On Thursday, a federal district court required the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to issue long-overdue protections against worst-case scenario spills of hazardous materials, like in the case of extreme storms, fires, or flooding. The decision approved a negotiated consent decree between the EPA and a coalition of community and environmental organizations, including NRDC, the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA), and Clean Water Action.
"This is a victory for the millions of people who live in fear of experiencing catastrophic chemical spills in their own backyards," says Kaitlin Morrison, an NRDC attorney.
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Scars from large mining operations are permanently etched across the landscapes of the world. The environmental damage and human health hazards that these activities create may be both severe and irreversible.
Catastrophic Failures Renew Old Worries<p>Tailings dam failures range from the 1966 <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-150d11df-c541-44a9-9332-560a19828c47" target="_blank">Aberfan disaster</a> that buried a Welsh village to multiple spills over the past decade in <a href="https://news.mongabay.com/2017/12/mine-tailings-dam-failures-major-cause-of-environmental-disasters-report/" target="_blank">Canada, China, Chile and the United States</a>. The <a href="https://www.icold-cigb.org/" target="_blank">International Commission on Large Dams</a>, a nongovernmental organization, warned in 2001 that the frequency and severity of tailings dam failures was <a href="http://www.unep.fr/shared/publications/pdf/2891-TailingsDams.pdf" target="_blank">increasing globally</a>.</p><p>Two catastrophic and highly publicized failures at the <a href="https://www.mountpolleyreviewpanel.ca/" target="_blank">Mt. Polley dam in Canada</a> in 2014 and the <a href="https://theconversation.com/dam-collapse-at-brazilian-mine-exposes-grave-safety-problems-110666" target="_blank">Brumadinho dam in Brazil</a> in 2019 finally catalyzed a response. The <a href="https://www.icmm.com/" target="_blank">International Council on Mining and Metals</a>, the <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/" target="_blank">United Nations Environment Programme</a> and the independent organization <a href="https://www.unpri.org/" target="_blank">Principles for Responsible Investment</a> drafted a "global standard for the safe and secure <a href="https://globaltailingsreview.org/" target="_blank">management of mine tailings facilities</a>." The first public review of the standard was completed in December 2019, and its authors plan to finalize their recommendations by the end of March 2020.</p>
International Rivers at Risk<p>Today these decisions loom large in the Golden Triangle, home to the Taku, Stikine and Unuk Rivers – three of the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1111-9" target="_blank">longest undammed rivers in North America</a>. Salmon from these rivers have supported indigenous communities for millennia, generate <a href="https://www.mcdowellgroup.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/FINAL-Southeast-Alaska-Transboundary-Watershed-Economic-Impacts-10_10red.pdf" target="_blank">tens of millions of dollars in economic activity annually</a> and provide a dependable source of food for organisms ranging from insects to brown bears.</p><p>We calculate that 19% of the total drainage area of these three rivers is staked with mineral mining claims or leases. This includes 59% of the Unuk River watershed, along with the entire Iskut River corridor, the largest tributary to the Stikine River.</p><p>We have identified <a href="https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ipseXInQJTFPt1wtac431c9AEmDHJqb05qqRwFTOlNU/edit#gid=0" target="_blank">dozens of mines in exploratory or production phases</a>. Some industry representatives call these statistics irrelevant because only a small portion of the claims will convert to economically viable projects. But from our perspective, the fact that vast areas of these watersheds are included in initial explorations implies that few rivers in this region are safe from potential mining development.</p>
Accurately Assessing Risk<p>Rivers are the arteries of coastal Alaska and northwestern Canada, draining pristine snow and ice-covered mountains and pumping out cold, clean water to support fish, wildlife and people. Here and elsewhere, we believe that regulators should take a measured and cautious view of current and planned tailings facilities.</p><p>Dam failures are <a href="https://doi.org/10.3390/environments4040075" target="_blank">increasing in frequency</a>, and often are so large that true cleanup or reclamation is not possible. Before more are built, we see a need for independent science to provide a means of honestly assessing the risk of storing mining waste.</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
TOXMAP, an interactive online map that used various sources to track toxic pollution across the U.S., disappeared from the internet earlier this month, alarming environmental advocates, according to The Hill.
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By Laura Sear and Leslie Steed (Arica, Chile)
Arica is a dusty, windswept port city in northern Chile. Tourists wander the city's long seafront under the shadow of a dramatic buff-colored cliff called El Morro. But the bracing sea air belies a toxic controversy that has bounced from court to court, from Chile to Sweden, in vain search of resolution.
Today, the waste is walled off but still exposed to the elements, just five minutes' walk from the nearest social housing.
The waste is now just outside the impoverished Cerro Chuno neighborhood of Arica, where most residents are migrants.
By Matt Smith
Lot by lot, backhoes and dump trucks are scraping and hauling away yards on the north side of Birmingham to remove soil laced with heavy metals and other industrial wastes—the legacy of this city's years as a steelmaking power.
Federal prosecutors say that effort also uncovered something else: a scheme to save polluters millions by putting the neighborhood's representative in Montgomery on their payroll.
A smoggy view from the George Washington Bridge in 1973. Chester Higgins / US National Archives
By Bob Sussman
The system took shape in the 1960s and 70s as the public and politicians sounded the alarm about the environmental legacy of decades of uncontrolled industrialization. Faced with the threat of unsafe and polluted air, contaminated rivers and streams, hazardous chemicals in homes and products and toxic waste sites, Congress enacted an ambitious set of laws calling for far-reaching protections of public health and the environment. Support for these laws came from across the political spectrum and from presidents as diverse as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
A company with a history of failing to report hazardous material spills is set to expand its Central Valley, CA, toxic waste dump, to the dismay of low-income communities already plagued with concern over proximity to the operation.
A draft permit for the expansion of Chemical Waste Management’s Kettleman City toxic waste dump would expand the site by 50 percent, or 5 million cubic yards, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The toxic dump, considered the largest west of the Mississippi River, has been the subject of debate among local residents after it was fined in March for failing to report more than 70 toxic waste spills to California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC)—a charge the company claims is irrelevant to its quest for expansion.
The toxic site borders what Greenaction describes as a low-income, predominantly Spanish-speaking community with a population of 1,500. According to the organization, those who have attempted to speak up against the expansion have been met by police-led intimidation at public hearings held only in English.
“The community is impacted by multiple sources of pollution, and threatened by new proposed polluting industries,” the organization said in a press release. “Existing pollution includes the Chemical Waste Management landfill, pesticides, drinking water contaminated with benzene and arsenic, massive diesel truck traffic on Highway 41 and Interstate 5, toxic contamination from oilfield operations, and a former PG&E site.”
At the same time Central Valley that residents are fighting the proposed Chemical Waste Management expansion, the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon, CA—nearly three hours north—is poised to reopen. The Exide plant, which was closed for alleged arsenic emissions and soil contamination, is also located in a predominantly low-income area.
“We’re considered a lot more disposable than people in communities like Napa or Beverly Hills,” Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who lives near the Kettleman City plant, told the LA Times.
Chemical Waste Management Expansion
In March, Chemical Waste Management was ordered to pay more than $300,000 in fines after it was discovered that it did not report 72 hazardous material spills over four years, according to the California DTSC.
The department said the spills occurred near a loading area and sampling facility. The spills included herbicides, lead-contaminated soil and other chemicals, according to a press release. Area residents point to these violations as potential causes of illness and fetal deformities.
“In 2007 and 2008, Greenaction and community groups discovered a large number of birth defects and infant deaths in Kettleman City,” Greenaction said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the birth defect and infant death problem continues, along with many miscarriages and several cases of childhood cancer.”
Under California law, the company was supposed to verbally notify the department of the spill within 24 hours of the incident. Written notice is supposed to be given within 10 days.
Chemical Waste Management failed to do this 72 times. The company claims it cleaned up all spills and considered them to be too small to report.
The fine was imposed after a negotiating process between the DTSC and the company. According to the LA Times, the plant is the only one of its kind in California allowed to store polychlorinated biphenyls, otherwise known as PCBs, a known carcinogen.
“Our job is to ensure that facilities operate in compliance with the hazardous waste control laws and to hold them accountable when they don’t,” Brian Johnson, the department’s deputy director of enforcement, said in a press release. “This is a significant fine that underscores our commitment and sends a clear message to communities that DTSC will protect violations of the hazardous waste control laws.”
Yet local residents see the $300,000 fine as little more than a slap on the wrist for the company, which is now poised to expand its facility by 50 percent.
“It’s an insult to the rule of law that will send a message to polluters that … it doesn’t matter how many times you violate the law, the state will protect you and not protect the people in communities,” Greenation Executive Director Bradley Angel told the LA Times.
The draft permit is expected to be approved in September.
Yet before that happens, area residents are making their voice known, urging the Environmental Protection Agency and the DTSC to deny the permit completely, citing “chronic violations by the company, the ongoing health crisis including birth defects, miscarriages and childhood cancer, and the racial discrimination in the permit process including denying Spanish-speakers equal opportunity to participate in the process and the use of police dogs and police intimidation in the public hearings.”
Meanwhile, in Vernon, Californians are fighting a similar battle.
In April, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control suspended the permit for the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant, which recycles roughly 40,000 batteries each day. The state agency cited faulty pipelines and soil and groundwater contamination.
“A recent report submitted to the department by Exide demonstrate that the facility is operating its underground storm sewer pipeline in violation of hazardous waste requirements and are causing releases to the environment,” the order for temporary suspension states. “A separate report submitted to the South Coast Air Quality Management District by Exide demonstrates that emissions from the facility operations pose a significant risk to the surrounding community.”
According to the DTSC, a report on March 5 indicated degraded and compromised underground pipelines, which were the sources of hazardous metals released into the soil and groundwater near the facility. According to the report, groundwater in the area was contaminated at a level exceeding regulations. In addition, the report indicates the facility’s furnace was emitting arsenic pollutants, impacting more than 100,000 people.
“The predominant contributor to both chronic and acute cancer risk and noncancer hazard is arsenic emissions from the facility, with the primary human organs that are harmed are the cardiovascular system, central nervous system, developmental system, respiratory system and skin,” the report states.
The suspension of the plant’s permit was seen as somewhat of a victory for those living in the area—until it was overridden.
Exide challenged the DTSC order, filing for an appeal hearing. Yet after it was determined that the process was not as efficient as the company would like, Exide took its matter to court, filing for bankruptcy protection.
According to California Public Radio, Judge Luis Lavin determined that Exide would be “irreparably harmed” by the slow hearing process, granting the company the right to once again begin operations. Lavin claimed that doing so would not put the public at risk. Clearly, this was a controversial move.
Lavin claims that Exide had proven its ability to reduce arsenic emission levels, doing so by 97 percent before the plant was set to close, according to the LA Times. Taking the issue a step in a different direction, the judge accused the DTSC of filing the suspension based on knee-jerk reactions.
“The department’s avalanche of conclusions, speculation and innuendo are not a substitute for evidence,” the judge wrote in his ruling, according to the Times.
The company will still be subject to an administrative hearing, tentatively scheduled for September—the same time residents of Central Valley will discover whether they need to brace for the expansion of a toxic dump in their own backyards.
Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.
For decades all across America, coal-fired power plants have dumped tons of toxic pollutants into public rivers, lakes, streams and coastal waters. On a toxicity-weighted scale, discharges from coal-fired power plants account for over one half of all toxic water pollution in the U.S. The pollutants dumped by coal-fired power plants are among the most toxic heavy metals listed by the U.S. Department of Health’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium.
The Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington, NC, is a prime example of a coal-fired power plant with a long history of groundwater pollution, surface water contamination and government failure to prevent harm to public waterways.
Underneath the sand and pine trees that surround Sutton, an unseen plume of toxic heavy metals has migrated out of the unlined ash ponds into groundwater. Monitoring well data from the site show the ash ponds have caused numerous pollutants to exceed their respective standards, including:
- Arsenic at 34 times the standard
- Manganese at 47 times the standard
- Iron at 27 times the standard
- Boron at four times the standard
- Sulfate more than three times the standard
- Thallium at three times the standard
- Selenium at more than twice the standard
- Total Dissolved Solids at twice the standard
Unbeknownst to most of the people living in Wilmington, NC, this hidden toxic witches brew of contamination is flowing towards public water supplies that provide drinking water to the community of Flemington. These wells are operated by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and are located less than a mile from the leaking Sutton coal ash ponds.
Public water supply wells located less than a mile from the leaking Sutton coal ash ponds. Public records show that polluted groundwater is flowing towards these wells. For decades, neither the U.S. EPA nor the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources have required the utility to clean up of the groundwater contamination. Photo credit: Dot Griffith
Groundwater assessments prepared by Progress Energy and submitted to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have found that the contaminated groundwater flows in the direction of the Flemington community wells at a rate of between 109 to 339 feet per year. In 1994, DENR’s Division of Environmental Management Groundwater Section explained that the groundwater flow at the Sutton site is “substantially influenced by the pumping activities of the New Hanover Co. well field [i.e., the Flemington wells]” and that “[t]hese pumping activities may result in a groundwater flow pattern that moves from the lake and ash ponds toward the well field.”
Indeed, a recent report prepared by the North Carolina Division of Environmental Health, Public Water Supply Section for the water system served by the Flemington wells assigned their “Inherent Vulnerability Rating,” “Contaminant Rating” and “Susceptibility Rating” the highest risk rating and listed the Sutton facility numerous times as a “Potential Contaminant Source” for the wells. The report also confirms that many of the highly contaminated groundwater wells at Sutton are within the area that contributes groundwater to the Flemington wells.
This situation also raises an environmental justice issue. Achieving environmental justice involves identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of federal programs, policies and activities on minority and low-income populations. Here, failure to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act, to the detriment of the low-income Flemington community, is an environmental justice concern.
The other huge problem caused by decades of untreated coal ash waste being dumped into Sutton Lake is the accumulation of selenium in fish. Decades of sampling reveals that selenium concentrations have increased dramatically over time, such that in recent years the selenium concentrations in the surface water reached levels that cause reproductive failure of fish and waterfowl and have far exceeded those levels in the lake sediments and in fish tissue itself. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) determined that the sediment and fish tissue concentrations represent a “High” hazard. Unsurprisingly, the most recent published assessment of the lake by WRC noted that largemouth bass in Sutton Lake were in poor condition, and that from 2008 to 2010, the abundance and size of the largemouth bass population declined by 50 percent.
Sutton Lake is an extremely popular fishing location. It is frequented both by sport fishermen and by subsistence fishermen, who catch fish that are eaten by themselves and their families. Despite the fact that untreated coal ash sluice water, coal pile runoff, chemical metal cleaning wastes and other wastewater is discharged directly into the public waters of Sutton Lake, the public is encouraged to fish there. As selenium levels rose in fish in recent years, the state of North Carolina could have informed the public that the fish in Sutton Lake are in poor health. But in actuality boat ramps and fishing piers were recently improved to provide even greater public access and allow more people to catch and eat the fish out of Sutton Lake.
Public fishing is encouraged at Sutton Lake even though fish have high levels of selenium. Photo Credit: Dot Griffith
For decades, the regulatory agencies in charge of making sure toxic water pollution doesn’t harm public waters have done very little to stop the contamination of ground and surface water caused by the Sutton coal-fired power plant. At the federal level, coal combustion waste regulations have been stalled since 2010. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues its abject failure to enact the regulations and protect the public from hazardous coal ash waste contamination at more than 1,000 other coal ash dumps across the U.S. including Sutton. At the state level, conservation groups convened repeated meetings over the last two years with North Carolina DENR to ask them to take decisive action to stop the contamination of public waters from all of North Carolina’s leaking coal ash ponds across the state. They too, have failed to stop the contamination.
So today the Cape River Watch, Waterkeeper Alliance and Sierra Club, represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), sent a notice to Duke Energy Progress, Inc., that it will bring suit under the Clean Water Act to stop Progress Energy’s coal ash pollution of Sutton Lake.
“We’re taking action to stop the harmful pollution of one of the area’s most popular fishing lakes,” said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center. “For years, Progress has dumped untreated pollution from its coal ash lagoons into Sutton Lake. Progress can’t treat this public fishing lake as its private wastewater treatment pond—too many people depend on this valuable public resource.”
Contaminated groundwater is flowing into a canal that discharges into Sutton Lake, creating an additional unpermitted source of contamination. The Progress facility includes two unlined coal ash lagoons alongside Sutton Lake. In 2010, a portion of the berms collapsed, spilling coal ash out of the lagoon.
“I enjoy fishing at Sutton Lake, and I know a lot of other people do too,” said Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper. “We need to ensure that the contamination from Progress’s coal ash is stopped and cleaned up.”
The groups’ notice letter comes in the wake of two other notices this year in which SELC spotlighted coal ash contamination at Progress’s Skyland plant in Asheville and Duke Energy’s Riverbend plant north of Charlotte. The state subsequently sued the utilities in both those cases, stating that they were violating state law and that the coal ash pollution “poses a serious danger to the health, safety, and welfare of the people of North Carolina and serious harm to the water resources of the state.” SELC also filed a federal court lawsuit over the Riverbend coal ash pollution June 11.
“This pollution of state waters is yet another example of the toxic legacy of coal-fired power plants in North Carolina,” said Kelly Martin of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “Community drinking water and a public fishing lake are both at risk, and now it’s time to clean up the mess.”
Selenium contamination has harmed fish populations in at least two other lakes at Progress power plants. Selenium contamination from the coal ash lagoon at Progress’s Roxboro plant devastated fish populations in Lake Hyco, and fish deformities associated with selenium contamination have been documented recently in Mayo Lake. Meanwhile, at Belews Lake, selenium from a leaking Duke Power coal ash basin eradicated 19 of the 20 species of fish formerly present in the lake. In 2007, EPA classified both Lake Hyco and Belews Lake as “proven ecological damage cases” due to the coal ash pollution. Selenium accumulation can cause developmental abnormalities in fish and amphibians and has led to the death of entire local fish populations.
“To let a utility treat this important fishery as a dumping ground for its coal ash pollutants is bad for the fish, bad for the public, and bad for the state,” said Donna Lisenby, global coal campaign coordinator at the Waterkeeper Alliance. “We had to act because it is clear that neither state nor federal agencies are willing to do what is necessary to protect public waterways.”
By Monica Tan
Earlier this year we were all shocked by the news that a chemical company in southern China's Yunnan province had been illegally dumping toxic cancer-causing waste near the village of Xinglong. The problem was so serious that the Chinese press began calling Xinglong a cancer village. Yunnan Liuliang Chemical Industry had dumped 5,000 tons of the hazardous waste and had another 140,000 tons that would likely have ended up the same way if they had not been discovered. The waste should have been driven to the neighbouring province of Guizhou to a processing plant.
The chemical waste, containing toxic chromium VI, had seeped into the soil, drinking water and crops. And the villagers did not know the real dangers. They were still drinking the water and walking in their fields barefoot.
As soon as we heard about the news, Greenpeace sent a rapid response team to the area to document the problem and raise awareness among the local people. When we tested the water used by the villagers for drinking, the levels of chromium VI were so high the readings went off the scale.
Our work and the resulting media attention then kick-started a clean-up campaign. The local government fenced off the polluted area, surveyed the region for other illegal waste sites, tested for levels of contamination and then made the results public.
There are many other chromium waste dump sites across China, endangering people's lives and polluting the land and water. Following our work in Yunnan, the Ministry of Environmental Protection announced a national crackdown on chromium waste sites, with clear timelines. And it's had a positive spill-on effect into other waste issues such as e-waste.
Then in October, local environmental NGO (non-governmental organization), Friends of Nature, filed a public interest law suit against Luliang Chemical for dumping the toxic chromium waste. This is the first time a grassroots Chinese NGO has successfully brought a public interest lawsuit to court.
Ma Tianjie, from Greenpeace in Beijing, was part of the Greenpeace rapid response team that was dispatched to Yunnan to investigate that toxic chromium dump. Here he shares with us his experiences:
The drivers working for the chemical company were lazy and so they dumped the toxic chromium waste in several sites in the hills here. Rain washed the waste into a nearby reservoir killing dozens of cattle and sheep. And the bigger problem is that Liuliang Chemical still has more than 100,000 tons of untreated chromium waste. If there was a bad storm this waste could contaminate the source of the Pearl River and turn it into a toxic soup.
We visited a nearby village, called Xinglong, which because of abnormally high rates of cancer has been dubbed a cancer village by the media. We took some measurements from the mouth of an underground aquifer, which locals call 'the dragon's fountain' and it was hundreds of times over the safe limit for chromium. But still local villagers plant their crops barefoot and put their cattle and sheep out to graze on this contaminated land. They told us crops fail and their livestock die for no reason.
The other members of the emergency response team and I put on rubber boots, gloves and masks, and dug through the chromium waste dump to take suitable samples. We also told the villagers how to protect themselves and urged the local government to take immediate action.
Sadly, this dump in Liuliang County is not the only one. There are similar toxic dump sites all across the country including in Tianjin, Henan and Hunan. They are like toxic time bombs. We hope that we can use this Yunnan example to kick start a big cleanup everywhere. We have taken the first step.
Chromium VI—Fast Facts
- Heavy metal, highly toxic, commonly used in electroplating or in the manufacture of stainless steel.
- Included on China's national list of hazardous waste, one of eight substances most harmful to the human body.
- Difficult to break down, it requires years or even decades to completely clean up.
- In the U.S., similar contaminated sites are still not completely clean even after 30 years.
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