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Interactive Map Shows Where Toxic Air Pollution From Oil and Gas Industry Is Threatening 12.4 Million Americans

Energy

Two leading national environmental groups—Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and Earthworks—unveiled a suite of tools Wednesday designed to inform and mobilize Americans about the health risks from toxic air pollution from the oil and gas industry.


For the first time, Americans across the country—from Washington County, Pennsylvania, to Weld County, Colorado to Kern County, California—can access striking new community-level data on major health risks posed by oil and gas operations across the country.

The oil and gas industry is the country's largest and fastest-growing source of methane emissions. And its facilities emit numerous other hazardous and toxic air pollutants along with methane—including benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and ethylbenzene. That toxic pollution presents significant cancer and respiratory health risks, underscoring the need for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up existing sources of toxic air pollution without delay.

The EPA recently signed New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) that for the first time will regulate methane pollution from new and modified oil and gas facilities, preventing some of the sector's future toxic air pollution from being released. The EPA's current regulations addressing the industry's toxic air pollution are limited and the NSPS does not cover the 1.2 million existing facilities in 33 states. CATF's report, Fossil Fumes, and Earthworks' Oil & Gas Threat Map focus specifically on toxic pollutants from those facilities and their resulting health impacts.

Earthworks Oil & Gas Threat Map Summary

The Oil and Gas Threat Map maps the nation's 1.2 million active oil and gas wells, compressors and processors. Using the latest peer-reviewed research into the health impacts attributed to oil and gas air pollution, the map conservatively draws a half mile health threat radius around each facility. 

Within that total area are:

  • 12.4 million people
  • 11,543 schools and 639 medical facilities
  • 184,578 square miles, an area larger than California

For each of the 1,459 counties in the U.S. that host active oil and gas facilities, the interactive map reports:

  • instances of elevated cancer and respiratory risk
  • total affected population (with separate counts for Latino & African-Americans)
  • total affected schools and medical facilities

The searchable map allows users to:

  • look up any street address to see if it lies within the health threat radius
  • view infrared videos which makes visible the normally invisible pollution at hundreds of the mapped facilities
  • view 50+ interviews with citizens impacted by this pollution

“The Oil & Gas Threat Map shows that oil and gas air pollution isn't someone else's problem, it's everyone's problem," Earthworks executive director Jennifer Krill said.

“Our homes and schools are at risk while most state regulators do nothing. Although completely solving this problem ultimately requires ditching fossil fuels, communities living near oil and gas operations need the EPA to cut methane and toxic air pollution from these operations as soon as possible."

Clean Air Task Force Fossil Fumes Report Summary


Fossil Fumes, CATF's companion report to Earthworks' Oil and Gas Threat Map, is based on EPA's recent National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) analysis updated to reflect the latest emissions data from EPA's National Emissions Inventory (NEI) and the conclusions are striking.

The report finds that:

  • 238 counties in 21 states face a cancer risk that exceeds EPA's one-in-a-million threshold level of concern
  • Combined, these counties have a population of more than 9 million people and are mainly located in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Colorado
  • Of these counties, 43 face a cancer risk that exceeds one in 250,000 and two counties in West Texas (Gaines and Yoakum) face a cancer risk that exceeds one in 100,000
  • 32 counties, primarily in Texas and West Virginia, also face a respiratory health risk from toxic air emissions that exceeds EPA's level of concern (with a hazard index greater than one)

“The Fossil Fumes report and Earthwork's Interactive Threat Map will allow concerned citizens to learn the cancer and respiratory risks they face from toxic air pollution from the oil and gas industry," Lesley Fleischman, CATF technical analyst and author of Fossil Fumes, said. “Armed with this information, we trust that citizens and communities will demand protective safeguards requiring industry to clean up its act and reduce these serious risks to public health."

"The Oil & Gas Threat Map and Fossil Fumes are outstanding tools for nurses, their patients and affected communities to better understand the health risks posed by oil and gas facilities," Katie Huffling, director of programs for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, said.

“As nurses, we are especially concerned by the number of schools and hospitals revealed to be within a half mile of an active oil and gas facility. The best available science shows that methane and toxic chemicals emitted by these facilities threaten our most vulnerable citizens, which is why we encourage the EPA to quickly address this pollution."

Other key findings of the map and report at the statewide level include:

  • Los Angeles County, California is home to the most impacted "vulnerable" populations: there are more impacted schools and hospitals in Los Angeles than any other county in America (226 schools and 60 hospitals)
  • There are particularly widespread impacts in Texas, with 15 counties with more than 75 percent of their populations living within ½ mile risk radius and 32 percent of Texas counties have elevated oil and gas health risks (82 out of 254)
  • Almost 25 percent of all Pennsylvanians live within the half-mile threat radius

“The Oil & Gas Threat Map and Fossil Fumes show more than 12 million Americans need protection from oil and gas industry air pollution as soon as possible. Industry talks about voluntarily reducing their pollution, but refuses to make binding commitments," Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel said.

"Some states like Colorado have stepped up, but other states like Texas have vowed never to regulate greenhouse gases and associated toxics. It is only the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that can act to protect all Americans, their health and the climate from this pollution."

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.

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