Sustained Outrage

EPA assurances on Dimock, Pa., water questioned

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Gas Drilling Dimock

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.

Recall, for example, how the industry sought (and EPA really aided and abetted) to paint a federal report as proof that drilling is “safe,” when actually the report found nothing of the kind.

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.

Today, we have another important story from Abrahm, “Federal Report Appears to Undercut EPA Assurances on Water Safety in Pennsylvania,” which digs again into the issue of drilling’s impacts on the drinking water in Dimock, Pa.:

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.

Their stories — told first through an investigation into the safety of gas drilling by ProPublica — turned Dimock into an epicenter of what would evolve into a national debate about natural gas energy and the dangers of the process of “fracking,” or shattering layers of bedrock in order to release trapped natural gas.

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.

Read the whole thing here.

 

 

 

Public ranks water safety concerns high

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Coal Water Pollution

There’s a new survey out from the Kaiser Family Foundation that West Virginia readers may find interesting:

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.

Obama’s ‘timid’ legacy on chemical safety

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Plant Explosion Texas

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.

After 40 years, EPA to write spill prevention rule

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Coal Water Pollution

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.

You can read the legal settlement here.

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.

But keep in mind, as explained in a legal filing in the case:

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.

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The chemical spill: Where things stand

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Coal Water Pollution

It’s been two years since since a leaky tank at Freedom Industries spilled MCHM and other chemicals into the Kanawha Valley’s drinking water supply. Here’s a roundup of where things stand on various aspects of the Jan. 9, 2014, chemical spill story:

Criminal probe — Former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin secured plea agreements with six former Freedom Industries officials and with Freedom’s corporate entity for criminal violations of the federal Clean Water Act. One of those deals, though, allows former Freedom President Gary Southern to get back $7.3 million and a Bentley luxury car that were seized when he was charged for his role in the spill.

Public Service Commission investigation — A PSC investigation of West Virginia American Water Co.’s response to the Freedom spill has been stalled for more than a year. Commissioners, though, have recently hinted that they might drop the investigation. A hearing is scheduled for Jan. 22 on the matter. West Virginia American has been working to at least narrow the scope of the PSC probe, while also pushing for a large rate increase and facing a campaign by the group Advocates for a Safe Water System for a public takeover of the operation.

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.

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Horowitz seeks return to Chemical Safety Board job

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Lise Olsen has a story for the Houston Chronicle that folks who follow worker safety issues and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board will want to check out:

Horowitz_OfficialThe managing director of a federal agency assigned to investigate the nation’s worst chemical accidents publicly asked this week to be allowed to return to work after being suspended for four months, according to information released on his behalf by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Dr. Daniel Horowitz, a Ph.D. chemist, led the U.S. Chemical Safety Board since 2010 but was placed on paid administrative leave on June 16 pending an investigation into “possible misconduct.” That leave has been extended twice, leaving the agency without its top administrator even as it conducted probes into an accident that killed four at the DuPont plant in La Porte, among other major accidents nationwide.

Importantly, Lise’s story notes:

The small agency has had no further deployments since March – despite a series of fatal accidents, fires and explosions reported at chemical plants. One incident involved a tank explosion at a Louisiana plant owned by Williams Partners, which already was the subject of another CSB probe. Another incident involved a fire that injured four at a SunEdison plant in Pasadena.

Jeff Ruch, executive director of the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told Lise:

From what we can tell, the main thing the CSB is now investigating is its own executive staff.

Lise’s story said:

The CSB itself did not immediately issue a response. Its board meets Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss ongoing probes, including review of the West Fertilizer plant explosion, the DuPont La Porte gas leak and the accident at the plant owned by Williams Partners in Louisiana.

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Senate confirms new CSB chair, member

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Important news from last week about the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. It’s there in the list of Senate confirmations:

Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board

Kristen Marie Kulinowski, of New York, to be a Member of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board for a term of five years.

sutherlandVanessa Lorraine Allen Sutherland, of Virginia (right), to be Chairperson of the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board for a term of five years.

Board member Rick Engler (who has been acting as chair of the panel) issued this statement:

I congratulate Vanessa Sutherland on her Senate confirmation as the new Chairperson of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) and Dr. Kristen Kulinowski on her Senate confirmation as CSB Board Member.   I look forward to working closely with them on the important work of the CSB to help prevent chemical incidents.  Both bring broad expertise and experience to their new positions.  Both were confirmed on August 6.

Let’s hope that somehow, someway, this action will get the board back on track to serve its vital function for workers and communities.

More oil train data – but not for the public

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Train Derailment

Survey crews in boats look over tanker cars as workers remove damaged tanker cars along the tracks where several CSX tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire along the James River near downtown Lynchburg, Va., Thursday, May 1, 2014.   (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

We talked yesterday about the continuing concerns local residents have over crude-oil train traffic through the Kanawha Valley, and about the latest word from the Federal Railroad Administration on disclosure by railroads to local officials important data about their shipments of this potentially dangerous cargo.

Among other things, we pointed out that the FRA made it clear that railroads like CSX are indeed supposed to continue filing crude-oil shipment disclosures with state emergency response commissions.  But as Curtis Tate at McClatchy reported:

Of the states on the CSX crude oil network that McClatchy sought information from, only Virginia reported receiving an update in the year between June 2014 and June 2015, and that was a week after a CSX oil train derailed and caught fire in February near Mount Carbon, W.Va.

Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, said the railroad continues to be “in full compliance” with the emergency order. He added that the railroad recently sent new notifications to the affected states, “regardless of whether there was any material change in the number of trains transported.”

When we first checked in with the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management about this yesterday, spokesman T.D. Lively told us that the State Emergency Response Commission had not received any updated material from CSX since an initial notification back in May 2014.

After hearing that from the state, we contacted CSX, sending an email to Rob Doolittle, the same spokesman quoted in Curtis Tate’s story. Initially, Doolittle told us:

We sent updates earlier this month to all states where CSX operates. I’m double-checking to see if there’s any information about the status of the report to West Virginia that is relevant.

Not too long after that, we heard back from Lively with an update from the state:

The SERC just received a call from CSX saying that we should be receiving additional information from them regarding shipments via mail in the next few days.

And then, after that, we got this note from CSX’s Rob Doolittle:

Following your query we checked with the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and confirmed that they had not received the report we mailed earlier this month. We have made arrangements for the report to be delivered tomorrow.

It’s worth noting, though, that regardless of what CSX sends to the state, the public isn’t likely to learn much from it. Lively says state officials are sticking by their position that most of what CSX provides is exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act:

This does not change our position on the release of information marked confidential or proprietary by the railroad carrier. The information is made available to appropriate first responders in an unredacted form currently and will continue to be so. As more information becomes available we will release it to first responders.

Oil Train Rules

In this Feb. 17, 2015 file photo, crew members walk near the scene of a train derailment near Mount Carbon, W.Va.   (AP Photo/Chris Tilley, File)

Five months after the huge crude oil train derailment and fire out in Mount Carbon, W.Va., citizens are still concerned about what could have — and what still could — happen as these rail shipments through communities around the country continue. As Matt Murphy reported for the newly consolidated Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Only about 10 residents attended an information session at the Glen Ferris Inn regarding the ongoing remediation efforts surrounding February’s CSX oil train derailment in Mount Carbon.

However, the residents who did attend expressed concern about oil trains continuing to pass through the area in addition to worries over existing oil remnants.

CSX officials made no formal presentation during the meeting. Instead, residents and members of the public were invited to ask questions of railroad representatives at tables set up along the perimeter of the inn’s meeting room.

One Boomer resident, Kay Slayton, said she had concerns over exposure to benzene and other petroleum-related chemicals following the spill, as well as oil remnants in the area.

Slayton’s home is directly across the Kanawha River from the derailment. She and her husband, who were home at the time, witnessed the derailment and subsequent fires occur and evacuated to a nearby elementary school where she works.

“It was a very scary sight,” she said. “I saw something coming down the hill and it was on fire.”

At the same time, the Federal Railroad Administration issued an important notice today, as Curtis Tate reported for McClatchy:

The U.S. Department of Transportation warned railroads that they must continue to notify states of large crude oil shipments after several states reported not getting updated information for as long as a year.

The department imposed the requirement in May 2014 following a series of fiery oil train derailments, and it was designed to help state and local emergency officials assess their risk and training needs.

In a press release, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said:

Transparency is a critical piece of the federal government’s comprehensive approach to safety.  DOT is committed to making certain that states and local officials have the information they need to prepare for and respond to incidents involving hazardous materials, including crude oil.  The Emergency Order that requires these notifications still stands, and we expect railroads to fully comply.

Curtis Tate explained:

In spite of increased public concern about the derailments, railroads have opposed the public release of the oil train information by numerous states, and two companies sued Maryland last July to prevent the state from releasing the oil train data to McClatchy.

The rail industry fought to have the requirement dropped, and it appeared that they got their wish three months ago in the department’s new oil train rule.

But facing backlash from lawmakers, firefighters and some states, the department announced it would continue to enforce the notification requirement indefinitely and take new steps make it permanent.

There have been six major oil train derailments in North America this year, the most recent last week near Culbertson, Mont. While that derailment only resulted in a spill, others in Ontario, West Virginia, Illinois and North Dakota involved fires, explosions and evacuations.

Some readers may recall that West Virginia officials — after initially appearing to be willing to rethink their initial secrecy on this issue — refused a Freedom of Information Act request for data they were given about CSX’s crude oil shipments in West Virginia.

 

Will the Chemical Safety Board survive?

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Kulinowski

Obama administration Chemical Safety Board nominee Kristen M. Kulinowski testifies during a Senate confirmation hearing last week.

It’s growing increasingly difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board finds itself in these days. Here’s one of the latest takes on things, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

The tiny federal agency that has urged big reforms in how California regulates oil refineries is in disarray.

To some, the strife at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board — the 40-person authority charged with investigating industrial accidents and recommending ways to improve safety — bears strong resemblance to the headlines from developing nations:

Its leader, seen by critics as an autocrat, is forced out before his term is up. His successor takes charge in what detractors call a backroom maneuver and moves quickly to consolidate power, ordering loyalists of the ousted regime removed from their posts with the help of armed guards.

“What is going on at the Chemical Safety Board is a little slice of the eastern Ukraine here in Washington, D.C.,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a group that advocates for government workers.

Meanwhile, he said, the board’s mission of pushing regulatory reform is languishing. “The industrial infrastructure is getting older, and we’re not doing anything about it.”

Engler_RichardLRNow, when I interviewed the CSB’s acting chairman, Rick Engler, a few weeks ago, he had some solid things to say. But in some ways, the jury is probably still out. For example:

—  Chairman Engler said that he disagrees with efforts by chemical industry lobbyists to narrow the scope of the board’s investigatory authority, but he also emphasized his belief that the board itself needs to narrow its priorities.  “We are a very small agency and we can be most effective by focusing on a small number of issues,” Engler told me.

— While he says that we are currently at a critical time of the Obama administration when it comes to any potential chemical safety reforms, Chairman Engler also does what so many people in the labor community appear willing to do: Let the heads of agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration off the hook for not more aggressively using their rule-making authority these last nine years.  Engler noted his own view is “there isn’t any point” in criticizing OSHA chief David Michaels for his agency’s failure to move beyond the talking stage on the CSB’s “Most Wanted” safety reform: A new federal standard on deadly combustible dust. “The bottleneck is above his level and it’s unfortunate that we have a system that puts so many hurdles in front of urgently needed standards,”  Engler said.

The most impressive thing I heard from Chairman Engler, though, came when I asked him if he agreed with the conclusions of now-ousted Board Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso in a New York Times op-ed piece that the United States is facing “an industrial chemical safety crisis.” Chairman Engler said:

I think there is a continuing crisis and under my watch I don’t want to wake up in the morning and hear about the next disaster where we have multiple facilities. I really genuinely believe that enough is enough.

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