Sustained Outrage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should W.Va. give ‘cracker’ plant a big tax break?

My buddy Ry Rivard over at the Daily Mail broke an interesting story today, reporting:

West Virginia officials are considering a new tax incentive to help lure a massive petrochemical facility to the state.

Under the plan, which must be approved by the Legislature, the owner of a facility known as an ethane cracker could save about half a billion dollars in personal property taxes over the next 25 years, Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said in an interview last week.

The incentive would help counteract West Virginia’s personal property tax, which the business community has long complained deters investment in the state.

Later in the day, the good folks at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy posted a pretty strong take-down of this idea, explaining that West Virginia property taxes might already be cheaper than Ohio for one of these “cracker” plants that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is chasing so hard:

… Since West Virginia taxes business personal property and other states don’t, we need to create expensive tax incentives because of that built in disadvantage, right? Well, it turns out that the disadvantage created by business personal property tax is easily cancelled out once you remember that West Virginia has incredibly low real property tax rates.

Using some average tax rates and an average breakdown of real and personal property for businesses statewide, the Center came up with this handy chart:

 

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.

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A natural gas well operated by Northeast Natural Energy, top, viewed from Morgantown on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011. (AP Photo/David Smith)

Here’s a report from the AP’s Larry Messina on yesterday’s legislative interim meeting:

West Virginia would expand the buffer zones between Marcellus shale wells and homes, livestock and drinking water through provisions added Wednesday to a regulatory proposal for the rich natural gas reserve.

The special House-Senate committee drafting the bill adopted the various buffer zones by a non-unanimous voice vote. Before recessing in advance of a meeting Thursday, the lawmakers also agreed they will reconsider drilling permit fee hikes approved last month. Industry groups have objected to the proposed $10,000 for an initial well and $5,000 for each additional well at that site. Natural gas operators now pay just a few hundred dollars for permits.

The committee’s goal remains a regulatory measure capable of passage during a special legislative session. Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin has said he will convene one if the committee’s draft attracts sufficient consensus. Efforts to pass a Marcellus rules bill failed during this year’s regular session, prompting Tomblin to order temporary emergency standards from the Department of Environmental Protection.

Wednesday’s proposed buffer zones include one of 625 feet between the center of a well site and a residence or building that houses dairy cattle or poultry. The committee voted after hearing from Marion County resident Casey Griffith, who said the dream house he built with his wife has been ruined by a well site 200 or so feet away. Around-the-clock noise, dust churned up by well construction and waste gas burned off at the site are among his family’s concerns, he said.

“I swore I would never live anywhere but in West Virginia,” said Griffith, a lifelong state resident. “I don’t believe that any more.”

Brett Loflin, an executive with Northeast Natural Energy, agreed that he wouldn’t want a well 200 feet from his house. But he said buffers larger than 625 feet would unfairly hinder operators. Lawmakers had also considered buffers of 750 feet and 1,000 feet.

“The primary concern is sterilizing acreage, and just not being able to put a well anywhere,” Loflin told the committee.

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‘Talking points’ for gas company land agents?

In this May 27, 2011 photo, Laura Skidmore stands in her yard holding a memo that outlines talking points for selling oil and gas leases, in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The origin of the memo is a matter of debate between an energy exploration company and local activists. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Over the weekend, The Associated Press put out an interesting story about a memo that’s been circulating for months on the Internet, addressing the mystery of whether the memo is a set of “talking points” for oil and gas company land agents.

We’ve posted the story here, along with our other articles about oil and gas drilling. The story reports:

A memo that appears to coach buyers of oil and gas drilling leases to use deceptive tactics on unsuspecting landowners has provoked a state investigation and spirited debate in rural Ohio, the latest frontier in America’s quest for new energy resources.

The tale of the found memo – unauthenticated but with language similar to that used by a seller familiar to Greene County residents – features aggressive marketers, zealous environmentalists, and vulnerable residents.

So high are the stakes in the rush to lock up leases of fuel-rich Marcellus and Utica shale lands that Ohio’s top law enforcement official investigated the notebook one resident found near her driveway in April. Was it really a playbook for a “landman,” one of the door-to-door energy company representatives who’ve blanketed shale regions in the Northeast for months, coaxing landowners to lease in hopes that drillers strike it rich in their backyards?

Attorney General Mike DeWine could find no evidence it belonged to Jim Bucher, a landman for West Bay Exploration Co., based in Traverse City, Mich., or that it was used to mislead area residents. Yet his investigation also stopped short of identifying an alternative owner, leaving the memo’s true origins a mystery.

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Revisiting the reporting on the latest C8 reports

On Monday, a commentator named Jon Entine, working for a group called the Statistical Assessment Service, or STATS, published a piece called “Toxic Alert: There’s a Killer, C8, Lurking in Your Kitchen, Says the Associated Press — Oops, Maybe Not!”

Mr. Entine alleges that I (and Vicki Smith from the AP) botched coverage of the recent release of status reports from the C8 Science Panel, the three-person committee investigating potential health effects of C8, also known as PFOA. His piece concluded:

Ward appears to embrace a conspiracy theory. He’s resistant to the likelihood that the C8 scientists are actually doing their job, independently, letting the ideological chips fall where they may. He and the AP’s Smith seemed determined to “correct” the public record on the C8 panel’s behalf, presenting a narrative they believe the scientists should have written, not what they actually found. The result was two misleading pieces, including the AP’s C8 Godzilla, unleashed into cyberspace.

I’m writing this post to address and respond to Mr. Entine’s allegations. I encourage you to first click here and read what he wrote, and then come back and read through this post. You can read my initial blog post on this story here and the Gazette print edition here. The AP story is available here.

We’ll take the findings of the C8 Science Panel’s study of liver function markers first. Here’s what Mr. Entine wrote:

The summary report on C8’s impact on the liver functions was highly anticipated because it was designed to address a question posed earlier in the research: what’s the relationship between increased levels of C8 and three markers, bilirubin, ALT and GGT. Analyzing data from 47,000 adults, the panel found no direct link between increased levels of C8 and bilirubin or GGT. Ward and the AP ignored these unexpected but scientifically significant findings.

Rather, they both led with the only sensational finding, an association, described by the panel as “small,” between increased levels of C8 in blood and ALT. The scientists also stressed the study’s structural “limitation,” which it wrote “makes it impossible to know whether PFOA can cause changes in liver markers.”

But the relationship between GGT and bilirubin is not as clear as he makes it sound. The Science Panel did not report that it “found no direct link” between those markers and C8. What they said was that neither of those two markers “showed a clear relationship with C8 exposure.”

Keep in mind: At this point, we haven’t seen the data the C8 Science Panel relied on. All we have is their summary “status report” filed with the Wood Circuit Court and posted on their Website. As we reported in a follow-up story on Sunday

In an email interview, panel member Tony Fletcher of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the detailed data about the other enzymes and C8 would be released once a formal scientific paper is published.

But, Fletcher said, the pattern of comparisons between C8 exposures and the other enzymes was “not completely flat,” but that the “pattern is less convincing” than with ALT.

While Fletcher said his personal conclusion is there is “little or no evidence of an association, he also said the results “are insufficient to prove an association, but also insufficient to conclude there is no association,” Fletcher said.

In addition, even the status report the Science Panel released wasn’t as clear-cut in arguing no impacts from C8 as Mr. Entine would have it sound. While he describes the association between ALT and C8 exposure as “small,” Mr. Entine truncated the quote. Here’s the entire sentence:

In conclusion, a small but clear linear association between PFOA and PFOS serum concentrations and ALT, a marker of liver injury, was observed in this large population.

Mr. Entine didn’t mention this further elaboration by the Science Panel:

This association with ALT is unlikely to be due to chance, as it is highly statistically significant. It is not explained by the other detailed information included in the statistical models — age, physical activity, body mass index (BMI), average household income, educational level, race, alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking.

What’s more, ALT is the most significant marker here, the one that is the most accurate in predicting liver disease and also the least likely to be influenced by other factors, such as alcohol consumption.

And, Mr. Entine left out any mention of this additional finding:

Increases in another similar chemical called PFOS, which was not released from the DuPont plant, were associated with increased levels of the two of the markers: ALT and bilirubin.

Contrary to Entine’s bottom line — that the Science Panel’s findings are good news regarding any potential association between C8 and markers of possible liver disease — the panel actually reported:

These results show a positive association between PFOA and PFOS concentrations and ALT serum levels, a marker of liver cell damage. This observed association between PFOA and PFOS with ALT is consistent both in terms of direction and magnitude with previous findings of occupational studies. Notably, these results are also consistent with data coming from a general population survey where background concentrations of PFOA are much lower compared to those reported here.

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Community lobbies to close New Cumberland plant

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

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Keri Brown had an interesting piece today about continued concerns of the New Cumberland community about a chemical plant there where three workers died in December. She reports:

Federal and state investigators are still looking into the cause of a violent explosion at the AL Solutions chemical plant that killed three people in December. Some members of the New Cumberland community are conducting their own investigation to help get the plant closed.

… This is the third fatal blast at this site in 15 years. Some community members say they’ve had enough. They’ve formed the To Honor To Remember Community Action Committee to get the plant closed, or at least have it moved out of the city.

See previous coverage here, here and here, and don’t forget this post about continued inaction by federal regulators on the dangers of combustible dust.

Another Thursday, another batch of thought provoking stories:

With America’s intervention in the conflict in Libya raising concerns of prolonged military involvement, ForeignPolicy.com‘s Steven M. Walt asked: Is America Addicted to War? Walt, a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School for Government, offers a Top Five list of reasons that America “keeps fighting foolish wars,” including that the foreign-policy establishment is hard-wired towards “doing something” and that Congress has largely abdicated its role in determining whether or not the U.S. goes to war to presidents since World War II.

Even as they espouse the Libertarian value that smaller government and less regulation is the way to go, the Koch brothers have spent millions on a sophisticated lobbying effort to protect their wide-ranging business interests, the Center for Public Integrity reported. At times, the “lobbying steamroller” for the company’s interests is in conflict with the brothers’ public political position and philosophy, John Aloysius Farrell wrote. “The company has a history of pragmatism in commercial affairs. . . . [t]hough it opposes a cap-and-trade solution to global warming for the United States, Koch makes money trading emissions credits under a similar program in Europe.”

Multiple patients who received injections after they were promised a cure for erectile dysfunction maintain they weren’t told of the associated risks before receiving the treatment, according to the Los Angeles Times. They also didn’t know that the doctors at the Boston Medical Group in Costa Mesa were given bonuses once they generate a certain amount of business, and most learned only during their first appointment that the treatment involves injecting drugs directly into the penis before immediately prior to sex, according to the article.

ProPublica: Abandoned wells pose water threat

Earlier this week, ProPublica continued its great reporting on oil and gas drilling’s environmental problems, with a piece about the potential threats to water supplies from abandoned wells.

The piece was headlined Deteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country, and was published in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has launched a separate section of its website focused on oil and gas drilling issues. The story reports:

In the last 150 years, prospectors and energy companies have drilled as many as 12 million holes across the United States in search of oil and gas. Many of those holes were plugged after they dried up. But hundreds of thousands were simply abandoned and forgotten, often leaving no records of their existence.

Government reports have warned for decades that abandoned wells can provide pathways for oil, gas or brine-laden water to contaminate groundwater supplies or to travel up to the surface. Abandoned wells have polluted the drinking water source for Fort Knox, Ky. [2], and leaked oil into water wells in Ohio and Michigan. Similar problems have occurred in Texas, New York, Colorado and other states where drilling has occurred.

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Time for our weekly look at stories of interest:

As part of a series on Internet bullying called ‘Poisoned Web,’ the New York Times published this story about how three teens in Washington State were charged with dissemination of child pornography after they forwarded a naked cell-phone picture of a 13-year-old girl. Prosecutors struggle with where to draw the line with so-called “sexting,” which is legal between adults but can be illegal when minors are involved in posing, photographing, distributing or receiving. The article cites a poll conducted by MTV and the Associated Press which found that 24 percent of teens between the ages of 14 and 17 had been involved in “some type of naked sexting,” either online or via phone.

The Food and Drug Administration is looking into whether there is a link between food dyes and hyperactivity in children, NPR.org reported. Recent studies have caused experts to call upon the FDA to ban eight different dyes, which serve no purpose in food and have no nutritional value, they argue. Prior to a meeting on Wednesday, the FDA released its analysis, which found no causal relationship between food dyes and hyperactivity, although one expert said that “there is this body of literature that does suggest that food colorings are not as benign as people have been led to believe.”

Three Milwaukee Police Officers who were disciplined by the department — two of whom were fired — after allegations of sexual misconduct on duty surfaced are still on the job, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The two fired officers were reinstated after the civilian Fire and Police Commission reversed the punishments handed down by the chief of police. Without criminal convictions, the story noted, it can be difficult to remove the officers from the department, even when the purported victims’ stories are deemed to be credible. Abusive officers are particularly dangerous to victims, the co-executive director of a local family center told the paper, partially because they cast a shadow of doubt on the good work by the rest of force. “Police officers have a lot of power in their hands and when they abuse that power, we have to take a very firm stand on that not being acceptable,” she said.