Sustained Outrage

Good news, bad news for imperiled fish species

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Although darters in general make up 20 percent of freshwater fish species in North America, candy darters are found only in a portion of West Virginia and Virginia. Measuring 2-3 inches in length, this colorful fish prefers shallow, fast flowing stream reaches with rocky bottoms. Photo T. Travis Brown via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The announcement yesterday from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administration sounded like good news at first:

Visit the fast-flowing streams of Virginia and West Virginia’s upper Kanawha River Basin, and you might be lucky enough to witness flashes of teal, red and orange from the minnow-like candy darter. But with the latest data indicating a declining trend for the species, this vibrant freshwater fish could soon be protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Following a review of the best available scientific information, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to list the candy darter as threatened under the ESA. Nearly half of the 35 candy darter populations known when the species was first described in 1932 have now disappeared.

Paul Phifer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director, said:

The candy darter has been called one of our country’s most vivid freshwater fish, and all signs suggest its future is threatened. Federal, state, and university partners are already at work to conserve the species, and we look forward to collaborating with industry and local partners to explore additional conservation opportunities.

But then came the rest of the story, from the Center for Biological Diversity:

In response to a legal victory by the Center for Biological Diversity, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed protecting two colorful Southeast fish under the Endangered Species Act, but denied protection for two other fish.

The trispot darter in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee and the candy darter in Virginia and West Virginia will gain final protection one year from today’s proposal. The Service simultaneously denied protection for the holiday darter and the bridled darter, despite status reviews indicating they’re in poor condition.

Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center, said:

The Trump administration is such an enemy to the environment that we’re surprised and elated to see even two of these imperiled fish move closer to protection. The decision not to propose protection for the holiday darter and the bridled darter sure smells fishy, though, so we’ll carefully review the best available science and consider challenging those determinations in court.

There are six surviving populations of the bridled darter, all in poor condition. Of the seven surviving populations of holiday darter, six are ranked as being in poor condition.

Continue reading…

National health study sought on fluorinated chemicals

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While the folks at DowDuPont were celebrating the successful completion of their mega-merger, there has been another interesting and important development in the long saga of C8 and other fluorinated chemicals.

Earlier this week, a collection of advocates — a doctor, a firefighter and a lawyer — urged the federal government to launch a new, comprehensive national health studies and testing for people exposed to these chemicals in their drinking water or in their work as emergency responders. They sent letters to the Centers for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to call for the study (see here and here) of the chemicals, known collectively as PFAS.

Among those calling for the study was Dr. Paul Brooks, who led the groundbreaking C8 Health Project in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Brooks said:

In order to protect the public health, it is critically important for ATSDR to move forward as soon as possible with work to assess the health impacts of this ever-expanding mix of PFAS chemicals in drinking water across our country, and I hope to have the opportunity to work with the agency to help shape such a national program, using our earlier C8 Health Project work on PFOA as a model.

Jeffrey Hermes, a prostate cancer survivor and firefighter/paramedic in Northern Kentucky, called on ATSDR to conduct a nationwide study of the thousands of firefighters and other emergency responders who were exposed to PFAS materials from firefighting foams and equipment:

My brothers and sisters in our country’s firefighting and emergency response community, particularly those of us now battling or having survived cancer, deserve to know whether the equipment we relied upon every day — the firefighting foams and our protective clothing and gear — actually exposed us to unsafe levels of these toxic PFAS chemicals or increased our risk of contracting a serious illness or disease.

Rob Bilott, a lawyer for Brooks and Hermes, sent the federal government the letters and notified the agencies that they could be subject to a citizen suit if the issue is not addressed:

ATSDR is uniquely empowered under federal law to pursue these national PFAS health studies and testing, and may be one of the only entities that have the ability to secure the funding necessary to get this important work accomplished, regardless of who is responsible.

 

Storms, chemical safety and appeals courts

The Arkema Inc. chemical plant is flooded from Tropical Storm Harvey, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Crosby, Texas. The plant, about 25 miles (40.23 kilometers) northeast of Houston, lost power and its backup generators amid Harvey’s dayslong deluge, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

 

The Arkema Inc. chemical plant is flooded from Tropical Storm Harvey, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, in Crosby, Texas. The plant, about 25 miles (40.23 kilometers) northeast of Houston, lost power and its backup generators amid Harvey’s dayslong deluge, leaving it without refrigeration for chemicals that become volatile as the temperature rises. (Godofredo A. Vasquez/Houston Chronicle via AP)

As if things weren’t bad enough for people living in the Houston area, there’s this happening:

A fire broke out at the Arkema plant in Crosby early Thursday, following chemical explosions overnight that sent plumes of black smoke into the air.

Arkema officials warned that more explosions should be expected because there are eight additional containers of the same product at the plant, which is 25 miles northeast of downtown Houston.

… Crosby officials had been bracing for days for explosions at the Arkema plant where floodwaters knocked out power and generators needed to keep chemicals stored at the facility cool.

What’s absolutely remarkable is this, from that Houston Chronicle story:

The Arkema facility was among the Houston-area sites with the highest potential for harm in an incident, according to a 2016 analysis by the O’Connor Process Safety Center and the Houston Chronicle. That analysis factored risks based on the amount and type of dangerous chemicals on site and their proximity to the public.

The volatile chemicals involved in the reaction are organic peroxides, according the company, which can become flammable at warm temperatures.

At a press news conference Wednesday, Rich Rowe, Arkema’s CEO, said that if the volatile organic peroxides stored at the plant get too warm, some sort of explosion will happen.

“There is no way to prevent an explosion or fire,” Rowe said. He refused to release the company’s federally mandated risk management plan or its chemical inventory to reporters.

Let’s be clear about that last part:

He refused to release the company’s federally mandated risk management plan or its chemical inventory to reporters.

Just a few hours before all of this, a federal appeals court in Washington was issuing this short ruling, in which it declined to temporarily block the Trump administration’s delay of an update of an important U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule on chemical plant safety. The temporary delay would have kept the EPA rule in place while the case was being litigated.

Continue reading…

Report assesses gas well proximity to communities

Natural Gas, fracking

 

There’s a new report out today from Downstream Strategies in Morgantown that outlines how Marcellus Shale gas production has become more common near “places essential for everyday life” in West Virginia. The report, also compiled by SkyTruth and San Francisco State University, says this proximity increases the potential for human exposure to toxic chemicals.

The report, “In Everyone’s Backyard: Assessing Proximity of Fracking to Communities At-Risk in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale,” says that more than 7,000 homes were found to be located less than one-half mile from wellpads in 2014. From the press release:

As fracking progressed in West Virginia, wellpads have also encroached on schools. By 2014, seven schools had at least one wellpad within one-half mile, and 36 schools had at least one well located within one mile.

Wellpads must be more than 1,000 feet from public drinking water intakes; however, there are no restrictions on the construction of wellpads within drinking water protection areas upstream from intakes. In 2014, hundreds of wellpads and impoundments were in these protection areas.

Since 2007, more and more wellpads and impoundments have also been built in or near public lands and near health care facilities.

A systematic, screening-level evaluation of the toxicity of chemicals self-reported by operators in West Virginia revealed that several hazardous substances have been used to frack wells near schools and immediately upstream from surface public drinking water intakes.

West Virginia State Code does not require setbacks between Marcellus Shale development and several types of sensitive areas assessed in this report. Setback distances for schools, health care facilities, and public lands—and restrictions in zones of critical concern and zones of peripheral concern above drinking water intakes—would help protect vulnerable populations and recreational opportunities as fracking development continues.

 

Another year of ‘Death on the Job’

Here’s the latest from the AFL-CIO, as outlined in their annual “Death on the Job” report released today:

In 2015:

— 4,836 workers were killed on the job in the United States.

— The fatal injury rate—3.4 per 100,000 workers—remained the same as the rate in 2014.

— An estimated 50,000 to 60,000 workers died from occupational diseases.

— 150 workers died each day from hazardous working conditions.

— Nearly 3.7 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported.

— Underreporting is widespread—the true toll is 7.4 million to 11.1 million injuries each year.

 

Trump EPA moves to drop chemical safety rule

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Photo by Tom Hindman

Here’s a bit of interesting news announced yesterday by the Trump administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Pruitt took action today to reconsider the “Accidental Release Prevention Requirements: “Risk Management Programs Under the Clean Air” (“RMP Rule”) and signed an administrative stay to delay the effective date of the rule regarding chemical accident preparedness and prevention, until June 19, 2017.

The 90-day extension will allow time for EPA to consider whether to further extend the effective date of the rule through a rulemaking action while the Agency reconsiders the rule in response to a petition the agency received in February 2017 from the RMP Coalition.

“As an agency, we need to be responsive to concerns raised by stakeholders regarding regulations so facility owners and operators know what is expected of them,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said as he directed the Agency to extend the comment period.

New study reminds of chemicals in food wrappers

Here’s the top of today’s press release:

While enjoying fast food, many people feel some pangs of guilt at the calories and salt they are consuming.  Today researchers are pointing to yet another possible cause for concern. In a paper published in Environmental Science &Technology Letters, scientists found fluorinated chemicals in about a third of take-out food packaging samples tested.  Previous research has shown these chemicals can migrate from packaging into the food which people eat.

Fluorinated chemicals are used to give water-repellant, stain-resistant, and non-stick properties to consumer products such as furniture, carpets, outdoor gear, clothing, cosmetics, cookware, and even food packaging materials. The most studied of these substances has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, thyroid problems and changes in hormone functioning in adults as well as adverse developmental effects and decreased immune response in children.

In this study, the scientists from Silent Spring Institute, Notre Dame, Environmental Working Group, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Green Science Policy Institute collected and analyzed fast food packaging for this family of chemicals. In 400 samples of take-out packaging from fast food restaurants across the U.S., they found that 46% of food contact papers and 20% of paperboard contained fluorinated chemicals.

Study co-author Arlene Blum of U.C. Berkeley and the Green Science Policy Institute, said:

We should question putting any fluorinated materials into contact with food. “Given the potential for harm, we must ask if the convenience of water and grease resistance is worth risking our health.

Another study co-author, Graham Peaslee of the University of Notre Dame, said:

I was very surprised to find these chemicals in food contact materials from so many of the samples we tested. These chemicals are persistent and some bioaccumulate in the body, and there are safer non-fluorinated alternatives available.

We’ve written about this issue before here, here, here and here.

Continue reading…

New EPA report sets record straight on gas drilling

Natural Gas, fracking

 

As the clock ticks away on the Obama administration, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are trying to set the record straight on the agency’s landmark effort to study the potential water quality impacts of the nation’s natural gas boom.

Here’s the announcement today from the EPA press office:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is releasing its scientific report on the impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities on drinking water resources, which provides states and others the scientific foundation to better protect drinking water resources in areas where hydraulic fracturing is occurring or being considered. The report, done at the request of Congress, provides scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances. As part of the report, EPA identified conditions under which impacts from hydraulic fracturing activities can be more frequent or severe. The report also identifies uncertainties and data gaps. These uncertainties and data gaps limited EPA’s ability to fully assess impacts to drinking water resources both locally and nationally. These final conclusions are based upon review of over 1,200 cited scientific sources; feedback from an independent peer review conducted by EPA’s Science Advisory Board; input from engaged stakeholders; and new research conducted as part of the study. 

That’s quite different from the announcement EPA issued more than a year ago, when it published a draft version of this report:

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is releasing a draft assessment today on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing activities on drinking water resources in the United States. The assessment, done at the request of Congress, shows that while hydraulic fracturing activities  in the U.S. are carried out in a way that have not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources, there are potential vulnerabilities in the water lifecycle that could impact drinking water. The assessment follows the water used for hydraulic fracturing from water acquisition, chemical mixing at the well pad site, well injection of fracking fluids, the collection of hydraulic fracturing wastewater (including flowback and produced water), and wastewater treatment and disposal.

Readers may recall that we reported at the time, in June 2015, that even the draft EPA report really indicated that the data just wasn’t there to make sweeping conclusions about the safety of this industrial activity, and at the time EPA scientists admitted as much to any reporter who bothered to ask. Today’s new, final report follows strong criticism of the draft by the EPA Science Advisory Board (read the final SAB review here), and a recent story by Marketplace that detailed some of the behind-the-scenes moves that led to the incorrect spin back in 2015.

Thomas A. Burke, EPA’s science adviser and deputy assistance administrator for research and development, said today:

The value of high quality science has never been more important in helping to guide decisions around our nation’s fragile water resources. EPA’s assessment provides the scientific foundation for local decision makers, industry, and communities that are looking to protect public health and drinking water resources and make more informed decisions about hydraulic fracturing activities. This assessment is the most complete compilation to date of national scientific data on the relationship of drinking water resources and hydraulic fracturing.

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If you’ve been wondering what ever happened to that U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommendation that West Virginia create a local program to prevent chemical plant incidents, there was some action on this issue today.

During a morning meeting in Charleston, the West Virginia Public Water Supply System Study Commission unexpectedly approved the following recommendation:

… That the recommendation of the CSB be followed without redundancy using the existing rules and agencies of the state.

The commission’s recommendation will be included in its annual report to the Legislature, which is due to be completed by Dec. 15.

Some readers may recall that lawmakers created the commission as part of the measures passed after the January 2014 chemical spill at Freedom Industries, which contaminated the drinking water supply for the entire Kanawha Valley. The CSB recommendation for creation of a local chemical safety program for the Kanawha Valley and other parts of the state was first made following the 2008 explosion at Bayer CropScience in Institute.   State and local officials basically did nothing about the CSB recommendation for years, until we published this story after the Freedom spill:

Three years ago this month, a team of federal experts urged the state of West Virginia to help the Kanawha Valley create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended the step after its extensive investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute. Since then, the proposal has gone nowhere.

Even after that, and after the Legislature instructed the water study commission — created to provide some long-term oversight over efforts to protect state drinking water supplies — to review the CSB recommendation, nothing much happened on the commission’s end. For its first two annual reports, the commission punted.

Continue reading…

Obama picks former industry official from CSB post

I haven’t seen much mention of it in the media so far, but there was a move by President Obama on Friday to fill the last open spot on the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Here’s the press release from the White House:

rachel_meidl_key_official_picToday, President Barack Obama announced his intent to nominate the following individuals to key Administration posts:

— Rachel A. Meidl – Member, Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

Ms. Meidl is currently listed as the deputy associate administrator for policy and programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA. That connection is interesting, of course, because the CSB’s current chair, also an Obama pick, Vanessa Allen Sutherland, was previously at PHMSA as its chief counsel. Well, there’s also the fact that PHMSA is not necessarily known for doing such a great job, and the Obama administration isn’t thought of by agency critics as having really improved the situation there.

It’s also worth noting that Ms. Meidl was fairly recently director of regulatory and technical affairs at the American Chemistry Council, an industry lobby group and in that role was critical of some of the CSB’s biggest initiatives, such as the push for “inherently safer technologies” that would prevent chemical plant disasters (see here, here and here).

Of course, given the findings and recommendations in the much-criticized CSB report on Freedom Industries, it’s not really clear whether making the chemical industry inherently safer is a priority at the CSB anymore