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Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

A new investigation shows a strong correlation between the fracking boom and a significant increase in fatal crashes in Texas.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is known for the environmental dangers it poses: obscene water use, groundwater contamination and the release of greenhouse gasses. A equally dark side to the practice has recently been revealing itself.

Texas Increase in Vehicle Accidents and Fatalities as Fracking IncreasedWorking together, The Houston Chronicle and Houston Public Media conducted an investigation that found fatalities involving commercial vehicles on Texas roads have increased dramatically since the fracking boom of 2008. In 2009 there were a reported 352 highway fatalities involving commercial vehicles. That number jumped to 532 in 2014; a 51 percent increase.

For decades, Texas’ incidents of auto fatalities were in decline. Improved safety standards, such as seat belts, child seats and airbags made being on the road less deadly. However, Texas saw an 8 percent increase between 2009 and 2013, the same time the fracking boom started.
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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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Photo by Max Anderson

Photo by Max Anderson

Above All Else had their world premiere to a full audience at South by Southwest in Austin on Monday, March 10, 2014. The film takes an intimate look at a group of landowners and activists in East Texas who tried to stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which carries tar sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The film focuses on David Daniel, a former circus performer who settled down with his family in the woods of East Texas. David and his family wanted to settle down for a quiet life in the country when something unexpected happens: TransCanada tells him they want to put a pipeline through his property. David begins to build a tree-sit on his property with the help of organizers from the Tar Sands Blockade. The film takes a personal look at how David begins to rally his neighbors and allies to try and stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Photo by Vanessa Ramos

Photo by Vanessa Ramos

After the film John Fiege, director, his crew and several people featured in the film answered questions about the film from a lively audience.  Julia Trigg Crawford, one of the landowners featured in the film, said, “It is an unbelievable travesty what happened with David. They’ve taken away his First Amendment right.”

John Fiege and his crew made an excellent film that tells the personal stories of individuals who risked financial ruin, their personal safety, and the security of their families. Above All Else will give anyone interested in the Keystone XL and tar sands issue a different perspective of the fight on the ground.

Above All Else will have two more showings at SXSW this week. The next showing is today, March 11, at SXSatellite: Alamo Village from 4:30 PM to 6:04 PM. The final showing will be Saturday, March 15, at the Topfer Theatre at ZACH from 2:00 PM to 3:34 PM. Check out the Above All Else website and the film’s SXSW page.

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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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After several major accidents involving crude oil trains derailing and exploding, the National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB] is warning that “major loss of life” could result from an accident if tougher regulations on oil-by-rail shipments are not implemented.

The NTSB’s recommendations were echoed by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. Regulators in both countries are urging their governments to adopt stricter rules.

The NTSB’s recommendations on Thursday came just days after a train derailed in Philadelphia, and just weeks after a train exploded in North Dakota. These two accidents are just the latest in a string of accidents that have happened over the last seven months, the worst killing 47 people in Canada.

“The NTSB is concerned that major loss of life, property damage and environmental consequences can occur when large volumes of crude oil or other flammable liquids are transported on a single train involved in an accident,” said the NTSB in a press release. “Crude oil shipments by rail have increased by over 400 percent since 2005.”

Philadelphia had a close call on Monday when seven of the train’s 101 cars slide off the rails – including tankers carrying oil from North Dakota – on a bridge over the Schuylkill River, a tributary of the Delaware River. Luckily none of the oil spilled out, but other communities across the United States and Canada have not been so lucky.

Last July, a runaway train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Magantic, killing 47 and destroying 30 buildings.

Last November, 30 cars of another 90-car train carrying Bakken crude derailed in rural Alabama, sending more than a dozen of the cars into flames before being extinguished several days later. No one was injured or killed in this accident.

North Dakota Oil Train explosion - Dan Gunderson

North Dakota Oil Train Explosion – Dan Gunderson

On December 30th, a train carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale derailed outside of Casselton, North Dakota. Residents reported several loud explosions that sent huge fireballs into the sky. Authorities urged residents within five miles of the explosion to evacuate and avoid contact with the smoke, while residents living 10 miles away were asked to stay indoors.

The common theme between all of these accidents is that they were all carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale formation. The Pipeline Hazardous Material Safety Administration [PHMSA] issued a safety alert earlier this month warning that “crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”
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Over the past couple of years, there has been a heated debate involving the potential EPA implementation of allowing a greater percentage of ethanol in gasoline.  The current volume percentage of ethanol allowed is 10% for vehicles made between the years 2001 and 2006. Recently, the EPA has been discussing the approval of what is known as E15 (15 volume percent ethanol blended with gasoline), and in October of 2010, the request was waived for the implementation of E15 to be allowed in vehicles made in 2007 and later.  Taking these two decisions into consideration, this now allows for E15 use in vehicle makes 2001 and newer, lighter-make vehicles into the commerce division.  Studies have shown that E15 is likely to result in somewhat lower evaporative emissions compared to fuel currently sold in much of the country (E10) as a result of the lower volatility of E15 under the partial waiver conditions. There are currently two conditions that must be met.  These conditions take into consideration the concerns of the community.  One condition of the waiver involves the mitigation of the possibility of citizens misfueling E15 in the wrong vehicles.  The other condition addresses the fuel and quality of the ethanol.

Sign indicating ethanol at gas station

On January 21, 2011, the EPA did in fact grant a partial waiver for E15 for use in MY2001-2006 light-duty motor vehicles. These decisions were based on test results provided by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and other information regarding the potential effect of E15 on vehicle emissions. Taken together, the two actions allow, but do not require, E15 to be introduced into commerce for use in MY2001 and newer light-duty motor vehicles if conditions for mitigating misfueling and ensuring fuel quality are met. The EPA is still in the process of completing work on regulations that would provide a more practical means of meeting the conditions.

These new waivers implemented earlier this year by the EPA have cattle ranchers in an uproar as well.  But what could the Texas livestock industry possibly have to do with the newest ethanol implementations? According to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), the new 50% increase in ethanol-gasoline allowance, is detrimental to the costs of their livestock production.  The TSCRA claim that such a dramatic increase in ethanol permittance will have serious negative repercussions for their cattle ranches.  A statement made by TSCRA president and fellow rancher, Dave Scott, indicated that these high levels of corn based ethanol are one of the most influential factors in driving price increases in corn products, including the feed for cattle.  This is a clear indication of the dangers we create once we begin to place our food and fuel in competition against one another.  In 2008, according to the US Department of Agriculture, feed for livestock reached its record high at $45.2 billion.  This was an increase of more than $7 billion from 2007.  With the cost of feed for livestock and newer, higher levels of ethanol being so intertwined with each other, we will only be seeing an even more dramatic rise in the cost of feed for cattle production…and more unhappy ranchers.

Our nation’s food supply and methods of transportation must find a way to compromise and divert their routes of competition elsewhere because both are at serious risk in the future.

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The next time you bite into that double quarter-pounder with cheese, you may want to think twice about it.  Literally though, once for your health and once for Mother Nature dearest.

The livestock and agricultural industry is the single largest producer of methane, one of the biggest contributors to global warming.  In fact, 100 million tons of methane is produced each year by the animal agricultural business alone.

About 85% of the people I’ve talked to, had no idea that eating meat had such a big impact on the environment.  It’s understandable that the general public cannot cease use of all fossil fuels, electricity, and gas-guzzling SUVs, but altering your diet toward a more plant-based focus is both one of the easiest things to do to decrease your carbon footprint, as well as quickest.  You may not be in a position to trade in your car for the latest electric vehicle, but you can be aware of the choices you make at the grocery store. (more…)

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The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant.

Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant -by Wikipedia

In an article by the New York Times that focuses on Vermont‘s concerns about losing space to waste from generators in other states, Matthew Wald writes:

Waste disposal is so difficult, says the company, Waste Control Services, that power plants and other generating sources have reduced their volumes sharply. And Vermont and Texas together produce so little that, the company adds, it would have to charge huge amounts per cubic foot and per unit of radioactivity to get its investment back.

Yet, the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition’s research shows the Waste Control Specialists site is currently licensed for 2.3 million cubic feet of water and 3.89 million curies. Texas’ existing four reactors and Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor would require 6 million cubic feet of capacity.

Tom “Smitty” Smith, the director of the Texas office of Public Citizen tells the New York Times that he believes, “They’re trying to get it done before the new governor takes office.”

To read the New York Times article, click here.

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If you are traveling this holiday weekend, here’s a short cautionary tale for your holiday enjoyment.

A musician named Dave Carroll recently had difficulty with United Airlines. United apparently damaged his treasured Taylor guitar ($3500) during a flight. Dave spent over 9 months trying to get United to pay for damages caused by baggage handlers to his custom Taylor guitar.

During his final exchange with the United customer relations manager, he stated that he was left with no choice other than to create a music video for youtube exposing their lack of cooperation.  The manager responded: “Good luck with that one, pal”.

So he posted a retaliatory video on youtube. The video has since received nearly 9 and a half million hits. United Airlines contacted the musician and attempted settlement in exchange for pulling the video. Naturally his response was: “Good luck with that one, pal”.

Taylor Guitars sent the musician 2 new custom guitars in appreciation for the product recognition from the video that has led to a sharp increase in orders.

Here’s the video ….

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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Regardless of your car needs, a more fuel efficient vehicle is available. But we can do better!

As Texas families prepare for one of the busiest travel holidays of the year, a new Environment Texas report finds that more fuel efficient cars could save Texans over $16 million at the gas pump this Thanksgiving holiday alone. The report was released as new federal fuel efficiency and global warming pollution standards for cars and light trucks are being developed. (more…)

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The Obama Administration released a notice of intent on Friday, October 15 to opened up a public comment session on fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, specifically setting a goal of an average of 60 mpg by the year 2025.

Comments on this first proposal should be sent by October 31, 2010. There will be another opportunity to comment after the issuance of the proposed rules due by September 30, 2011. Comments can be e-mailed to [email protected] with the docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-0799 in the subject line.

Below is an example of a possible comment:

Dear President Obama,

We can use American ingenuity to end our dependence on oil, keeping billions of dollars in our economy, cutting pollution and protecting our coasts from devastating oil spills. The best way for you to help put America on this path is by making our cars and trucks cleaner and more efficient.

I urge you to strengthen pollution and fuel economy standards for new cars and trucks, that ensure we reduce our dependence on oil by at least 45 billion gallons per year by 2030- beyond what is expected from current vehicle standards. Thats nearly three times as much oil as we currently import from Saudi Arabia. You can do this by:–Setting new standards requiring cars and light trucks to achieve at least 60 miles per gallon and emit no more than 143 grams of global warming pollution per mile by 2025, with accurate accounting for fuels including electricity for plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles; and–Setting standards that reduce fuel consumption from long-haul tractor-trailers at least 35 percent by 2017 and require all other medium- and heavy-duty trucks to increase fuel economy to the maximum technically feasible level.

We need your leadership to set strong pollution and fuel economy standards that will unleash American technology and ingenuity to help break our countrys dependence on oil.

Sincerely,

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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The new Nissan LEAF, or (Leading Environmentally-friendly Affordable Family car), will be availible in the U.S. in 2011.

In the coming weeks you might notice a sleek, new Nissan LEAF or Chevy Volt cruising past you on the road. Many of the major car companies are introducing electric, plug-in vehicles (EVs) designed for the American family market. They range in cost from about $20,000-$45,000 and are small and practical. Not all EVs run completely from electricity, some are hybrids with electric-assisted engines, like a Toyota Prius. Others, like the Volt, are propelled exclusively by electricity, but include batteries and generators. These differences affect the amount of carbon emissions your car produces. All-electric vehicles, like the LEAF, have the potential to emit no carbon at all, from their own engines, or at the power plant where your electricity is generated. As Austinites, we can choose the green energy option from Austin Energy, in which 100% of the electricity we buy is generated from renewables.

Gas may still be necessary to run your EV, depending how it’s engine uses electricity, but the new EVs are becoming quite efficient at using minimal fuel. It’s important to consider that the majority of Austin’s air pollution comes from vehicles. Purchasing any EV is a step you can take to make a positive impact on our environment.

EVs can also make a positive impact on your wallet. An EV averages 100 miles per charge cycle in the city. Comparatively, this costs about $1 or less/gallon in terms of the gas you would have used in a conventional vehicle. As efficiency improves, these costs will also fall, while gas prices are always volatile. If you’re interested, please contact your dealership about buying an EV; they will be fully available in 2011.

What else do you need to know after purchasing an EV? Concerned consumers have contacted the Public Citizen office worried about potentially expensive charging stations. An EV powers up at a charging station that’s a higher voltage than your normal wall plug. It looks something like the plug for an electric washer/dryer. This unexpected expense can naturally cause worries right after purchasing a new car, but Austin Energy has a program to encourage consumers to buy EVs.

All you need to do is contact Austin Energy and let them know you’ve ordered an EV. They will come and provide assistance and incentives to install a charging station in your house. For more information about Austin’s Energy’s charging station incentive program please contact Larry Alford at [email protected]

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By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, cleaner cars, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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TransCanada, a pipeline company out of Canada, wants to build a pipeline to bring the dirtiest kind of oil in the world from tar sands mines in Alberta, Canada to refineries in Houston and Beaumont. This oil is many times dirtier than conventional crude and allowing Houston area refineries to process it would increase air pollution throughout the region. The tar sands mines in Alberta are devastating the Boreal forest ecosystem, laying waste to a region the size of Florida and poisoning the people who live downstream. The first permit this pipeline needs is the Presidential Permit, which goes through the State Department. The comment period on this project is open until July 2 – to submit comments online go here. For more information on tar sands oil visit dirtyoilsands.org and to stay updated on tar sands news in Texas keep coming back here to Texas Vox, and visit our main webpage on tar sands here. (more…)

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Cap Metro’s hearing at the Sunset Advisory Commission on Tuesday wasn’t the public flogging many might have expected, given the mass transit authority’s myriad problems over the past several years. It came as a shock to no one as Sunset staff delivered testimony that centered on the financial crisis the transit authority faces. Several commissioners, however, none of whom represent Austin, were surprisingly engaged and cognizant of recent reforms at Cap Metro and gave them credit for their responsiveness to the Sunset Commission’s Staff Report which recommended several changes ranging from financial management to labor contracts to rail safety.

For those who have not followed the story from the beginning (include me in that), Cap Metro’s Sunset review began with the passage last session of Sen. Kirk Watson’s (D-Austin) SB 2015. The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin). In addition to calling for the review “as if the authority were scheduled to be abolished”, it changed the structure of the Cap Metro board and called for another review in 2016. (more…)

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