Sustained Outrage

Over on our Coal Tattoo blog, we have a piece this morning about West Virginia’s Coal River again landing on the list of Most Endangered Rivers published every year by the group American Rivers. Well, the Coal isn’t the only West Virginia waterway on the list.  Here’s the announcement:

American Rivers named the Potomac River, known as ‘the nation’s river’ as it flows through the capital, the most endangered in the country. While the Potomac is cleaner than it used to be, the river is still threatened by urban and agricultural pollution– and it could get much worse if Congress rolls back critical clean water safeguards.

It’s been almost 15 years since the Gazette did its “Poultry on the Potomac” series, prompted in part by an American Rivers “most endangered” listing for the river. A recent Gazette op-eds — by an assistant director of environmental programs at the West Virginia Department of Agriculture — made vague attacks on the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency and its efforts to protect the Potomac and clean up the Chesapeake Bay.  But American Rivers notes:

Before the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972, the Potomac was a cesspool of sewage and industrial pollution. Thanks to the Clean Water Act, the Potomac and rivers across the country are cleaner and safer for drinking, boating, and fishing. But the Potomac is still suffering – a University of Maryland report card has given the river a “D” grade for water quality for the past two years.

Among the group’s recommendations:

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency must implement the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), a “pollution diet” for the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Congress must continue to fund this critical work so that EPA can ensure its pollution reduction plan contains the highest protections for water quality and has adequate federal backstops to safeguard implementation for our nation’s river and its tributaries.

Photo by Tom Hindman, Charleston Daily Mail, via Associated Press

Some readers may have forgotten by now about the congressional mandate that the National Academy of Sciences study the potential for Bayer CropScience to rid its Institute chemical plant of its huge stockpile of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, the deadly pesticide ingredient that caused the deaths of thousands of people in Bhopal, India, back in December 1984. In some ways, the need for the study ended a year ago, when Bayer announced that it was not going to restart the MIC unit out in Institute.

But by then, a national panel of experts appointed by the academy’s National Research Council had already begun its work. The focus of the study shifted slightly. It still included a look at the Institute plant and MIC, but used that framework for a broader examination of how chemical companies make decisions about what products they make and use, and to try to figure out better ways to have those decisions lead to less risk for workers and for people who live near manufacturing facilities.

Well, this morning the National Research Council report is out, and the broad conclusion is, basically, that chemical companies and the agencies that regulate them need to do more to ensure inherently safer processes are fully considered and more frequently used.  As the report issued this morning explains, tools that would help companies properly consider risks and make such decisions “have yet to take hold in the chemical process industry.” The report goes on:

Key obstacles to their use include lack of familiarity with the tools among chemical process industry decision makers and the fear that the methods are either too simplistic or too costly to use … The use of these techniques could benefit not only the communities at risk from safety breaches, but also the industries themselves, as decision making techniques can help with the identification of profitable safety solutions that otherwise could be overlooked.

Regarding Bayer and the Institute plant specifically, a news release summarizing the new report had this to say:

The committee found that Bayer did incorporate some aspects of risk reduction that are associated with inherently safer process principles. However, the inherent safety considerations were not explicitly stated in Bayer’s process safety management guidelines and were dependent on the knowledge base of the individual facilitating the particular activity, such as a process hazard analysis. Moreover, Bayer and the previous owners of the plant performed hazard and safety assessments and made business decisions that resulted in MIC inventory reduction, elimination of above ground MIC storage, and adoption of various measures, but these assessments did not incorporate some of the key principles of the inherently safer process.

Continue reading…

The latest American Lung Association State of the Air report — due out today — has some good news for residents of West Virginia’s capital city:

… Air pollution levels in the Charleston metro area are the best ever recorded since the organization’s first annual report 12 years ago.

Of course, it depends on how you look at things. The lung association reports:

Even at a time when air quality has generally improved nationwide, Charleston’s ranking among over 200 U. S. cities improved for all measures of pollution: In ozone (smog), the area went from 80th to 114th worst and for daily particle pollution (soot), from 43rd to 80th worst.

On the other hand:

… The metro area remained on the “25 Most Polluted” list for average annual particle pollution,

Still:

Charleston’s rank improved, going from 12th to 17th worst in the U.S.

The lung association continues:

Since monitoring for air pollution is not conducted in Boone, Clay, Lincoln, and Putnam counties, the only results for the Charleston metro area were obtained in Kanawha County. Its grade for ozone pollution improved from an “F” to a “C,” as did its grade for daily (short-term) particle pollution. The county averaged only one bad air day a year for the latter pollutant in the 2008-2010 period, the report’s years of measurement. In year-round particle pollution, Kanawha County received a “Pass” grade.

Deb Brown, president and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, said:

State of the Air shows that we’re making steady progress in cutting dangerous pollution from the air as a result of cleanup efforts required under the Clean Air Act. But millions of Americans across the country, including the residents of the Charleston metro area, are still forced to breathe unhealthy levels of air pollution as a result of air quality standards that are outdated.

 UPDATED:

The new State of the Air report also lists six other West Virginia communities as among the most polluted in terms of year-round particulate matter in the air. They included Weirton, Parkersburg, Wheeling, Huntington, Martinsburg, and the Fairmont-Clarksburg area. More information on West Virginia’s scores is available here.

 

Details of Monsanto dioxin settlement revealed

A view of the Monsanto plant in Nitro,  1980.

Details of the big dioxin class-action settlement between Monsanto Co. and residents of the town of Nitro have been pretty scarce since the Gazette’s Kate White broke the news about the deal two weeks ago. Broad outlines of the agreement were discussed in a court hearing, but those mostly recited what was included in a news release issued by Monsanto officials.

But now, the Gazette has revealed much more information about the settlement in this new story — and we’ve posted copies of the medical monitoring settlement and the property cleanup settlement online.  We’ve also posted a legal brief in which lawyers for current and former Nitro residents outline the terms of the deal and urge its approval by the court. Among other things, Charleston attorney Stuart Calwell argues:

The Settlement Agreements provide for ample funding to accomplish its goals. The Funds created by the Settlement Agreements will pay for medical testing and residential cleanup for potentially thousands of West Virginians. Plaintiffs have sought two remedies in this litigation: medical monitoring and property cleanup. The Class Settlements provide both.

One reason that details of the settlement have been hard to come by is that the two judges who have handled the case — Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. Spaulding and Mercer Circuit Judge Derek Swope (appointed by the Supreme Court to hear the case after Spaulding recused himself) — have imposed broad gag orders on the lawyers for both sides.  The local circuit clerk hasn’t made it any easier. The Gazette had to file a formal Freedom of Information Act request to get electronic copies of the settlement documents that we’ve posted online (the clerk wanted to charge us $1 per page for the .pdf files, an amount that we didn’t believe was “reasonably calculated to reimburse it for its actual cost in making reproductions of such records” under the state FOIA).

Interestingly, on Monday, one lawyer in the case filed this motion asking Judge Swope to lift the current gag order. Attorney Tom Urban has clients who are members of the class covered by the settlement, but his firm is not the “class counsel” and didn’t work out the settlement. Urban has raised some questions about the deal, and told the judge that, with the settlement, the reasons for any gag order have evaporated:

The original purpose of the gag order was to ensure that the prospective jury would not be tainted by information that would affect their ability to properly exercise its role in an unbiased manner, and the order was subsequently expanded further on the eve of jury selection. Now that this Court released the jury during a hearing on February 24, 2012, the exercise by counsel and others under the First Amendment to discuss the settlement with all interested persons, including absent class members, the public, and the press, no longer caries with it the substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing those proceedings.

As a result, those various gag orders must be lifted or they run afoul of the First Amendment and themselves risk prejudicing these proceedings by inhibiting communication by all sides concerning the fairness, reasonableness, and adequacy of the proposed class settlement.

Long story of Monsanto and dioxin continues


Five of the plaintiffs in the 1984 dioxin lawsuit against Monsanto Co. in Nitro stand outside the courtroom. Left to right: John Hein, James Ray Boggess, June Martin, Gene Thomas and Charles Farley. Each man sued Monsanto for $4 million each, alleging that exposure to chemicals at the Nitro plant threatened their lives.  After an 11-month trial, jurors awarded $200,000 to Hein, but ruled against the other workers. Gazette file photo.

Over the last few weeks, the Gazette’s Kate White and I have been covering the run-up to the big class-action lawsuit trial against Monsanto Co. over alleged contamination of the town of Nitro by the company’s former chemical-making operations there.

Jury selection began last week, after another mediation effort failed. Once a jury is picked and trial begins, jurors will be asked to award thousands of current and former residents medical monitoring to allow early detection of diseases potentially linked to dioxin exposure. Several years ago, we published a lengthy Sunday story that explains in much more detail the allegations in the lawsuit (subscription required) about how Monsanto polluted the town.

As the photo above and Sunday’s story explained, this is certainly not the first major legal action to focus on Monsanto and dioxin:

An early sign of dioxin’s effects came in March 1949. A massive explosion rocked the Nitro plant when a pressure valve blew on a 2,4,5-T cooking container. More than 220 workers got sick.

Years later, more than 170 workers sued Monsanto, alleging dioxin exposure at the plant had made them ill. Cases involving seven of the workers went to trial in federal court in 1984.

After an 11-month trial, a jury awarded one of the workers, John Hein, $200,000 for bladder cancer he contracted because of exposure at the plant to another chemical, para-aminobiphynol, or PAB.

Jurors found that dioxin had made the other workers sick and that Monsanto had not acted diligently in seeking to determine the possible impact of exposure on worker health.

Continue reading…

DuPont CEO urges Obama to soften U.S. regulations

When I first saw the press release two weeks ago from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, I have to admit I didn’t pay that much attention to it:

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and state and federal Departments of Justice have entered into a consent decree with the DuPont Corp. in which the company has agreed to pay a penalty of $500,000 for numerous violations of the DuPont Edge Moor plant site’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit and other state and federal regulations.

Many of the violations at the facility – which makes a white pigment from titanium used in the print and publishing industries – were pollutant discharges into the Delaware River that occurred between 2005 and 2011. All of the violations, including state and federal Clean Water Act noncompliance, are covered in the consent decree signed with DNREC and EPA. DNREC first issued a notice of violation to DuPont in April 2008 for numerous effluent discharges that exceeded permit limits and for violations of other general NPDES permit conditions that were not met.

But since then, several alert readers have passed on to me a link to this Philadelphia Inquirer piece on the situation. The story explains:

The fine and settlement comes as DuPont, which earned $3 billion in profits last year, is weighing whether to expand the Edge Moor plant or rival works in the southern U.S. and Asia. CEO Ellen Kullman (above) has met with President Obama, urging less cumbersome regulations and lower taxes to make it more attractive for her company to site more factories and jobs in the U.S. The company also says it is committed to clean water and to obeying the law.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the first of NPR’s stories reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

Spelter update: WVDEP wants data on seepage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

PPG plant seeks variance for mercury pollution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading…

Wishful thinking: PPG not going mercury free

While I was down in Beckley earlier this week, some potential news came in concerning the PPG Industries plant up in Natrium, W.Va.  The website “Marketwatch” was reporting:

As part of our North American Project Database, Industrial Info is tracking about $200 million in PPG spending on active projects in the U.S., including the $100 million conversion of a mercury cell chlorine plant in New Martinsville, West Virginia.

This was potentially huge news, given the long campaign by state and national environmental groups to convince (or force) PPG to eliminate the huge mercury emissions from its chlor-alkali facility (see previous coverage here, here and here).

In fact, the group Oceana sent us this statement about this potential development:

“PPG’s intention to convert its New Martinsville plant to mercury-free technology is long-overdue, very welcome news. PPG’s plant on the Ohio River has needlessly fouled the air and water of West Virginia and neighboring states with mercury pollution for the past 54 years,” said Oceana senior campaign director Jackie Savitz. “We sincerely hope that PPG Industries does convert the plan to modern technology, and that the company also keeps its recovered mercury out of the global environment,” she added.

Oceana has campaigned since 2005 to end mercury use in the production of chlorine and caustic soda in the United States. Only nine U.S. chlorine plants used the outdated technology in 2005. If PPG does convert its New Martinsville mercury cell chlorine plant to cleaner technology, there will be only one U.S. plant, operated by Ashta Chemicals of Ashtabula, OH, that has failed to convert its chlor-alkali plant to cleaner technology.

Well, I checked with PPG spokesman Jeremy Neuhart and here’s what he said:

Yes, we saw the announcement from Industrial Info that references a “$100 million conversion of a mercury cell chlorine plant in New Martinsville, West Virginia.”

This information is inaccurate.

PPG has made no announcements to this effect, and we have no current plans to make such a conversion at the PPG Natrium plant near New Martinsville.

Keep in mind, though, that PGG has pledged — as part of a court settlement with the state of Maryland (not West Virginia) to reduce its mercury emissions and to consider even more reductions in the future … so stay tuned …