Sustained Outrage

Water company seeks another delay in PSC probe

water intake

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.

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Study links gas drilling and asthma

Natural Gas, fracking

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.

Here’s a link to the study and here’s a story about it that was posted earlier by State Impact.

 

 

 

When Mike Pence came to West Virginia

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joins Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Westfield, Ind., Tuesday, July 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence joins Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Westfield, Ind., Tuesday, July 12, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

This is a guest post by the Gazette-Mail’s political writer, David Gutman:

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, who Donald Trump chose as his vice presidential candidate on Friday, was in Charleston last month to fundraise for state Senate President Bill Cole, the Republican candidate for governor of West Virginia.

Pence’s Charleston visit was not highly publicized. Among media, only the Gazette-Mail and the Associated Press attended.

Pence spoke to about 70 supporters in a hotel ballroom, touting recent conservative changes in Indiana – right-to-work, regulatory reforms and charter schools.

West Virginia Republicans have put similar policies (save for charter schools) into place since taking control of the Legislature in 2014.

But neither Pence nor the Cole campaign were eager to talk about what Pence was best known for (before becoming a vice-presidential candidate) — passing a controversial “religious freedom” law, another policy that state Republicans would like to mimic.

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WVDEP probe of Antero spill finds … more spills

DEP Photo Antero Spill Report

Photo from WVDEP

Back in December 2014, inspectors from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection went to Harrison County to check out a reported spill at a fracking wastewater processing facility operated by Antero Resources. The company had reported that the spill was contained and that cleanup was complete.

But when WVDEP got there, here’s what they found:

During the inspection, however, WVDEP personnel observed and documented that the reported spill from a leak in the frac tank was in progress, cleanup was not completed, and the wastewater was leaking outside of the dedicated container system.

What’s more:

It was also noted during the inspection that a second source of spillage (Spill Two) was occurring near the western footprint of the Water Process Facility near a small unnamed tributary of Limestone Run, and the soil in the area was dark and had a petroleum odor.

Agency officials said that lab results of a soil sample taken on the eastern bank of the stream (the side where the spill occurred) revealed “elevated levels” of total chloride, total strontium, total barium, and diesel range organics, as compared to a sample on the opposite bank of the stream.

That’s all according to a recent “Consent Order” that Antero has agreed to and that WVDEP officials have released for public comment.

And there’s more … In a follow-up inspection two days later, WVDEP officials:

… Observed that, in addition to the two spills observed and documented during the December 16, 2014, inspection, another spill (Spill Three) had occurred. Further investigation revealed that this spill had not been reported. WVDEP personnel observed another spill (Spill Four) in an area down gradient of the offload manifold covered with straw. Further investigation revealed that a tank truck had spilled its contents during off-loading activities, a spill containment system had not been deployed, the contents had migrated off the pad and onto the ground, straw had been deployed to soak up the contents, the soil was stained black, and the spill had not been reported.

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EPA assurances on Dimock, Pa., water questioned

Gas Drilling Dimock

Protesters stand in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before an appearance by Environmental Protection Agency then-(EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson Friday Jan. 13, 2012.  Residents of the small northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock,  at the center of the political fight over natural gas drilling, joined environmental activists from elsewhere to rally Friday outside a conference on urban environmental issues.   (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

With all of the aggressive public relations from all sides — and the flurry of conflicting statements in political campaigns — it is certainly becoming more and more difficult for the public to understand the ongoing discussion of natural gas drilling’s environmental and economic impacts.

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

Thankfully, there are some great journalists out there who continue to work on these stories and cutting through the conflicting claims. For several years, the best among them has been Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, whose work on the issue is archived here.

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

Since 2009 the people of Dimock, Pennsylvania, have insisted that, as natural gas companies drilled into their hillsides, shaking and fracturing their ground, their water had become undrinkable. It turned a milky brown, with percolating bubbles of explosive methane gas. People said it made them sick.

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

But the last word about the quality of Dimock’s water came from assurances in a 2012 statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the federal department charged with safeguarding the Americans’ drinking water. The agency declared that the water coming out of Dimock’s taps did not require emergency action, such as a federal cleanup. The agency’s stance was widely interpreted to mean the water was safe.

Now another federal agency charged with protecting public health has analyzed the same set of water samples, and determined that is not the case.

The finding, released May 24 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns that a list of contaminants the EPA had previously identified were indeed dangerous for people to consume. The report found that the wells of 27 Dimock homes contain, to varying degrees, high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, and copper sufficient to pose ahealth risk. It also warned of a mysterious compound called 4-chlorophenyl phenyl ether, a substance for which the agency could not even evaluate the risk, and noted that in earlier water samples non-natural pollutants including acetone, toluene and chloroform were detected . Those contaminants are known to be dangerous, but they registered at such low concentrations that their health effects could not easily be evaluated. The water in 17 homes also contained enough flammable gas so as to risk an explosion.

Read the whole thing here.

 

 

 

Public ranks water safety concerns high

Coal Water Pollution

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

In the wake of the lead crisis affecting drinking water in Flint, Mich., the public now ranks contaminated drinking water among the most serious national health issues, trailing cancer, according to the April Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.

When asked about a series of health issues facing the country, more than a third (35%) identify contaminated drinking water as “extremely serious,” behind cancer (43%) and similar to heroin abuse (35%)  and ahead of major diseases such as heart disease ( 27%) and diabetes (31%).

Overall, women are less confident in the government’s ability to ensure the safety of public services than men are. Three-fourths of women (74%) are not very confident in their state’s ability to ensure the safety of their water, compared to two thirds (66%) of men. Similar gender differences exist on the questions about sewage and electrical services.

Most Americans (70%) say that this month they have been closely following news about unsafe lead levels in Flint’s water, up from March (63%).  More report closely following the terrorist attacks in Brussels and other conflicts involving ISIS (80%) and the 2016 presidential campaign (77%), while slightly fewer say they were closely following news about the Zika outbreak (61%).

Fielded amid news reports about government officials facing charges related to Flint’s contaminated water supply, the poll finds larger shares of the public rating their state government’s efforts to protect the water supply as either “excellent”  (17%) or “good” (37%) than “fair” (31%) or “poor” (14%).  The public rates the federal government less favorably, with more saying it’s doing a “fair” (36%) or “poor” (26%) job than saying it’s doing an “excellent” (7%) or “good” (29%) job.

Designed and analyzed by public opinion researchers at the Kaiser Family Foundation, the poll was conducted from April 12-19 among a nationally representative random digit dial telephone sample of 1,201 adults. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by landline (420) and cell phone (781). The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample. For results based on subgroups, the margin of sampling error may be higher.

Chasing DuPont’s C8 liabilities

successtopphoto

Controversy continues to swirl over DuPont’s legacy liabilities for C8 contamination.

The News-Journal reported this interesting story earlier this week:

Plaintiffs suing DuPont Co. over alleged exposure to the toxic chemical C8 want to know who is going to pay the $1 billion in damages they are seeking.

Who will be held ultimately responsible is unclear, they say, because DuPont plans to merge with the Dow Chemical Co. later this year and then split into three separate businesses by 2018.

The plaintiffs this week asked a federal judge for documents clarifying DuPont’s liabilities and obligations after the merger and subsequent split.

I’ve posted a copy of that legal filing here, and the News-Journal story continues:

In an April 18 legal filing, Julie Mazza, acting associate general counsel for DuPont, said the company has not made a decision on how the liability will be handled. Mazza also said it is unclear how the company will handle its obligations under Leach v. DuPont.

The Leach case, filed by Mid-Ohio Valley residents, was settled in 2005. Under the settlement, DuPont was mandated to pay for medical monitoring of those potentially exposed to C8 and install water filters to remove the chemical from area water supplies among other commitments. Thousands of Mid-Ohio Valley citizens had opted out of the Leach settlement to pursue their own claims. Those cases will move forward at the glacial pace of 40 cases a year starting in 2017.

“Currently, there has been no determination as to how the obligations of DuPont to the other parties under the Leach settlement agreement would be allocated as part of any post-merger separations,” Mazza wrote referring to Leach v. DuPont, which was filed in 2001.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys representing those who opted out of the Leach settlement responded to Mazza with a motion asking the court to release documents providing details on the C8 liabilities. In a separate court filing, the attorneys called Mazza’s declaration “troubling.”

“It failed to supply any meaningful information regarding where the liabilities relating to the C8 litigation will end up after the proposed DuPont/Dow merger,” wrote Michael London of Douglas & London, a New York firm. “Most importantly, the declaration failed to provide any information regarding whether DuPont will even exist after the merger transaction.”

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Group calls on EPA to act on C8

Gina McCarthy

There’s some new news out today about C8, in the form of a letter from the Environmental Working Group that demands urgent action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The group says:

The Environmental Protection Agency was first alerted 15 years ago to contamination of drinking water by PFOA, a chemical used to make Teflon that has since been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, heart disease and other serious health problems. Since then, PFOA pollution has grown from a regional problem to a national crisis. Yet EPA still has not set a legal limit for the compound in drinking water, even in the face of repeated appeals from state officials and representatives of the public interest community.

You can read the full letter here. Among other things, the letter says:

… We remain deeply troubled by the agency’s glacial pace and uneven approach to protecting the public from this highly persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemical. In particular, it escapes all logic as to why EPA would issue conflicting health advisory levels for PFOA, which are leading to confusion and varied responses to the problem.

 

 

Obama’s ‘timid’ legacy on chemical safety

Plant Explosion Texas

This Thursday April 18, 2013, aerial photo shows the remains of a fertilizer plant destroyed by an explosion in West, Texas. The massive explosion at the West Fertilizer Co.  on April 17, 2013 night killed 15 people and injured more than 160. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

This past weekend marked three years since the massive fire and explosion that killed 15 people at the West Fertilizer Co. in West, Texas. Yet despite this disaster and the time that’s gone by, the Dallas Morning News reports:

On the one hand, many of the ag-supply and feed stores that used to stock a lot of the fertilizer have stopped selling it, a Dallas Morning News investigation found. Others have beefed up safeguards, such as moving the chemical out of dilapidated buildings and into fire-resistant concrete structures. Fire officials now have the power to inspect sites, and fire departments are more likely to have had training to handle the hazardous material.

But many of the recommendations made by safety investigators have gone unheeded. None of the sites that responded to News inquiries said they had installed sprinklers systems. The state does not require them, but the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has said such a system could have stopped the West accident before it became a fatal explosion.

And despite calls for keeping stockpiles of ammonium nitrate away from populated areas, in up to eight communities tons of the chemical still sit near schools, houses, nursing homes and even a hospital, according to a News analysis of state data.

Perhaps even more to the point, as the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility points out in a statement labeling the administration’s legacy on chemical plant safety issues as “timid”:

An Environmental Protection Agency proposal for preventing major industrial accidents is a step forward but only a very tiny one … The EPA plan is exceedingly narrow in scope, relies on voluntary actions and brings no enforcement heft toward averting chemical plant disasters that imperil both workers and communities.

The EPA proposal, announced in late February, is the main administrative response to what happened in West — and what’s happened in many other communities around the country under President Obama’s watch (see here, here, here and here) — yet it does not even cover fertilizer plants handling ammonium nitrate, exempts utilities and water treatment facilities, and most manufacturers that use covered hazardous substances from its safety technology requirements. Also, as PEER pointed out:

— The plan relies heavily on unfunded local voluntary committees for implementation;

— Industry analyses of inherently safer technology that prevent accidents are kept secret, and thus may remain little more than academic exercises;

— EPA has devoted little enforcement muscle to ensure that even the current requirements are followed.

PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch said:

U.S. industrial safety will be left little improved by the faint imprint left in the Obama years.  This very modest proposal is the first major change to EPA’s Risk Management Program in 20 years – and we may not be able to afford waiting another 20 years to make significantly greater progress in reducing industrial hazards that endanger the public.

C8: What about West Virginia’s water?

In this Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 photo, a woman leaves a Tops supermarket with bottled water that is being supplied to residents in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. PFOA, long used in the manufacuring of Teflon pans, Gore-Tex jackets, ski wax, and many other products has turned up in the water in factory towns around the country like Hoosick Falls, impacting drinking water. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

In this Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 photo, a woman leaves a Tops supermarket with bottled water that is being supplied to residents in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. PFOA, long used in the manufacuring of Teflon pans, Gore-Tex jackets, ski wax, and many other products has turned up in the water in factory towns around the country like Hoosick Falls, impacting drinking water. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The discovery and continued controversy over C8 contamination in the drinking water supply in Hoosick Falls, New York, continues to cause quite a stir — and a flurry of response and action by federal and state officials.

Over last weekend, as reported here by The New York Times, Gov. Andrew Cuoma made the announcement that a fairly quick move to install new filters on the local water system has had the desired results:

More than six weeks after declaring an environmental emergency in this upstate village, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made his first visit here on Sunday, announcing that a new filter system had successfully cleared a toxic chemical known as PFOA from the municipal water supply.

It’s quite a contrast to West Virginia, where for some residents in the Mid-Ohio Valley it took a years-long court battle to get water treatment to rid their water of C8 — and where some residents in that same part of the state still can’t get any action on the contamination in their communities.  As we recently reported in the Gazette-Mail:

While the Obama administration continues work on a long-awaited national standard for C8, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tightened a pollution advisory for a town in New York — but not for West Virginia communities where drinking water has long been contaminated with the same toxic chemical.

Last week, a lawyer who has for 15 years been urging EPA to take stronger actions about C8 pollution from DuPont Co. and other firms wrote to the agency to question why officials have not updated a drinking water advisory level for Wood County communities to match one issued in late January in Hoosick Falls, New York.

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