Sustained Outrage

The U.S. Department of Energy’s special commission examining natural gas drilling has released a second report, warning today:

… If action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the very considerable expansion of shale gas production expected across the country – perhaps as many as 100,000 wells over the next several decades – there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences and a loss of public confidence that could delay or stop this activity.

An initial report, issued in August, made clear that the potential impacts from booms like the Marcellus Shale play are not minor things:

Intensive shale gas development can potentially have serious impacts on public health, the environment and quality of life – even when individual operators conduct their activities in ways that meet and exceed regulatory requirements. The combination of impacts from multiple drilling and production operations, support infrastructure (pipelines, road networks, etc.) and related activities can overwhelm ecosystems and communities.

And today’s new report outlines some specific actions that the commission — made up mostly of experts with close ties to the gas industry — believes federal and state governments need to take, and that action so far has been far from adequate:

The Subcommittee is gratified by the actions that have been taken to date and are planned, by the administration, state governments, industry, and public interest groups to reduce the environmental impact of shale gas production. However, the progress to date is less than the Subcommittee hoped. The Subcommittee cautions that whether its approach is followed or not, some concerted and sustained action is needed to avoid excessive environmental impacts of shale gas production and the consequent risk of public opposition to its continuation and expansion.

Meanwhile, Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica has a major new story out today, reporting:

As the country awaits results from a nationwide safety study on the natural gas drilling process of fracking, a separate government investigation into contamination in a place where residents have long complained that drilling fouled their water has turned up alarming levels of underground pollution.

A pair of environmental monitoring wells drilled deep into an aquifer in Pavillion, Wyo., contain high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing, according to new water test results released yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And in Texas, preliminary results are in from a major University of Texas study of hydraulic fracturing, and as reported here, fracking itself is not the problem — but the size and scope of modern drilling operations seems to be raising serious issues:

Preliminary results of a University of Texas study on hydraulic fracturing indicate the process itself does not appear to contaminate contaminating drinking water, but that fracturing sites may have a higher incidence of surface problems that can occur with any type of drilling.

Prior reports, investigations and data gathered throughout the country on claims that the process often called fracking contaminated ground water so far don’t make the direct link, said Chip Groat, a UT geologist who is leading the study.

Rather, it appears that shale drilling results in more problems on the surface than drilling that doesn’t involve fracking, including spills of drilling and fracking fluids, leaks from wastewater pits and other rule violations, said Groat, who is unveiling the preliminary results of the study in Fort Worth on Wednesday.

Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

We had a story in today’s Gazette quoting a clearly frustrated Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, questioning whether there’s time left for lawmakers to finish up a consensus Marcellus Shale drilling bill and get it passed during a special session before the end of the year:

Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, is co-chairman of a House-Senate committee that’s been working on the legislation since a Marcellus bill died at the end of the regular session in early March. Manchin has been trying to work out a compromise bill that would have industry support. Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin has made that a condition for his calling a special session.

“We have come down to the wire,” Manchin said in an interview this week. “I think the public really wants and deserves a bill.”

Lawmakers scheduled an unusual Sunday morning committee meeting to try to work out four proposed amendments, including likely contentious language aimed at protecting and compensating surface landowners and at expanding the ability of state regulators to deny new drilling permits.

But after that meeting, Manchin says, committee members would need to approve the overall bill during a meeting Wednesday if they hope to get a special session scheduled to coincide with December interim meetings. Manchin said he’s been told industry officials and some Senate committee members want to slow down that process.

“We’re going to miss any chance of having a special session,” Manchin said. “I’m deeply concerned, but cautiously optimistic.”

I talked to officials from two industry groups, and neither offered much in the way of optimism, both saying that the original legislation — as amended by Manchin’s committee — was not acceptable.  Of course, Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin — whose administration admitted they were using industry lobbyists as consultants on their Marcellus drilling executive order — has said he won’t call a special session unless there’s consensus on the bill, effectively meaning that industry gets to decide if and how it’s regulated.

But Tim Manchin seems utterly unconvinced that some folks in the industry want any bill at all:

At the beginning of this, I thought industry wanted a bill. Now, I don’t think they want a bill.

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Yesterday, Chesapeake Energy officials were tweeting away in an effort to downplay the potential impacts of their company’s decision to sign a long-term contract to transport 75,000 barrels of ethane per day from the Appalachian shale region to the Texas Gulf Coast:

“We believe 75,000 barrels a day is a fraction of the ethane that will be produced. The news is ABUNDANCE.”

“If we can get a price locally, we will sell locally. The pipeline agreement is not a sales agreement.”

Chesapeake’s Scott Rotruck had already told the Gazette’s Eric Eyre that this pipeline agreement would not be the end of West Virginia’s efforts to lure a “cracker” plant to our state. As Eric reported on Sunday:

Rotruck said the pipeline project actually could help West Virginia’s chances of recruiting a cracker plant to the state. Ethane supplies “should remain significant” in the region, he said.

Sites under consideration for the cracker plant include Bayer-owned properties in New Martinsville and Institute.

“This announcement should not preclude our state’s ability to attract an ethane cracking facility,” said Rotruck, Chesapeake’s vice president of corporate development. “It will help ensure robust Marcellus development, which must be demonstrated in order to build a cracker.

“Proper ethane management will be a multi-tiered solution, with possibilities for storage, pipeline and cracking facilities.”

But the West Virginia AFL-CIO is apparently not convinced. Here’s the press release they sent out yesterday evening:

John Dillinger, the famous bank robber of the 1930’s when asked why he robbed banks replied, that’s where the money is! Today if West Virginia working families, (who struggle each day due to the scarcity of good jobs), were to ask Chesapeake Energy CEO, Aubrey McClendon why he is robbing West Virginia we suspect he would answer; because that’s where the money is!

After reviewing a document from the American Chemistry Council we believe Chesapeake Energy’s decision to export up to 125,000 barrels of ethane per day, (from our valuable Marcellus shale natural resource), by pipeline to the gulf coast will potentially destroy any hope of as many as 12,000 West Virginia jobs and result in the loss of $800 billion in wages and tax revenue.

Is this justice for West Virginia working families or is it another example of an out of state corporation robbing us?

(The labor organization apparently got their numbers confused … Chesapeake’s deal involves up to 75,000 barrels per day, while 125,000 barrels per day is the entire capacity of the Enterprise Products Partners pipeline).

There’s some interesting discussion of the whole pipeline issue over at the Marcellus Drilling News site and the Energy Inc. blog from the Pittsburgh Business Times.

Sen. Manchin sets field hearing on Marcellus drilling

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The U.S. Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has scheduled a field hearing here in Charleston for Monday to talk about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.  According to the committee schedule:

The purpose of the hearing is to examine Marcellus Shale Gas development and production in West Virginia.

The hearing is set for 10 a.m. at the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse.

So far, the committee has not yet posted a witness list. But a committee spokesman told me that, as of now, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is the only committee member scheduled to attend the hearing. All three of West Virginia’s House members are scheduled to attend, though, the spokesman told me.

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W.Va. facilities on EPA air pollution ‘watch list’

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There’s a huge new series of articles out this morning developed through a partnership between the Center for Public Integrity and NPR, focused on the nation’s failure to carry out the promise of the Clean Air Act to protecting us all from toxic air pollution. The lead story this morning from the center’s Jim Morris and others explains:

Americans might expect the government to protect them from unsafe air. That hasn’t happened. Insidious forms of toxic air pollution — deemed so harmful to human health that a Democratic Congress and a Republican president sought to bring emissions under control more than two decades ago — persist in hundreds of communities across the United States, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News and NPR shows.

Congress targeted nearly 200 chemicals in 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, which the first Bush administration promised would lead to sharp reductions in cancer, birth defects and other serious ailments. But the agencies that were supposed to protect the public instead have left millions of people from California to Maine exposed to known risks — sometimes for years.

Records, some previously undisclosed, show the extent to which Washington is aware of the failure of states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to crack down on localized sources of hazardous airborne chemicals, known as air toxics, even when violations may have continued for years. According to the latest available data, the EPA knows of more than 1,600 “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act — sites that regulators believe need urgent attention.

About a quarter of these high priority violators appear on an internal EPA “watch list ” that includes serious or chronic polluters that have faced no formal enforcement action for nine months or more. Until now, the list has not been made public. The latest version, dated September 2011, shows the names and locations of 383 industrial, commercial, military and municipal facilities, from oil refineries and steel mills to pharmaceutical manufacturers, incinerators and cement kilns. Many of these facilities bombard communities in Texas, Iowa, New York, Arizona, Oklahoma and other states with solvents that can cause cancer, metals that can cause brain damage, or other contaminants.

“There are still places in the country that are overburdened with toxic pollution,” Cynthia Giles , the EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, acknowledged in an interview with iWatch News and NPR.

And the first of NPR’s stories reports:

The system Congress set up 21 years ago to clean up toxic air pollution still leaves many communities exposed to risky concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and many other hazardous chemicals.

Pollution violations at more than 1,600 plants across the country were serious enough that the government believes they require urgent action, according to an analysis of EPA data by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. Yet nearly 300 of those facilities have been considered “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act by the Environmental Protection Agency for at least a decade.

About a quarter of those 1,600 violators are on an internal EPA “watch list,” which the agency has kept secret until now.

EPA estimates facilities across the country emit 40 percent less toxic emissions in 2005 than they did in 1990, but toxic air pollution has persisted in communities like Ponca City, Okla., Hayden, Ariz., Tonawanda, N.Y., and Muscatine, Iowa.

“I don’t think it’s a great deal of comfort to tell somebody whose kids may develop brain damage or the adults in the neighborhood who may get cancer that overall we’re reducing toxic air pollutants. It doesn’t help them,” says Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., an author of the 1990 update to the Clean Air Act. “What will help them is that the industries that are in their area actually control the pollution and stop poisoning the people.”

Cleanups, however, have been delayed by tension between the EPA and state environment programs, budget cuts and a system that allows companies to estimate their own toxic emissions.

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Secret meetings, Nov. 4, 2011

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We missed last week, so today we’ll do a roundup of open meetings violations for the last two weeks.

First, in last week’s State Register, there was one meeting that did not comply with the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law. The agency was City Hospital.  This week’s Register included open meetings violations by the Family Protective Services Board, the Lincoln County Economic Development Authority, the Region II Planning and Development Council, and the Statewide Independent Living Council.

As we’ve reminded folks before, the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act requires agencies to send meeting notices to the Secretary of State in time for notices to appear in the State Register five days prior to a scheduled meeting. Every week, we list the agencies that didn’t comply, thanks to the Secretary of State’s office, which kindly marks those agencies with an asterisk in the list of meetings published each Friday in the Register.

Rebecca Morlock, 41, of Spelter, WVa., stands in front of the fence of former DuPont zinc-smelting plant in the town of Spelter, WV on July 27, 2009. Morlock keeps watching the demolished factory. “I’ll stay on top of it because people’s lives could possibly be at stake,” she says. (AP Photo / Lingbing Hang)

Here’s the latest from Vicki Smith at The Associated Press:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Environmental regulators want DuPont to submit plans for determining whether seepage and runoff from the site of a former zinc-smelting plant in north-central West Virginia are contaminating groundwater or streams.

A resident who lives near the former smelter in Spelter went to the state Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year with concerns about both new seeps she spotted at the site and surface drainage ditches that go into Simpson Creek.

DEP project manager David Hight says it’s unclear whether either is causing contamination offsite, but DuPont must submit a plan to find out using either water sampling or new community wells, or both.

Monitoring wells onsite do show contamination, he said, but DEP can’t tell whether that contamination is going beyond the property lines.

“It may be,” he says. “We don’t know.”

Although there’s no deadline for the plan, Hight expects it to be submitted soon.

DuPont spokesman Dan Turner said the company routinely samples groundwater and monitors the Spelter site, the West Fork River, and where the river meets Simpson Creek. It turns those results in to DEP.

“Based on WVDEP’s recent request,” he said in an email Thursday, “we will add more sampling points in Simpson Creek.”

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OSHA fines Wheeling-area firm more than $60,000

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Here’s the latest from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Elm Grove-based Uwanta Linen Supply Inc. for 21 safety and health violations that exposed workers to a variety of hazards. Proposed penalties total $62,400.

OSHA said that eighteen serious safety and health violations, with penalties of $61,200, included:

— Failing to evaluate the facility to determine if any areas were permit-required confined spaces

— Failing to properly guard floor holes

— Not developing written energy control procedures for machines with multiple energy sources; mount portable fire extinguishers, perform annual maintenance checks on them and train employees on their use

— Failing to examine forklifts before placing them in service

— Failure to conduct an exposure determination for workers with exposure to bloodborne pathogens

— Not providing  fall protection for employees working on an elevated platform using forklifts

The agency also said the company failed to:

… Provide personal protective equipment; provide a suitable facility for quick drenching or flushing of the eyes and/or body for workers exposed to injurious corrosive materials; provide a hand-washing facility readily accessible to employees; provide appropriate safety and machine guarding; provide hepatitis B vaccines to employees potentially exposed to bloodborne pathogens; ensure that all work areas were clean and in an orderly and sanitary condition; ensure that an emergency exit door was unlocked and unimpeded; ensure that electrical equipment was free from recognized hazards; keep the area around a circuit breaker panel free from materials; attach grounded conductors to terminals or leads so as to reverse polarity; effectively close knockouts; properly illuminate work areas for employees; properly illuminate each exit sign; establish a written exposure control plan to eliminate or minimize employee exposure to bloodborne pathogens; and institute an effective hearing conservation program.

The violations were cited following OSHA inspections last May (see here and here).  Uwanta Linen Supply, a commercial laundry that employs about 16 workers at its Elm Grove location, has 15 business days from receipt of the citations to comply, request an informal conference with the OSHA area director, or contest the citations and proposed penalties before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

OSHA Charleston area director Prentice Cline said:

By disregarding OSHA’s standards, this company is leaving its employees vulnerable to hazards that could cause serious injury or even death. It is imperative that Uwanta Linen Supply address the cited violations immediately.

PPG plant seeks variance for mercury pollution

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A Senior design engineer Dave Bush inspects the sprawling mercury cell room at PPG Industries chemical plant in Natrium, Marshall County. Photo from 2005 courtesy PPG.

If we needed more proof that PPG Industries isn’t going mercury-free at its chlorine manufacturing plant in Natrium, W.Va., just check out the new public notice issued yesterday by the Ohio River Water Sanitation Commission:

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) is requesting public comment on a request for a variance from its Pollution Control Standards provision which prohibits mixing zones for bioaccumulative chemicals of concern beginning no later than October 16, 2013. The request for a variance was received from PPG Industries, Natrium, WV facility and is in regard to their discharge of mercury to the Ohio River.

My friend Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal in Louisville broke the story, explaining:

A West Virginia chlorine manufacturing plant is seeking to avoid a 90 percent cut in the amount of mercury that it’s allowed to dump into the Ohio River.

At issue is a 2009 decision by the commission to phase out what it calls “mixing zones” down river from industrial plants that discharge chemicals that build up in the environment, such as mercury. Mixing zones allow pollution limits to be met some distance from factory outfalls, after effluent has mixed with river water and become diluted.

Now, regular readers know that PPG is a huge source of mercury pollution, because of its continued use what critics say is an outdated technology. Activists have targeted the facility and PPG has faced permit challenges and litigation over its mercury emissions, but has received friendly treatment from West Virginia regulators, who have repeatedly extended the company’s compliance deadlines.

But faced with a lawsuit from the state of Maryland — which alleged PPG’s air emissions were polluting that state’s waterways with mercury — PPG entered into a deal to make major pollution reductions and to consider other steps, with a goal of eliminating all mercury emissions. Jim Bruggers reports the company has made progress:

In correspondence with the commission posted on the commission’s Website, PPG officials said they have been reducing their mercury discharges …  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency records show that the plant cut its mercury discharges from 32 pounds in 2004 to 17 pounds in 2010.

Still, PPG argues in its request for a variance from the new ORSANCO rule that “after several years of diligent effort,” the company believes its permit limits for mercury “cannot be reasonably achieved” without a mixing zone.

It’s also worth pointing out that the ORSANCO rules for water quality standards only allow for variances because of a push for such language from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association and PPG.

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