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Archive for the ‘Water’ Category

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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The Green Sanctuary Committee is hosting a free screening of Robert Redford’s film, WATERSHED, in Austin, TX

Robert RedfordWATERSHED tells the story of the threats to the once-mighty Colorado River and offers solutions for the future of the American west.

JANUARY 31st  at  7 PM
First Unitarian Church
4700 Grover Ave. ,  Austin, TX     
free – all welcome

 

The film panelists: 

  • Tom Mason, formerly with Lower Colorado River now advisor for Environmental Defense Fund.
  • Jennifer Walker, Sierra Club Water Resources Coordinator
  • Paul Robbins, Water activist and publisher of Austin Environmental Directory.

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Neighbors for Neighbors (NFN), an organization of residents near Luminant Mining’s Three Oaks Mine, filed late Monday for a contested case hearing on an EFH subsidiary’s request to renew the mining operation in Lee and Bastrop counties.

In its filing, NFN asks the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that administers mining law in Texas, to require Luminant Mining to post cash or an outside bond to cover the estimated  $60 million cost of cleaning up the strip mine. The group points out since EFH, the parent company of Luminant Mining, is expected to file for bankruptcy by the end of this year, there may not be funds to cover the cost of cleanup.  Click here to see a copy of the filing.

“Does a company have to go bankrupt and walk away from its mines in order for regulators to step in?” asked NFN president Travis Brown. “It would be the height of irresponsibility for Texas to allow a company going bankrupt to say, ‘Trust us, we’re good for it.’ We want Luminant Mining to post real bonds to assure that the mining restoration gets done.”

Russel Bostic, a local rancher and NFN member, said “I live next to the mine, and the company has condemned and is planning to use my land. My family wants our land to be restored to its original condition so we can return.”

Lignite coal mined at Three Oaks is used to supply Luminant’s two coal-fired power plants near Rockdale.

Under federal and state law, mining companies are required to restore mined areas to their original condition.  Those companies must also set aside money so resources will be available for the restoration, even if the company abandons the mine.  The law was created because many U.S. mines were abandoned when companies went bankrupt, leading to contamination of surface water and groundwater.

In Texas, Luminant Mining is responsible for the operation and cleanup of eleven active strip mines. If EFH goes bankrupt and sufficient cash has not been set aside for cleanup, taxpayers could end up with the estimated $1.01 billion cost of cleaning up all the mines.

Instead of requiring that $1.01 billion be set aside in cash or a real bond, the Railroad Commission allowed Luminant to “self-bond,” which means the company is relying on a “guarantee” that their own assets will cover the bonds without having real cash bonds set aside that the state can readily access.  In recent years, EFH has shifted to third party guarantee of the bonds, but the third party is another subsidiary of EFH, so still them.

In its current request for a mining permit for Three Oaks, Luminant Mining is again asking to post a self-bond for cleanup.

Brown said, “The company recently said in a community meeting at the mine that they intend to pledge assets for the cleanup bond. They said they need to operate the mines and coal plants to generate revenues to pay the new debt.  But nowhere in their most recent 8K [financial statement to SEC] do they make that commitment.”

Brown added, “This is especially disturbing since the company also says – in the same 8K – that they expect the price of gas to go up and coal to stay low. That’s the same poor business plan that has led to this bankruptcy.”

Michele Gangnes, an NFN member and a bond attorney, said “The law is clear, and Texas regulators should take immediate action to demand a cash bond so taxpayers and the environment are protected.”

Gangnes added, “In many states, Luminant Mining would be required to put up a cash bond before allowing the Tree oaks mine to expand. But EFH has been playing a shell-game, and state regulators have allowed it. We are asking the Railroad Commission to guarantee that EFH has to set cash aside or post a third-party bond specifically for cleanup of the mines in this bankruptcy deal.”

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If you have old medicine taking up your cabinet space, mark Saturday on you calendar for the City of Austin’s  “drug take-back day” where residents can anonymously drop off any prescription drugs they want to throw away.

Representatives from Austin Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency will be at several different locations around Austin, collecting and disposing unwanted prescription medicines, no questions asked.

Saturday’s marks the seventh semi-annual “drug take-back day” in Austin and Central Texas. The event is part of a larger effort to help “clean up” the city by making sure prescription drugs are properly and safely disposed keeping them out of our waterways and landfills.

If your community doesn’t have such a program, you may want to ask your local government to consider holding such an event.

Austin Drug Take-Back

Saturday, Oct. 26, 10 am-2pm

  • Northeast: Cornerstone Church, 1101 Reinli St.
  • Southeast: City of Austin Household Hazardous Waste Facility, 2514 Business Center Drive.
  • Barton Creek Square Mall, 2901 S. Capital of Texas Highway.
  • South: Austin Vet Center, 2015 South IH-35.
  • Northwest: Travis County Transportation Commissioner Center, 8656 SH 71 in West Oak Hill.

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Instead of taking action to clean Texas air, as requested by the Dallas County Medical Society, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) Chairman Bryan Shaw and Commissioner Toby Baker voted today to deny the petition for rulemaking and further postpone needed air quality improvements for East Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth areas.

The DFW area has struggled with unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone pollution – caused emissions from vehicles and power plants mixing in the sunlight - for decades.  While improvements in air quality have been made, they have lagged behind tightening air quality standards set by EPA to protect public health.  Asthma rates – particularly among children – have continued to rise, as well as hospitalizations due to asthma.

Martin_Lake

In addition to contributing to ozone problems in East Texas & the DFW area, Luminant’s Martin Lake coal plant emits more toxic mercury than any other power plant in the nation, ranks 5th in carbon dioxide emissions & is responsible for $328,565,000 in health impacts from fine particle emissions.

Meanwhile, Luminant continues to operate three coal-fired power plants with a total of eight generating units in East Texas that were build in the 1970′s.  These outdated facilities emit nitrogen oxides (NOx) – which is one of the two ingredients in ozone creation – at twice the rate of new coal plants in Texas.  The rule changes recommended by the Dallas County Medical Society would have required those old coal plants to meet the same standards as new coal plants by 2018 – giving the plant owners more than ample time to make the upgrades or arrange to retire the facilities.

Instead of focusing on whether or not reducing NOx emissions from those old coal plants in East Texas would lead to reductions in ground-level ozone in the DFW area, the Commissioners persisted in questioning the science that shows that exposure to ground-level ozone results in increased and worsened incidents of asthma.  Never mind that the research has been vetted by the EPA and reaffirmed by health organizations including the American Lung Association.  The mindset at TCEQ, as at many of our agencies and with far too many of our elected officials, is that Texas knows best and industry must be protected at all costs.

We appreciate the more than 1,400 Public Citizen supporters who signed our petition in support of reducing emissions and protecting public health.  All of those comments were submitted into the record and I read a few of them allowed at today’s hearing.

We will continue to fight for healthy air as TCEQ moves forward with developing a updated State Implementation Plan (SIP) to bring the DFW area into attainment with ground-level ozone air quality standards.  That process will be ongoing in 2014, so stay tuned.

 

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The public will soon get a chance to present ideas and feedback to EPA officials on the agency’s plan to require existing power plants to cut their carbon emissions.

The agency will hold a series of 11 public events around the country over the next two months, the agency announced today.

The EPA plans to set guidelines that will allow states to design programs to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, which account for a third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, the agency said in a statement. Those proposals are scheduled to be released in June 2014.

“Before proposing guidelines, EPA must consider how power plants with a variety of different configurations would be able to reduce carbon pollution in a cost-effective way,” the agency said.

The public hearings will be:
(more…)

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Double Standards in Texas Water Law

Under Texas Water Code, there is a double standard between groundwater and surface water. Groundwater is generally the property of the landowner as long as it is on private property, while surface water is property of the state.

The Water Code Section 35.002 defines groundwater as “water percolating below the surface of the earth.” But it does not clearly define “percolating.” Other forms of groundwater sources include “underground rivers” (aka subterranean streams) and “underflow,” both of which are excluded from the definition of groundwater in Section 52.001 of the Water Code. Section 35.003 states, “Surface water laws are not applicable. The laws and administrative rules relating to the use of surface water do not apply to groundwater.”

Andrew Sansom, Director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University, has emphasized that we are currently given permission by the state to withdraw more water from our rivers and lakes than the amount that is actually in them. And as surface water levels decline in the midst of the drought, Texas becomes more dependent upon groundwater sources. Again it sheds light on the double standard, as the state treats surface and groundwater as two completely different substances. Much of it is rooted in the water rights system. This starts with the “rule of capture,” which allows individual landowners to pump as much water as they wish from the underlying aquifer, without liability for injury to an adjacent landowner caused by excessive pumping.

Rule of captureWater use is a zero-sum game; one landowner benefits at the other’s detriment. Since the Water Code’s definition of groundwater only stipulates “percolation,” it essentially says that if you pump it, you own it. Texas courts presume that that all groundwater is “percolating” and property of the landowner until it is conclusively shown to be a subterranean river or underflow.  This was settled by the Texas Supreme Court case Houston & T.C. Ry v. East in 1904.

The rule of capture also sheds light on the political imbalance between private property rights and the public interest of protecting groundwater as a natural resource and public utility. If groundwater were universally owned by the state, just as surface water is, any state intervention onto landowner property regarding groundwater use should not be viewed as an intrusion of private property rights.

A similar principle applies to private land in regards to wildlife. A game warden or any Texas Parks & Wildlife official does not need a search warrant from a judge to search one’s land; this is because the wildlife is property of the state agency, which also issues hunting and fishing licenses, sets the dates for hunting seasons, and cracks down on poaching.Groundwater district officials could follow the same guidelines as TPWD officials; groundwater is to them as wildlife is to TPWD. One is not entitled to kill as many deer as he wishes in the name of private property rights; the same principle should be applied to pumping groundwater on private property.

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In the midst of the 2013 Texas drought, many towns and communities have suffered disastrous blows, either completely running out of water or coming close enough to warrent desperate measures. Some of have made significant headlines, including Spicewood Beach, Barnhart and Brownwood.

According to TCEQ, 665 water systems have implemented mandatory restrictions. 10 have been placed in a state of emergency in the last year, which means they could run out of water within 45 days or less.

Spicewood Beach drought

Spicewood Beach, TX

Spicewood Beach was the first Texas town to run out of water in early 2012, when low lake levels resulted in the well failure, and the community is still waiting for a solution. Since last year, the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has been trucking in about 32,500 gallons of water per day and an additional 6,500 gallons on weekends to serve the town’s more than 7,500 residents. The community is under stage 4 water restrictions, meaning residents cannot perform any outdoor watering; water is only for essential uses. The LCRA Board unanimously approved construction of a $1.2 million water treatment plant, which will be built by the Vancouver based private company Corix Utilities. The LCRA had hoped they could end stage 4 restrictions by completing the plant by the end of the summer, but Corix does not expect to finish construction until November. The company’s Texas-based operations manager Darrin Barker stated that obtaining permits from the necessary agencies like TCEQ, LCRA, and US Army Corp of Engineers will add up to three months to the process.

The West Texas community of Barnhart, about 50 miles west of San Angelo, suffered a disastrous fate on June 4 when they officially ran out of water. The town’s sole public well source stayed dry for nearly 3 days. Residents point to the local economy’s reliance on oil and gas drilling as a contributing factor to the problem. “This is Texas industry. This [oil and gas] is what makes Texas money, and yes, we have to have it, but not at this expense,” said Barnhart resident Glenda Kuykendall. On June 6, TCEQ released a statement, saying that “the water system issued a boil water notice as a precautionary measure due to the low water pressure.” However, as of June 18, the agency has only listed Barnhart in stage 3 and as an area of “concern,” meaning they could run out of water in 180 days or less. Barnhart has only 112 residents, which could mean that the potential well capacity exceeds the consumer demand, giving them a higher window of time before a potential outage threat after mitigating the problem.

Brownwood’s primary water source, Lake Brownwood, dropped 17 feet during the 2011 drought and came close to running out of water. The drought still lingers here, a major concern for Brown County Water Improvement District General Manager Dennis Spinks. The District hopes to drill and tap two aquifers 3,000 feet down, but if they fail, the backup plan is to turn treated sewage into drinking water, sending it directly back into the city pipes and eliminating the lake as the middle man. The city obtained a permit from TCEQ and funding from the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) that would allow such a strategy. Brownwood has approximately 20,000 residents and is currently under stage 3 watering restrictions. However, the Water District board members have debated entering stage 4 and are closely monitoring lake levels to determine whether or not it will be necessary.

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In the midst of Texas’ worst drought since the 1950s “drought of record,” we face serious issues regarding water consumption and waste, water rights, and how conservation efforts can be integrated into public policy. Texas’ population is projected to double by 2060. So how can we sustainably plan to serve the water needs of an estimated 52 million people by then? Water conservation, management strategies, and planning were the top environmental issues put on the table during the 83rd Texas Legislative Session.

Several water conservation bills were passed into law this session. HB 4, introduced by Rep. Allan Ritter (R-Nederland), marked the most significant and impactful among those he signed. The bill allocates $2 billion toward a new State Water Implementation Fund for Texas (SWIFT) from the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” pending voter approval in the November 5th election. If approved, SWIFT will be used to fund water-related projects, infrastructure, and conservation projects with loans. The bill requires that 20% of funding go toward conservation and re-use, with another 10% toward agricultural water projects.

Faucet dripping Earth dropThree bills passed that will address the problem of wasted water. HB 857, by Rep. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), requires water utilities to conduct annual water loss audits. HB 1461, from Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen), requires customer notification of audit results. Rep. Lon Burnam’s (D-Fort Worth) HB 3605 requires utilities to use a portion of state financial assistance funds to repair municipal water main leaks, which would save an estimated 20 billion gallons annually.

Austin’s Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson got his SB 198 signed into law as well. It makes it illegal for homeowners associations to prohibit members from utilizing xeriscaping and drought-resistant landscaping. Watson noted that residential lawns are commonly made up of St. Augustine and Kentucky bluegrass, both of which require extensive watering. This is a significant problem in arid regions like west Texas. It takes much less water to grow native plants like yuccas, creosote, and Texas sagebrush, all of which are favorable for lawn aesthetics. An increase in drought-tolerant plants as opposed to traditional lawn grasses could save 14 billion gallons of water by 2020.

Other water-related bills signed into law include SB 385, 654, 700, and 1870. SB 385 created the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which authorizes collaboration amongst municipalities, counties, commercial lenders, and landowners to develop improvement projects that will reduce water and energy consumption. SB 654 gives municipalities the power to enforce water ordinances through civil action instead of filing criminal lawsuits. SB 700 requires that the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) draft a template for state agencies to use in developing comprehensive water management and conservation plans, which they must annually update. It also requires SECO to biennially submit a progress report to the Governor and publish it on their website. Finally, SB 1870 created the West Fort Bend Water Authority and outlined its powers.

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StateImpact Texas, a reporting project of local public media and NPR, has provided us with an excellent overview of the continuing drought in Texas.

Today, 12.2% of the state is in exceptional drought (the highest level of drought under the US Drought Monitor reporting)  This is the map for September 13, 2011 - at this time 87.3% of the state was in exceptional drought.

Today, 12.2% of the state is in exceptional drought (the highest level of drought under the US Drought Monitor reporting) This is the map for September 13, 2011 – at this time 87.3% of the state was in exceptional drought.


In October 2010 the current drought began and Texas endured the worst single-year drought in its history in 2011. While the situation has improved, do not be fooled, the drought is far from over — and the conditions that caused it aren’t going away anytime soon.

NPRs StateImpact shows us the the cost to Texas, to date, as well as some dire considerations the state will have to make as we move forward.

Click here to see their report.

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kevin-fowler-slide

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality along with Texas Parks and Wildlife has launched a new campaign to encourage everyone to Take Care of Texas’ environment.  A new website contains materials that range from general information about environmental programs to specific, step-by-step instructions that address common environmental situations.  To learn about ways to get involved, click here.

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wind_turbine_aalborgProbably not overall, but the City of Houston has made a historic commitment – to buy half its power from renewable sources.

Houston was built around the oil and gas industries and has long suffered the consequences of being home to many of the nation’s most polluting refining and chemical manufacturing facilities.  Purchasing clean energy for the City’s facilities won’t change all that, but it does represent a significant change in mindset.

In the absence of federal legislation to address the increasingly pressing problem of climate change, local action has become essential.  At the very least, the energy used in public buildings – that taxpayers pay for – should be clean energy.  Houston is taking a huge step in that direction.

Wind energy is already one of the cheaper energy sources in Texas and solar energy is becoming competitive, especially as prices increase with higher energy demand.  These trends will be helped by large-scale investments like the one Houston is making.

Moving away from energy from coal-fired power plants will also help keep jobs growing in Texas.  Luckily, this isn’t an issue of jobs vs. the environment.  It’s an easy choice of supporting both.  Kudos to Houston to for recognizing an opportunity to take a leadership role.

Talk to your local elected officials about using clean energy to power your public buildings.

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Texas Capitol - north viewWith the regular session behind us and energy and environmental issues not likely to find a place in the special session, it’s a good time to look at what we accomplished.

Our wins came in two forms – bills that passed that will actually improve policy in Texas and bills that didn’t pass that would have taken policy in the wrong direction.

We made progress by helping to get bills passed that:

  • Expand funding for the Texas Emissions Reduction Plan (TERP) by about 40%;
  • Create a program within TERP to replace old diesel tractor trailer trucks used in and around ports and rail yards (these are some of the most polluting vehicles on the road);
  • Establish new incentives within TERP for purchasing plug-in electric cars; and
  • Assign authority to the Railroad Commission (RRC) to regulate small oil and gas lines (these lines, known as gathering lines, are prone to leaks); and
  • Allows commercial and industrial building owners to obtain low-cost, long-term private sector financing for water conservation and energy-efficiency improvements, including on-site renewable energy, such as solar.

We successfully helped to stop or improve bad legislation that would have:

  • Eliminated hearings on permits for new pollution sources (the contested case hearing process is crucial to limiting pollution increases);
  • Eliminated additional inspections for facilities with repeated pollution violations;
  • Weakened protections against utilities that violate market rules and safety guidelines;
  • Eliminated property tax breaks for wind farms, while continuing the policy for other industries;
  • Granted home owners associations (HOAs) authority to unreasonably restrict homeowners ability to install solar panels on their roofs; and
  • Permitted Austin City Council to turn control of Austin Energy over to an unelected board without a vote by the citizens of Austin.

We did lose ground on the issue of radioactive waste disposal.  Despite our considerable efforts, a bill passed that will allow more highly radioactive waste to be disposed of in the Waste Control Specialists (WCS) facility in west Texas.  Campaign contributions certainly played an important roll in getting the bill passed.

We were also disappointed by Governor Perry’s veto of the Ethics Commission sunset bill, which included several improvements, including a requirement that railroad commissioners resign before running for another office, as they are prone to do.  Read Carol’s post about this bill and the issue.

With the legislation over and Perry’s veto pen out of ink, we now shift our attention to organizing and advocating for a transition from polluting energy sources that send money out of our state to clean energy sources that can grow our economy.

We’re working to:

  • Promote solar energy at electric cooperatives and municipal electric utilities;
  • Speed up the retirement of old, inefficient, polluting coal-fired power plants in east Texas;
  • Protect our climate and our port communities throughout the Gulf states from health hazards from new and expanded coal export facilities;
  • Fight permitting of the Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines in Texas;
  • Ensure full implementation of improvements made to TERP; and
  • Develop an environmental platform for the 2014 election cycle.

Our power comes from people like you getting involved – even in small ways, like writing an email or making a call.  If you want to help us work for a cleaner, healthier, more sustainable future, email me at [email protected]  And one of the best things you can do is to get your friends involved too.

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Two years after the earthquake and accompanying tsunami that resulted in three of the reactors melting down at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant, nuclear engineers are still grappling with how to bring the facility under control.  This plant was heavily damaged and to date, no one has been able to repair it.  So it’s still badly broken and it is no wonder that power outages and water leaks continue to hamper the clean-up.

The United Nations atomic monitors, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), arrived at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant to review how contaminated water is being stored at the disaster site and assess decommissioning risks.  Their arrival was met with reports that a large amount of radioactive water had leaked from the plant.  The IAEA has made irregular visits to the Fukushima site since the March 11, 2011, disaster occurred. Their last visit was in December, 2012.

Currently, about 280,000 tons of highly radioactive water are stored at the Fukushima plant, according to Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), the company that owns the plant. That’s enough to fill about 112 Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to Bloomberg News calculations.

So here is how we got to that much radioactive water.  The reactor cores still have fuel inside that needs to be kept cool.  To cool the cores, Tepco has had to continuously bring in water from outside and pour it in.  That water flows down into the basement of the plant. From there, they pump it out, do an initial decontamination (they are able to remove some radioactive elements like cesium from the waste water, but other elements, like tritium, require more time to scrub) and store it.  Initially, they were storing the radioactive water in metal tanks on site, but these tanks have been filling up because groundwater has also been coming into the basements so they recently switched to reservoirs – really just earthen pits that have been lined with sheets of plastic. It is somewhere in this complex process that these leaks have occurred and right now they believe the reservoirs are leaking.  Here is a cleanup strategy as jaw-droppingly “maybe should have gone with something a bit less duct-tape home repair” short-sighted as the cleanup of the Pegasus Tar Sands spill in Arkansas with what appears to be paper towels that was ridiculed on the Rachel Maddow Show and the Colbert Report.

There are monitors around all the reservoirs, so they have pin pointed which ones are leaking, but they don’t know how much has leaked.  What we do know is that fish and mollusks within 12.4 miles of the Fukushima plant have surpassed baseline measures of radioactivity, according to Tepco’s  most recent environmental monitoring report published April 12. One specimen tested near the port entrance to Fukushima Dai-Ichi was 4,300-times more radioactive than what Japanese officials consider standard and may pose health risks.

Some say clean up is decades away, I say that is a nice fairy tale. Fukashima still has fuel inside, the spent fuel that was being stored above the reactors is still there, and no one can get to any of it right now. The area is just too radioactive. So they will have to wait for all the fuel to cool down and then figure out how to go in there and get it out.  It will be years before they can even open up the reactors. But the reality is that nuclear power plant disasters of this magnitude will take generations to clean up.

In six days we will commemorate the 27th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.  Only 2 miles away from the reactor, the company town of Pripyat, remains deserted and unfit for human habitation for hundreds of years to come.

Chernobyl sits inside a fenced area known as the Exclusion Zone. Radioactive remnants of the failed reactor continue to smolder inside a modern day sarcophagus, a concrete and steel encasement hastily erected after the accident. Leaky and structurally unsound, it now threatens to collapse, shaking loose enough radiation to cause a second disaster of similar magnitude. Work has already started on a new encasement, which will slide over the existing sarcophagus to seal in the remaining nuclear fuel. In the mean time desperate efforts are underway to shore up the sarcophagus to protect it from collapsing.

While our nation has avoided a disaster equal to these, our nuclear fleet of 104 reactors is an aging one, many of which are close to heavily populated areas of the country, and there is no absolute guarantee that the U.S. is invulnerable to a disaster of this magnitude.  We should all keep this in mind as nuclear plant after nuclear plant applies for a license extension that will go well beyond the expected life planned for these plants.

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