The Charleston Gazette has a long and proud tradition as a crusading newspaper. Our late publisher, W.E. "Ned" Chilton III coined the phrase "sustained outrage" and insisted the Gazette live up to that motto with long-term coverage of important issues facing West Virginia and the nation.
The mission of the "Gazette Watchdog" is simple: To carry on that tradition. We make a commitment to our readers to serve as a public watchdog over government, business, and other powerful entities in West Virginia society, to ensure that the public interest is protected.
One person was killed as a major explosion ripped through the Airgas facility next to the Ascend Performance Materials plant on Old Chemstrand Road in Cantonment just after noon Sunday. There were no other injuries or fatalities.
About 12:15 p.m., multiple agencies from across Escambia County responded to the Airgas facility. First responders reported a major explosion with an area of significant structural collapse. The area was described a “mini-war zone”.
The gas that exploded was nitrous oxide, some of which was released into the atmosphere but did not pose any threat to the public. There were no gasses or chemicals released outside the industrial facility. There were no evacuations or shelter in place orders issued for residents living near the plant.
Not so long ago, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board took a pass on investigating a significant incident — one that injured 11 workers — at the Axiall Corp. chemical plant in northern West Virginia, site of Saturday’s huge chlorine leak. The CSB refused to look into the incident, despite it being just one in a recent string of problems at the facility (see here and here).
So on Saturday, I asked if the CSB was going to deploy to Natrium and look into this chlorine leak. Two days later, the board still hasn’t decided — and really didn’t provide much of an official response to my query.
This morning I tweeted about the CSB’s relative silence on the matter:
48 hours after Axiall chlorine leak in WV injured 9 people -- and still no word on whether @chemsafetyboard is considering deploying.
As residents of Marshall and Wetzel counties fled or took shelter to protect themselves from a chlorine cloud that spewed into the air Saturday from the Axiall Corp. chemical plant at Natrium, it was impossible not to remember a long-ago and never-implemented recommendation from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board that West Virginia officials do more to try to ensure public safety from such incidents.
It was eight years ago Sunday that the fatal explosion at the Bayer CropScience plant out in Institute prompted the CSB investigation that led to this recommendation to the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Environmental Protection:
Work with the Director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to ensure the successful planning, fee collection, and implementation of the Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program as described in Recommendation 2008-08-WV-R6, above, including the provision of services to all eligible facilities in the State.
That Recommendation 2008-08-WV-6 part refers to this recommendation to the local health department:
Establish a Hazardous Chemical Release Prevention Program to enhance the prevention of accidental releases of highly hazardous chemicals, and optimize responses in the event of their occurrence. In establishing the program, study and evaluate the possible applicability of the experience of similar programs in the country.
Readers may recall that state officials basically ignored this recommendation for a couple of years, until that troublesome chemical spill over on the Elk River that contaminated drinking water supplies for hundreds of thousands of residents. When that happened, we published this story in the Gazette:
Three years ago this month, a team of federal experts urged the state of West Virginia to help the Kanawha Valley create a new program to prevent hazardous chemical accidents.The U.S. Chemical Safety Board recommended the step after its extensive investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute. Since then, the proposal has gone nowhere.
When lawmakers, under pressure following the Freedom Industries spill, passed legislation responding to the incident, they tucked this onto the mandate for a new Public Water System Supply Study Commission:
A review and consideration of the recommendations of the U. S. Chemical Safety and Hazard and Investigation Board after its investigation of the Bayer CropScience incident of 2008.
There was an interesting — and potentially important — advertisement in today’s Gazette-Mail from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s what it said:
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released the EE/CA presenting the Preferred Alternative for addressing dioxin contaminated sediment in the Kanawha River between RM 31.1 (Winfield Locks and Dam) and RM 45.5 (confluence of the Coal River).
The Preferred Alternative for the Site is identified in the EE/CA as Alternative 4 – limited armored capping of sediment, monitored natural recovery, and institutional controls.
Here’s what the ad looks like:
If you want more information, be careful, because the link listed in the ad will try to download a more than 300 MB .pdf file from EPA’s website. You might find it a bit easier to read the nearly 1,500-page report from this version that I uploaded to Document Cloud.
In short, Judge Copenhaver wants both sides to submit additional legal briefs to address the role of Eastman Chemical — which sold MCHM to Freedom Industries — in the water crisis case. Plaintiffs in the case argue that Eastman violated the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, by not properly testing the chemical or warning buyers or the public about potential health impacts, or about possible safety concerns related to the type of storage tanks Freedom used.
Specifically, the judge says:
… The parties should address the facts supporting a conclusion that plaintiffs have suffered an injury, fairly traceable to Eastman’s alleged violation of the Act, which will be redressed by a favorable decision of this court.
Briefing should also consider whether Eastman’s alleged noncompliance with the Act constitutes a “real and immediate” threat of injury supporting injunctive relief.
The additional legal brief from the plaintiffs is due Aug. 2, with any Eastman response due by Aug. 9. You can read the judge’s order here.
The new order, posted here, rejects another effort by the group Advocates for a Safe Water System to reopen discovery — the process of legal investigation in the case — prior to the currently schedule PSC hearings in mid-November.
The fact that the parties to this general investigation and the parties to the federal cases examined some of the same subject matter but chose to develop the evidence differently, is largely reflective of the different roles of the two tribunals and the different legal standards governing the respective proceedings. Thus, while ASWS may utilize pertinent information from any source (including the federal cases) for any proper purpose during the evidentiary hearing in this proceeding, the fact that information developed outside this investigation may not be identical to what the parties developed here simply does not justify a wholesale re-opening of discovery, on the grounds that it is “new information” or otherwise.
There’s a new filing out this morning in the state Public Service Commission’s general investigation of the January 2014 Freedom Industries chemical spill and the water crisis that followed.
In the new filing, posted here, lawyers for West Virginia American Water Co. are asking the PSC to again delay the commission’s formal hearing into the water company’s handling of the crisis.
Basically, water company lawyers are pointing out that the current PSC hearing dates — Nov. 15-17, 2016 — create a pretty serious conflict with the scheduled start of trial in the “Good case” — the water crisis class-action suit pending in federal court. U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver has that trial set to begin on Oct. 25.
The water company lawyers explain:
The Company believes that holding the GI evidentiary hearing during the Good trial will be virtually impossible for the Company and its witnesses to manage, and at the very least will impair and prejudice the Company’s ability to participate attentively and fully in both proceedings. The timing overlap is complete, and extends not only to the November 15-17 evidentiary hearing, which should occur during the fourth week of the Good trial, but to the October 28 pre-trial conference in the GI, at which pre-hearing motions presumably will be argued. The overlap also extends to the deadline for rebuttal testimony on September 1, which will compete for many of the same witness and lawyer resources already committed to preparing for the federal trial.
They outline scheduling concerns for both West Virginia American witnesses — including company President Jeff McIntyre — and attorneys, and conclude:
These actual scheduling conflicts will adversely affect the Company’s participation in both cases to its detriment and prejudice, and they constitute good cause to move the remainder of the GI procedural schedule into 201 7. The Commission should acknowledge the demanding federal court processes facing the Company and make reasonable accommodations to minimize the impact of scheduling constraints. There is no deadline for the Commission’s decision in the GI, and none of the other parties is likely to be prejudiced by an extension of the procedural schedule into 2017.
A new study out today links natural gas drilling with increased risk of asthma. Here’s the press release from the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine journal:
Residential unconventional natural gas development activity, a process that involves fracking and creates a source of energy used both domestically and internationally, was associated with increased risk of asthma exacerbations in a study of patients with asthma in Pennsylvania.
Asthma is a common chronic disease with nearly 26 million people in the United States with asthma. Outdoor air pollution is recognized as a cause of asthma exacerbations. Unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) has been associated with air quality and community social impacts, such as air pollution from truck traffic and sleep disruption.
Pennsylvania has moved rapidly with UNGD and more than 6,200 wells were drilled between the mid-2000s and 2012.
The release explains:
Brian S. Schwartz, M.D., M.S., of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, and coauthors looked at associations between UNGD and asthma exacerbations.
The authors compared patients with asthma with and without exacerbations from 2005 and 2012 who were treated at Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Clinic. The study included 35,508 patients identified in electronic health records.
The authors estimated activity metrics for the four phases of UNGD (pad preparation, drilling, stimulation and production) using the distance from patients’ homes to the wells, well characteristics and the duration of phases.
Between 2005 and 2013, 6,253 unconventional natural gas wells were spudded (the start of drilling) on 2,710 pads; 4,728 wells were stimulated and 3,706 were in production.
The authors identified 20,749 mild (new oral corticosteroid medication order), 1,870 moderate (emergency department visit) and 4,782 severe (hospitalization) asthma exacerbations and matched those to control index dates for comparison.
Patients with asthma in areas with the highest residential UNGD activity had higher risk of the three types of exacerbations compared with those patients in the lowest group of residential activity, according to the study results.
Protesters stand in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before an appearance by Environmental Protection Agency then-(EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson Friday Jan. 13, 2012. Residents of the small northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock, at the center of the political fight over natural gas drilling, joined environmental activists from elsewhere to rally Friday outside a conference on urban environmental issues. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
With all of the aggressive public relations from all sides — and the flurry of conflicting statements in political campaigns — it is certainly becoming more and more difficult for the public to understand the ongoing discussion of natural gas drilling’s environmental and economic impacts.
Thankfully, there are some great journalists out there who continue to work on these stories and cutting through the conflicting claims. For several years, the best among them has been Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, whose work on the issue is archived here.
Since 2009 the people of Dimock, Pennsylvania, have insisted that, as natural gas companies drilled into their hillsides, shaking and fracturing their ground, their water had become undrinkable. It turned a milky brown, with percolating bubbles of explosive methane gas. People said it made them sick.
But the last word about the quality of Dimock’s water came from assurances in a 2012 statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the federal department charged with safeguarding the Americans’ drinking water. The agency declared that the water coming out of Dimock’s taps did not require emergency action, such as a federal cleanup. The agency’s stance was widely interpreted to mean the water was safe.
Now another federal agency charged with protecting public health has analyzed the same set of water samples, and determined that is not the case.
The finding, released May 24 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns that a list of contaminants the EPA had previously identified were indeed dangerous for people to consume. The report found that the wells of 27 Dimock homes contain, to varying degrees, high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, and copper sufficient to pose ahealth risk. It also warned of a mysterious compound called 4-chlorophenyl phenyl ether, a substance for which the agency could not even evaluate the risk, and noted that in earlier water samples non-natural pollutants including acetone, toluene and chloroform were detected . Those contaminants are known to be dangerous, but they registered at such low concentrations that their health effects could not easily be evaluated. The water in 17 homes also contained enough flammable gas so as to risk an explosion.
In the wake of the lead crisis affecting drinking water in Flint, Mich., the public now ranks contaminated drinking water among the most serious national health issues, trailing cancer, according to the April Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.
When asked about a series of health issues facing the country, more than a third (35%) identify contaminated drinking water as “extremely serious,” behind cancer (43%) and similar to heroin abuse (35%) and ahead of major diseases such as heart disease ( 27%) and diabetes (31%).
Overall, women are less confident in the government’s ability to ensure the safety of public services than men are. Three-fourths of women (74%) are not very confident in their state’s ability to ensure the safety of their water, compared to two thirds (66%) of men. Similar gender differences exist on the questions about sewage and electrical services.
Most Americans (70%) say that this month they have been closely following news about unsafe lead levels in Flint’s water, up from March (63%). More report closely following the terrorist attacks in Brussels and other conflicts involving ISIS (80%) and the 2016 presidential campaign (77%), while slightly fewer say they were closely following news about the Zika outbreak (61%).
Fielded amid news reports about government officials facing charges related to Flint’s contaminated water supply, the poll finds larger shares of the public rating their state government’s efforts to protect the water supply as either “excellent” (17%) or “good” (37%) than “fair” (31%) or “poor” (14%). The public rates the federal government less favorably, with more saying it’s doing a “fair” (36%) or “poor” (26%) job than saying it’s doing an “excellent” (7%) or “good” (29%) job.
Designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, the poll was conducted from April 12-19 among a nationally representative random digit dial telephone sample of 1,201 adults. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (420) and cell phone (781). The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.