Sustained Outrage

A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion Wednesday April 17, 2013. (APMichael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

It was early this morning when the email message came over from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board:

A large investigation team from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) is deploying to the scene of a massive fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant located in West, Texas, north of Waco.

Local emergency officials have told the CSB of a large number of injuries and destroyed buildings in the town.

The investigative team will be led CSB Western Regional Office Director Don Holmstrom and is scheduled to arrive in Texas Thursday afternoon.

Unfortunately, West Virginians have come to know the CSB well. Agency officials produced detailed investigative reports on the 2007 propane explosion that killed four people at the Little General Store in Ghent, the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, and the series of leaks at the DuPont Belle plant that left one worker dead in January 2010.

But as we reported a few months ago, the CSB dropped its investigation of the December 2010 explosion and fire that killed three workers at the AL Solutions plant up in New Cumberland, W.Va.:

As 2012 draws to a close, CSB officials are in the midst of their own probe of the April 2010 explosion and fire on a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Among other ongoing cases, the CSB has launched a full investigation of the April fire at a Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, Calif., an incident that sent hundreds of area residents to hospitals. And like other government agencies, the CSB is facing the potential of serious budget and staffing cuts in coming years.

“It was in our minds a very serious and very tragic incident,” the board’s Horowitz said. “That’s why we sent a team out there. What has happened in our case as time unfolded, is just a plethora of competing priorities … all of which have huge pressures associated with them, and unfortunately for us, not a lot of resources to divvy up.”

And now, we have this important report from the Center for Public Integrity:

… Three years after Tesoro and Deepwater Horizon, both inquiries remain open – exemplars of a chemical board under attack for what critics call its sluggish investigative pace and short attention span. A former board member calls the agency “grossly mismanaged.”

The number of board accident reports, case studies and safety bulletins has fallen precipitously since 2006, an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found. Thirteen board investigations – one more than five years old – are incomplete.

As members of Congress raise questions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s inspector general is auditing the board’s investigative process.

“It is unacceptable that after three long years, the CSB has failed to complete its investigation of the tragic Tesoro refinery accident,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a written statement to the Center. “The families of the seven victims and the Anacortes community deserve better, and the CSB must be held accountable for this ridiculous delay.”

Continue reading…

New study looks at gas drilling water pollution

There’s a new study out today that looks closely at the potential for water pollution from the boom in natural gas drilling, and does much to dispute the industry line that there’s nothing at all to worry about.

Here’s the abstract:

Concern has been raised in the scientific literature about the environmental implications of extracting natural gas from deep shale formations, and published studies suggest that shale gas development may affect local groundwater quality. The potential for surface water quality degradation has been discussed in prior work, although noempirical analysis of this issue has been published.

The potential for large-scale surface water quality degradation has affected regulatory approaches to shale gas development in some US states, despite the dearth of evidence. This paper conducts a large-scale examination of the extent to which shale gas development activities affect surface water quality. Focusing on the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, we estimate the effect of shale gas wellsand the release of treated shale gas waste by permitted treatment facilities on observed downstream concentrations of chloride (Cl−) and total suspended solids (TSS), controlling for other factors.

Results suggest that (i) the treatment of shale gas waste by treatment plants in a watershed raises downstream Cl− concentrations but not TSS concentrations, and (ii ) the presence of shale gas wells in a watershed raises downstream TSS concentrations but not Cl− concentrations. These results can inform future voluntary measures taken by shale gas operators and policy approaches taken by regulators to protect surface water quality as the scale of this economically important activity increases.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was done by Sheila Olmstead of the Washington, D.C., think tank Resources for the Future.   You can read the whole thing online here.

Olmstead and her colleagues studied the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and used regression analysis of more than 20,000 surface water quality observations to estimate the effects of shale gas wells and the release of treated shale gas waste on downstream water quality. The authors found that treatment of shale gas waste by treatment plants in a watershed raised downstream chloride concentrations but not the concentration of total suspended solids (TSS). In contrast, the presence of shale gas wells in a watershed raised downstream TSS concentrations but not chloride concentrations.

And if you missed it, we had a story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail that looked at research that suggests the Marcellus Shale boom in West Virginia and elsewhere is being over-hyped by the industry and its political supporters:

The potential for natural gas from shale formations to fuel the nation’s energy future is greatly over-hyped by the industry and its political supporters, according to a recent report that says wells are playing out faster than has been projected.

Geologist David Hughes says in the report that “the geological and environmental realities” of the ongoing boom in shale gas and shale or “tight” oil “deserve a closer look” by political leaders and the public.

“The projections by pundits and some government agencies that these technologies can provide endless growth heralding a new era of ‘energy independence,’ in which the U.S. will become a substantial net exporter of energy, are entirely unwarranted based on the fundamentals,” Hughes wrote. “At the end of the day, fossil fuels are finite and these exuberant forecasts will prove to be extremely difficult or impossible to achieve.”

Which way should W.Va. go on clean vehicles?

Alternative fuel vehicles have been getting an unusual amount of attention in West Virginia lately.  Last month, the Gazette and other media gave a lot of attention to this story:

The Interstate 79 corridor will be dotted with four compressed natural gas filling stations by 2014, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced during a news conference Thursday.

The announcement took place near the Spring Street Foodland, the site of the planned Charleston station.

IGS Energy-CNG Services will build the four stations. The other three sites are near Jane Lew, Bridgeport and just across the Pennsylvania state line at Mount Morris.

State Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, said that although IGS is an Ohio company, it chose to build the stations in West Virginia because state lawmakers were ready with legislation to make natural gas feasible.

T.J. Meadows, West Virginia business manager for IGS Energy-CNG Services, and a West Virginia native, said the stations in Charleston and Bridgeport should be open and operating by fall.

A few weeks later, West Virginia Public Broadcasting promoted natural gas vehicles with this story:

With technology for natural gas powered vehicles on the horizon, many consumers are sure to be excited about the possibility of lowered fueling costs and reduced emissions. However, there are a few bumps in the road in making these vehicles available for a mass market.

With fueling costs of natural gas vehicles roughly one-third of traditional unleaded gasoline fueled vehicles, motorists are sure to embrace the new technology. Chesapeake Energy spokesperson Phil Pfister explains how these vehicles have fared in other states.

“Right now in Oklahoma, motorists that are fueling up are fueling up for 99 cents a gallon equivalent, versus—we’re paying about $3.50 for gasoline here in West Virginia. In Louisiana motorists are fueling up for about $1.49 a gallon equivalent. So, there is a lot of cost benefit. Additionally, it produces a lot cleaner exhaust stream; less CO2, less carbon monoxide, less particulate matter.”

And today, the local media is giving pretty good play to this report from The Associated Press:

It’s not often that environmental organizations and the coal industry come down on the same side of a policy debate. But that’s happening in West Virginia, where both groups have concerns about Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal to eliminate a state tax incentive for plug-in electric cars and other alternative-fuel vehicles.

The tax credit covers 35 percent of the cost of an alternative-fuel vehicle, up to $7,500 for cars and $25,000 for large trucks. The credit would remain in place for vehicles that run on natural gas, propane and butane, but would be phased out in 2017, rather than 2021 as scheduled.

And since last July, members of a task force appointed by Gov. Tomblin (a task force made up mostly of natural gas industry officials or advocates) have been working on plans for how the state could convert more of its fleet of vehicles to natural gas. The media have treated this all as a no-brainer, writing things like this without any attribution:

The benefits of natural gas as a fuel are clear: It’s cleaner, abundant and costs about half as much as gasoline.

It’s no wonder that a variety of local officials are strongly backing natural gas vehicles. They’re all eager to do whatever they can to help West Virginia cash in on what they believe is a bonanza of economic development related to natural gas drilling in the state’s Marcellus Shale region. What’s been less in evidence, though, is much discussion about whether the state’s current direction on vehicle fuels is one that experts on energy policy and climate change is one that makes sense.

Not everyone who follows policies in this arena is as optimistic about natural gas vehicles as West Virginia political leaders seem to be. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists makes this recommendation:

Natural gas can play a role in reducing global warming pollution, but using it for transportation fuel does not represent one of the best climate solutions. For example, a natural gas-powered Honda Civic delivers about a 15 percent reduction in global warming pollution compared with a conventional gasoline-powered Civic, but a gasoline-electric Civic hybrid costs less and delivers a 30 percent reduction in emissions.

While it can make sense to use natural gas for vehicles fueled in a central location, such as taxis or delivery vehicles, expanding natural gas use in passenger vehicles would require major investments in new fueling infrastructure that would become obsolete as cleaner technologies come to market. A better use for natural gas in the transportation sector would be as a resource to generate cleaner electricity for plug-in vehicles or hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

Continue reading…

There’s a new study out this week from researchers at Duke University and Kent State University that concludes:

… Developing the Marcellus shale has increased the total wastewater generated in the region by about 570% since 2004, overwhelming current wastewater disposal infrastructure capacity.

The study is online here (but by subscription only) and there’s a press release here that says:

Hydraulically fractured natural gas wells in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania produce only about 35 percent as much wastewater per unit of gas recovered as conventional wells, according to the analysis, which appears in the journal Water Resources Research.

“We found that on average, shale gas wells produced about 10 times the amount of wastewater as conventional wells, but they also produced about 30 times more natural gas,” said Brian Lutz, assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State, who led the analysis while he was a postdoctoral research associate at Duke. “That surprised us, given the popular perception that hydraulic fracturing creates disproportionate amounts of wastewater.”

However, the study shows the total amount of wastewater from natural gas production in the region has increased by about 570 percent since 2004 as a result of increased shale gas production there.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Lutz said. “On one hand, shale gas production generates less wastewater per unit. On the other hand, because of the massive size of the Marcellus resource, the overall volume of water that now has to be transported and treated is immense. It threatens to overwhelm the region’s wastewater-disposal infrastructure capacity.”


Continue reading…

PPG gets mercury pollution variance for W.Va. plant

Reports from the group’s meeting in Louisville, Ky., indicate that the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission has approved PPG’s request for a mercury pollution variance for its chlor-alkali plant along the Ohio River up in Natrium, W.Va. (see Twitter feeds from my friends Jim Bruggers and Erica Peterson).

Writing on his Watchdog Earth blog at the Courier-Journal, Jim had a preview of today’s meeting:

PPG Industries finds out this morning whether ORSANCO will grant its West Virginia plan a variance from water quality standards that would allow it continue dumping extra mercury into the Ohio River.

The Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission meets at 9 a.m. today at the Brown Hotel to take up the matter, and other issues.

The commission, as I wrote in June, tentatively approved the continued mercury discharges from the chlorine manufacturing plant for at least the next five years.

The company has been 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” downriver from industrial plants that discharge chemicals that build up in the environment, such as mercury. Such zones allow pollution limits to be met some distance from factory outfalls, after effluent has been diluted with river water.

Mixing zones are not thought to work as well for pollutants that bio-accumulate, as mercury does.

Continue reading…

AP: Raese built golf course without permits

Here’s the latest from Vicki Smith over at the AP:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Republican Senate candidate John Raese filled in wetlands and damaged more than 2 miles of streams when he rerouted them to create waterfalls on a private, 18-hole West Virginia golf course that federal regulators say he built without the required permits.

The years-long construction of Pikewood National Golf Club near Morgantown is “probably the biggest violation we’ve ever seen in this district,” Sheila Tunney, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh, told The Associated Press.

More than two years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Raese, the club’s president, to develop a plan to mitigate the damage. Tunney says work on that plan is ongoing.

Raese, who’s challenging incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin, recently called Pikewood “the nicest golf course in the United States” and a local job creator. He didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The millionaire businessman campaigns routinely on a platform that includes abolishing several federal agencies, including the EPA, and the government regulations that he says squelch economic development.

EPA officials have repeatedly declined to answer questions about the violations but did provide the AP a copy of a six-page compliance order issued in March 2010. The last page says EPA “reserves the right to seek any remedy available under the law,” including pursuit of any civil or criminal charges it deems appropriate.

Tunney said the corps first learned about the 1,300-acre golf course, which sits on the Monongalia-Preston county border, from a farmer who complained he was no longer getting water from a local stream.

Continue reading…

There’s an interesting lineup of bills scheduled for markup tomorrow before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure (where our friend Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., is the ranking minority member). They bills have names like the Preservering Rural Resources Act of 2012  and the Mille Lacs Lake Freedom to Fish Act of 2012. UPDATED: The committee has postponed action on this bill.

But the one that jumped out at me was Farmer’s Privacy Act of 2012, sponsored by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Now, when we last left Rep. Capito, she was spreading untruths about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its alleged efforts to regulate milks spills from dairy farms, in an act that got her big laughs from her friends from the West Virginia Coal Association.

Rep. Capito’s latest bill would:

… Stop the EPA from conducting aerial surveillance of farms across the country.

There’s been a lot of drummed-up outrage about EPA using planes and/or helicopters to fly over farming areas of West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands, fueled in part by press reports that have wrongly said the agency was using “drone” aircraft for this inspection work. The issue has become one of those things — like Rep. Capito’s “spilled milk” nonsense — that is repeated over and over until everyone assumes it’s true. It’s even spawned an AP story in Kentucky that wrongly gives the impression that the mining industry was surprised to learn that regulators use flyovers as part of the process of inspection mountaintop removal operations.

Now, EPA has explained why it was using flyovers for farming inspections:

Aerial over-flights are only one of many tools that are used as part of the compliance assurance process to identify discharging sources that may impact water quality. The EPA may also review geographic and mapping information that are readily available to the public on the internet. Over-flights and other sources may provide information regarding the general condition of a farm such as size, storm water management features, manure management systems and proximity to waterways. Information on the internet may be historical and therefore may need additional verification in order to assess whether the information is current and correct. Verification may be done through drive-bys, aerial over-flights, on-site inspections, or other means.

The EPA uses aircraft in a variety of ways to identify potential air, water and land pollution and to verify compliance with environmental laws. For example, aircraft may be used to locate regulated facilities, identify discharges, learn about water connections and pathways, and gather evidence, such as photographs and exact locations. The EPA has used aircraft in enforcement investigations throughout the country to monitor compliance within the agriculture, mining, and construction industries, among others. The EPA and other agencies also use aircraft for other purposes, including emergency response, to assess the pathway of oil and extent of damage resulting from an oil spill.

But what we haven’t seen is one coherent and fact-based explanation from Rep. Capito of why these sorts of inspections are such a bad thing — any sort of reasoned argument for why they should be banned by Congress.  The best we got was this quote from Rep. Capito’s press release (headlined, “Somebody’s Watching You”):

Unemployment has been at or above 8% for 30 consecutive months.  Is conducting flyovers of family farms across the country really the best use of taxpayer money?  It’s getting to the point that I’ll have to file for a Clean Water Act permit if I want to turn the hose on in my backyard.  The EPA will take any opportunity to make it harder for farmers, energy operators, or any business that deals with the EPA, to operate.

Of course, as even the State Journal noted, the EPA hasn’t proposed requiring a Clean Water Act permit to run a hose in the backyard. But when it comes to attacking environmental protection, some West Virginia political leaders aren’t concerned about facts.

Believe it or not, this blog was perhaps the first media outlet to question an initial decision by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board not to investigate the BP oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. the CSB reversed itself and began a probe, and here’s the latest on that agency investigators found:

In preliminary findings to be released today at a public hearing in Houston, U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) investigators examining the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf report that companies like Transocean and BP, trade associations, and U.S. regulators largely judged the safety of offshore facilities by focusing on personal injury and fatality data (such as dropped objects and slips, trips, and falls), that overshadowed the use of leading indicators more focused on managing the potential for catastrophic accidents.

Expanded use of process safety indicators was first recommended by the CSB in its 2007 report on the March 2005 BP Texas City refinery disaster. In the offshore arena, potential indicators – such as timely checks on safety critical equipment and response to well control events – would provide an assessment of the health of their safety management systems. These type of indicators may be precursors to the kind of tragedy that took eleven lives on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig following the Macondo well blowout on April 20, 2010.

The preliminary findings were presented during the second day of a two-day hearing called by the CSB to examine the need for the U.S. offshore drilling and production industry – and the agencies that regulate it – to develop process safety indicators that will result in safety improvements and reduce the likelihood of major accidents.

CSB Chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso said:

A number of past CSB investigations have found companies focusing on personal injury rates while virtually overlooking looming process safety issues – like the effectiveness of barriers against hazardous releases, automatic shutoff system failures, activation of pressure relief devices, and loss of containment of liquids and gases. Furthermore, we have found failures by companies to implement their own recommendations from previous accidents involving, for example, leaks of flammable materials.

There’s more coverage from the AP, Reuters and others.

Ferroalloys casting, Felman Production, WV USA

There was a fascinating new report out recently about media coverage of environmental and public health regulations, and how journalists are so quick to talk about how such rules kill jobs, often with little if any evidence to support such claims. The report, “Job Killers” in the News: Allegations without Verification” concluded:

— Media stories with the phrase ‘job killer’ spiked dramatically after Barack Obama was elected president, particularly after he took office. The number of stories with the phrase ‘job killer’ increased by 1,156 percent between the first three years of the George W. Bush administration and the first three years of the Obama administration.

— The majority of the sources of stories using the phrase ‘job killer’ were business spokespersons and Republican party officials.

— In 91.6 percent of the stories alleging that a government policy was or would be a ‘job killer,’ the media failed to cite any evidence for this claim or to quote an authoritative source with any evidence for this claim. With little or no fact checking of “job killer” claims, Americans have no way to know if there is any evidence for these claims.

Of course, this sort of “reporting” often doesn’t include specific use of the phrase “job killer,” but the results are the same. And we all know that West Virginia media outlets are partial to stories that would paint the Obama administration as a bunch of crazed environmentalists with no regard for jobs or the economic well-being of rural communities in our state.

We were reminded of this trend again here recently, when the Daily Mail published, “Plant steels itself against regulatory woes,” which warned readers:

As they get ready to celebrate 60 years of manufacturing, the current owners of the Felman Production steel alloy plant in Mason County wonder if federal regulations will keep them from staying open for 60 more.

The crux of the story is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new air pollution standards for these sort of metals plant, and the Daily Mail wants us to believe these rules might force the plant to close. But if you read the story closely, it’s really not clear that the company is claiming they would close. Nobody is quoted as saying that. The most the company seems to be saying is that a rule they see as too tough might stop them from expanding their Mason County operation:

Konrady said the company has invested nearly $80 million in the three-furnace plant since 2006 and is looking toward future investments.

“We’re considering maybe building another furnace,” he said. “The owners are willing to make a future investment because they see a future here with our company.

But there is concern the final regulations may be too stringent. That, he said, could dissuade the company’s investors from moving forward with the new furnace project.

“If it becomes too expensive to meet the new federal standards, the owners will likely take that investment elsewhere,” he said.

In fact, Felman officials seemed to have good things to say about EPA and their interactions with the agency:

Konrady said the company has had a good working relationship with the EPA. Company engineers have made several visits to agency headquarters in Research Park, N.C., to review data collected from Felman and Eramet.

Konrady said company managers are open to regulation; they just want to ensure the new standards aren’t too restrictive.

“We’ve been providing alternatives to manage visible emissions,” he said. “We have a responsibility to be environmentally responsible here. We’re saying, ‘Let’s look at all alternatives, and let’s use good science and data and come up with a good set of regulations.'”

But of course, that didn’t stop the Daily Mail from editorializing on this story, saying:

The United States faces this possibility because the EPA settled with the Sierra Club, which sued the agency to force it to act. Once again, an executive agency, not Congress, is designing industrial policy.

That should not be.

The EPA has delayed its decision on the regulations until September.

Here is hoping for reasonable regulations that trigger reinvestment, not disinvestment and joblessness.

Missing from the story, though, is any real detailed discussion of exactly what pollution the EPA rules are aimed at dealing with, what the costs of emissions reductions would be, and whether the potential health benefits of those reductions would outweigh the costs. The story couldn’t even get the right year for passage of the Clean Air Act Amendment that mandate these rules.

A quick Internet search would have turned up EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis for the rule, which reports:

For the ferroalloys proposal, the net benefits are $67 million to $170 million in 2015 at a 3% discount rate for the benefits and $59 million to $150 million in 2015 at a 7% discount rate for the benefits.

Continue reading…

Meeting set on Bayer chemical hazards report

This announcement just in from the National Academy of Sciences:

The National Academy of Sciences will hold a meeting on June 23 in Dunbar, W.Va., on its congressionally mandated report The Use and Storage of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) at Bayer CropScience, which was released in May.  Several members of the committee that wrote the report — Elsa Reichmanis (chair), Paul Amyotte, Michael Elliott, and Michael Lindell — will present its findings and take questions from the audience. 

The report finds that Bayer CropScience sought to reduce risks associated with the manufacturing and storage of the toxic chemical MIC at its processing plant in Institute, W.Va.  However, the company did not make an effort to incorporate all possible hazard control methods, and not all chemical manufacturing plants have adopted safer processes that aim to minimize or eliminate hazards.  The committee recommended that the U.S. Chemical Safety Board or another entity develop a framework to help managers at chemical plants choose among alternative processing options — considering factors such as safety, environmental impact, and product yield — to develop a safer chemical manufacturing system.

The event will start at 9:30 a.m. EDT on Saturday, June 23, in Room 135 of the University Union at West Virginia State University.

See previous coverage of the NAS report here and here.