The small town of Mancelona, Michigan, once bustling with automotive industry, is now a quiet and largely unemployed small town. The town also sits upon one of the largest known plumes of trichloroethylene-contaminated water in the nation. The plume stretches an astonishing six miles and continues to grow at a rate of approximately 300 feet a year. About 13 trillion gallons of groundwater are now contaminated with TCE.
The people of Mancelona feel as though the contamination is not receiving as much attention as larger cities like Detroit are. The citizens’ major concern is that a public health study has never been conducted of residents. As a result, the link between TCE exposure and cancer among Mancelonians has never been explored.
The solution to the problem remains the same as it has over the past 15 years since the plume began being investigated. Testing continues on a regular basis of homeowners’ and business’ drinking water. The state also continues to develop a water system to deliver affected properties with clean drinking water. The State of Michigan has decided to spend approximately $18 million to continue to monitor the water contamination and stay ahead of the sprawling plume. Officials will continue to dig new deeper wells in unaffected areas to deliver Mancelona citizens clean drinking water.
The plume has also reached the Cedar River which empties into the Great Lakes, so monitoring of TCE contamination levels has become a new challenge.
The state decided against other remediation plans because they were much more time consuming, laborious, and costly. The alternative options involved pumping all of the water out of the contaminated plume and treating it at a facility before rereleasing. These options would have taken decades to complete at a price tag of $34 million. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is also weary of involving the federal government in the issue by declaring it an official Superfund site. The state wants the land above the plume to be developed at some point and doesn’t want to scare potential developers away with the possible responsibility of environmental cleanup costs. The state would not hold a new company on a contaminated property responsible since they did not directly cause the issue.
One of the latest current environmental issues is not a cause for celebration. The tornado that tore through Joplin, Missouri was the deadliest and most destructive one that the state has seen in sixty years. The storm reached half a mile wide and took the lives of at least 116 people. Any person who has been affected by a tornado can attest to the feelings of utter devastation; roofs blown off of the homes left standing, cars capsized on land, family belongings strewn about and quite likely never found again. The destructive winds suck up and spit out anything in their path, and that can cause some environmental problems that perpetuate the crisis for years.
U.S. Environmental Protection agents have been on full alert in the area. Miraculously, aside from a fire that burned at a gas station that was wiped out from the twister, the EPA has initially found no “serious pollution.” The agency’s studies, however, are far from concluded. When infrastructure−buildings, roadways, power lines, gas tanks− is uprooted, the chance always exists that chemicals may silently leak, gases may escape unnoticed, and other harmful elements like asbestos, lead, and PCBs can come in contact with humans. Many of these toxins can seep into the waterways causing water contamination, and can cause long term ground contamination. The problem compounds when people burn the debris in the effort to clean up and toxins are further released into the air.
Burning has been a frequent solution to cleaning up in all areas prone to tornados, due to the sheer volume of debris left behind after twisters touch down.
Joplin officials have relaxed the rules temporarily to allow the tornado ravaged victims to clean up without having to cut through tons of red tape. Kathleen Logan Smith, the executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment said, “The last thing you want to do when a community’s dealing with a situation like this is require a lot of permits and paperwork.”
Some experts such as David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, caution against Joplin becoming too lax with the regulations, noting that burning many materials can send harmful emissions into the air and cause health issues. “Relaxing the rules during an emergency is understandable but improper handling or disposal of waste material could make a bad situation worse.” Carpenter favors an approach of finding a landfill away from the population, properly segregating waste, filling the landfill with debris, and then covering it so that the contaminants do not spread freely into the town.
As weather patterns instinctively (and to many scientists) appear to grow more extreme as the years go by, states and towns, particularly those in tornado alley will have to adapt quickly to the changes brought about by stronger and more frequent storms. The cleanup methods that worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. If an effective and safe protocol can be developed as an “in case of” plan, then the terrifying and destructive tornados won’t leave as significant of a long term negative environmental legacy. Victims can focus on cleaning up the here and now, which is more than enough already.
The EPA has discovered that a wily plume of water contamination has escaped its three extraction wells put in place to clean up the Parkview Superfund site in Grand Island, Nebraska. Parkview was designated as a Superfund site after a plume of water contamination was discovered, likely left behind by thirty years of pollution. Tracy Overstreet, of TheIndependent.com says, “The Parkview Superfund site was set up to remove solvents leached into the groundwater decades ago by a defunct irrigation company along North Road and by combine manufacturer CNH at its plant site at Highway 281 and Stolley Park Road.”
Since volatile organic compounds, (VOCs), were found in the city’s water wells in 2003, the EPA has engaged in a pump and treat method to remediate the plume. When ingested, VOCs can cause “eye, nose, and throat irritation, loss of coordination, nausea, damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans,” according to epa.gov. After a site assessment, the EPA set up three extraction wells to contain the original plume.
After the Agency discovered a plume has made it past the three wells, the Agency plans to install a new water-extraction well. According to Brad Vann, the Parkview Superfund site project manager, “Between design and construction (of a treatment system)…the plume kept migrating, and just a little bit of it got beyond our reach.” That little bit measures roughly 1,200 feet long and 200 feet wide. Vann says the plume “should be easily captured by the new well along Stolley Park Road, which will pump 400 gallons of water a minute.”
The EPA has acted fast on the rouge plume and will likely see the water contamination cleaned up fairly quickly. While no one likes to hear about The Plume That Got Away, this story is an example of how sound environmental management can eliminate problems before they get out of hand.
A large tract of land known as the Rialto Superfund site in San Bernardino County has a long property history of contamination; starting as far back as 1942. This week, with the EPA reached a landmark settlement with a laundry list of companies that caused the land pollution and water contamination. Parties involved include Emhart Industries, Black & Decker, Inc., Pyro Spectaculars Inc, the Department of Defense, and a slew of others.
Beginning when the U.S. Deparment of Defense owned the Rialto property until the time that the last company shut its doors, businesses were using the land as a playground for harmful solvents like Perc and TCE. According to Guy McCarthy of the Redlands-Loma Linda Patch, “The Superfund site has been used to store, test, and manufacture fireworks, munitions, rocket motors, and pyrotechnics, and it was added to the EPA’s National Priorities List in September 2009.”
All the years of pollution have taken away potable water for the residents who rely on the Rialto –Colton water basin. Since 2009, the EPA has been fighting to hold the dozen or so polluters responsible and make them take action to remediate the site. Finally, it appears that the courts agree that something has to be done.
“For decades, the defendants have been polluting this critical source of drinking water with both perchlorate and industrial solvents. Today’s historic settlement ensures that the impacted communities in Southern California will finally have their drinking water sources restored,” said EPA official, Jared Blumenfeld.
In addition to the settlements that provide for cleanup of the Superfund site, the towns of Rialto and Colton will each receive $8 million. The remediation plan spans “the next 30 years,” said McCarthy. “to design, build, and operate groundwater wells, treatment systems, and other equipment needed to clean up the contaminated groundwater at the site.”
The Indian River Lagoon in Florida was once a crystal clear waterway symbolic of all things Florida. The Lagoon has now become a murky mess, toxic to many marine mammals. Many people who once used the Lagoon for recreational purposes have become critical of its brown waters and algae covered surface.
Heavy rains have caused the water levels of nearby Lake Okeechobee to rise significantly. As a result, the Army Corps of Engineer’s rerouted water to drain through canals and into other waterways like the Indian River Lagoon. The freshwater from Lake Okeechobee has completely changed the salinity of the lagoon. This change has led to the rapid overgrowth of algae some of which is toxic due to water contamination. The algae overgrowth has all but killed the sea grass beds of the lagoon, which serve as a major food source for many marine mammals. As many as 60 dolphins and 120 manatees have turned up dead in the lagoon over the past year. Since the manatees no longer have the sea grass to graze upon they are forced to eat 40 to 50 pounds of algae per day. The specific type of algae they are consuming is known as red seaweed and is often contaminated by high nitrogen levels leached by local septic systems. As one can imagine, eating the large quantity of contaminated algae that the manatees do has taken its toll, resulting in the large number of deaths.
Unfortunately, officials have no solution to the problem. As long as rainy seasons persist, Lake Okeechobee must have its high water levels redirected, otherwise local levees would be overcome resulting in flood devastation. The only real option after site assessments would be to redirect all lake overflows to the Everglade Wetlands. This option would take years to complete and cost billions of dollars to accomplish.
Researchers worry that although the Indian River Lagoon crisis is a hot, current environmental issue amongst politicians and other officials now, it will lose its notoriety after a dry season. If they experience a dry season, less fresh water will dilute the Lagoon resulting in a temporary break in devastation. The underlying problem will still remain. Even if a completely new draining method were put into place the danger of continued lagoon contamination remains. Over 237,000 surrounding residents are reliant on septic systems. These systems release high quantities of nitrogen into the Indian River Lagoon each year.
America’s environmental guardian angel has swooped down to take up a new cause. Ms. Brockovich has agreed to join the fight for veterans and their families to hold Camp Lejeune responsible for the health problems caused by the U.S. military base’s thirty years of water contamination.
According to a statement by Brockovich, “We need to look at what happened at Camp Lejeune, the ground water contamination,” she said. “Who’s been affected, find them all and make sure that we do everything possible to make their future a little bit brighter.”
The pollution at Camp Lejeune is well documented and is in fact the largest Defense Department contamination incident on record. Lindell Kay, of Jacksonville News, reports that “at least 500,000 people may have been exposed in the 30-year period from 1957 to 1987 to a host of toxic chemicals, including known human carcinogens benzene and vinyl chloride, as well as drying [sic] cleaning solvents and degreasers.”
What Brockovich and twenty two other state and national organizations are pushing for is legislation that would make it easier for those affected by the water contamination to receive medical care for their health conditions. Many of the veterans and their families who lived on the base used the water for everything from drinking, bathing, and cooking and cannot afford the proper medical treatments.
A number of Hollywood movies and independent documentaries have been filmed the past ten years highlighting the problem of water contamination at U.S. military bases. Most recently, a movie specifically focused on the problem at Camp Lejeune will be shown to members of Congress. With the help of the public awareness brought about by these films and the high caliber representation of Ms. Erin Brockovich, there is hope that these brave men and women who fought for our country and their families that lived with them on base will have access to the treatment that they need to take back their health. It is tragic that there have been some victims who have not lived to see that day.
One West Virginia man is convinced that hydraulic fracturing is causing methane contamination in his drinking water well and he’s fighting back with a lawsuit. “My water well is now a gas well,” says Jeremiah Magers.
The basis of the lawsuit, according to Mr. Magers, is that because Chesapeake Energy’s operations caused the water contamination, it should be responsible to provide an alternative drinking water source. And it did not do that. As described in the suit, Chesapeake Energy demonstrated, “willful, wanton, intentional, reckless and malicious” behavior.
According to Casey Junkins, of HeraldStarOnline.com, “Magers previously said his water well became contaminated with methane-and that natural gas began bubbling in Fish Creek- shortly after Chesapeake began fracking at a production site roughly 1200 feet from the Magers’ water tank.”
The fracking process has been found in several cases in the United States to have caused methane contamination. One example is the 2009 case in Dimock, Pennsylvania, in which Cabot Oil & Gas “had to financially compensate residents and construct a pipeline to bring in clean water,” says Wikipedia.
Methane can be found naturally in drinking water wells and isn’t always caused by fracking. That’s exactly the scenario that Chesapeake Energy is claiming. The company performed sampling of the Magers’ well. According to Stacey Brodak, a senior director of Chesapeake, the testing did find methane, but she claimed, “Chesapeake withdrew its water supply from Magers’ home because the company’s test results showed the methane present in the water sample did not match the gas from our oil and gas operations.”
Jeremiah Magers certainly disagrees with this statement and is pursuing his case in court. Mr. Magers’ environmental attorney, Joseph Canestrato had no comment about the pending suit but this will be one to watch for. Should Magers’ win his case, other residents facing similar problems may have a better chance at demanding a clean drinking water source when their wells become contaminated.
In a current environmental issue that environmentalists deem a strike against them, the Supreme Court of California ruled that Las Angeles County is not liable for polluted water that flows through the area’s waterways and into the Pacific Ocean.
The Supreme Court, which overturned an earlier decision by a lower court, voted with the explanation that although the polluted water passes through L.A. County, the county itself does not contribute any of the hazardous waste materials that make the water so dirty.
Many others disagree and feel that the county got a free pass and even worse, the ruling doesn’t place the responsibility on anyone so the tainted rivers will continue to reach the Pacific.
“The county has managed to game the system in a way that allowed the pollution of our waterways to go unaddressed for many years. The county is the largest source of stormwater pollution to local waterways, and today it has escaped accountability, but only temporarily,” said Liz Crosson, of L.A. Waterkeeper.
The court decision was partially based on a precedent set in South Florida, according to Matthew Sanderson of the Pacific Palisades Patch. In that Supreme Court case, “the court determined pumping polluted water ‘between two parts of the same water body’ does not constitute a pollutant discharge under the Clean Water Act.”
The groups that filed the lawsuits are concerned about environmental safety and also the health of the people. Toxins such as “copper, zinc, cyanide, aluminum and fecal bacteria” make their way into the ocean as reported in Sanderson’s article.
“We’ll continue to seek to hold the Los Angeles County Flood Control District responsible for cleaning up its water pollution,” said Steve Fleishli, one of the environmental attorneys working for NRDC’s national water program.
Two environmental watchdog groups recently uncovered a 1987 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) document of a case study showing well water in Jackson County, West Virginia had been contaminated by the fracking process. This flies in the face of industry claims that the controversial natural gas drilling method poses no danger to homeowners living near drilling sites.
The document was a report to Congress which seems to have disappeared for all of these years and has not been discussed since the late 80’s. Environmental Working Group, one of the organizations that recovered the document began an investigation on the EPA’s findings and concluded that the abandoned wells named in the report could in fact allow fracking fluid to seep into drinking water.
“When you add up the gel in the water, the presence of abandoned wells and the documented ability of drilling fluids to migrate through these wells into underground water supplies, there is a lot of evidence that EPA got it right and that this was indeed a case of hydraulic fracturing contamination of groundwater,” said Dusty Horwitt, the Group’s senior oil and gas analyst.
Natural gas industry lobbyists have pushed hard (successfully) to keep fracking out of the 2005 Safe Water Drinking Act and since the process began, “hundreds of thousands of wells” have been fractured.
What the 1987 report shows is that fracking can cause drinking water contamination and that is a scary notion that can affect the many thousands of residents living in hotbed natural gas states including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and others.
The EPA investigators who originally wrote the report stated, “During the fracturing process, fractures can be produced, allowing migration of native brine, fracturing fluid, and hydrocarbons from the oil or gas well to a nearby water well. When this happens, the water well can be permanently damaged and a new well must be drilled or an alternative source of drinking water found.”
A number of American Indian tribes are sitting on reservations containing potentially trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. Instead of jumping head-first into to the hydraulic fracturing gold rush that many oil and gas conglomerates are salivating over, the tribes are taking a cautious route—one that may very well serve as an example to the rest of the nation.
Oil and gas exploration has exploded in recent years with many some states acting in a “do now; deal with consequences later” manner, and with devastating results. A prime example is northern Pennsylvania, which has seen an alarming number of cases of water contamination related to fracking operations, as well as areas around the drilling regions that have seen small earthquakes and drinking water wells polluted with methane.
A handful of Montana tribes are optimistic about the possibility of drilling on their reservations, but want to make the drilling companies accountable to environmental regulations denoted in the Clean Water Act. The stakes and the potential profits are high. Talking about the Blackfeet Indian reservation, Tristan Scott, of Missoulian.com wrote, “One estimate says the reservation sits on top of about 109 million barrels of oil and 8.6 trillion cubic feet natural gas.”
Joining the Confederated Salish and Kootenai, and the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, are the Blackfeet Indians to “apply the federal water quality standards under the Clean Water Act in an effort to protect its rivers, lakes, and wetlands,” says Scott.
The EPA’s website describes the Clean Water Act’s goals as “restoring and protecting the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters. Water quality standards established under the CWA set the Tribe’s expectations for Reservation water quality, serve as a foundation for pollution control efforts and are a fundamental component of watershed management. Specifically, these standards serve as water quality goals for individual surface waters, guide and inform monitoring and assessment activities, and provide a legal basis for permitting and regulatory pollution controls (e.g. discharge permits).”
The Blackfeet tribe wants protection for the bodies of water located on their reservations so that the gas and oil exploration companies that want to get onto their land cannot simply ravage the precious natural resources. By applying the standards of the Clean Water Act, the tribe knows that it will maintain a great deal of control over the waters. The stringent rules are often attacked by big business interests as impeding on economic profits because they do hold polluters accountable for their operations. It’s an environmental management plan that works, to put it simply.
It appears to a positive environmental trend for the reservations to fight for tight regulations to protect the land they own. Other local districts around the country would be wise to also perform due diligence when considering allowing the natural gas industry to being exploring and drilling. The companies who perform hydraulic fracturing do not have the same incentives as the locales that open up their land. Once the drills have been dug and being pumping that coveted natural gas, there is very little that can be done to clean up the mess they leave behind.