Sustained Outrage

Remembering the Little General disaster at Ghent

U.S. CSB photo

We ran a story at the top of the front page on Sunday about the aftermath of the propane explosion at the Little General Store in Ghent, W.Va. Four people died five years ago today in that disaster. As we explained:

On Jan. 30, 2007, propane gas at the Little General Store was suddenly released through a liquid withdrawal valve during a changeover between two tanks. Two propane technicians from Appalachian Heating, a firefighter and an emergency medical technician were among those killed when the explosion leveled the store.

Killed in the accident were Glenn R. Bennett, 44, of Appalachian Heating; Frederick Allen Burroughs, 51, of Cool Ridge, a Raleigh County building inspector and firefighter; Craig Lawrence Dorsey, 24, of MacArthur, a volunteer firefighter and EMT; and Jeffrey Lee Treadway, 21, of Beckley.

Six others were injured, but board officials said Friday the tragedy could have been even worse, given that the store had not been evacuated when the blast occurred. One of the injured, 74-year-old Donnie Ray Caldwell of Coal City, died in 2010.

CSB investigators concluded that the tanks involved were improperly located less than 10 feet from the store, a problem that propane company employees did not correct despite dozens of inspections. Board investigators also said that propane technicians were not properly trained to spot problems with the tank’s valves, and that local emergency responders had not been taught how to properly handle a propane accident.

In a statement issued Friday, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board had mostly good words for the way West Virginia officials and other responded to board recommendations for reform after the explosion. But the CSB’s original statement also noted one “disappointment”:

The Board was compelled to vote as “Unacceptable” action not taken by the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services. We urged the agency to require annual hazardous materials response refresher training for all emergency medical personnel in West Virginia. To date, training occurs only once every two years. The CSB believes recurrent annual training is critical for responders who must deal with hazardous materials emergencies such as with propane.

After the statement was issued, through, officials from the Office of Emergency Medical Services contacted the CSB to say that they had only the day before sent a letter saying they were rethinking the situation and planned to comply with the board’s recommendation. CSB spokesman Daniel Horowitz told me:

The letter did not arrive as of Friday. It was the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services who is making the change to their training requirements for annual hazmat training for EMTs. The staffer said it was put in the mail Thursday and I should receive it sometime this week.

I’ve reached out to the Office of Emergency Medical Services and its parent agency, the state Department of Health and Human Resources, but I’ve gotten no response so far.

It’s worth going back today, though, and revisiting this disaster by watching the CSB’s video animation recreating what investigators believe happened:



Secret meetings, Jan. 27, 2012

Today’s issue of The State Register includes four meetings that violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law.

The agencies involved: The Bureau of Senior Services, the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute, the Public Defender Services Corp. for the 11th Judicial Circuit, and something called the WRMS-EMS Beckley Field Office.

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.

In this Jan. 23, 2012 file photo, Gillie Waddington of Enfield, N.Y., raises a fist during rally against hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells at the Legislative Office Building in Albany, N.Y. President Barack Obama the f- word during his recent State of the Union speech nor did he mention the technology used to get it, known commonly as fracking. That’s because the word has become a lightning rod.  (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

Well, The Associated Press spent 888 words toying with whether the use of one word — ‘fracking’ was appropriate when the media covers the continuing controversies over natural gas drilling.  The thrust of the story is that industry is upset with the phrase, and blamed environmental activists for the media’s continued use of it:

The word is “fracking” — as in hydraulic fracturing, a technique long used by the oil and gas industry to free oil and gas from rock.

It’s not in the dictionary, the industry hates it, and President Barack Obama didn’t use it in his State of the Union speech — even as he praised federal subsidies for it.

The word sounds nasty, and environmental advocates have been able to use it to generate opposition — and revulsion — to what they say is a nasty process that threatens water supplies.

“It obviously calls to mind other less socially polite terms, and folks have been able to take advantage of that,” said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council who works on drilling issues.

One of the chants at an anti-drilling rally in Albany earlier this month was “No fracking way!”

Industry executives argue that the word is deliberately misspelled by environmental activists and that it has become a slur that should not be used by media outlets that strive for objectivity.

“It’s a co-opted word and a co-opted spelling used to make it look as offensive as people can try to make it look,” said Michael Kehs, vice president for Strategic Affairs at Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second-largest natural gas producer.

This is the kind of story that New York AP writers love — it will get a lot of play, ending up on front pages all around the country, just as it did here at the Gazette.  But the story reminded me of a discussion a while back here on this blog in which our old buddy Bill Howley, author of The Power Line blog, about whether the right spelling is “fracking” or “fracing” and — more importantly — whether use of the phrase was leading to some fundamental misunderstandings about the potential dangers of the larger natural gas drilling and production process. Take a minute and go back to read the comments section of the previous post, Report ties ‘fracking’ to W.Va. well contamination and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

You see, environmental groups do love the word “fracking.” It makes for great signs and slogans and chants. From a public relations standpoint for them, it’s almost perfect. But the industry’s huge and growing PR machine, despite their protestations in this AP story, well, they like it to — because it’s allowed them to deflect the real issues about potential drinking water contamination into an almost absurd game of word play. Environmental groups have turned “fracking” into short-hand for the entire gas drilling and production process, and in some ways that’s given the industry a big advantage.

The main talking point for industry and its political friends regarding potential drinking water contamination from natural gas drilling and production has become this:

There are no documented cases of ground water contamination from hydraulic fracturing.

Friends, family and people effected by well water problems surround Craig Sautner as he speaks outside his home on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 in  Dimock, Pa.  prior to a water delivery provided by The Enviromental Protection Agency.  Under the authority of the Superfund law the EPA is delivering water to four homes and testing water at 61 homes in the Marcellus Shale gas drilling area in Susquehanna County. (AP Photo/Scranton Times & Tribune, Michael J. Mullen)

Now, maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s not. Regardless, the turn of phrase — making fracking and hydraulic fracturing the whole focus — has allowed questions about drinking water contamination to be unfairly dismissed by industry, its PR machine, lawmakers and even some regulators.  And there is plenty of evidence that other parts of the process — particularly poorly done well casing jobs — has and can continue to lead to drinking water contamination.  An expert panel appointed by the Obama administration explained it this way:

One of the commonly perceived risks from hydraulic fracturing is the possibility of leakage of fracturing fluid through fractures into drinking water. Regulators and geophysical experts agree that the likelihood of properly injected fracturing fluid reaching drinking water through fractures is remote where there is a large depth separation between drinking water sources and the producing zone. In the great majority of regions where shale gas is being produced, such separation exists and there are few, if any, documented examples of such migration. An improperly executed fracturing fluid injection can, of course, lead to surface spills and leakage into surrounding shallow drinking water formations. Similarly, a well with poorly cemented casing could potentially leak, regardless of whether the well has been hydraulically fractured.

Bill Howley probably explained it better in comments on this blog:

Casing failure is a real and continuing problem for the gas industry. Failed casings and cement jobs have been destroying water wells in West Virginia for over one hundred years, at well pressures far below those used in the 1987 Parsons incident. Sloppy and dangerous cementing caused the Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

There is extensive evidence, the Duke study being the latest, of contamination of water wells because of failed casing and cement work on Marcellus wells. This is a proven problem that needs to be dealt with now.

Searching for some holy grail that will prove direct migration of fracing fluids from gas formations to aquifers is a distraction from the real and immediate problem — sloppy and dangerous casing work. This problem has been with the gas industry from the beginning. The Marcellus drilling is different only because the fracing pressures are so much higher and because of the massive amounts of water injected into wells.

Getting caught up in whether “fracking” is the right word just takes time, energy, and newsprint away from focusing on the very real questions about the shale-gas drilling boom, including not only water pollution, but the long-term sustainability of this industry in terms of gas supply and global warming.

C8 update: Kids, chemicals and vaccines

We had a story in this morning’s Gazette about another troublesome study of C8’s potential human health effects, reporting:

Researchers have found that children exposed to the toxic chemical C8 may experience reduced effectiveness of childhood vaccinations, according to a significant new study being published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study discovered lower levels of antibodies that vaccines provide to fight infections among children with elevated exposures to C8 and similar chemicals that have been widely used in nonstick food packaging, stain-resistant textiles, nonstick cookware and water-resistant clothing.

Harvard University researchers warned that the results, if replicated in future studies, could indicate that perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, are related to much broader immune system problems beyond the two vaccines they studied.

“These findings suggest a decreased effect of childhood vaccines and may reflect a more general immune system deficit,” wrote Dr. Philippe Grandjean, lead author and an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

You can read the paper yourself here.

But there’s another paper just out in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that is also worth a look. That paper reported:

In summary, we observed that children had higher PFOA concentrations compared to their mothers. The ratio was the highest among children up to age five years where, on average, children had PFOA serum concentrations 44% higher than their mothers. The ratio was significantly higher for boys compared to girls for children aged >5 years. In a population exposed to elevated PFOA concentrations via contaminated drinking water, children seemed to concentrate the chemical more than their mothers up to about age 12. This is probably due to exposure via drinking water as well as exposure in utero and via breast milk. Children had higher PFOS concentrations than their mothers and this persisted at least until 19 years of age, with on average concentrations in children 42% higher than in their mothers. In utero and lactational exposure appears to make less of a contribution for PFOS than PFOA. Further studies are warranted on the child-mother PFAA relationship to understand how children’s exposure and rate of uptake vary as they grow.

During his State of the Union address last night, President Obama made a huge point of promoting natural gas, while also trying to appear concerned about any potential impacts from drilling. Here’s what he said:

We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years.  And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.  Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.  And I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use.   Because America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.

The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.   And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock –- reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

The president didn’t mention the recent downsizing of government estimates of the Marcellus Shale gas play, which we covered the other day here.  But perhaps more importantly, President Obama didn’t mention at all the very vigorous scientific debate over whether natural gas really improved greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal. We’ve covered that issue before here, here, here and here. And it’s worth noting that there’s been another paper published criticizing Cornell scientist Robert Howarth’s work on this issue and a reply by Howarth that vigorously defends his original conclusion:

We believe the preponderance of evidence indicates shale gas has a larger GHG footprint than conventional gas, considered over any time scale. The GHG footprint of shale gas also exceeds that of oil or coal when considered at decadal time scales, no matter how the gas is used. Considered over the century scale, and when used to generate electricity, many studies conclude that shale gas has a smaller GHG footprint than coal, although some of these studies biased their result by using a low estimate for GWP and/or low estimates for methane emission. However, the GHG footprint of shale gas is similar to that of oil or coal at the century time scale, when used for other than electricity generation. We stand by the conclusion: “The large GHG footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming.”

Continue reading…

When we last left our friends at the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they had no timeline to speak of for coming out with a new regulation aimed at protecting American workers from the increasingly obvious dangers of combustible dust. Back in July 2011, unidentified OSHA officials said in a Webchat:

OSHA is not able to project an estimate for when we will publish a proposed standard on combustible dust. The next step in the rule making process is to initiate the SBREFA panel review, which is currently estimated for December.

As best I can tell, OSHA has yet to convene that SBREFA (Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act) panel, and at least one industry publication reported last month:

… The SBREFA Panel has been delayed several times, in large part because OSHA has not been ready to unveil the actual proposed regulatory text for the Rule.

So imagine my surprise when the combustible dust rule didn’t show up on this new list of OSHA’s rulemaking priorities. I asked the Labor Department about this, and a spokesman told me on Friday:

It did not fall off our agenda. It’s been moved to long term action.  This means we are continuing work on this project but we are not projecting a next action and date at this time.

Of course, just a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board repeated its long-standing call for OSHA to publish a new standard on combustible dust — this time adding to the urgency by recommending OSHA do so within a year, after investigating three incidents involving flash fires and an explosion that killed five workers last year at Hoeganaes powdered metals plant in Gallatin, Tennessee. CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

The three accidents at the Hoeganaes facility were entirely preventable. Despite evidence released by the CSB and information that Hoeganaes had in its possession even before the first accident in January 2011, the company did not institute adequate dust control or housekeeping measures. Dust fires and explosions continue to claim lives and destroy property in many industries. More must be done to control this hazard. No more lives should be lost from these preventable accidents.

The CSB first called for an OSHA regulation on combustible dust after issuing a 2006 report that identified 281 dust fires and explosions that killed 119 workers and injured 718 others nationwide between 1980 and 2005. In a November 2011 report, board investigators noted 17 other deaths in dust incidents the agency is examining, including three in a December explosion that killed three at the AL Solutions Inc. metals recycling plant in New Cumberland, Hancock County, W.Va.

Fireman battle a fire at AL Solutions after an explosion rocked the plant Thursday, Dec. 9, 2010 in New Cumberland, W.Va. Three workers were killed and one person was injured, police and company officials said Thursday. (AP Photo/The Review, Michael D. McElwain)

Continue reading…

DOE slashes estimate of Marcellus Shale reserve

In this July 27, 2011 file photo, Range Resources site manager Don Robinson stands near the well head by the drill that goes into the shale at a well site for natural gas in Washington, Pa.  (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

Significant news out this morning from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration:

… The estimated unproved technically recoverable resource (TRR) of shale gas for the United States is 482 trillion cubic feet, substantially below the estimate of 827 trillion cubic feet in AEO2011. The decline largely reflects a decrease in the estimate for the Marcellus shale, from 410 trillion cubic feet to 141 trillion cubic feet.

Now, this comes after last summer’s fairly confusing release of a new U.S. Geological Survey analysis of the Marcellus Shale reserve, and in the wake of other reports that have warned the Marcellus is not nearly as huge as some hopeful reports from the media, industry and political leaders have said.

In today’s early release of a summary of its 2012 Energy Outlook, the EIA explained its new figures this way:

Both EIA and USGS have recently made significant revisions to their TRR estimates for the Marcellus shale. Drilling in the Marcellus accelerated rapidly in 2010 and 2011, so that there is far more information available today than a year ago. Indeed, the daily rate of Marcellus production doubled during 2011 alone. Using data though 2010, USGS updated its TRR estimate for the Marcellus to 84 trillion cubic feet, with a 90-percent confidence range from 43 to 144 trillion cubic feet—a substantial increase over the previous USGS estimate of 2 trillion cubic feet dating from 2002. For AEO2012, EIA uses more recent drilling and production data available through 2011 and excludes production experience from the pre-shale era (before 2008). EIA’s TRR estimate for the entire Northeast also includes TRR of 16 trillion cubic feet for the Utica shale, which underlies the Marcellus and is still relatively little explored.

Interestingly at about the same time the EIA was briefing the media on its new report, Chesapeake Energy announced this news, what it called an update on additional steps it is taking to continue creating shareholder value in response to the lowest natural gas prices in the past 10 years:

Chesapeake plans to further reduce its operated dry gas drilling activity by 50% to approximately 24 rigs by the 2012 second quarter from 47 dry gas rigs currently in use and by 67% from an average of approximately 75 dry gas rigs used during 2011 … Specifically, during the 2012 second quarter, Chesapeake plans to have reduced its drilling activity in both the Haynesville and Barnett shales to six operated rigs each and to 12 operated rigs in the dry gas area of the Marcellus Shale in northeastern Pennsylvania.

And even in the so-called “wet gas” areas of the Marcellus like West Virginia (those areas where the natural gas reserves also contain significant amounts of potentially profitable other materials like ethane, butane, propane, and pentane), Chesapeake said:

Chesapeake plans to further reduce its undeveloped leasehold expenditures, the majority of which have been focused on liquids-rich plays during the past three years. The company is now targeting to invest approximately $1.4 billion in undeveloped leasehold expenditures in 2012 (net of joint venture partner reimbursements), of which approximately 90% will target liquids-rich plays and 100% will be in plays where the company is already active. This compares to undeveloped leasehold expenditures, net of joint venture partner reimbursements, of approximately $3.4 billion and $5.8 billion in 2011 and 2010, respectively.

Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon said:

We have committed to cut our dry gas drilling to bare minimum levels that are likely to be maintained until expected drilling economics on dry gas plays return to levels competitive with expected returns in Chesapeake’s lineup of liquids-rich plays, which we believe is the best in the industry. As in previous natural gas pricing downturns, Chesapeake is promptly responding to rapidly changing market conditions, and we hope today’s announcement helps disprove the view held by some industry observers that producers fail to act rationally in times of unusually low natural gas prices.

Secret meetings, Jan. 20, 2012

Today’s issue of The State Register contains one meeting that violated the public notice requirements of West Virginia’s open meetings law. The agency involved? The state Department of Administration, for a meeting of the Governor’s Committee for the Purchase of Commodities and Services from the Handicapped.

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.

Protesters stand in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before an appearance by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson Friday Jan. 13, 2012.  Residents of the small northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock,  at the center of the political fight over natural gas drilling, joined environmental activists from elsewhere to rally Friday outside a conference on urban environmental issues.   About a dozen residents of Dimock have sued Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., claiming the energy company caused contamination of wells when it extracted natural gas using a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency steps in to protect water supplies for the people of the Pennsylvania town of Dimock from natural gas drilling, West Virginia lawmakers are right now debating the huge tax breaks that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin wants to offer to try to lure a natural gas “cracker” plant to our state to further the Marcellus Shale drilling boom.

We’ve written before about questions regarding the governor’s proposal, and about his overstating the potential job impacts of this sort of a facility. It’s clear that West Virginia and surrounding states are going to fall all over themselves trying to come up with giveaways for the cracker (despite questions about whether such programs are built on a strong foundation to protect the public’s investment, as these reports from Good Jobs first suggest).

But how sustainable is the Marcellus Shale boom?

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.,  has told us:

We all know that Marcellus Shale could truly be a game-changer for our great state. We are literally sitting on top of tremendous potential with the Marcellus Shale, and we need to work together to chart a path forward in a safe and responsible way that allows us to produce energy right here in America and create good-paying jobs for hard-working Americans.

The potential of Marcellus is truly remarkable. From an energy-development standpoint, we are on the cusp of something that could help us reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil that threatens both our national security and our economic security. It’s so important that we develop our resources here at home, rather than continuing to rely on countries that don’t like us very much and wish to do us harm.

Still, serious questions are being asked — not by political leaders, of course — about all of this. Some of these are summarized clearly in a piece by Chris Nelder for the online magazine Slate:

The recent press about the potential of shale gas would have you believe that America is now sitting on a 100-year supply of natural gas. It’s a “game-changer.” A “golden age of gas” awaits, one in which the United States will be energy independent, even exporting gas to the rest of the world, upending our current energy-importing situation.

The data, however, tell a very different story. Between the demonstrable gas reserves, and the potential resources blared in the headlines, lies an enormous gulf of uncertainty.

We don’t yet know how much of the estimated gas resources will be economically recoverable or whether the projected production rates for some wells might be off by a factor of 10. We might have a 100-year supply of gas, or we might have an 11-year supply. We might realize economic and environmental benefits by transitioning trucking and coal-fired power generation to natural gas, or we might do so only to find ourselves out on a limb far more economically dangerous than the current peak and impending decline of world oil supply. We simply don’t know, and we may not know for years to come.

Wonder if Sen. Manchin will hold a field hearing to address these questions …

W.Va. FOIA fix bill moving — without amendments

Legislation to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling that significantly weakened West Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act is making its way through the statehouse again, having passed the full House yesterday, as the AP’s Larry Messina reported:

A document’s content or context would help determine its release under West Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act, under an update to the open government law unanimously passed Wednesday by the House of Delegates.

Delegates advanced the measure to the Senate after a party-line vote rebuffed a GOP-sponsored amendment. It’s the first bill exchanged in the Legislature since the regular session began last week.

Readers may recall that Justice Robin Davis cooked up a fairly contorted ruling that concealed from public disclosure emails between then-Justice Spike Maynard and his buddy, then-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, that were sent while a major verdict against Massey was headed for an appeal before the court. As we’ve written before, Justice Davis blatantly mischaracterized the content of some of the emails that were released during an earlier portion of the case, making out like none of them had anything to do with the public’s business. Perhaps the best description of the problems with the decision were outlined in a dissent filed by Justice Margaret Workman, which we discussed here.

The Legislation now under consideration, H.B. 2402, would rewrite the state’s definition of public record in this way (underlined language is what would be added to the law):

“Public record” includes any writing containing information relating prepared or received by a public body, the content or context of which, judged either by its content or context relates to the conduct of the public’s business. prepared, owned and retained by a public body

Interestingly, the House Democratic leadership made sure to block two amendments proposed by House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

One amendment would have significantly narrowed a problematic FOIA exemption that covers “internal memoranda or letters received or prepared by any public body,” adding the requirement that such documents could only be withheld “to the extent that these internal memoranda or letters contain information which would be specifically exempt from disclosure” under any of the other state FOIA exemptions.

The other would have added this language to the existing exemption for certain law enforcement records:

Such agency shall, at the conclusion of any investigation resulting in a criminal charge, prepare a full report of such investigation; and, unless the agency determines that disclosure of that report would hinder prosecution of those criminal actions, or any other ongoing investigation, such report shall be subject to disclosure.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha,  told the AP that he generally favors broadening the scope of FOIA, but also wants to examine how other states define “public record” in their versions of that law.  Maybe that review won’t take too long … all Delegate Palumbo needs to do is point his web browser to the site of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and he can pull up a side-by-side of all state public records laws.  If you’re interested in protecting the public’s right to know in West Virginia, Sen. Palumbo’s number at the Capitol is (304) 357-7880. If you want to encourage Senate President Jeff Kessler to move this legislation, his number is (304) 357-7801.