The Charleston Gazette has a long and proud tradition as a crusading newspaper. Our late publisher, W.E. "Ned" Chilton III coined the phrase "sustained outrage" and insisted the Gazette live up to that motto with long-term coverage of important issues facing West Virginia and the nation.
The mission of the "Gazette Watchdog" is simple: To carry on that tradition. We make a commitment to our readers to serve as a public watchdog over government, business, and other powerful entities in West Virginia society, to ensure that the public interest is protected.
Readers may recall a post a couple of weeks ago about a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection settlement with Antero Resources about a series of spills at the company’s operations (See WVDEP probe of Antero spills finds … more spills).
Well, a coalition of citizen groups — including the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, West Virginia Citizen Action Group and the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization have submitted comments to WVDEP about this deal. Here’s some of what they said:
This enforcement action sets a bad precedent by signaling to irresponsible drilling companies that non-compliance is cheaper than compliance. Antero’s degree of non-compliance reinforces the perspective that drilling companies can get away with violating permit requirements and in fact shirk the permitting process completely with minimal repercussions. WVDEP must hold the company accountable for their blatant disregard for the law, implement stricter enforcement actions, and provide consequences that deter non-compliance rather than allowing drilling companies to escape compliance with a minimal financial penalty.
In short, Judge Copenhaver wants both sides to submit additional legal briefs to address the role of Eastman Chemical — which sold MCHM to Freedom Industries — in the water crisis case. Plaintiffs in the case argue that Eastman violated the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, by not properly testing the chemical or warning buyers or the public about potential health impacts, or about possible safety concerns related to the type of storage tanks Freedom used.
Specifically, the judge says:
… The parties should address the facts supporting a conclusion that plaintiffs have suffered an injury, fairly traceable to Eastman’s alleged violation of the Act, which will be redressed by a favorable decision of this court.
Briefing should also consider whether Eastman’s alleged noncompliance with the Act constitutes a “real and immediate” threat of injury supporting injunctive relief.
The additional legal brief from the plaintiffs is due Aug. 2, with any Eastman response due by Aug. 9. You can read the judge’s order here.
The new order, posted here, rejects another effort by the group Advocates for a Safe Water System to reopen discovery — the process of legal investigation in the case — prior to the currently schedule PSC hearings in mid-November.
The fact that the parties to this general investigation and the parties to the federal cases examined some of the same subject matter but chose to develop the evidence differently, is largely reflective of the different roles of the two tribunals and the different legal standards governing the respective proceedings. Thus, while ASWS may utilize pertinent information from any source (including the federal cases) for any proper purpose during the evidentiary hearing in this proceeding, the fact that information developed outside this investigation may not be identical to what the parties developed here simply does not justify a wholesale re-opening of discovery, on the grounds that it is “new information” or otherwise.
There’s a new filing out this morning in the state Public Service Commission’s general investigation of the January 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill and the water crisis that followed.
In the new filing, posted here, lawyers for West Virginia American Water Co. are asking the PSC to again delay the commission’s formal hearing into the water company’s handling of the crisis.
Basically, water company lawyers are pointing out that the current PSC hearing dates — Nov. 15-17, 2016 — create a pretty serious conflict with the scheduled start of trial in the “Good case” — the water crisis class-action suit pending in federal court. U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver has that trial set to begin on Oct. 25.
The water company lawyers explain:
The Company believes that holding the GI evidentiary hearing during the Good trial will be virtually impossible for the Company and its witnesses to manage, and at the very least will impair and prejudice the Company’s ability to participate attentively and fully in both proceedings. The timing overlap is complete, and extends not only to the November 15-17 evidentiary hearing, which should occur during the fourth week of the Good trial, but to the October 28 pre-trial conference in the GI, at which pre-hearing motions presumably will be argued. The overlap also extends to the deadline for rebuttal testimony on September 1, which will compete for many of the same witness and lawyer resources already committed to preparing for the federal trial.
They outline scheduling concerns for both West Virginia American witnesses — including company President Jeff McIntyre — and attorneys, and conclude:
These actual scheduling conflicts will adversely affect the Company’s participation in both cases to its detriment and prejudice, and they constitute good cause to move the remainder of the GI procedural schedule into 201 7. The Commission should acknowledge the demanding federal court processes facing the Company and make reasonable accommodations to minimize the impact of scheduling constraints. There is no deadline for the Commission’s decision in the GI, and none of the other parties is likely to be prejudiced by an extension of the procedural schedule into 2017.
Back in December 2014, inspectors from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection went to Harrison County to check out a reported spill at a fracking wastewater processing facility operated by Antero Resources. The company had reported that the spill was contained and that cleanup was complete.
But when WVDEP got there, here’s what they found:
During the inspection, however, WVDEP personnel observed and documented that the reported spill from a leak in the frac tank was in progress, cleanup was not completed, and the wastewater was leaking outside of the dedicated container system.
It was also noted during the inspection that a second source of spillage (Spill Two) was occurring near the western footprint of the Water Process Facility near a small unnamed tributary of Limestone Run, and the soil in the area was dark and had a petroleum odor.
Agency officials said that lab results of a soil sample taken on the eastern bank of the stream (the side where the spill occurred) revealed “elevated levels” of total chloride, total strontium, total barium, and diesel range organics, as compared to a sample on the opposite bank of the stream.
And there’s more … In a follow-up inspection two days later, WVDEP officials:
… Observed that, in addition to the two spills observed and documented during the December 16, 2014, inspection, another spill (Spill Three) had occurred. Further investigation revealed that this spill had not been reported. WVDEP personnel observed another spill (Spill Four) in an area down gradient of the offload manifold covered with straw. Further investigation revealed that a tank truck had spilled its contents during off-loading activities, a spill containment system had not been deployed, the contents had migrated off the pad and onto the ground, straw had been deployed to soak up the contents, the soil was stained black, and the spill had not been reported.
Protesters stand in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before an appearance by Environmental Protection Agency then-(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. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
With all of the aggressive public relations from all sides — and the flurry of conflicting statements in political campaigns — it is certainly becoming more and more difficult for the public to understand the ongoing discussion of natural gas drilling’s environmental and economic impacts.
Thankfully, there are some great journalists out there who continue to work on these stories and cutting through the conflicting claims. For several years, the best among them has been Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, whose work on the issue is archived here.
Since 2009 the people of Dimock, Pennsylvania, have insisted that, as natural gas companies drilled into their hillsides, shaking and fracturing their ground, their water had become undrinkable. It turned a milky brown, with percolating bubbles of explosive methane gas. People said it made them sick.
But the last word about the quality of Dimock’s water came from assurances in a 2012 statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the federal department charged with safeguarding the Americans’ drinking water. The agency declared that the water coming out of Dimock’s taps did not require emergency action, such as a federal cleanup. The agency’s stance was widely interpreted to mean the water was safe.
Now another federal agency charged with protecting public health has analyzed the same set of water samples, and determined that is not the case.
The finding, released May 24 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns that a list of contaminants the EPA had previously identified were indeed dangerous for people to consume. The report found that the wells of 27 Dimock homes contain, to varying degrees, high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, and copper sufficient to pose ahealth risk. It also warned of a mysterious compound called 4-chlorophenyl phenyl ether, a substance for which the agency could not even evaluate the risk, and noted that in earlier water samples non-natural pollutants including acetone, toluene and chloroform were detected . Those contaminants are known to be dangerous, but they registered at such low concentrations that their health effects could not easily be evaluated. The water in 17 homes also contained enough flammable gas so as to risk an explosion.
In the wake of the lead crisis affecting drinking water in Flint, Mich., the public now ranks contaminated drinking water among the most serious national health issues, trailing cancer, according to the April Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.
When asked about a series of health issues facing the country, more than a third (35%) identify contaminated drinking water as “extremely serious,” behind cancer (43%) and similar to heroin abuse (35%) and ahead of major diseases such as heart disease ( 27%) and diabetes (31%).
Overall, women are less confident in the government’s ability to ensure the safety of public services than men are. Three-fourths of women (74%) are not very confident in their state’s ability to ensure the safety of their water, compared to two thirds (66%) of men. Similar gender differences exist on the questions about sewage and electrical services.
Most Americans (70%) say that this month they have been closely following news about unsafe lead levels in Flint’s water, up from March (63%). More report closely following the terrorist attacks in Brussels and other conflicts involving ISIS (80%) and the 2016 presidential campaign (77%), while slightly fewer say they were closely following news about the Zika outbreak (61%).
Fielded amid news reports about government officials facing charges related to Flint’s contaminated water supply, the poll finds larger shares of the public rating their state government’s efforts to protect the water supply as either “excellent” (17%) or “good” (37%) than “fair” (31%) or “poor” (14%). The public rates the federal government less favorably, with more saying it’s doing a “fair” (36%) or “poor” (26%) job than saying it’s doing an “excellent” (7%) or “good” (29%) job.
Designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, the poll was conducted from April 12-19 among a nationally representative random digit dial telephone sample of 1,201 adults. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (420) and cell phone (781). The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.
This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co. on April 17, 2013 night killed 15 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
This past weekend marked three years since the massive fire and explosion that killed 15 people at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. Yet despite this disaster and the time that’s gone by, the Dallas Morning News reports:
On the one hand, many of the ag-supply and feed stores that used to stock a lot of the fertilizer have stopped selling it, a Dallas Morning News investigation found. Others have beefed up safeguards, such as moving the chemical out of dilapidated buildings and into fire-resistant concrete structures. Fire officials now have the power to inspect sites, and fire departments are more likely to have had training to handle the hazardous material.
But many of the recommendations made by safety investigators have gone unheeded. None of the sites that responded to News inquiries said they had installed sprinklers systems. The state does not require them, but the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has said such a system could have stopped the West accident before it became a fatal explosion.
And despite calls for keeping stockpiles of ammonium nitrate away from populated areas, in up to eight communities tons of the chemical still sit near schools, houses, nursing homes and even a hospital, according to a News analysis of state data.
Perhaps even more to the point, as the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility points out in a statement labeling the administration’s legacy on chemical plant safety issues as “timid”:
An Environmental Protection Agency proposal for preventing major industrial accidents is a step forward but only a very tiny one … The EPA plan is exceedingly narrow in scope, relies on voluntary actions and brings no enforcement heft toward averting chemical plant disasters that imperil both workers and communities.
The EPA proposal, announced in late February, is the main administrative response to what happened in West — and what’s happened in many other communities around the country under President Obama’s watch (see here, here, here and here) — yet it does not even cover fertilizer plants handling ammonium nitrate, exempts utilities and water treatment facilities, and most manufacturers that use covered hazardous substances from its safety technology requirements. Also, as PEER pointed out:
— The plan relies heavily on unfunded local voluntary committees for implementation;
— Industry analyses of inherently safer technology that prevent accidents are kept secret, and thus may remain little more than academic exercises;
— EPA has devoted little enforcement muscle to ensure that even the current requirements are followed.
PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said:
U.S. industrial safety will be left little improved by the faint imprint left in the Obama years. This very modest proposal is the first major change to EPA’s Risk Management Program in 20 years – and we may not be able to afford waiting another 20 years to make significantly greater progress in reducing industrial hazards that endanger the public.
There’s some significant news out this week, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreeing in a settlement with citizen groups to write a major new chemical plant safety rule. Here’s what the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a press release:
The Environmental Protection Agency will put in place new safeguards to help protect communities from dangerous chemical spills at tens of thousands of industrial facilities nationwide, under the terms of a legal settlement approved by a federal district court in New York. The agreement is meant to strengthen protections as called for by Congress more than four decades ago.
Last July, Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform (EJHA), People Concerned About Chemical Safety, and the NRDC sued EPA alleging that the agency had failed to prevent hazardous substance spills from industrial facilities, including above-ground storage tanks. NRDC explained:
The settlement between the groups and EPA, approved by the federal district court for the Southern District of New York, requires EPA to begin a rulemaking process immediately and to finalize spill prevention rules within three and a half years. The forthcoming protections will cover over 350 hazardous chemicals, and will apply broadly to tens of thousands of industrial facilities across the country.
There are thousands of hazardous substance spills each year from industrial facilities that are not subject to any hazardous substance spill prevention rules, according to United States Coast Guard data from the last ten years. Chemicals released in industrial spills can contaminate waterways, and exposure to these substances can be dangerous, and in some instances, fatal.
Pam Nixon, spokeswoman for PCACS, said:
It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to get EPA to agree to set spill prevention rules. Uniform federal safeguards for above-ground storage tanks and secondary containment will better protect not only public drinking water systems, but also the groundwater for households using private wells.
The chemical involved in the Freedom Industries spill is not listed as a hazardous substance under the Clean Water Act … and thus would not be covered under the hazardous-substance regulations plaintiffs seek in this case. But the Freedom industries spill brought to national attention the broader threat posed by the lack of spill-prevention regulations for chemical storage facilities like above-ground storage tanks.
— New state legislation — During the 2015 session, state lawmakers significantly rolled back the chemical tank safety provisions of SB 373, the law that unanimously passed in the months after the Freedom spill. The industry-based SB 423 exempted thousands of tanks from new Department of Environmental Protection Safety standards. In its second annual report, a water safety study commission recommended clarification of what information about chemical tanks could be released and urged continued funding of a Bureau for Public Health effort to help public utilities write source-water protection plans.