By Brett Wilkins
In a little-noticed development last week that drew ire after being reported Monday, the Trump administration's EPA granted the state of Oklahoma wide-ranging environmental regulatory control on nearly all tribal lands in the state, stripping dozens of tribes of their sovereignty over critical environmental issues.
The Young Turks which first reported the news, obtained a copy of an October 1 letter from EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler granting a request by Republican Gov. J. Kevin Stitt for control of environmental regulations on tribal land on a wide range of issues, including:
- Dumping hazardous waste—including formaldehyde; mercury; lead; asbestos; toxic air pollutants; per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); pesticides; the herbicide glyphosate, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—on tribal lands.
- Underground Injection Control, the EPA's fracking permitting system.
- Protecting major agricultural polluters, including large-scale factory farming operations.
The Environmental Protection Agency @EPA has stripped indigenious tribes of regulatory control over environmental i… https://t.co/w1tlxBaWtl— Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) (@Climate Justice Alliance (CJA))1601902847.0
Wheeler's letter acknowledges McGirt v. Oklahoma, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in July that much of eastern Oklahoma is Native American land. The new EPA move essentially means the state of Oklahoma now has the same rights as it did before McGirt. Attorney General William Barr has joined Republican leaders in seeking ways to undermine the landmark ruling.
Cherokee Nation is now visible on Google Maps. It is the latest reservation added after a Supreme Court ruling in… https://t.co/G4yxXdRpJP— AJ+ (@AJ+)1601309014.0
The fossil fuel and industrial agriculture industries wield tremendous power in Oklahoma. The state Capitol—which was built on stolen Indigenous land—sits atop a large oil field and has a working oil rig on its grounds. The names of oil companies are also inscribed inside the building's dome.
The EPA policy change—which affects some 38 Native American tribes—sparked anger among Indigenous leaders.
"After over 500 years of oppression, lies, genocide, ecocide, and broken treaties, we should have expected the EPA ruling in favor of racist Gov. Stitt of Oklahoma, yet it still stings," Casey Camp-Horinek, environmental ambassador and elder and hereditary drum keeper for the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma, told TYT.
Under the Trump administration, destroying all environmental protection has been ramped up to give the fossil fuel industry life support as it takes its last dying breath. Who suffers the results? Everyone and everything! Who benefits? Trump and his cronies, climate change deniers like Gov. Stitt, Sens. [James] Inhofe and [James] Lankford, who are financially supported by big oil and gas.
I am convinced that we must fight back against this underhanded ruling. In the courts, on the frontlines and in the international courts, life itself is at stake.
The EPA attempted to assuage tribal leaders in a September 29 summary report in which the agency vowed to adhere to federal law. However, under President Donald Trump, the agency has reversed, or is in the process of reversing, over 100 environmental rules governing clean air and water, toxic chemicals, and more.
The summary report notes that the EPA consulted with 13 Indigenous tribes. It also acknowledges that all of the tribes questioned the limited time and geographical scope of the consultations.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Ray Levy-Uyeda
A farmer for most of his life, Sam Stewart bought farmland in Montana about 35 years ago. Since then, he's planted and harvested his wheat and other crops around 16 open oil wells on this land, which he estimates were dug in the 1920s.
Maneuvering around the wells is not an arduous process, per se, but it requires seeding the same area twice, which is wasteful and can slow his process. The real nuisance is the invisible methane wafting into the air—a greenhouse gas with an impact 10 times that of carbon dioxide. "You don't want loose gas being just emitted," Stewart says.
Unplugged wells in Montana and across the country leak thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. They can also leach toxins into groundwater and surface water systems, contaminating aquifers. More often than not, these wells simply aren't being cleaned up. That's in part because a lack of funding and political will has stymied the state's cleanup efforts, and in part because there's uncertainty around ownership. "I didn't know they were actually abandoned," Stewart says of the multiple orphaned wells on his property. "I thought the oil company was responsible."
A foundation formed in 2019 could finally help clean up some of these abandoned oil wells, including those on Stewart's property. "The operator who is responsible is long gone," says Curtis Shuck, founder of the Well Done Foundation. "Our focus is doing the right thing, leaving it better than the way we found it."
The first oil wells in Montana were drilled at the turn of the century, and the industry experienced its first boom in the 1920s. Energy demands of World War II spurred a second boom; between 1942 and 1945, oil production in the Elk Basin region increased from 16,000 to 940,000 barrels annually. When those wells no longer produced oil, companies could just leave. The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission of Montana, tasked with identifying and plugging abandoned wells, wasn't created until 1954, and by that time an untold number of wells had already been drilled, produced, and abandoned.
As more companies moved into Montana, oil and gas production grew into an increasingly important part of local and state economies; by 2015, it made up 5.6% of the state's general fund. But the industry that once was a cornerstone of Montana's economy is now in a nosedive: a yearslong decline in global oil production and demand compounded by the pandemic-induced economic slowdown has produced some of the worst oil production conditions in recent years.
In 2016, the most recent year for which he was able to provide data, 4,713 oil and gas wells were in operation in the state and 204 had been abandoned, according to Allen Olson, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association, a trade organization that works on behalf of the businesses. But that's a fraction of the tens of thousands that have been drilled in Montana in the past century.
Data on abandoned wells remain incomplete, which further complicates cleanup efforts. Plus, state legislatures have drastically different policies on how to address abandoned wells. One thing remains certain: The issue is enormous and far-reaching. A 2018 report from the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that the country has 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells.
Abandoned wells in Montana—left by companies that filed for bankruptcy, for example, default to the state. Theoretically, a state-run fund pays for well adoption and closure, but even under state control, the wells often lay unplugged, because plugging abandoned wells and restoring the surface land is expensive. Olson believes that the "state regulatory agency here is doing an excellent job staying on top" of plugging wells. But the state's plugging plan doesn't explicitly address the issue of abandoned oil wells, and also neglects to lay out a time-bound plan for plugging wells.
It's not just that states like Montana don't have a legislative apparatus to hold corporations accountable, says Mitch Jones, the climate and energy program director at Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that pushes for corporate and government accountability. He says that the lack of governmental action is by design. When wells are abandoned, Jones says, "the costs of doing business are passed on to the public instead of being paid by the shareholders in the industry."
Nationwide, the federal government's own agency in charge of plugging abandoned wells, the Bureau of Land Management, has openly acknowledged that it doesn't have the financial resources to tackle the issue of plugging wells on federal land. There was no federal nationwide bond requirement to cover the cost of reclaiming wells until the 1950s, and the required value for bonds has not increased since then.
That's right: the amount required to cover the cost of cleanup has not been increased or adjusted for inflation for nearly 70 years, so the federal amount is woefully ineffective. Bond standards of a couple thousand dollars often don't address wells that cost tens of thousands to plug, another cause for wells to be abandoned.
Jones believes that extractive companies are harming the environment and then escaping culpability by declaring bankruptcy. "Not pointing fingers isn't really an option in order to win this fight against climate change," he says. Identifying the sources of harm holds polluting industries accountable for supporting solutions and provides a pathway for legislation that protects the planet, Jones says. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, for example, just proposed a $2 billion remediation program for orphaned wells in June, though given the political climate, that legislation has a rocky future.
A Boost or a Burden?
Kirk Panasuk, a lifelong Montanan, farmer, and member of the Northern Plains Resource Council's Oil and Gas Task Force, remembers growing up with oil wells on his grandparents' farm. Panasuk says "once you've leased the land you've lost control." An oil company would lease the mineral rights—not the surface land but the profitable oil below. That lease might expire, the company would leave, and another company would come in to start the process again.
Agriculture is a difficult industry, and Panasuk says what seems like "free money" at the outset can lead to problems down the road. Water systems are connected, which means that an oil leak in Montana has the potential to leach chemicals into bodies of water such as the Yellowstone River that flows into other states through the Missouri River, a river crucial to municipal, industrial, and agricultural function.
Panasuk now volunteers with the NPRC to lobby state legislators on practices that would hold resource extraction companies accountable by mandating water testing and treatment. He admits that he's made money off of these companies by leasing mineral rights to oil producers who then sell the oil at market. Despite the environmental fallout, Panasuk believes that oil companies' leasing of land actually "saved a lot of small farms from failure [and] bankruptcy."
Olson of the Montana Petroleum Association says that in 2019, when oil was $60 per barrel, a company might produce 100 barrels per day and pay a royalty fee of 12.5%, which could garner a farmer $750 per day for leasing their land. Today, with prices and production down, the payoffs look different. In April, oil prices went into the negative, and in August, they're hovering around $30 per barrel.
While an oil lease might benefit a farmer initially, Jones says that oil companies are well-versed in this practice. "The oil and gas industry takes advantage of the inequities in our agriculture system to prey upon farmers and get them to sign leases for drilling on their land," Jones says, which can "undermine agricultural activity that's taking place."
In other farming communities around the country, where oil and gas companies produce natural gas through hydraulic fracturing, farmers and members of the local community often bear the brunt of water pollution. Not to mention that farming is dependent on a predictable and healthy climate, which is being threatened by resource extraction.
A Foundation Is Formed
In early 2019, Curtis Shuck was in the northern town of Shelby, about 15 miles south of the Canadian border, meeting with farmers about agricultural transportation. More than three decades in the oil and gas industry hadn't prepared him for what he saw—abandoned, methane-leaking, unplugged oil wells.
He walked the area with the farmers and learned how they worked around the wells, most of which had stopped producing oil decades earlier. What was left were remnant pipes strewn across the fields and a sulfuric stench like rotten eggs.
On his journey home to Bozeman, Shuck couldn't stop thinking about what he had seen, knowing that each open well was responsible for tons of emissions. On that drive, the idea for the Well Done Foundation was born.
Just over a year after that first trip north, the Well Done Foundation plugged its first three wells and expanded beyond the Montana pilot program into dozens of other states. Shuck says that he hopes the foundation can also gather the concrete data that the government lacks, such as the number of orphaned wells and their emissions, which makes it difficult to develop solutions.
Shuck says he can acknowledge the state's shortcomings in their cleanup efforts while building relationships with those who make regulatory decisions. The "state fund is grossly underfunded," Shuck says, but "why should the public bear the burden of this orphaned well issue?"
The Well Done team identifies abandoned oil wells around the state, and then posts a financial bond to the state's Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, a way for the state to track and partially fund the plugging. In doing so, the state is holding up its end of the bargain, but without this push from Well Done, it might take the state years to accomplish what the Foundation does in months.
The foundation researches individual well emissions for about nine months as well as studying the construction of a well, how deep it goes, and the materials that are required to plug it. Shuck says it's important that the foundation does its due diligence to identify wells that have collapsed in on themselves or have an obstruction that needs to be addressed before plugging.
Then the foundation works with county commissions, private entities, and those who own the surface land to develop and execute a "plugging plan," which so far has been funded by private or anonymous donors. The actual plugging of the well takes only a few days, and then the Foundation works to restore the surface land to its "pre-drilling condition," which allows a farmer to seed the land and grow crops.
Shuck is adamant that the foundation's work is not about fighting corporations, but about taking responsibility for one's community. The foundation has built partnerships with both conservation organizations and oil and gas companies. Shuck says that abandoned wells are a "bit of a black eye to the industry," so plugging the orphaned wells demonstrates their environmental responsibility and develops a partnership that may come in useful as the industry quickly changes.
"There are plenty of folks that want to blame Big Oil, little oil, or oil in general," he says. But the work, to him, is not about pointing fingers. Neither the left's demonization of fossil fuels nor the right's push for energy independence are relevant to the work, in Shuck's view.
In late April, the foundation successfully plugged its first well—a 96-year-old well called Big West Anderson #3 in Toole County that it had "adopted" by taking over legal responsibility from the state. The well, which hadn't produced oil since the 1980s, had been releasing 6,600 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. For comparison, one car on the road releases about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.
Just one day after the foundation plugged Big West Anderson #3, its greenhouse gas emissions were nonexistent.
Shuck says, "What's exciting about this is that we can make an impact one well at a time."
Reposted with permission from YES! Magazine.
Ray Levy-Uyeda is a Bay Area-based freelance writer who focuses on gender, politics, and activism.
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For nearly as long as solar panels have been gracing rooftops and barren land, creative people have been searching out additional surfaces that can be tiled with energy-generating photovoltaic (PV) panels. The idea has been pretty straightforward: if solar panels generate energy simply by facing the sun, then humans could collectively reduce our reliance on coal, oil, gas and other polluting fuels by maximizing our aggregate solar surface area.
So, what kind of unobstructed surfaces are built in every community and in between every major city across the globe? Highways and streets. With this in mind, the futuristic vision of laying thousands, or even millions, of solar panels on top of the asphalt of interstates and main streets was born.
While the concept art looked like a still from a sci-fi film, many inventors, businesses and investors saw these panels as a golden path toward clean energy and profit. Ultimately, though, the technology and economics ended up letting down those working behind each solar roadway project — from initial concepts in the early 2000s to the first solar roadway actually opened in France in 2016, they all flopped.
In the years since the concept of solar roadways went viral, solar PV has continued to improve in technology and drop in price. So, with a 2021 lens, is it time to re-run the numbers and see if a solar roadway could potentially deliver on that early promise? We dig in to find out.
Solar Roadways: The Original Concept
Solar roadways are complex in execution, but in concept, they're as simple as they sound. They're roads "paved" with extremely strong solar panels that are covered in glass that can withstand environmental stressors and the weight of vehicles driving over them on a consistent basis.
The idea was something that got people really excited when the initial Solar Roadways, Inc. project (which is still seeking funding) burst onto the scene in 2014:
More advanced designs included solar roadways outfitted with LED lights that could be used to illuminate lane lines, communicate to drivers and more. Other iterations included weight sensors that would detect when obstructions were on the road or could alert homeowners if unexpected vehicles were approaching their driveway. Embedding these kinds of technology into the solar roadways renderings only added to their appeal and the initial hype around the concept.
Key Selling Points of Solar Roadways
Early innovators of solar roadways touted the numerous benefits of their ideas. These included:
- Sunlight shines down on roads at no cost, making the energy not only readily available, but also free (aside from installation and maintenance).
- The ability to power street lights with solar roadways eliminated the need to pull extra energy from the grid.
- Having electronics embedded into the roadway opened up a world of possibilities for communicating with drivers in ways that didn't require painting and repainting of roads.
- The ingenuity to attach weight sensors on the solar panels could be used to alert drivers about potential obstructions, such as animals, disabled vehicles or rocks on the road.
- In a future of electric vehicles, the possibilities were seen as even more beneficial, as solar roadways could be used to power electric vehicle charging stations or to charge the cars while they're driving.
While some early thinkers may also have envisioned these roadways sending solar energy to the local power grid, the most impactful way solar roadways could utilize the energy they generated is right around the road itself: lighting street lights, heating mechanisms to melt snow on the roadway, or powering small emergency equipment on road shoulders.
Using the energy for on-road applications would mean that the power didn't have to be sent long distances before being used, which results in energy loss. However, in more rural or remote locations, having the solar roadway energy available for nearby homes and businesses could be a huge benefit, especially if there's an outage in the overall grid.
Why Solar Roadway Tests Have Failed
To much of the general public — and especially to people who weren't well versed in the intricacies of solar panels or road structures — solar roadways seemed like a slam-dunk solution that both looked futuristic and had benefits that went far beyond electricity generation. It was the kind of innovation that had people exclaiming: "How has no one done this yet?!" But in reality, the execution of solar roadways was much more complex than the idea.
Here are a few reasons solar roadway tests have failed:
Cost of Manufacturing and Maintenance
The cost of the energy from the sun may be free, but the investment to install and maintain the solar roadways was undeniably prohibitive. The reason asphalt is used by default to pave roadways is because it is immensely affordable and low-maintenance, which is especially critical on vast, expansive roadways and interstates.
In 2010, Scott Brusaw, co-founder of Solar Roadways, Inc., estimated a square foot of solar roadway would cost about $70. However, when the first solar roadway was built in France by a company called Colas, it measured 1 kilometer and cost $5.2 million to build — or about $1,585 per foot of roadway. Of course, this was a small iteration and bulk manufacturing would cost less, but either way, it's hard to believe the cost of a solar roadway would ever be competitive with the price of asphalt, which is about $3 to $15 per square foot.
Further, the cost and complexity to send a crew to repair individual panels that fail would far outweigh those to maintain asphalt. So, while one of the presumed benefits of solar roadways is the cost savings associated with self-generated energy, even back-of-the-envelope math highlights how the numbers would simply not add up to be more cost-effective in the long run.
Energy Required to Produce the Panels
Another limiting factor appears when considering the energy it takes to make asphalt versus high-durability glass and solar panels. Most asphalt used on roads today is a byproduct of distilling petroleum crude oil for products such as gasoline, which means it makes use of a substance that would otherwise be discarded as waste.
The solar roadway panels, although intended to save energy in the long run, take much more to produce. Typical rooftop solar panels can easily make up for the extra energy used in production because the glass doesn't need to withstand the weight of vehicles driving over them, but solar roadways have that added complexity.
Power Output of the Panels
When estimating power output, early optimists seemed to perform calculations based on the raw surface area they could cover — and not much else. However, beyond the stunted energy generation that any solar panels face on cloudy days or at night, solar roadways presented unique new performance challenges.
For example, vehicles constantly driving over solar roadways would interrupt sun exposure. Plus, they'd leave behind trails of fluid, dirt and dust that can dramatically reduce the efficiency of solar panels. Being installed on the ground is a challenge in itself because of how readily shade would find the roads; that's the reason you find most solar panels on rooftops or elevated off the ground and angled toward the sun.
Issues With Glass Roadways
Lastly, driving on glass surfaces is simply not what modern cars are designed to do. Asphalt and tires grip each other well, being particularly resilient in wet conditions. If the asphalt is replaced with glass — even the textured glass that's used for solar roadways — tire traction could be reduced dramatically. Wet or icy conditions could lead to catastrophic situations on solar roadways.
Could Recent Advances in Solar Technology Bring Solar Roadways Closer to Reality?
For all of these challenges and even more roadblocks that early solar roadway projects have run into in the past, the reality is that solar technology continues to improve. In the seven years since the first Solar Roadways, Inc. video went viral, solar panels have developed to be more durable, more cost-effective and more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity. To put some numbers behind these trends:
- The average solar PV panel cost has dropped about 70% since 2014.
- In 2015, FirstSolar made news with panels that were 18.2% efficient. Today, the most advanced prototypes are able to exceed 45% efficiency.
- Total solar energy capacity in 2021 is nearly six times greater than in 2014, and with that explosion has come advances to flatten the learning curve and increase the general public's acceptance of the benefits of solar.
- Solar jobs have increased 167% in the last decade, giving the industry more capable workers able to take the reins of a solar roadway project and more professionals who know how to affordably install solar.
The question to ask is whether these advances are enough to bring solar roadways from failure to success.
Despite the improvements, many of the original challenges with solar roadways remain, and the scale of execution is immense. Even with decreasing solar PV costs, outfitting long stretches of roadway with such complex technologies will require tremendous capital.
Rather than a future where solar roadways cover the country from coast to coast, a more likely outcome is that these advances will bring solar roadways to viability in narrow, niche applications.
Just like tidal energy is a great opportunity for small coastal communities but can't be scaled to solve the energy crisis across the world, it's conceivable that limited-scope solar roadways could be constructed around the world. However, large-scale solar roadways may never be more than a pipe dream.
By Emily Pontecorvo and Naveena Sadasivam
On a spring weekend morning a few weeks ago, Judy Kelly stepped outside of her house in Broomfield, Colorado, to grab the newspaper when her nose perked up. It smelled like something was burning.
Kelly, who's 73, lives in an upscale, 55-and-up retirement community called Anthem Ranch, which sits below the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The 1,300-home development is manicured and quiet, with green lawns and landscaped roads that flower out into smaller cul-de-sacs. Its active residents enjoy their own private fitness center, pool, movie theater, and more than 90 clubs that meet in a central community center. But about a quarter of a mile away from the southern border of this retirement dreamland sits a circle of fortress-like walls that enclose the Livingston fracking site, which contains 18 wells owned by Extraction Oil and Gas.
Kelly is among more than 200 Broomfield residents who have submitted complaints to the city since November, reporting chemical smells and symptoms like headaches, burning eyes, and nosebleeds that they believe are caused by oil and gas activity in the area.
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.
When she notified the city about the smell that morning, she was told that a city inspector had been on the site already and nothing was wrong. But Kelly was on high alert. Just a few days earlier, Extraction had begun "flowback," a part of the fracking process that is associated with some of the highest emission rates of carcinogenic chemicals like benzene. Even under normal circumstances, flowback scared Kelly, who had followed the devastation in neighboring Weld County when one of Extraction's wells exploded during the process in 2017, causing a major fire and injuring a worker. Kelly and her husband, who has pulmonary interstitial fibrosis, a lung disease, had planned on leaving town to stay with their son when flowback at Livingston began.
The COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. On March 25, when Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order to stop the coronavirus's spread, Kelly and her neighbors were suddenly trapped, trying to avoid one health hazard while worrying about being exposed to another. After all, fracking remained a "critical" business, according to the state.
"Where am I going to go?" Kelly asked. "I can't go to a hotel. I can't risk that with my husband. I have nowhere to go now."
Kelly's dilemma is not unique. Across the country, millions of people live within half a mile of fracking sites and other oil and gas activity and are exposed to a slew of toxic chemicals in their day-to-day lives. Researchers have found that those living close to fracking are more likely to suffer from cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses — the very underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to the most severe outcomes from COVID-19. While many residents may have found ways to seek respite from these toxic emissions during normal times — whether it was working or going to school elsewhere, or simply moving in with friends and family during the most intense periods of activity — those options went out the window when state governors began announcing stay-at-home orders.
For its part, Extraction says that Anthem Ranch residents have nothing to worry about. The company did not respond to Grist's detailed list of questions, but in legal filings and public testimony it has stated that the new technology it uses for flowback has been shown to keep emissions far below the levels associated with traditional techniques. In a complaint filed in a Colorado court, the company's lawyers said that the "anxiety and stress" experienced by Broomfield residents was "self-induced."
Broomfield vs. Extraction
The unsettling bind that the stay-at-home order put many residents in was not lost on Laurie Anderson, a Broomfield city councilwoman who lives just half a mile from the fracking site in another neighborhood called Anthem Highlands. The night Governor Polis' order came down, a special meeting of the city council was scheduled to discuss the potential dangers of work continuing at the Livingston site during the pandemic. The council decided to draft a proposal ordering Extraction to postpone flowback — a process where the chemical-laden water used to fracture open the shale flows back to the surface and must be collected, treated, and disposed of — until the stay-at-home order was lifted.
"The thought was to protect these residents, to delay flowback, understanding that it has to happen because they've already fracked these wells," said Anderson, who is also an organizer for Moms Clean Air Force, a national advocacy group that fights polluters. "It was only going to delay them for a couple weeks."
Of particular concern was Anthem Ranch, where the median age is 70 years old. The city's public health staff drafted up an order and included data showing that people over 65 are more susceptible to COVID-19 complications, that the top symptom reported by older Broomfield residents in the city's oil and gas complaint system was "anxiety/stress," and that stress and anxiety are linked to poor health outcomes in general.
But two days later, before the council could discuss the draft proposal, Extraction headed them off at the pass. The company secured a temporary restraining order from the Seventeenth Judicial District Court in Colorado, which prohibited the city from halting or delaying its operations. According to court documents, Extraction alleged that the city was acting in bad faith, trying to "shut down Extraction's operations not because they pose any real health risk, but because they are unpopular." Then, on March 30, the company filed an official complaint with the district court against the city, seeking damages for a breach of contract.
It's true that this was far from the first time Broomfield had tried to interfere with Extraction's … extraction. The city has battled the company at every stage of the drilling process in response to complaints from residents about odors, health symptoms, and noise.
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.
Several times the city has contacted the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), a state regulatory body, to address those complaints. According to Megan Castle, a COGCC spokesperson, the agency intervened once in response to a noise issue and a second time to request the company swap drilling fluids which were causing odor complaints. Castle said the agency has conducted additional noise monitoring and did not find that the site was out of compliance with state regulations.
Andrew Bare, a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said that the nature of some of the complaints — such as odors that would likely have dissipated by the time inspectors reached the site — made taking action against Extraction "difficult." Bare said that the agency sent a mobile air monitoring lab to the site in response to residents' concerns and that the lab will remain near the Livingston site for at least another two weeks.
In legal documents, Extraction claims it has gone above and beyond the best management practices required by its operating agreement with the city, including investing more than $250 million on a "Next Generation Flowback" system to reduce emissions during the two to three months flowback is expected to last. At the public meeting last month, representatives from the company explained to the council that instead of storing and processing the flowback fluid on site, the company would ship it via pipeline to a facility in Weld County. They asserted that the design eliminates "99.9 percent of emissions" and significantly reduces the duration of the flowback phase. Later at the meeting, Barbara Ganong, a petroleum engineer who was hired by the city as a consultant, asserted that Extraction's decision to pipe fracking fluids offsite represented a "paradigm shift."
Air quality experts hired by the city gave a presentation showing that without this new closed system, emissions during flowback could have been 31 times higher than during fracking. Still, when they measured emissions during flowback at another Extraction well in a less populated part of town, they said emissions were still double those during fracking, even with the new system.
Broomfield residents interviewed by Grist were not reassured by Extraction's new technology. Kelly said the company told Broomfield that it was using the latest technology in every step of the process so far, but that the city has nevertheless had to step in multiple times after residents complained of noise and health symptoms.
"They've done nothing to make me feel like I can trust them and trust what they say," said Elizabeth Lario, who lives with her husband and daughter in the Wildgrass neighborhood a little less than a mile south of the Livingston site. Lario said she and her family have experienced migraines, nose bleeds, stress and anxiety, and throat irritation since drilling began last summer.
Broomfield fought the company's restraining order, and on April 6, the same judge who originally issued the temporary order agreed to dissolve it. He found that it was granted too soon, considering the city had not even officially taken action to delay or halt Extraction's operations yet. But the judge also issued a warning: If Broomfield exercised its regulatory powers in a way that was "arbitrary and capricious and not rationally related to combating the spread of COVID-19," it would be back where it started, facing more legal action from Extraction.
The judge's warning created a new problem for Broomfield: The city's order was designed to protect public health, but it had nothing to do with preventing the spread of the virus.
Two days after the judge dissolved the restraining order, the city council finally put its public health order to a vote, but by that point, it had become harder to justify. Anderson and other city council members tried to rewrite the order in a way that didn't flout the judge's ruling. If they did, they thought Extraction was likely to take them to court again and the restraining order might be reinstated.
"I kept thinking we'll find a way forward," said Anderson. "But sometime between that Tuesday and Wednesday it became clear that there just wasn't a way forward that wouldn't result in a legal battle."
Ultimately, Anderson and the majority of the council voted the public health order down 9 to 1.
It was a devastating blow for Kelly and some other residents. As a member of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, a nonprofit representing community groups and residents affected by fracking, Kelly has been at the forefront of the battle with Extraction, and in the past, the city has taken bold action to protect residents. While her home is about a mile from the Livingston site, she said she's most worried about some of her neighbors who are as close as a quarter-mile from the site.
"People that I've gotten to know over the last … almost seven years, who I really care about, are very close to it," she said. "And it scares me to death."
‘Why Didn’t You Protect Us?’
Leading up to that final vote, the city council was flooded with emails begging them to forge ahead with the public health order. After it decided to drop the issue, community members were on edge. Kelly said she understands why the city did what it did. But others are incredibly frustrated with the outcome. "I get so many calls from people that say, 'why didn't you protect us?'" she said. "They're so concerned about their health that they would have rather seen us in court."
One concern is what residents will do in case there is an emergency, like a major emissions release or an explosion like the one in Weld County. The Broomfield police department has told families that live within a half-mile of the site to keep a bag packed in case an evacuation is necessary. But Elizabeth Lario is not sure where her family would go. Under normal circumstances, the city's emergency shelter is its recreation center, but as long as social distancing is necessary, that no longer feels like a safe option. "The evacuation plan is to wait and hear what the evacuation plan is," Lario said.
An excerpt from an email sent to the city by a resident concerned about the Livingston fracking site.
On April 13, the Broomfield Office of Emergency Management held a telephone town hall to present evacuation instructions. Residents told Grist that instructions on where they should go were not very clear, and that the evacuation plan was fluid depending on the scale of emergency and the status of the pandemic. "It was a plan left in chaos, in my opinion, that fortunately hasn't had to be used," said Anderson.
The Broomfield police department told Grist that it uses a cell phone alert system for emergency notification. An "Emergency Management Update" powerpoint created by the department instructs residents to "follow the instructions you receive" and monitor the situation on the city's social media accounts. In the case of an evacuation, it says to go to the home of a family member or friend — and to go to the recreation center only if needed. The department advises that residents who do elect to evacuate to the recreation center remain in their cars "if quarantined/isolated."
Not all of Broomfield's citizens are worried about the fracking site. In fact, some actively opposed the city's idea to delay Extraction's work. Anderson said there had been pressure from residents who felt that the city was already wasting too many public dollars on its clashes with the company, and worried that another lawsuit could bankrupt the city. A former council member accused the city of conducting a witch hunt.
Broomfield has indeed spent a significant amount of money on oil and gas oversight, including hiring additional personnel, outside counsel, and consultants. It has also deployed systems to monitor air quality and noise. The Broomfield Enterprise, a local newspaper, reported that the city spent $1.8 million in 2018, $1.5 million in 2019, and is expected to spend $3.1 million this year just on oil and gas-related personnel and programs. The city has approved approximately $1.5 million for air quality monitoring contracts in 2020 alone.
Broomfield's air monitoring system is impressive, given that it's a city of only about 70,000 people. The city currently has 11 new sensors set up to monitor emissions, as well as two mobile air quality laboratories and a mobile "plume tracker" — a Chevy Tahoe equipped to measure real-time methane concentrations in the air — from Colorado State University that will be deployed periodically. The city's sensors do not measure the specific amount of benzene and other harmful compounds in the air, but they set off "triggers" to take an air sample any time they register a spike in emissions.
Anderson hopes that collecting this data will give the town a clearer picture of the public health risks fracking poses to residential communities. She said that part of the reason the town's order was abandoned was due to a lack of data showing that flowback would put residents at greater risk. Now they are collecting that data — but by the time any potential harms come into focus, it will be too late. Residents will have been exposed.
"This community feels like guinea pigs, and I'm right there with them," she said. "We're doing things that we don't have the data to show that it's safe."
This story originally appeared in Grist and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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A coalition of local and national groups on Friday launched a legal challenge to a Louisiana state agency's decision to approve air permits for a $9.4 billion petrochemical complex that Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group plans to build in the region nationally known as "Cancer Alley."
Louisiana residents and environmental justice advocates have pressured local, state, and federal officials to reject permits for the proposed project in St. James Parish. Critics have raised concerns that the complex would adversely affect public health and the environment by emitting cancer-causing chemicals and producing an estimated 13.6 million tons of planet-heating emissions annually.
Earthjustice filed the new lawsuit (pdf) in the Louisiana 19th Judicial District Court on behalf of RISE St. James, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Center for Biological Diversity, Healthy Gulf, No Waste Louisiana, Earthworks, and the Sierra Club. The suit appeals the air permits issued by the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ).
"Louisiana violated the Clean Air Act when it gave Formosa the greenlight to double toxic air pollution in St. James," Earthjustice attorney Corinne Van Dalen said in a statement. "It's time for LDEQ to put Louisianans first and reject more pollution that puts their health, safety, and environment at risk."
BREAKING: We’re challenging Louisiana’s decision to approve air permits for a massive proposed petrochemical comple… https://t.co/DzByCNCLGF— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice)1581708454.0
As the lawsuit explains:
LDEQ granted Formosa Plastics permits to construct 14 separate major facilities, including 10 chemical plants. The planned chemical complex would manufacture ethylene and propylene, primarily to produce plastics. The other four facilities would support these operations. Formosa Plastics would build this complex a mile from an elementary school in Welcome, and less than one mile from the community of Union in Convent. Its massive air pollution emissions would vastly add to the significant environmental and health burden that African American communities in and near St. James must suffer—including from two new recently permitted methanol petrochemical plants, and Nucor Steel's major expansion project.
Formosa Plastics' air emissions will also spread to communities across St. James Parish, contributing to the region's air pollution problems. The permits would allow Formosa Plastics to release fine particulates and nitrogen dioxide in quantities that exacerbate ongoing violations of EPA's mandatory national standards in St. James Parish. And they would allow Formosa Plastics to be one of the largest industrial sources in the state for some of the most dangerous carcinogenic air pollutants, such as benzene and formaldehyde, and one of the largest in the nation for others, such as ethylene oxide.
In an email to the Associated Press on Friday, LDEQ spokesperson Gregory Langley said that "we don't comment on ongoing litigation."
Anne Rolfes, director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, called the permit approval "a new low" for LDEQ, pointing out that the department received over 15,500 comments from residents opposing the complex.
"Formosa Plastics would be one of the largest plants in the world, but our state used the same old rubber stamp to approve the project," said Rolfes. "We will act to protect the people of Louisiana since the state has clearly failed to do so."
The proposed Formosa Plastics Plant would increase the cancer risk in the 7th District, according to @Earthjustice.… https://t.co/ikvsokUMG5— LA Bucket Brigade (@LA Bucket Brigade)1580509900.0
Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of the local organization RISE St. James, declared that "LDEQ doesn't care about people's lives."
"They should have consulted the citizens of St. James, not the public officials, before approving these permits. It just tells me that people in higher office can do what they want and poison an entire African American community," she said. "RISE is going to fight to save the lives of the people in our community. This approval is making our fight harder, but it's making us stronger, and we will fight until the end to stop Formosa."
Great profile of Sharon Lavigne, a leader in the fight to #StopFormosa and its massive plastic-making plant in Loui… https://t.co/Ot5eUS9esc— Ctr4BioDiv Ocean (@Ctr4BioDiv Ocean)1581702363.0
Representatives from national organizations signed on to the suit expressed support for the community members battling against the project but also put the fight into a broader context.
"This plant would poison the people of St. James Parish and worsen the climate crisis just so Formosa can churn out more throwaway plastic," said Lauren Packard, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Using our oversupply of fracked gas to create products that add to the plastic pollution crisis is appalling. We stand with the local community in opposing this dangerous project."
As Common Dreams reported last month, Environmental Integrity Project found that greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. oil, gas, and petrochemical industries could jump about 30% by 2025 compared with 2018 because of additional drilling and 157 new or expanded projects "fueled by the fracking boom." The Formosa complex would have the highest potential yearly emissions among all the future and petrochemical and plastics projects included in the analysis.
"The fight against Formosa's polluting and unjust petrochemical complex is part of a growing national movement to address the triple threat of climate chaos, plastics pollution, and environmental racism," Earthworks energy campaigner Ethan Buckner said Friday. "By issuing these permits to Formosa, LDEQ yet again acquiesced to the fossil fuel industry's reckless plans to rapidly expand in the face of our worsening climate crisis."
"As investors sour on oil and gas companies, plastics are Big Oil's lifeline. And LDEQ threw them the rope," Buckner added. "Yet the voices of Cancer Alley's leaders are stronger than ever, and we will defend their right to clean water, air, and a stable climate."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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1982 American Petroleum Institute Report Warned Oil Workers Faced 'Significant' Risks From Radioactivity
By Sharon Kelly
Back in April last year, the Trump administration's Environmental Protection Agency decided it was "not necessary" to update the rules for toxic waste from oil and gas wells. Torrents of wastewater flow daily from the nation's 1.5 million active oil and gas wells and the agency's own research has warned it may pose risks to the country's drinking water supplies.
On Tuesday, a major new investigative report published by Rolling Stone and authored by reporter Justin Nobel delves deep into the risks that the oil and gas industry's waste — much of it radioactive — poses to the industry's own workers and to the public.
"There is little public awareness of this enormous waste stream," Nobel, who also reports for DeSmog, wrote, "the disposal of which could present dangers at every step — from being transported along America's highways in unmarked trucks; handled by workers who are often misinformed and underprotected; leaked into waterways; and stored in dumps that are not equipped to contain the toxicity."
Additional documents obtained by Nobel and shared with DeSmog show that a report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute (API), the nation's largest oil and gas trade group, described the risks posed by the industry's radioactive wastes to workers as "significant" in 1982 — long before the shale drilling rush unleashed new floods of wastewater from the industry — including waste from the Marcellus Shale, which can carry unusually high levels of radioactive contamination.
A Trillion Toxic Gallons
Oil and gas wells pump out nearly a trillion gallons of wastewater a year, Rolling Stone reported. That's literally a river of waste — enough to replace all the water flowing from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico for more than two and a half days.
Much of that wastewater, often referred to by the industry as "brine," carries high levels, not of familiar table salt, but of corrosive salts found deep below the Earth's surface, as well as toxic compounds and carcinogens.
That water can also carry serious amounts of radioactive materials. The Rolling Stone report, labeled "sobering" by the Poynter Institute, described levels of radium as high as 28,500 picocuries per liter in brine from the Marcellus Shale, underlying Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and West Virginia, levels hundreds of times as much as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would allow in industrial discharges from other industries.
The oil and gas industry's waste, however, isn't regulated like most other industry's wastes, slipping instead through loopholes carved out in the nation's cornerstone environmental laws, including exemptions for the industry in federal laws covering hazardous waste.
"If I had a beaker of that on my desk and accidentally dropped it on the floor, they would shut the place down," Yuri Gorby, a microbiologist who'd studied radioactive materials at the U.S. Geological Survey and Department of Energy, told the magazine. "And if I dumped it down the sink, I could go to jail."
Crude Oil, Gas, and Radiation
"It is well-known that some naturally occurring elements, uranium for example, have an affinity for crude oil," the 1982 API report says, noting that uranium can decay into elements like radium-226 ("a potent source of radiation exposure, both internal and external," API's report explained) and radon-222 (which can "cause the most severe impact to public health," it observed).
"Almost all materials of interest and use to the petroleum industry contain measurable quantities of radionuclides that reside finally in process equipment, product streams, or waste," the 1982 report notes.
"This contamination can produce significant occupational exposures," API's report continued (emphasis in original).
Excerpt from a 1982 report prepared for the American Petroleum Institute and titled "An Analysis of the Impact of the Regulation of 'Radionuclides' as a Hazardous Air Pollutant on the Petroleum Industry."
API's report focused on the possibility that the federal government might step in and regulate those radioactive materials under the Clean Air Act or under federal Superfund laws.
"Depending on the mode of definition," the report adds, "very small quantities of petroleum products could easily contain reportable quantities of [radioactive materials]." A chart lists amounts as small as a half a barrel of crude oil or 17 cubic feet of natural gas as containing "one reportable quantity of uranium or radon" under the most restrictive definition.
The report labels uranium "a somewhat different dilemma" than radon gas. "We estimated earlier in this paper that significant quantities of uranium potentially enter our refineries via crude oil," the report continues. "Little is known of its fate, however."
"Since the law of conservation of matter must apply, it can only end up in the product, the process waste, remain in the process equipment, or escape into the environment," the report notes, calling for more study, particularly of the industry's refining equipment and waste.
Some of the report's most stark language warned about the possibility of federal regulation of the industry's radioactive wastes.
"It is concluded that the regulation of radionuclides could impose a severe burden on API member companies," the report says, "and it would be prudent to monitor closely both regulatory actions."
API spokesperson Reid Porter provided to DeSmog the group's response to the Rolling Stone investigation.
"We take each report of safety or health issues related to energy development very seriously," Porter said. "Nothing is more important than the health and safety of our workers, the local environment, and the communities where we live, operate, and raise families. Natural gas and oil companies meet or exceed strict federal and state regulations and also undergo regular inspections to ensure that all materials are managed, stored, transported, and disposed of safely. Through regular monitoring, ongoing testing, and strict handling protocols, industry operations are guided by internationally recognized standards and best practices to provide for safe working environments and public safety."
API also pointed to a one-page document titled "NORM [naturally occurring radioactive materials] in the Oil and Natural Gas Industry." As of publication time, API had not responded to questions from DeSmog regarding the 1982 report.
10 Years Later, Hazards 'Widespread'; 20 Years Later, Workers Sue Over Cancers
Over a decade later, problems persisted, other documents indicate. "Contamination of oil and gas facilities with naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) is widespread," a 1993 paper published by the Society of Petroleum Engineers warned. "Some contamination may be sufficiently severe that maintenance and other personnel may be exposed to hazardous concentration."
Nonetheless, the paper focused on the potential for "over-regulation."
"Where possible, industry input should be directed to minimize an over-regulation of NORM contamination in the industry," author Peter Gray, an expert on radioactivity who formerly worked for Phillips Petroleum Co., wrote. He added that concentrations of radioactive contamination at the time were "relatively low and do not usually present a health hazard to the public or to most personnel in the industry," but added that some facilities "may be hazardous to maintenance personnel in particular."
The 1993 paper notes that some oil-producing states had passed or were considering passing laws to protect against the industry's radioactive wastes, noting in particular that Louisiana and Mississippi had regulations in effect, and that Louisiana had required "radiation surveys of every petroleum facility in the state."
But state and federal regulators largely failed to act, Rolling Stone found. "Of 21 significant oil-and-gas-producing states, only five have provisions addressing workers, and just three include protections for the public, according to research by [Elizabeth Ann Glass] Geltman, the public-health expert," the magazine reported. "Much of the legislation that does exist seems hardly sufficient."
In documents dated nearly two decades later, from a 2011 lawsuit brought by more than 30 Louisiana oilfield workers who'd developed cancer, plaintiff's experts described as resulting from their exposure to radioactive materials at work.
The 2013 plaintiff's expert report describes in detail how jobs like roustabout, roughneck, and derrickman can expose workers to radioactive materials, including a sludge where radioactive elements concentrate that collects inside pipes and so-called "pipe scale," or crusty deposits that also attract radioactive materials. The case ended in October 2016, following a long string of settlements on unspecified terms by individual plaintiffs in the case, public court records show.
Tracking the Trucks
Nobel's Rolling Stone exposé depicts radioactive drilling waste sloshing into a striking array of corners.
For example, to keep dust down, the "brine" can be spread on roads, like a stretch in Pennsylvania where Nobel describes a group of Amish girls strolling barefoot. Nobel adds that contractors pick up waste directly from the wellhead and that in 2016 alone, more than 10.5 million gallons were sprayed on roads in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania.
The waste has also been sold at Lowe's, bottled as "AquaSalina" and marketed as a pet-safe way to fight ice and salt, though an Ohio state lab found it contains radium at more than 40 times the levels the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows in discharge from industry. And the radium-laced waste is spilled from trucks transporting it, in potential what the article indicates may be a violation of federal law.
One brine truck driver, identified only as a man named Peter from Ohio, started taking his own samples after being told by another worker with a radiation detector that he'd been hauling "one of the 'hottest loads' he'd ever seen," Rolling Stone reports. "A lot of guys are coming up with cancer, or sores and skin lesions that take months to heal," Peter told the magazine. Tests by a university lab found radium levels as high as 8,500 picocuries per liter, the article adds.
One expert, scientist Marvin Reisnikoff, who'd served as one of the plaintiff's experts in the lawsuit brought by the Louisiana oilfield workers and co-authored the 2013 report, told Rolling Stone that a standard brine truck rolling through Pennsylvania might be carrying radioactive wastewater at levels a thousand times higher than those allowed under federal Department of Transportation (DOT) limits. But, a DOT spokesperson told Rolling Stone, federal regulators rely heavily on industry self-reporting, and the rules seem generally unenforced.
Environmental groups immediately called for congressional hearings into the drilling industry's radioactive wastes.
"This alarming report brings into stark relief what we already knew to be true," Food & Water Watch Policy Director Mitch Jones said in a statement calling for a congressional investigation, "that highly toxic and radioactive waste generated by fossil fuel drilling and fracking cannot be stored or disposed of safely, and in fact is often being intentionally dispersed in our communities."
"It is imperative that Congress hold hearings soon to examine and expose the full extent of the threat oil and gas waste poses to families and workers throughout America," he added, "and take urgent action to halt fracking and the legal and illegal dispersal of the waste currently taking place."
Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.
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By John R. Platt and Tara Lohan
Let's be honest, 2019 was a rough year for the planet. Despite some environmental victories along the way, we saw the extinction crisis deepen, efforts to curtail climate change blocked at almost every turn, and the oceans continue to warm. We also heard new revelations about ways that plastics and chemicals harm our bodies, saw the political realm become even more polarized, and experienced yet another round of record-breaking temperatures.
So what should we expect for 2020? Here are eight of the big environmental topics we think will capture headlines in the year ahead.
1. The Poster Child of the Extinction Crisis
Tom Jefferson / NOAA Fisheries West Coast
We expect to see a wide range of endangered species in the news this coming year, but few will face threats so urgently as the vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus).
As we've written here before, the vaquita is in perilous territory, with a population of as few as 10 now remaining. The good news is that scientists recently observed adult vaquitas with two newborn calves, so they're still finding each other and breeding. The bad news is that Mexico has failed in its promises to keep fishermen and illegal gillnets off the water, so the pressures on this species continue to rise.
We anticipate that 2020 will show whether human beings will let this species go extinct in full view of the world or step up to save it.
2. The Supreme Court
Mark Fisher / CC BY-SA 2.0
The lasting impact of the Trump administration may soon be felt in the courts, especially in the Supreme Court, where Brett Kavanaugh has made clear his devotion to the "less is more" principles of government espoused by the Federalist Society.
If the Society and Kavanaugh get their way, the federal government could lose much of its ability to allow agencies like the EPA to regulate…well, anything. As Ian Millhiser wrote recently in Vox:
"It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of this issue. Countless federal laws, from the Clean Air Act to the Affordable Care Act, lay out a broad federal policy and delegate to an agency the power to implement the details of that policy. Under Kavanaugh's approach, many of these laws are unconstitutional, as are numerous existing regulations governing polluters, health providers, and employers."
The conservative wing of the Supreme Court currently holds the majority, and that's not likely to change anytime soon (thanks, Mitch McConnell), so we expect this issue to rear its ugly head sooner rather than later, and well beyond the next presidential election.
3. Climate Change: Peak or Panic?
Greta Thunberg at a climate change rally in Denver, Colorado, 2019. Anthony Quintano / CC BY 2.0
Will we experience a true climate tipping point this year? If so, which way will it tip?
On the one hand, people are clamoring more and more loudly for climate action, with activists like Greta Thunberg leading the charge.
On the other hand, the most recent UN climate change conference (COP25) was…a bit of a disappointing failure, thanks in no small part to the fact that the fossil fuel industry sponsored much of the event.
Still, we're going to see a lot of new data and science come out this year, and we may find out if the efforts we've already started making have paid off yet. One noteworthy example: The coal industry is in the process of dying a slow death, so even though total worldwide emissions are up, coal emissions are headed down.
What does that mean? According to the experts, this could be the year greenhouse gas emissions peak or flatline — or they could start climbing even more. It's up to us.
Good thread. Here’s my take: Emissions are still climbing, but now climbing at a very slow rate — and it could… https://t.co/8xTZIj1J6U— Dr. Jonathan Foley (@Dr. Jonathan Foley)1575484985.0
4. Drinking Water
After the federal government dropped the ball in 2019, we expect to see another push this year for meaningful action to limit the harm caused by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — the suite of toxic "forever chemicals" that stubbornly don't break down in the environment or our bodies.
PFAS are found in thousands of consumer and industrial products, including nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant furniture, food wrappers, personal care goods and firefighting foam. They've been linked to cancer, liver damage and reproductive and immune-system problems. Millions of Americans are believed to be drinking water contaminated with PFAS, including the residents of 175 military installations, and the dangerous chemicals have been found in soil and food, too.
After federal agencies did nothing substantial on the issue, it looked like there might be congressional action. But language that would have required the EPA to set a drinking-water standard for PFAS and for the federal government to aid in cleaning polluted areas was dropped from the National Defense Authorization Act in December. Democrats have vowed to take up the issue again this year, and advocates want to see a federal standard strict enough to protect public health. We expect vigorous discussions and more than a few worries along the way.
5. Ocean Action
Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / public domain
In 2019 we got serving after serving of bad news about how climate change is warming waters, driving oxygen loss and increasing sea level rise in the ocean — threatening biodiversity, fisheries and coastal communities.
This year we could see some steps toward solutions.
Drawing on language from the much-discussed Green New Deal for equitable environmental action, ocean advocates in 2019 called for a Blue New Deal — a comprehensive plan for protecting our oceans and coastal communities. Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren picked up the gauntlet before the year closed out, releasing her own Blue New Deal that would expand marine protected areas, end offshore drilling, build more offshore renewable energy, reform flood insurance, boost fisheries and invest in regenerative ocean farming.
Expect to hear more about action on ocean protection this year, not just in the U.S. but internationally. After years of talks, the United Nations is set to finalize a global ocean treaty in 2020, although there's a fear it will fall far short of what's needed to thwart the biodiversity crisis.
6. Public Lands
Many of the country's most remote and wild public lands face big threats this year, continuing the trend we've seen since the last presidential election. Two will remain particularly noteworthy.
One, the Forest Service is expected to finalize a Trump administration proposal to lift the Roadless Area Conservation Rule for Alaska's Tongass National Forest. The rewrite, due this summer, could open millions of acres of old-growth forest and salmon spawning habitat to timber, mining and other development.
Two, the decades-long battle over drilling continues in the wildlife-rich and culturally important Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A rider in a 2017 tax bill passed by the Republican-led Congress greenlighted two oil and gas lease sales in the refuge's coastal plain. The Trump administration is likely to hold those in 2020. It's unclear yet how interested oil companies will be, but a move to begin drilling in the refuge is staunchly opposed by Indigenous communities, environmental groups and the majority of U.S. voters.
7. Plastic Pollution
John Platt / CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
With pending legislation that aims to cut plastic waste 75 percent by 2030, California will take another run this year at passing a first-of-its-kind (in the United States) effort to hold companies that make plastic products accountable for their waste. The bill stalled last year, but proponents will renew efforts in 2020.
They face stiff opposition from plastic and fossil fuel companies that are busy turning cheap fracked gas into more plastics. Petrochemical companies are planning a massive buildout of infrastructure in the Gulf coast and the Ohio River Valley to facilitate the production of more plastics, both at home and abroad.
We expect to see continued efforts to inform consumers about their buying choices, but in the next year the fight against plastic pollution will be much less about straw bans and more about fighting the root causes and stopping it at the source.
8. The 2020 Election
The upcoming presidential election will dominate the conversation in the coming months, but let's make sure to pay attention to every other race out there on the federal, state and local level. All these elections will add up — and collectively they could determine the future of just about every environmental issue listed above.
In other words: Stay tuned.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By Sharon Kelly
Dark Waters, the new film starring Mark Ruffalo as attorney Rob Bilott, is set in the Ohio River Valley city of Parkersburg, West Virginia — a place about 150 miles downstream from where Shell is currently building a sprawling plastics manufacturing plant, known as an "ethane cracker," in Beaver, Pennsylvania.
Ruffalo's film, directed by Todd Haynes, debuted to critical acclaim, earning a Rotten Tomatoes critics' rating of 91 percent, with The Atlantic calling it a "chilling true story of corporate indifference."
While much of Dark Waters, as the title suggests, centers on contaminated water, the story of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the Teflon-linked chemical at the heart of the film, is also a story about air pollution. And as much as the film looks back to history, DuPont's pollution — and the company's decades-long cover-up — may gain new relevance as the chemical industry plans a multi-billion dollar expansion, fed by fracked fossil fuels, along the banks of the Ohio.
The film begins as a detective story set in the 1990s, as Bilott, a corporate defense attorney, begins investigating the bizarre deaths of cattle in a farming region he'd visited as a child. Bilott discovers the chemical culprit's identity less than an hour into the 2 hour and 7 minute film — and then spends the remainder of the movie pitting his personal tenacity against the DuPont corporation's deep-pocketed endurance, as even partners at Bilott's own law firm question his work.
The movie highlights DuPont's legal maneuvering, showing the company seeking to evade liability by "notifying" customers that the chemical was in their water at levels the notice suggested were "safe" — starting a time clock running for the statute of limitations on DuPont's liability.
The film's extended runtime mirrors the duration of Bilott's real-life legal battles with DuPont, which began as a single civil suit on behalf of farmer Wilbur Tennant but gradually expanded to become one of the largest medical monitoring lawsuits in U.S. history. Real impacted people, including Bucky Bailey and Parkersburg elementary school teacher Joe Kiger and his wife, appear on screen along Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Tim Robbins, playing themselves in roles that layer an aura of realism onto the tale.
A Chemical History
Beyond the Ohio River Valley, PFOA, which according to a 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fact sheet, can cause cancer, harm to fetuses, immune system issues and other health problems, has spread rapidly around the world.
First developed in the lab less than a century ago, PFOA can now be found in the bloodstreams of an estimated 99.7 percent of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and in wildlife ranging from polar bears to dolphins to bald eagles. Once released, PFOA and the hundreds of other PFAS chemicals like it may take millennia to break down. Tied together by one of nature's strongest known chemical bonds, the carbon-fluorine bond, the molecule doesn't naturally degrade from exposure to light or water to break down over time. Instead, it bioaccumulates in the bloodstream, building up and exposing those higher up the food chain to progressively higher levels of the chemical.
Bilott's class action lawsuit centers on the water contamination from PFOA, which DuPont started using to produce its nonstick coating Teflon at its Parkersburg plant in 1951. His plaintiffs were customers of six water districts along the Ohio River on both the West Virginia and Ohio sides of its banks.
But while DuPont buried drums of the PFOA waste on the banks of the Ohio and otherwise disposed of its waste — in part, long before the nation's cornerstone environmental laws were written — PFOA itself is also a powdery dust that readily becomes airborne — and the Ohio River is lined on both sides by tall hills that can at times trap air pollution in the valley, where coal and steel towns dot the riverbanks.
Documents obtained by Bilott's legal team show DuPont slowly realized the dangers that the mix of air pollution and steep hills posed to the surrounding communities. In fact, one DuPont lawyer later privately bemoaned the fact that the company, which had been secretly testing the water for decades, hadn't checked for PFOA in the air.
"We also learned that not only do we have people drinking our famous surfactant (PFOA), but levels in ambient air above our guidelines, sure we have margins of safety in our number, but we should have checked this years ago and taken steps to remedy, guess the hills on the other side of the river cause great conditions for high ambient levels, the plume hits them before it can disperse more fully," DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote in an August 9, 2001 email. "Ugh."
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on Aug. 9, 2001.
PFOA's ability to become airborne may have helped it spread to some of the furthest reaches of the globe.
"The state of North Carolina has demonstrated atmospheric deposition of PFAS many miles downwind from a manufacturing facility," the Michigan Department of Environment said in a Q&A on the chemicals. "New Hampshire found contaminated groundwater was caused by atmospheric deposition of PFAS from industrial emissions of PFAS. Additionally, PFAS have been sampled and found in remote regions such as the Arctic."
In 2001, DuPont's attorney wrote that one scientist was so concerned about the PFOA air pollution in the valley that she suggested residents should wear masks. "Dr. Staats on our call last week seemed determined to assign a large does [sic] to air since that route of exposure is more difficult to deal with (e.g. she said it might require the public to wear 'gas masks'), of course she is aware of the recent dispersion modeling from the plant," Reilly wrote on Oct. 7 of that year.
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on Oct. 7, 2001.
DuPont also worked hard to pressure state environmental regulators to move slowly in response to the harms from PFOA — not because the dangers weren't real, but because the air pollution in the valley hadn't been accounted for.
"I go to Charleston Monday for a meeting Tuesday with WV regulators, we are also trying to convince them there is no emergency," Reilly wrote in an Oct. 13, 2001 email. "… [W]e are hoping [an independent agency] would actually agree to higher levels than we have been saying, if for no reason than we are exceeding the levels we say we set as our own guideline, mostly because no one bothered to do the air modeling until now, and our water test has been completely inadequate (until next week)."
Email that DuPont attorney Bernard Reilly wrote on Oct. 13, 2001.
Chemical Lessons for the Future
With an expanding petrochemical industry eyeing the Ohio as the site for tens of billions of dollars' worth of new petrochemical and plastic production, some in Parkersburg are wary of the environmental — and political — lessons from PFOA. Ohio and West Virginia have been slower than other states to respond to the pollution, reporter Nicholas Brumfield wrote in a piece published by expatalachians.
"For Parkersburg's Eric Engle, this inaction [on regulating PFAS in West Virginia and Ohio] is linked to the powerful influence of local petrochemical industries," Brumfield wrote. "'We have politicians still investing in petrochemicals to save the oil and gas industry … They're wanting to store ethane here now. We're still learning about the dangers of all these petrochemicals … We have to move past it,' Engle said.
It's worth observing that DuPont's PFOA pollution began long before today's federal environmental laws were written, like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. Nonetheless, some in the Ohio River Valley remain concerned about the impacts that permitted pollution from new petrochemical projects could have.
"As I sat and watched the newly released movie Dark Waters, I thought, 'This could be the future of the Ohio River Valley,'" Randi Pokladnik, a retired research chemist who volunteers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, wrote in a Dec. 13 letter to the editor published by the Columbus Dispatch. "Ohio's regulatory agencies know millions of tons of toxins will be coming out of the plastics cracker smokestacks and into the air. They know toxic organic compounds will be flowing into the Ohio River."
Midway through Dark Waters, Darlene Kiger (played by Mare Winningham) describes the "Teflon flu" that workers, including her ex-husband — who used PFOA — developed. "We knew something wasn't right," Kiger says. "But this house, we bought it just by showing the bank my husband's DuPont ID. Put both our kids through college, engineers. And, in this town, that doesn't come without a price."
That's a moral dilemma that may confront more residents along the Ohio if the petrochemical industry arrives en masse (though it's worth noting that DuPont's Parkersburg plant employed 2,000 directly and roughly 1,000 more contractors, while modern petrochemical plants like Shell's ethane cracker in Beaver will employ an expected 600).
In the meantime, Dark Waters offers a look back at the extraordinary tenacity — and at times, simple luck — it took for those outside DuPont's inner circle to begin to understand the hazards and the harms the company's chemical contamination had caused.
Reposted with permission from DeSmogBlog.
By Tara Lohan
In January 2015 North Dakota experienced one of the worst environmental disasters in its history: A pipeline burst, spilling nearly 3 million gallons of briny, saltwater waste from nearby oil-drilling operations into two creek beds. The wastewater, which flowed all the way to the Missouri River, contained chloride concentrations high enough to kill any wildlife that encountered it.
It wasn't the first such disaster in the state. In 2006 a spill of close to 1 million gallons of fracking wastewater into the Yellowstone River resulted in a mass die-off of fish and plants. Cleanup of that spill was still ongoing at the time of the 2015 spill, nearly a decade later.
Spills like these highlight the dangers that come with unconventional fossil-fuel extraction techniques that go after hard-to-reach pockets of oil and gas using practices like horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking).
But events like these massive spills are just the tip of the iceberg. Other risks to wildlife can be more contained, subtle or hidden.
And while many of the after-effects of fracking have grabbed headlines for years — such as contaminated drinking water, earthquakes and even flammable faucets — the consequences for wildlife have so far been left out of the national conversation.
But those consequences are very real for a vast suite of animals including mussels, birds, fish, caribou and even fleas, and they're as varied as the species themselves. In some places wildlife pays the price when habitat is destroyed. Elsewhere the damage occurs when water is sucked away or polluted. Still other species can't take the traffic, noise and dust that accompany extraction operations.
All this damage makes sense when you think about fracking's outsized footprint.
It starts with the land cleared for the well pad, followed by sucking large volumes of water (between 1.5 and 16 million gallons per well) out of rivers, streams or groundwater.
Fracking trucks and equipment in Doddridge Co, West Virginia.
Then there's the sand that's mined for use during the fracturing of underground rock to release natural gas or oil. There are also new pipelines, compressor stations and other related infrastructure that need to be constructed. And there's the truck traffic that surges during operations, or the disposal of fracking wastewater, either in streams or underground.
The cumulative footprint of a single new well can be as large as 30 acres. In places where hundreds or thousands of wells spring up across a landscape, it's easy to imagine the toll on wildlife — and even cases with ecosystem-wide implications.
"Studies show that there are multiple pathways to wildlife being harmed," said ecologist Sandra Steingraber, a distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College who has worked for a decade compiling research on the health effects of fracking. "Biodiversity is a determinant of public health — without these wild animals doing ecosystem services for us, we can't survive."
The most obvious threats fracking poses to wildlife comes in the form of habitat loss.
As rural areas become industrialized with each new well pad and its associated infrastructure, vital habitat for wildlife is altered or destroyed.
Habitat fragmentation in North Dakota's Bakken shale.
And it's not just the area containing the well. The land or water just outside of the operation, known as "edge habitat," also degrades with an increase in the spread of invasive plant species, among other concerns.
And large-scale development, such as miles-long pipelines, can change the way species move and hunt, often resulting in an increase in predation. The oil and gas development in Alberta, Canada, for example, created "wolf highways" that gave the predators easy access to an endangered herd of woodland caribou.
Roads, another kind of fragmentation, can be particularly dangerous for wildlife. A single fracked well can be responsible for 3,300 one-way truck trips during its operational lifespan, and each journey can injure or kill wildlife large and small. After all, it's hard to get out of the way of a tanker truck carrying 80,000 pounds of sand.
And then there's the big picture. Drilling within large, "core" forest areas previously located far from human development can be permanently detrimental for species such as migratory songbirds.
In one study, published in Biological Conservation in 2016, researchers examined the effects of unconventional gas drilling on forest habits and populations of birds in an area of West Virginia overlaying the Marcellus and Utica shales. The area has been at the center of the shale gas boom, with the number of unconventional wells in central Appalachia jumping from 111 in 2005 to 14,022 by the end of 2015. The study found that shale-gas development there during that period resulted in a 12.4 percent loss of core forest and increased edge habitat by more than 50 percent — and that, in turn, changed the communities of birds found in the forest.
The areas near well pads experienced an overall decline in "forest specialists" — birds that prefer interior forest habitat, among them the hooded warbler and Kentucky warbler, which are of high conservation priority, as well as cerulean warblers. These sky-blue endangered migratory songbirds have been dropping in numbers for decades, but researchers noted that the decline was 15 percent higher in their study area than in the greater Appalachian Mountains region during the same period.
Kentucky warblers prefer large core forest habitat and researchers have found they decline in numbers around shale gas development.
Andrew Weitzel / CC BY-SA 2.0
"For migratory songbirds, large blocks of forest are very important," explains Margaret C. Brittingham, a professor of wildlife resources at Penn State University who has studied the effects of fracking on wildlife. The birds do best in interior forest habitat with mature trees. They also serve as an important part of the forest ecosystem, helping to prevent or suppress insect outbreaks that can damage trees. "They're co-evolved with the forest, feeding on insects and keeping those forests healthy," she said.
Not all species declined in numbers from fracking development. The study found an increase in the kinds of birds that do well among humans and in developed areas — "habitat generalists" such as the American robin, blue jay and brown-headed cowbird, the latter of which are notorious brood parasites that leave their eggs in nests of other birds.
"I think the most alarming thing about all of this is what bird declines may indicate about the declining health of overall ecosystems," said Laura Farwell, a postdoctoral research associate in the department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and lead author of the Biological Conservation study. "I know it's a cliché, but forest interior birds truly are 'canaries in the coal mine' for Appalachian forests experiencing rapid loss and fragmentation."
Farwell adds that many other kinds of development contribute to habitat loss that result in biodiversity declines. Fracking is one more added pressure, but the consequences are quite significant.
"It just happens to be disproportionately affecting some of the largest remaining areas of undisturbed, mature forest left in the eastern U.S., and these forests are incredibly valuable for biodiversity," she said.
Out West the industry is carving up a different kind of habitat, and that has other species on the ropes. Greater sage grouse, for example, depend on large home ranges composed of intact areas of sagebrush. Cattle ranching and development of all kinds have pushed the grouse near extinction, and continued unbridled oil and gas extraction in its remaining habitat could tip it over the edge.
A 2014 study co-authored by Brittingham found that oil and gas infrastructure and related disturbances to sage grouse can cause the birds' populations to decline — or even disappear in areas with particularly high levels of oil and gas development.
Sage grouse have also been shown to exhibit high levels of stress from noise.
Noise poses additional risks for birds that depend on their hearing. A study published in Biological Conservation in 2016 found that noise from compressor stations, which run 24 hours a day, reduced the ability of northern saw-whet owls to catch prey. The researchers found that for owls and other "acoustically specialized predators," noise can cause significant negative impacts on behavior, like a decreased ability to hunt, and that can ripple through the ecosystem.
Lights on a drilling site in West Virginia can affect nocturnal wildlife.
Light, too, can be a problem. Oil and gas operations in some places have turned once-dark rural areas into blazing mini-cities in quick time. A 2012 photo revealed that gas burned off from wells in North Dakota's Bakken Shale was so bright it was visible from space — something not seen just six years before. Light pollution like this can be deadly for migratory birds and disrupt other nocturnal animals.
It’s in the Water
The fracking process uses a lot of water and much of that contaminated H2O returns to the surface, bringing with it heavy metals, radioactivity, toxic chemicals (many of which are industry trade secrets) and high levels of salinity. Disposing of all that wastewater has created headaches for the industry and in some cases it's now proving to endanger wildlife.
Spills or intentional dumping of wastewater or fracking fluid released 180 million gallons into the environment between 2009 and 2014, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. Unsafe levels of some contaminants have been found to persist for years, as was the case in North Dakota.
Not all spills and intentional releases of wastewater in streams create noticeable impacts like fish going belly up — some are more subtle and harder to see — but they may still take a real toll on aquatic life.
A 2019 study in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety looked at what happens when insects called water fleas encounter a fracking-fluid spill. Researchers found that even when the fluids were diluted in a stream, their high salinity could decrease insect mobility and survival. The Canadian province of Alberta, the researchers noted, has recorded 100 such large-volume spills.
Lowly water fleas — in this case a species called Daphnia magna — may not seem like animals we should worry about, but like so many small creatures, they occupy an important niche.
"They are the basis of the freshwater ecosystem," Steingraber explained. "When the water fleas are gone, the guys that feed on them are gone — frogs and fish die, and those that feed on them die and suddenly you have a biodiversity problem because you've knocked out a species at the bottom of the aquatic food chain."
Some of this may already be playing out in other locations. A 2016 study published in Ecotoxicology that found a decrease in biodiversity of macroinvertebrates in Pennsylvania streams where fracking was occurring in the watershed — and, even worse, "no fish or no fish diversity at streams with documented frackwater fluid spills." In some cases streams that once contained large numbers of brook trout had none left. The researchers concluded that "fracking has the potential to alter aquatic biodiversity…at the base of food webs."
Brook trout have disappeared from some streams in central Appalachia following fracking spills.
Elsewhere, it's possible that contamination of surface waters has already taken a toll on the Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla), a bird that breeds along forest headwater streams and feeds on macroinvertebrates. A 2015 study published in Ecosphere found that shale gas development had negative effects on the nest survival and productivity of waterthrushes and the researchers posited that "indirect effects on stream and terrestrial food webs from possible contamination" by the oil and gas industry could be to blame.
The research, which looked at sites in both the Marcellus and Fayetteville shale regions, showed that the birds' feathers contained elevated levels of barium and strontium — two heavy metals associated with the drilling process — in areas where fracking had taken place. Much like when lead shows up in a human's hair, the presence of these metals in the birds' feathers is a sign that contaminants in the environment are making their way into animals' bodies.
And that raises even bigger concerns.
As the researchers concluded in their paper: "Our finding of significantly higher levels of barium and strontium also suggests the possibility of surface water contamination by any of the hundreds of chemicals that may be used in hydraulic fracturing, including friction reducers, acids, biocides, corrosion and scale inhibitors, pH adjusting agents and surfactants."
A similar line of inquiry is being pursued by other researchers. Nathaniel Warner, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Penn State University, has been using the shells of freshwater mussels to read the changes in water chemistry in Pennsylvania's Allegheny River. Mussels record environmental conditions in their shells each year — much like tree rings.
Warner and his colleagues have also found elevated levels of strontium in the shells of mussels living downstream from a site where treated fracking wastewater was discharged. Strontium, which is found in high concentrations in oil and gas wastewaters, is a naturally occurring metal with some medical benefits but which in large exposures can cause bone loss and other side effects.
But Warner says they are still trying to determine what the impacts are for mussels and aquatic ecosystems — not to mention the people who get their dinner from the river.
"We haven't really gotten to the point where we can say this is harmful or not," he said. "We really focused on the hard shell itself. But now we're looking more at what happens in that soft tissue because muskrats and fish don't really eat the shell that much, but they eat the soft tissue. And so what levels of contaminants or pollution ended up in that soft tissue compared to the shell?" He said that's probably more important for determining what this really means for wildlife or even human health.
University of Wisconsin's Farwell says that she'd also like to see more research on what the accumulation of contaminants in the bodies of waterthrushes means for other wildlife and for humans. "Air pollution is another important issue to consider," she added. "I'm not aware of any current studies that have looked directly at impacts of fracking air pollution on wildlife."
You can add these topics to the long list researchers are hoping to explore, but there will still be a lot about how fracking and other extraction technologies are affecting wildlife that we don't know. And with natural gas still projected to be one of the fastest growing energy sources in the United States, the time to understand its impacts on wildlife grows short.
"The industry boomed at such a rapid pace, researchers and policymakers could barely keep up," she said. "And in most cases, we don't have baseline data at impacted sites to compare with current numbers. Unfortunately, most of us studying fracking impacts have been playing a game of catch-up since the beginning."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
By Tara Lohan
Prigi Arisandi, who founded the environmental group Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation, picks through a heap of worn plastic packaging in Mojokerto, Indonesia. Reading the labels, he calls out where the trash originated: the United States, Australia, New Zealand, United Kingdom, Canada. The logos range from Nestlé to Bob's Red Mill, Starbucks to Dunkin Donuts.
The trash of rich nations has become the burden of poorer countries.
It's one of dozens of moving scenes in a new feature-length documentary called The Story of Plastic, directed by Deia Schlosberg and presented by The Story Of Stuff Project, the organization first known for its punchy digital shorts about consumption and environmental issues.
We all know by now that plastic waste is a problem — it's washing ashore on beaches, swirling in giant ocean eddies, gumming up the insides of whales and seabirds, and embedding itself in the farthest reaches of the planet. But most media coverage focuses on the end of the line — where plastics end up — and not where they came from or why.
The Story of Plastic fills that void.
The film, which made its world premiere on Sunday, takes viewers on a global journey to Pennsylvania, Texas, California, the Philippines, Indonesia, China and India, among other places. It's a trek through the supply chain that begins with fracked natural gas in the United States and ends with literal mountains of plastic waste on the other side of the world.
"I don't think most people know that if you want it to stop plastic from going into the ocean in Indonesia you need to ban fracking in the Ohio River valley," Stiv Wilson, the film's executive producer, told The Revelator in an interview earlier this year. "So our intention with the film is to show the entire system of plastic and that includes every stage and also that upstream the human health concerns are way more significant than eating fish that's eaten plastic — living next to a refinery for plastics is going to be far more dangerous."
The film exposes the flawed and failed prophecy of recycling, which works well for glass and metals but fails miserably at dealing with plastics. Only 14 percent of plastics are recycled and only 2 percent effectively, the film explains. Most plastics degrade when recycled and don't end up made into something as useful the second time around.
Heaps of useless plastic are then shipped abroad to countries like China, Indonesia and India, where much of it ends up polluting waterways and endangering drinking water and wildlife. Or it's burned next to communities and farms. Local people are left to deal with the health implications — respiratory problems, skin rashes, shorter life expectancy, cancer.
All of that makes it a "life and death issue for most people — at least in this part of the world," said Von Hernandez in the film. He works with the global collective Break Free From Plastic in the Philippines, where a local fisherman reports that these days, plastic makes up 40 percent of his catch.
As the film hops around the globe it relies on the voices of people working in their communities toward solutions to the plastic pollution problem. Shibu K. Nair, a zero-waste champion in India, has one of the most poignant lines. The "entire economy we have around recycling is possible because we have poverty," he says. Waste pickers, mostly marginalized women, work for low cost.
But even this exploitative economy is starting to unravel as more and more countries follow China's lead in refusing to take the waste of wealthier nations, and as more and more local groups unite internationally to tackle the problem at the source.
One of the key narratives of The Story of Plastic is tracking the timeline and talking points of the petrochemical industry, which produces some 400 million metric tons of plastic each year. And since 99 percent of plastic is fossil fuels, the folks behind plastics are the same as those digging for oil and gas: Exxon, Shell, Conoco Philipps, Dow Dupont.
We see how they cleverly market their products, push for personal responsibility in the face of corporate malfeasance, cheerlead for doomed taxpayer-funded recycling programs, and dole out piddling contributions for beach cleanups. All the while, they're distracting the public from the true answer: the fact that we don't need so much plastic crap.
While the industry pushes its plastic products as lifesaving (like medical devices and bike helmets), the bulk of it is stuff we didn't have a few decades ago and don't need now — things like plastic straws and single-serving packets of soy sauce. "We only use them once and they stay forever," Tiza Mafira, a policy expert and lawyer in Jakarta, said in the film. "They're not something that we need as an essential part of our lives and yet here we are — stuck with it."
Watching The Story of Plastic is liable to make you take a (likely shameful) look at the ubiquitous presence of plastic in your own life. But the film's message isn't for each of us to ditch straws — the problem is far too systemic for that. Rather it's a call for producer responsibility. Ramping up fossil fuel production, as the petrochemical industry's doing right now, is the last thing we need as we attempt to manage our climate crisis. Companies instead need to design their products with a plan for how they will be reused, composted or effectively recycled. And we need to focus way more on reducing and reusing.
"The industry is out there pushing the idea that this is all because of bad management — that the waste is here because the government isn't putting enough funding into proper waste management," said Mafira. "But they're distracting from the truth, which is that there's no way you can manage this waste — it's not meant to be managed."
She added, "I think we should ban together and have a serious discussion on a global scale because these companies are operating on a global scale."
The Story of Plastic is currently making its way to film festivals around the country. Find a local screening and more information about the movie and its messages here.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
On Tuesday the Trump administration offered more than 150,000 acres of public lands for fossil-fuel extraction near some of Utah's most iconic landscapes, including Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Dozens of Utahns gathered at the state Capitol to protest the lease sale, which included lands within 10 miles of internationally known protected areas. In addition to Arches and Canyonlands, the Bureau of Land Management leased public lands for fracking near Bears Ears, Canyons of the Ancients and Hovenweep national monuments and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
"Utahns have demonstrated their commitment to transition away from dirty fossil fuels through clean energy resolutions passed in municipalities across our state. Yet, these commitments continue to be undermined by rampant oil and gas lease sales, which threaten our public health, public lands, and economy. While Utah's recreational and tourism economies continue to flourish, these attempts to develop sacred cultural, environmental, and recreational spaces for dirty fuels remain a grave and growing threat." said Ashley Soltysiak, director of the Utah Sierra Club. "Utah is our home and the reckless sale of our public lands with limited public engagement is simply unacceptable and short-sighted."
Fracking in these areas threatens sensitive plants and animals, including the black-footed ferret, Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker and Graham's beardtongue. It also will worsen air pollution problems in the Uinta Basin and use tremendous amounts of groundwater. Utah just experienced its driest year in recorded history.
"This is a reckless fire sale of spectacular public lands for dirty drilling and fracking," said Ryan Beam, a public lands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. "These red-rock wonderlands are some of the West's most iconic landscapes, and we can't afford to lose a single acre. Fracking here will waste precious water, foul the air and destroy beautiful wild places that should be held in trust for generations to come."
This lease sale is part of a larger agenda by Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to ramp up fossil fuel extraction on public lands, threatening wildlife, public health and the climate. This year the BLM has offered more than 420,000 acres of public land in Utah for oil and gas extraction. The agency plans to auction another 215,000 acres in March. The Trump administration also has issued new policies, which are being challenged in court, to shorten public-comment periods and avoid substantive environmental reviews.
"BLM's shortsighted decision threatens Utah's red rock wilderness as well as significant cultural and archaeological resources," said Landon Newell, staff attorney with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "BLM's 'lease everything, lease everywhere' approach to oil and gas development needlessly threatens iconic red-rock landscapes and irreplaceable cultural history in the ill-conceived push for 'energy dominance.'"
Fracking destroys public lands and wildlife habitat with networks of fracking wells, compressor stations, pipelines and roads. Injecting toxic wastewater into the ground pollutes rivers and groundwater and causes earthquakes that damage infrastructure and property. Oil industry activities also pollute the air with dangerous toxins linked to human illness and death. The federal government's own report shows that oil and gas production on public land contributes significantly to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Kara Clauser / Center for Biological Diversity
We're going to make this very simple. These are the 5 non-negotiable policies an ideal climate plan must include:
1. A Halt on All New Fossil Fuel Development
This means banning fracking everywhere, ending dangerous build-outs of pipelines and other harmful fossil fuel infrastructure, banning public land extraction, and stopping the export of crude oil and natural gas. This also means excluding the use of market-based mechanisms like cap and trade or carbon taxes, which have been proven ineffective at reducing fossil fuel use and production. The best policy cuts these emissions off at the source.
2. An Aggressive Timeline for a Shift to 100% Clean, Renewable Energy
"That conversation, it's starting to happen, but it is painfully slow and difficult." https://t.co/DXcUaZ8SiA @cleantechnica— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1567465248.0
This means shifting to clean, renewable energies (like wind, solar, tidal, or geothermal) by 2030, stopping the use of "clean washing" (posing dirty energy like nuclear, wood, black liquor, waste methane, waste incineration, renewable energy credits, coal as clean), investing in expanded and better public mass transit, transitioning to zero-emission transportation, and promoting energy efficiency and conservation across the country.
3. A Federal Commitment to Public Water
Clean drinking water is a human right. And anyone who violates that right must be held accountable. I stand in soli… https://t.co/iB53mQNvDM— Ilhan Omar (@Ilhan Omar)1567395667.0
This means dedicating at least $35 billion each year to renovating our nation's deteriorating public water infrastructure; addressing water contamination from PFOA, PFOS and other PFASs (widespread, persistent lab-made toxics); replacing all lead service lines; stopping sewer overflows; dedicating money to help small, rural and indigenous communities; and promoting affordable water service for all regardless of income (see: WATER Act).
4. A Transition Away From Corporate Agriculture
[email protected] — it's about more than personal choices with food. Any real climate plan must tackle agriculture meg… https://t.co/MymVFZYSyi— Food & Water Action (@Food & Water Action)1567637340.0
This means banning factory farming, breaking up corporate agricultural consolidation, restoring control over agricultural siting and practices to local governments, holding vertically integrated companies accountable for the pollution created by the animals they own and rejecting false solutions like manure-to-energy schemes.
5. A Just, Fair, and Equitable Process
Check out this new @foodandwater report -- Building Climate Justice: Investing in Energy Efficiency for a Fair and… https://t.co/nzwyFcJG25— Frack Action (@Frack Action)1553717865.0
This means substantially investing in upgrading the energy efficiency of our nation's buildings to create millions of high-quality jobs, targeting these investments in lower-income populations and communities of color in both urban and rural areas, implementing pro-labor policies to ensure green jobs are worker and union-friendly, and funding transition programs for fossil fuel workers.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Food and Water Watch.
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Toxic Waste Will Continue to Grow for Decades Even if All U.S. Drilling and Fracking Halts Today, New Report Says
By Jessica Corbett
For more than three decades, the U.S. government has mismanaged toxic oil and gas waste containing carcinogens, heavy metals and radioactive materials, according to a new Earthworks report — and with the country on track to continue drilling and fracking for fossil fuels, the advocacy group warns of growing threats to the planet and public health.
"Even if we stop all new drilling and fracking immediately, the flood of toxic waste streams will continue to grow for decades," Melissa Troutman, the report's lead author, said in a statement Tuesday. "In spite of industry claims of innovation, the risks from oil and gas waste are getting worse, not better."
Truck spreading brine in New York.
No Fracking Way.
Building on a 2015 Earthworks analysis, Still Wasting Away details congressional and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actions as well as industry lobbying related to the federal rules for liquid and solid waste from fossil fuel development.
"Despite over 30 years of research about the toxic impacts of the industry's waste, it is far from being handled properly," the report says. "There is little consistency in tracking, testing, and monitoring requirements for oil and gas waste in the United States."
"At all stages of the oil and gas waste management process," the report explains, "toxins can enter the environment accidentally (spills, leaks, waste truck rollovers, and illegal dumping) or legally under current state and federal law (road spreading, discharge to rivers, landfill leaching)."
Demonstrating the scope of the threat that such waste poses to human health, the report notes that "an estimated 17.6 million Americans live within a mile of oil and gas development, including half of the population in West Virginia and almost a quarter of the population in Ohio."
The report calls for immediate action from state and federal governments, and offers several policy recommendations to stem mounting risks to water, soil, air and people nationwide.
Even if drilling stopped tomorrow, today’s #OilAndGas wells will continue to produce massive amounts of waste long… https://t.co/e9BtmpTyA4— Pennsylvania Moms (@Pennsylvania Moms)1560870840.0
Still Wasting Away features a timeline that tracks federal action on fossil fuel waste management and industry lobbying all the way back to 1976, when Congress enacted the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA) that required the EPA to craft rules to identify and manage hazardous waste.
The EPA spent the next few years writing regulations — and fossil fuel lobbyists reportedly got to work trying to influence the agency, which issued a key final decision on industry waste in 1988.
As Earthworks senior policy counsel Aaron Mintzes put it, "Industry lobbyists secured a 'special' designation for oil and gas wastes that exempt it from our national hazardous waste safeguards." Mintzes added that "oil and gas waste is indeed 'special,' it is especially toxic, but that means it should require more oversight, not less."
Storage pit at the Ginsburg injection well, Ohio.
Athens County Fracking Action Network
In 2016, Earthworks and other environmental organizations filed a federal lawsuit against the EPA in a bid to force the agency to more strictly manage fossil fuel waste under the RCRA, and the EPA agreed to a consent decree that required the agency to review and consider revising its rules. In April, the EPA announced that it wasn't making any changes and that it would allow states to continue spearheading regulation.
"EPA will continue to work with states and other organizations to identify areas for continued improvement and to address emerging issues to ensure that exploration, development, and production wastes continue to be managed in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment," the EPA vowed on its website.
With the release of Still Wasting Away, Earthworks charged Tuesday that "this report, and others, reveal that EPA and state governments are leaving communities at increased risk for exposure to toxic and carcinogenic oil and gas waste."
While the Earthworks report details waste management failures under both Democratic and Republican presidents, environmental advocates face an uphill battle in their fight for stricter federal rules under the Trump administration. According to a New York Times tally updated earlier this month, the administration — with help from congressional Republicans — has worked to roll back at least 83 environmental regulations since President Donald Trump took office.
Still Wasting Away will be followed by supplemental reports for nine states that are home to much of the country's drilling and fracking for fossil fuels: California, Colorado, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.