rather forget the whole thing.

According to InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity, the Railroad Commission is controlled by three elected commissioners who have accepted nearly $3 million combined in campaign contributions from the industry during the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In the case of the Railroad Commission and the TCEQ, money talks and it’s louder than the voice of Texas citizens.

Read their extensive report here: [http://books.insideclimatenews.org/fired]

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toxic cleaning productsAlthough we buy cleaning products thinking they will protect us and kill all the nasty germs that lurk in our kitchen sinks and toilets, many of these home cleaning products are packing in a bigger punch that can have serious effects on our health and environment.

Take for example antibacterial hand soap that became so widespread after the H1N1 virus scare. Antibacterial hand soap was in every restaurant, school, and office space, ever since and became a normal commodity in American lives. Now the chemical found in antibacterial soaps called triclosan, has been banned in Minnesota for potentially promoting triclosan-adapted super bugs along with being no more effective, but more expensive than normal hand soap according to a study posted on the Oxford Journal.

Air fresheners use about 18.4 kWh of electricity and about half a gallon of oil every year while also containing higher levels of phthalates in some major air freshener brands that can cause birth defects. Many of these chemical ingredients are not listed on the label because they don’t have to be. Febreze alone has 87 chemicals, including BHT, which is a known neurotoxin, and acetaldehyde and propylene glycol, which are both carcinogens. Cleaning products aren’t required to include their ingredients on their label, which can be potentially dangerous when dealing with chemicals designed to kill bacteria, viruses and mold.

Bathroom and home cleaners are the worst as far as environmental and health risks. Brands as “family friendly” as Scrubbing Bubbles and Lysol have chemicals banned in the EU and statements on their label that say “harmful or fatal if swallowed” and can cause “irreversible damage to the eyes”. Environmental Working Group has a list of the top 10 worst bathroom and household cleaners to stay away from.

Having so many toxic cleaning products around the house is not worth it especially with animals or children exploring wherever they can fit their paws and fingers. There are alternative ways and products that can not only create a safer environment but also save you money like using the old fashioned white vinegar and water or various plants that have the power to remove 90% of chemicals in a room in under 24hrs. If you want something stronger there are plenty of organic, non-toxic cleaning chemicals that can make good replacements that can be found at ewg.org.

 

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Over the course of a little more than a week, here in the United States, over 222,775 gallons of oil have been spilled onto our land and into our water. A week.

Most of the narrative around oil condemns it for the amount of carbon dioxide it puts into the atmosphere, and its profound implications for climate change. Over the course of one week this month, four different oil spills have helped demonstrate why responsible citizens should stand against oil. While all the spills have tremendous consequences, each of the following cases reveals a unique threat that transporting this toxic substance has for our families and our environment.

2014 Mid Valley Oil Spill in Michigan Nature Preserve - Photo from Huffington Post.jpg

Mid Valley Oil Spill in Michigan Nature Preserve
Photo from Huffington Post

On March 17, just 20 miles north of Cincinnati, an oil leak was discovered when a motorist smelled something funny in the air and called the police. What was discovered was tragic – over 20,000 gallons of oil had leaked into the 374 acre Glen Oak Nature Preserve. It is still unclear when the leak started – without this concerned citizen, it is likely the spill would’ve gone on for days before anyone noticed.

The oil had come from a 5 inch crack in the Mid-Valley pipeline, which runs over 1,000 miles from Michigan to Texas. Despite the fact that the company that maintains the pipeline is unsure of the leak’s cause, less than a week after it was discovered, an impromptu clamp had been designed, approved by the federal government, installed and oil is once more flowing in the pipeline.

2014 North Dakota Oil Spil in a Wheat Farm  Photo from GREENPEACE

North Dakota Oil Spil in a Wheat Farm
Photo from GREENPEACE

A few days later, on March 20, a gasket on a portion of above-ground pipeline in Alexander, North Dakota malfunctioned and spewed 34,000 gallons of crude oil onto the ground. While it appears that no water has been contaminated, North Dakota’s water quality director has warned that if a heavy spring rain comes, the oil could very well leach into nearby waterways.

2014-03-23 A dead oil covered bird is shown on the shore area along Boddeker Rd. on the Eastern end of Galveston near the ship channel.  Photo by Melissa Phillip, AP

A dead oil covered bird is shown on Eastern end of Galveston near the ship channel.
Photo by Melissa Phillip, AP

Two days after the North Dakota leak, an oil carrier collided with a barge, spilling 168,000 gallons of oil into Galveston Bay, Texas. While it was fortunate that not all of the oil in the carrier escaped into the water, the timing of the spill couldn’t be worse as peak bird migration season approaches. When oil is in the water, these water-diving birds often die from ingesting the oil. What’s worse is that the oil spilled is a particularly heavy type of oil, meaning that, unlike gasoline spills, which can largely evaporate off the surface of the water, this oil will sink to the bottom of the Bay and can adversely affect the environment for years to come.

2014 Crews Clean Oil from Lake Michigan After Spill from BP Refinery

Crews Clean Oil from Lake Michigan After Spill from BP Refinery

Finally, On March 25, eight days after the first oil spill in Ohio, a BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana spilled 755 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan. While this spill is relatively minor in comparison to the other spills, Lake Michigan serves as the drinking water source for Chicago and its suburbs – over 7 million people. Ingesting any oil at all is toxic, and the potential effects on humans are huge.

With so many other sensational stories dominating the airtime these days, it’s no wonder that many citizens are not aware that all of these spills happened. But note that in all these cases, until something bad happened, everything was running exactly as designed. The system with which we regulate and handle this toxic substance is broken, and the penalty for accidents is paid in permanent environmental damage, contaminated water, and human health.

It is crucial to remember as debates about oil rage on that oil is not just bad when burned – the processes to extract, transport and refine oil are toxic and dangerous on a global level and to local and regional communities.

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2014 Coal Ash River - Photo By Waterkeeper Alliance Inc

Site of Duke Energy Coal Ash Spill
Photo b Waterkeeper Alliance

A federal grand jury and North Carolina regulators are investigating Duke Energy, the nation’s largst electric power holding company, as part of a widening criminal investigation initiated by a massive coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan River with toxic sludge back in February.

The Dan River spill was the third largest coal ash spill in the nation’s history – an estimated 39,000 tons of coal ash were released. Since the Dan River spill the company has been cited for eight more violations.

Controversy Continues

The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resouces (DENR) says Duke Energy illegally pumped 61 million gallons of contaminated water over six months from two coal ash pits at its’ Cape Fear plant in Moncure, N.C., and into a tributary of the Cape Fear River

2014 Pumping from a Duke Energy Waste Pond to a Nearby Stream - Photo by Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance

Pumping from a Duke Energy
Waste Pond to a Nearby Stream
Photo by Rick Dove, Waterkeeper Alliance

A couple of weeks ago Waterkeeper Alliance took aerial photographs showing that Duke Energy has been pumping coal ash into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, a local drinking souce. The state is now testing water in the river to check for contaminants. There are several towns and cities downstream of the most recent spill, but none of them have reported any problems with their drinking water so far.

Duke has unlined coal ash pits at 14 power plants in North Carolina, and all of these were cited last year for polluting groundwater.

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal and it is highly toxic to humans and wildlife. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury and more than a dozen other heavy metals. Studies from the EPA have found that people living within one mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer.

NC Pulls Deal with Duke

North Carolina regulators have withdrawn a coal ash violations settlement the would have allowed Duke Energy to resolve environmental violations by paying a $99,000 fine with no requirement to clean up its pollution.

2014-02-05 Signs of coal ash swirl in the water in the Dan River in Danville Va - Photo by Gerry Broome, AP)

On Feb, 5, 2014, signs of coal ash swirl in
the water inthe Dan River in Danville, VA.
Photo by Gerry Broome, AP

State regulators now say that they will partner with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pursue joint investigation and enforcement against Duke Energy for Clean Water Act violations related to the Dan River spill and new concerns about the illegal dumping of coal ash at another of the company’s facilities.

Duke Energy has a clear record of complete disregard for pollution and environmental laws. Unfortunately, Duke has so much clout in the North Carolina legislature that it will be difficult for regulators to punish Duke with penalties that match the crime.

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Boom surrounds the Exxon Valdez at its new temporary home just off Naked Island April 7, 1989. The ship is undergoing preliminary repairs there. Photo by Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News

Boom surrounded the Exxon Valdez as underwent preliminary repairs at its temporary home just off Naked Island, April 7, 1989.
Photo by Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News

Twenty-five years ago today the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska, causing the worst oil spill in the United States at the time. The 987-foot tanker spilled an estimated 11 million gallons, or more, of toxic crude oil into the water, which ultimately smeared over 1,300 miles of shoreline. Today, oil can still be found on the rocky beaches and some wildlife populations have not fully recovered.

Exxon Valdez oil spill workers use pressure washers to wash oil from the beach on Smith Island, Prince William Sound. The oil was impounded in the water off of the beach and skimmed from the water. Photo by Bob Hallinen, Anchorage Daily News

Exxon Valdez oil spill workers used pressure washers to wash oil from the beach on Smith Island, Prince William Sound. The oil was impounded in the water off of the beach and skimmed from the water.
Photo by Bob Hallinen, Anchorage Daily News

Oil Persists
If you were to go to the beaches on Prince William Sound today, you could still find patches of oil underneath rocks and in the sand. The reason that oil continues to persist in the area is because Prince William Sound is what ecologists refer to as a closed ecological system, meaning that there is not much of a tide change and big, crashing waves do not break up the oil. Scientists that have examined this oil have been surprised to find that it has “most of the same chemical compounds as oil sampled 11 days after the initial spill.” Marine ecologist Gail Irvine says that when the oil spilled from the tanker, it mixed with seawater and formed into a goopy compound.

“When oil forms into the foam, the outside is weathering, but the inside isn’t,” Irvine explains. “It’s like mayonnaise left out on the counter. The surface will crust over, but the inside of the clump still looks like mayonnaise.”

As late as 2009 there were still more than 21,000 gallons of oil remaining from the Exxon-Valdez spill, some of which has been detected as far as 450 miles from the site of the spill. Although cleanup efforts came to a halt in 1994, oil from the Exxon-Valdez spill will remain in the environment for decades to come.

Wildlife Impacted
During the first year of the oil spill, The World Wildlife Fund estimated that 250,000 seabirds, 4,000 sea otters, 250 bald eagles and more than 20 orca whales died, making the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill one of the most ecologically destructive spills. While most of the animal populations have bounced back in the two-and-a-half decades since the spill, some wildlife populations have not recovered.

The Pacific herring population crashed after the spill, and is now listed as “not recovering.”  The silvery fish is a staple food for species such as salmon, seabirds, sea otters and whales.

Other species that have struggled to bounce back to pre-oil spill levels include sea otters, pigeon guillemots, killer whales and orca whales.

A Reminder in Texas
Just two days before the 25th Anniversary of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, “an extremely serious spill” occurred in Galveston Bay. As much as 168,000 gallons of heavy oil spilled when a barge and a ship collided near the Texas City dike on Saturday afternoon. Crews have been frantically working to clean up the spill in order to minimize lasting impacts on Galveston Bay, which is an ecologically sensitive area. Migratory birds are expected to be flying through the bay over the next month, which puts them and scores of other species at grave risk.

The type of fuel that spilled into Galveston Bay is a marine fuel oil known as RMG 380, which is sticky, black and heavy. This means that unlike gasoline, which evaporates from the surface of the water, much of this oil will sink and mix into the sediment, resulting in subsurface tarballs or tarmats which may persist in the environment for months or years to come.

These tragedies highlight the importance of ending our dependence on fossil fuels. The negative impacts will be with us long after the benefits have been left behind.

These tragedy highlights the importance of ending our dependence on fossil fuels. The negative impacts will be with us long after the benefits have been left behind.

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2014-03-19 More and more water bottle companies are voluntarily removing BPA, but not other chemicals like BPS - treehugger.comBisphenol A. In an age of ever-growing consumer awareness and savy, many of us are familiar with this chemical, better known as BPA. We look for the phrase “BPA Free” on our water bottles, Tupperware containers and children’s sippy cups in the hopes we’re protected from negative health effects. Unfortunately, recent reports indicate that this is not the case.

Despite the fact that Bisphenol A has been around for over a hundred years, it was only a few years ago in the late ‘00s that much of the danger around the endocrine-disrupting chemical came to light, ultimately leading to the FDA banning its use in baby bottles in July 2012. Despite this ban, which many would see as a confession of the chemical’s danger, the FDA maintains that BPA is still safe in small doses – it’s in everything from canned food to thermal receipt paper.

For those not as familiar, BPA is recognized as an endocrine-disrupting chemical – while in the human body it mimics estrogen. Although estrogen is produced naturally in both men and women, ingesting synthetic hormones can have drastic effects on the human body. BPA has been linked to a host of diseases and ailments, particularly breast cancer and hyperactivity. This is especially notable since recent estimates say that 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime and 1 in 5 high school-age boys in the US will receive an ADHD diagnosis.

While independent studies have found BPA to be highly dangerous in lower doses with “More than 95 percent of people in developed countries… exposed to levels of BPA that are “within the range” associated with health problems in animals, from cancer and insulin-resistant diabetes to early puberty”, the government is arguing that the chemical is still safe to use in small amounts. There are, however groups saying that the government study is flawed, mostly due to the fact that the control group in the study ended up being compromised.

Even if you limit your plastic use to only BPA-Free plastics, studies suggest you might not be as safe as you may think. A report published by Environmental Health Perspectives authored by a professor at University of Texas at Austin notes that “almost all” commercially available plastics tested contained “estrogenic activity” – the thing about BPA that makes it so dangerous. In the wake of all the attention around BPA, lots of tests have been done to test the potential health implications of other types of widely accepted plastics. A field guide to help decipher these plastics and the estrogenic activity of the chemicals in them can be found here.

One of the most concerning things about this plastics debate is the degree to which the chemical and plastic companies are subverting and ‘spinning’ information in an attempt to avoid regulation. As Public Citizen continues to push people before profits, it’s still important to try and do research on items you bring into your home whenever you can. When in doubt, avoid plastic if you can and opt for glass or metal containers or bottles.

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Oil drilling site, with pond for fracking water, Cotulla, TX  Photo by Al Braden

Oil drilling site, w/ pond for fracking water, Cotulla, TX
Photo by Al Braden

The Eagle Ford Shale play in south Texas is the 400-mile-long area that has become home to one of the country’s biggest energy booms in the past six years. The thousands of oil and gas wells producing in the region have brought dangerous air pollution to residents.

The Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel released a new exposé titled, “Fracking the Eagle Ford Shale: Big Oil & Bad Air on the Texas Prairie,” last week. Their eight month investigation reveals the dangers that come with fracking in the form of toxic chemicals released into the air as a result of the complicit culture of the government of Texas. In case you just want to read the highlights of the report, the team was nice enough to summarize their major findings:

  • Texas’ air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.
  • Anadarko Brasada Cyro Gas Plant, Phase 1 of 3, Cotulla, TX. Photo by Al Braden

    Anadarko Brasada Cyro Gas Plant, Phase 1 of 3, Cotulla, TX.
    Photo by Al Braden

    Thousands of oil and gas facilities, including six of the nine production sites near the Buehrings’ house, are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates most air emissions, doesn’t even know some of these facilities exist. An internal agency document acknowledges that the rule allowing this practice “[c]annot be proven to be protective.”

  • Companies that break the law are rarely fined. Of the 284 oil and gas industry-related complaints filed with the TCEQ by Eagle Ford residents between Jan. 1, 2010, and Nov. 19, 2013, only two resulted in fines despite 164 documented violations. The largest was just $14,250. (Pending enforcement actions could lead to six more fines).
  • The Texas legislature has cut the TCEQ’s budget by a third since the Eagle Ford boom began, from $555 million in 2008 to $372 million in 2014. At the same time, the amount allocated for air monitoring equipment dropped from $1.2 million to $579,000.
  • The Eagle Ford boom is feeding an ominous trend: A 100 percent statewide increase in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production since 2009. Known as emission events, these releases are usually caused by human error or faulty equipment.
  • Residents of the mostly rural Eagle Ford counties are at a disadvantage even in Texas, because they haven’t been given air quality protections, such as more permanent monitors, provided to the wealthier, more suburban Barnett Shale region near Dallas-Fort Worth.

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2014-02-28 Drilling Rig explores the shale - Mladen Antonov AFP Getty Images

Drilling Rig Reflected in Wastewater Holding Pond
Photo by Mladen Antonov, AFP/Getty Images

Studies released over the past few months have linked pollution from natural gas extraction with birth defects.

In a study released in January by Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers examined data from 124,842 births between 1996 and 2009 in rural Colorado. They examined correlations between how close and dense natural gas development was to the pregnant mother and incidences of various birth defects, including congenital heart defects, neural tube defects, oral cleft, preterm birth and low term birth weight.

The study found that the most exposed mothers, who lived in areas containing over 125 natural gas wells per mile, were 30% more likely to have a child born with a congenital heart defect than a mother who does not live near any wells. One might ask – how is this possible?

Many pollutants from the natural gas extraction processes, including toluene, xylenes and benzene, are suspected to cause physiological abnormalities and mutations in human DNA. These pollutants are known to be able to cross the placenta blood barrier, raising the possibility of fetal exposure to these and other air pollutants.

Of course, air pollutants are not the only danger posed by natural gas extraction. The fluid used in this process is already known to contain over a hundred known or suspected endocrine disruptors – chemicals that can interfere with the body’s responses to estrogen and testosterone – which can lead to many health problems including infertility and cancer. What researches found in a late 2013 study was that groundwater samples taken from areas around natural gas extraction contained very high levels of these endocrine disruptors, while groundwater taken from an area without natural gas had much lower levels. In other words, natural gas extraction is linked with the contamination of groundwater with chemicals that cause infertility.

While researchers cannot say that their studies definitively prove that the natural gas extraction process causes birth defects or groundwater contamination, it is clear that more research needs to be done and the process needs to be further regulated before America continues on an ‘All of the Above’ energy policy. These studies suggest that the future health of generations to come depends on it.

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Duke Energy said on Monday afternoon that between 50,000 to 82,000 tons of coal ash and up to 27 million gallons of water were released from a pond at its retired coal fired power plant in Eden, NC, and spilled into the Dan River.

2014-02-04 Re-enforcing and patching the berm to the ash basin at the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C.Joseph Rodriquez - News & Record

Re-enforcing and patching the berm to the ash basin at the Duke Energy Dan River Steam Station in Eden, N.C.
Photo by Joseph Rodriquez, News & Record

Duke said a 48-inch stormwater pipe beneath the unlined 27-acre ash pond broke Sunday afternoon, and tens of thousands of tons of coal ash and water drained into the pipe before spilling into the Dan River. Duke Energy says that the dam along the river remains secure and has not been affected.

Duke did not issue a press release to inform the public until Monday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the spill occurred.  Duke said it notified local emergency managers and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources on Sunday afternoon. Duke says the leak has been temporarily stopped and they are working on a permanent solution. Duke has 14 coal fired power plants in the state, seven of which have been retired.

The closest community downstream from the spill is Danville, VA, which takes its water from the Dan River only six miles from the pond. Officials are saying that water samples confirm that the water leaving the city’s treatment facility meets public health standards.

“All water leaving our treatment facility has met public health standards,” said Barry Dunkley, division director of water and wastewater treatment for Danville Utilities. “We do not anticipate any problems going forward in treating the water we draw from the Dan River.”

Coal ash, the toxic waste material left after coal is burned, contains arsenic, mercury, lead, and more than a dozen other heavy metals. Studies from the EPA have found that people living within one mile of unlined coal ash ponds can have a 1 in 50 risk of cancer.

This coal ash spill is the third-largest in U.S. history. In 2008, more than a billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston coal plant in Tennessee.

The Dan River coal ash spill is the latest in a string of industrial accidents that have jeopardized the environment and health of citizens downstream.

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Between legislative sessions, the Texas Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House of Representatives appoint Interim Committees to study important issues that help guide the Texas Legislature’s decisions in the future. These interim committees hold hearings and take public testimony. Their findings will affect actions taken during the next regular session.  Public Citizen will be closely following several interim charges during the coming year.  After each charge, we have included a brief explanation about why we consider these important charges about which you should be concerned.  The interim charges include, but are not limited to:

House Committee on Environmental Regulation Interim Charges
# 1.  Study the environmental permitting processes at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), specifically the contested case hearing process at the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH) and the timelines associated with the process. Study the economic impact that the state’s permitting processes have on Texas manufacturing sectors and how neighboring states’ and the federal permitting processes and timelines compare to those in Texas.
(Why are contested case hearings important for Texas citizens?  This is the only opportunity that neighbors of proposed facilities have to contest an air or water quality permit before a license is approved.  Once approved, any contentions must go through the Texas court system, which can cost a citizen or group of citizens thousands of dollars to litigate and the likelihood of getting a license revoked is extremely minimal.  You will note that the only concerns voice about this process has to do with economic impact and the impact on industry – NOT on how it would impact you and your family if you ended up with a facility next door that had to be permitted because it impacts on air and water quality.) 
# 2.  Study the rules, laws, and regulations pertaining to the disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas and determine the potential economic impact of permitting a facility in Texas. Make specific recommendations on the state and federal actions necessary to permit a high-level radioactive waste disposal or interim storage facility in Texas
(Can you say Yucca Mountain?  Yucca Mountain, a ridge of volcanic rock about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been the leading candidate site for a high-level radioactive repository since the 1980s, but Nevada has fought the project bitterly in court and in Congress. The spent fuel that emerges from nuclear power plants has been accumulating for decades in steel-lined pools or giant steel-and-concrete casks near the reactors.  A final decision to abandon the repository would leave the nation with no solution to a problem it has struggled with for half a century, but some in Texas seem determined to take on the task of making west Texas the new home for this nuclear waste.  While you may not be concerned about all that radioactivity sitting on land near Big Spring, TX, halfway between Midland and Sweetwater, you may want to consider the impact of all that waste being transported across the state on our highways, possibly through your neighborhood.  We will be following this charge and will post when we know about hearings.)

Consider this story that broke as I was writing this post. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground radioactive waste disposal site that began operations in 1999 and is the nation’s first repository for the permanent disposal of defense-generated transuranic radioactive waste left from research and production of nuclear weapons, was evacuated this morning when an underground salt truck used to haul mining debris caught fire.  Two WIPP rescue teams were activated and an unconfirmed number of WIPP employees were transported to a hospital for potential smoke inhalation. Operations at WIPP have been suspended until further notice.  According to WIPP, none of the nuclear waste was disrupted during the incident, but emergency crews were still battling the fire at this writing.

House Committee on State Affairs Interim Charge

# 3. Study the different financial assurance options used by state agencies to ensure compliance with environmental clean-up or remediation costs. Determine whether the methods utilized by state agencies are appropriate to ensure sufficient funds will be available when called upon.
(An example of how this can affect you – Currently, mines associated with a coal-fired plant can disposed of toxic coal ash waste from the burning of that coal in the depleted mines – click here to read more about coal ash waste .  Federal law requires those facility to post a bond for cleanup and remediation of the land where coal ash waste is disposed of.  In Texas, we allow a financially solvent company to pledge existing assets against future reclamation claims related to mine operations and seem to have no recourse to require changes if the company no longer meets financial health benchmarks. This is a practice that leaves Texas tax payers at risk of having to bail failing companies out from this obligation if those companies are unable to meet it.)

Click here to see all the Texas House Interim Charges.  We will keep you updated as hearings for these charges are announced.  Your input can have significant impact on what our legislature does regarding these issues.

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TX Keystone Tar Sands - Carbon BombKeystone XL’s southern half is scheduled to start operating for commercial purposes tomorrow, Wednesday, January 22nd. As much as 700,000 barrels per day of bitumen extracted from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, could be pumped through Oklahoma and Texas, igniting the fuse to the greatest carbon bomb on the planet.

The southern leg, rebranded the “Gulf Coast Project” by TransCanada, stretches 485 miles from Cushing, Okla., to Texas Gulf Coast refineries in Port Arthur and Houston. Last month, on Saturday December 7, 2013, TransCanada began injecting crude oil into the Gulf Coast Project. Spokesman Shawn Howard said they planned to “inject about 3 million barrels of oil into the system” in the weeks leading up to the start of commercial operation. In an interview with Reuters, TransCanada’s CEO Russ Girling said that they are now connected from Canada to Texas through the existing Keystone pipeline.

“We are now actually connected all the way to the Gulf Coast,” Girling said. “So we actually have …a contiguous system that has the ability, once Gulf Coast is up and running, to deliver 600,000 barrels per day to the coast.”

TransCanada’s Gulf Coast Project may very well be up and running by tomorrow, but questions about the safety of the pipeline remain, as do concerns for those living along the path of the pipeline and in refining communities.

Full of Flaws

Since Public Citizen came out with its report last November (TransCanada’s Keystone XL Southern Segment: Construction Problems Raise Questions About the Integrity of the Pipeline), PMHSA, the federal agency that oversees pipelines, has not re-inspected Keystone XL South. Public Citizen’s report details hundreds of anomalies at over 125 sites along the Texas route, which includes: dents, sags, faulty welds, coating damage, insufficient support of pipe in trench and improperly handled soil. (See also CBS report)
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The chemical spill into West Virginia’s Elk River, which left more than 300,000 people without water for over five days (many are still without water), comes in a state with a long history of lax regulatory standards over the coal and chemical industries that form a major part of its economy. The chemical spill is yet another example of how lax regulations are setting the stage for disasters, and the concerns are being felt all the way in Texas.

Photo Credit: www.flickr.com/photos/iwasaround

The chemical at the center of this disaster is 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, also known as MCHM, and it is used to wash coal. About 7,500 gallons of the chemical leaked from a storage tank, owned by Freedom Industries, and into the Elk River. The leak happened about one mile upstream from the West Virginia American water plant, which supplies drinking water to the local population. State officials are urging citizens to use bottled water for drinking, washing and cooking. Authorities say that at least ten people have been admitted into three hospitals, and 169 patients have been released from emergency rooms. Although MCHM is considered toxic, it is not lethal to humans. The effects on humans range from skin irritation, nausea, vomiting or wheezing.

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency for nine counties, including the state capital of Charleston. President Obama also issued an emergency declaration. West Virginia has received water from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for its residents. It may be days before the water is safe enough for anything other than flushing a toilet or firefighting. Authorities are waiting until the chemical level meets 1 part per million, set by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, before they lift the ban.

The coal and chemical industries, which make up a large part of West Virginia’s economy, exercise great political influence in the state. They have long railed against federal safety, health and environmental standards. The West Virginia chemical spill is yet another example of what can go wrong when you have an inept polity that is influenced by big business. Texas also suffers from a similar affliction as West Virginia, except in addition to coal, we also have the petroleum and chemical industries.

Texas has had its fair share of industry related disasters. An explosion last April at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas killed 15 people. In 2005, an explosion at the BP refinery in Texas City killed 15 workers and left 170 others injured.

With the West Virginia chemical spill making national headlines, let us remember that this kind of disaster is preventable. What we need is stronger safety standards and improved enforcement to make for a safer environment.

Sign our petition asking EPA to improve chemical safety and protect our communities.

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