5 Disturbing Things Porter Ranch Methane Leak and Flint Water Crisis Have in Common
These two areas highlight the abysmal failure of utilities and lawmakers as thousands of local residents continue to suffer. What's important to remember, however, is that these travesties aren't just isolated incidents—they might be much closer to home than you think.
Porter Ranch residents express their feelings with signs during hearings at the AQMD #PorterRanchGasLeak https://t.co/K0Ab5CMh2N— Mark Boster (@Mark Boster)1453317495.0
1. Both areas were in dire emergency long before official declarations
Flint: Local and state-level declarations of emergency were made by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2015 and January, respectively. However, the problem started way back in April 2014, when an unelected state official switched the city’s main water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. On Jan. 16, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint. Such a declaration allocates up to $5 million in federal funds to the city. It also authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to galvanize supplies and distribute water bottles, filters and other supplies.
Porter Ranch: Compared to poverty-stricken Flint, government action has been noticeably faster for the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. Following months of pressure from activists and residents, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency on Jan. 6 over the gas leak—the biggest in U.S. history—that has spewed 86,000 metric tons of methane and counting into the atmosphere since Oct. 23, when the leak was first reported. The order means “all necessary and viable actions” will be taken to stop the leak and ensure that the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), which owns the leaking natural gas injection well, is held accountable for the damage. A federal state of emergency has yet to be declared.
Porter Ranch has been going longer than BP's Deepwater Horizon spill. https://t.co/S0TsBdQgcG #ShutItAllDown https://t.co/b8qC6IiaFx— Food & Water Watch (@Food & Water Watch)1453305914.0
2. Environmental contamination and noxious greenhouse gases spell trouble for the planet
Flint: Research has found that the water in the Flint River is 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron’s water, causing the city's aging pipes to degrade and leach lead into the water. Water samples indicated an average lead concentration level of 2,000 ppb (parts per billion) with the the highest level recorded at 13,200 ppb, The Guardian reported, putting lead levels 200-1,300 times higher than the World Health Organization standards of 10ppb. When used for irrigation, lead-contaminated water can cause toxicity levels in garden and urban soil and cause poisoning if it enters the food chain through fruits and vegetables.
People in Lead-Poisoned Flint Still without clean Water - https://t.co/hM9MuUTQhR https://t.co/VcdoB2H1cD— Juan Cole (@Juan Cole)1452352684.0
Porter Ranch: The leak, deemed the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill, has since spread across the Los Angeles San Fernando Valley, according to new research from Cambridge-based nonprofit, Home Energy Efficiency Team. The Los Angeles Times reported that "the leak is so large it will measurably set back not just the city’s but the entire state’s greenhouse gas emission targets, effectively erasing nearly a decade’s worth of statewide emission reductions." Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change.
3. Many people, especially children, have suffered from health problems
Flint: Lead, which has no safe blood level, has been entering the city's drinking water through corroded pipes and plumbing materials. Exposure to this toxic metal is considered most harmful to children and fetuses because they absorb lead more easily than adults. Lead can damage people's kidneys, blood, and nervous system and progress to coma, convulsions or death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 27,000 Flint children have been exposed to lead in the city’s water, according to The Detroit News. Additionally, 87 people have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease. Ten of those who were sickened have died.
Porter Ranch: More than 2,500 families have fled their homes and more than 1,000 children have been relocated to other schools. Residents reported symptoms related to the exposure of natural gas such as nausea, vomiting, headaches and respiratory problems. Not only that, a Los Angeles city councilman called on SoCal Gas last week to extend residential relocation assistance to residents in Granada Hills, Chatsworth and Northridge who live near the Aliso Canyon gas leak above Porter Ranch. Even pets are suffering from ailments similar to their owners, such as nose bleeds, nausea and rashes, ABC 7 reported. As residents flee, businesses in the neighborhood are also struggling to stay open.
Pets suffering from ailments amid Porter Ranch gas leak https://t.co/Umj5AnjSf5 https://t.co/U9V5vAYbAO— ABC7 Eyewitness News (@ABC7 Eyewitness News)1453243578.0
4. A disaster in the making. Lawmakers and utilities, now facing mounting lawsuits, ignored aging infrastructure
Flint: "The fact is," as LA Progressive wrote, "that the pipes conducting water from the Flint River are and have long been highly corrosive and have been leaching lead into the city’s potable water system. Pipes to each home and business, including sink and shower faucets, have been directly affected through both negligence and lack of regular maintenance by the city authorities." On Tuesday, amid calls for resignation and a growing number of lawsuits, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized and admitted that he failed Flint residents. According to emails released to the public on Wednesday, Snyder was informed of Flint's water quality issues in as early as February 2015 but his administration said the problems would eventually “fade in the rearview.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also acknowledged on Tuesday it did not respond fast enough to the water crisis.
Porter Ranch: Similarly, California's aging pipeline infrastructure and poorly managed storage facilities have been put under the microscope. "The gas leak comes from a broken well that was last inspected in 1976," as Earthworks observed. "The LA Weekly reports that the well’s safety valve was inexplicably removed in 1979." SoCal Gas now faces a class-action lawsuit alleging that the gas company removed safety valves on Aliso Canyon gas storage wells that lead to the massive methane leak.
Michigan governor apologies for lead-contaminated drinking water crisis in Flint https://t.co/AzveCdBnkm https://t.co/ZXgN6yqCtd— Los Angeles Times (@Los Angeles Times)1453315512.0
5. The disasters in Flint and Porter Ranch could easily happen to your city
Beyond Flint: Think your water is safe to drink? A Vox report stated that "children in essentially every city in America are being exposed to hazardous levels of toxic lead, and very little is being done about it." And if lead contamination isn't bad enough, "a 2009 New York Times investigation found that more than 62 million Americans had been exposed to drinking water that did not meet some government health guidelines," as PRI observed. "A 2011 analysis by Environmental Working Group found that more than 100 million people in 43 states were drinking water contaminated with trihalomethanes—a dangerous chemical that’s the byproduct of a chlorine reaction."
Beyond Porter Ranch: While Porter Ranch has everyone's attention, natural gas leaks are persistent and widespread across the country. A team from Environmental Defense Fund found an average of about one natural gas leak for every mile driven in New York City’s Staten Island, one leak for every 200 miles in Indianapolis and one leak for every three miles in Chicago. “Events of this size are rare, but major leakage across the oil and gas supply chain is not,” Director of Environmental Defense Fund’s California Oil & Gas program Tim O’Connor said in a statement. “There are plenty of mini-Aliso Canyons that add up to a big climate problem—not just in California, but across the country.”
It's not just Flint — every major American city has hazardous amounts of lead hurting kids https://t.co/mdurPn6Elx https://t.co/OnTTFBZanF— Vox (@Vox)1453226411.0
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.