The hydraulic fracturing industry, better known as fracking, is relatively young, so it comes as no surprise that the environmental regulations surrounding the practice are also still developing. Currently approximately ten states mandate that if a fracking site plans on using diesel fuels, they must register on FracFocus an online database. They must also notify all surrounding neighbors of the usage in order to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
One watchdog group, the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) recently discovered that 33 companies owning 351 wells were illegally using fossil fuels over a four year period. The fossil fuel use was not permitted and the use was not logged into the online registry. The EIP argues that fracking companies should not be in charge of both “self-reporting and self-policing.” Neither the federal or state governments are monitoring compliance with FracFocus. In fact, the EIP found that six companies made numerous changes in disclosure on the website.
The companies being accused of making changes have credited them to coding errors during the submission process and not intentional. Fracking companies also blame issues regarding environmental compliance with changes made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA officially clarified which chemicals were considered diesel fuels in 2014, but had categorized kerosene as a diesel fuel two years prior to that with the Toxic Substance Control Act. Fracking companies were then forced to cease the use of kerosene over time in order to comply. They claim that a lack of clarification made the change much slower than it would have been normally. They also blame the FracFocus changes on the EPA’s new standards.
Fracking companies believe the Environmental Integrity Project’s study was unnecessary since the fracking industry is phasing out the use of diesel fuel all together. The EIP blasts these claims, listing 14 chemicals used in fracking that contain some amount of fossil fuels.
It has been about a week since a devastating oil spill hit the Santa Barbara coastline. An underground pipeline burst and leaked an estimated 105,000 gallons of oil into the surrounding area, about 21,000 gallons of which found its way to the Pacific Ocean.
The Santa Barbara area has a rich marine life consisting of whales, dolphins, birds, fish, as well as many other plants and animals. The water contamination resulting from this oils spill has placed all of these creatures in grave danger. Cleanup crews have reported dead fish and shellfish washing ashore. Pelicans and other sea birds are becoming covered in oil and dying on the beaches. Similarly sea mammals like seals are dying after becoming covered by the toxic goo. Long term effects on the entire ecosystem are anticipated, but difficult to predict.
Seventy-three crews consisting, of 300 government responders and contractors sprang into action shortly after the spill was discovered. Several volunteers also joined and are currently working to remove as much oil from the beaches as possible. There are also nine boats with booms collecting oil and preventing it from spreading. So far crews have cleaned up approximately 6,090 gallons of the oil spilled. The cleanup process is expected to be tedious, manual, take some time to complete.
Campers at two state beaches were also evacuated along with beach closures. Shellfish gathering and traditional fishing have also been banned within a mile of the coastline.
The Plains All American Pipeline Company out of Texas has taken responsibility for the leak in their pipe and assures the public that they will rectify the situation as quickly as they can. Critics feel that the pipeline spill should come as no surprise since the Company had a history of violating environmental regulations. Since 2006 the company has had 175 safety violations, usually regarding the maintenance of their equipment and pipelines. The Department of Transportation is in charge of the investigation and states that the pipe that leaked had not had any previous infractions or issues. The cause is still being actively investigated.
Arsenic, beryllium, and nickel−oh my! These potentially harmful elements, along with a few others; cadmium, selenium, and vanadium; have been found after testing of coal power plants owned by Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). The testing, commissioned by the Office of Inspector General, showed that levels of these substances were high enough in eight out of nine sites to cause health hazards.
The ground and water contamination found in the report are directly caused by faulty disposal of coal ash, which is a byproduct of fossil fuel power plants like those owned by TVA. Specifically, a 2008 incident in which a massive coal ash spill at TVA’s Kingston plant released 5.4 million cubic yards of the ash which contained mercury, lead, arsenic, and a host of other nasties harmful to humans.
That incident sparked a congressional investigation into the coal ash spill and importantly, brought national attention to an environmental hazard, once thought to be harmless. Disturbingly, the investigations that led to TVA’s site tests made everyone aware that there was very little information collected by coal power suppliers because they were not legally required to test for and record data on coal ash contaminant levels.
What seems like shady dealings by TVA is actually quite the norm. Anne Paine of the Tennessean reports that “For more than a decade, the TVA had been finding substances in groundwater at its Allen coal-fired plant in Memphis that indicated toxic metals could be leaking from a coal ash pond there. Arsenic above today’s allowable levels was found repeatedly in a monitoring well on the site, which is in a sensitive location.”
In fact, it is almost admirable that TVA was monitoring the site at all. Coal power plants in all other states can produce very little, if any, data on the contamination levels of their sites.
Environmental attorneys and watchdog groups are putting pressure on congress to start passing Federal legislation to require monitoring and reporting of coal ash disposal sites but are being met with resistance.
TVA in the meantime, is working with the Tennessee Department of Environmental and Conservation (TDEC) to remediate the contamination. As Chuck Head, senior director for the TDEC said, “We would obviously have liked them to report it to us when they found the arsenic. But now that we have the information, we are going to work with them to try to resolve the problem.”
A current environmental issue with a fairly high gross-out factor is the recent occurrence of a “mahogany Tide” growing in Baltimore Harbor. According to Scott Dance of the Baltimore Sun, “Record-high water temperatures and a March sewage leak are contributing to a large algae bloom in the Baltimore Harbor, bringing what is known as a ‘mahogany tide’ of reddish-brown algae to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.”
It is not uncommon for algae blooms to appear in waters across the country, especially with nitrogen and fertilizer runoff from agricultural land that feed the undesirable blooms. This one is rare in that the perfect storm contributed to its rapid growth. Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee both created excessive runoff. Also, water contamination caused by the March sewage line break could contribute to the mahogany tide. As reported in the Daily Record, a 54-inch main broke, spewing up to 17 million gallons of sewage a day. Area residents were told to avoid that part of the river and shellfish harvesting was halted there.
Algae blooms, particularly harmful ones like mahogany tide, are more than just unsightly and a nuisance to fishers. The normal plant and animal life of the waters are threatened as their oxygen supplies are choked off. Dance explains, “The blooms threaten aquatic plant and animal life because when they die, the bacteria that decompose them suck oxygen from the water, creating dead zones.”
While humans have no control over the elements such as hurricanes and tropical storms, one can’t help but wonder if there are not steps to be taken to reduce the amount of runoff that enters America’s waterways. Could Baltimore look at some of the environmental sustainability steps taken by farmers in Vermont who are attempting to curb fertilizer runoff into Lake Champlain? With thoughtful planning, are there possibilities to at least reduce the severity and occurrence of mahogany tide?
As a follow up to a recent blog post about two contaminated middle schools in Southington, Conn., this story is about how the EPA has agreed to allow the town to build over the contamination, saving millions on the project.
Before construction had even begun on either DePaulo or Kennedy Middle School, a site assessment turned up elevated levels of Polychloronated Biphenyls (PCBs) in the buildings. An environmental engineering outfit named Hygenix, Inc. performed over 200 tests in the schools and found the bulk of the contamination was integrated into building materials such as window caulking and floor tiles. The only good news at the time was that water sampling and air quality testing confirmed that no one was ingesting the substances.
The discovery of the harmful chemicals brought a dark cloud over the construction project because the threat of a huge bloat in the budget loomed. Town planners were smart; they had already added a $1.2 million slush fund into the equation just in case things came up. But the cost of remediation was unknown and could have easily gone over that figure.
One estimate would have added $14 million just to remediate the vapor barriers that were contaminated and located inside the walls of the schools.
Luckily, brighter days are here for the Southington middle schools. According to Rob Glidden of the Southington Observer, “The middle schools renovation project is poised to clear a major hurdle, after officials received verbal confirmation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the cheaper plan for the remediation of hazardous materials will likely be approved.”
The EPA’s decision is that “as long as conditions remain the same in terms of air quality” the vapor barriers didn’t need to come down in order to safely complete the renovations.
Fingers crossed for both Kennedy and DePaulo Middle School.
The Great Lakes are now facing a very large water contamination problem resulting from tiny pieces of plastic that are the size of a typed period. (Just like the one at the end of this sentence). The tiny pieces of plastic are actually beads used as exfoliates in toiletry products like facial scrubs and body washes. Most of the beads were initially believed to have gotten into the lakes due to raw sewage spills over the years. More recently, researchers have discovered that the plastic beads also pass through standard water treatment processes since they are so small.
The beads are turning up by the ten millions in the Great Lakes with the largest concentrations in Lake Erie & Lake Ontario. Dr. Shari Mason, a University of New York chemist, has been studying the contamination issue extensively over the past two years. In approximately 100 samples, Dr. Mason has concluded that 60% of the samples consisted of plastic beads. Furthermore, she has estimated that the samples suggest some areas of the lakes have concentrations as high as 1.1 million beads per square mile.
The plastic beads pose a huge danger to fish because of their resemblance to natural fish food. Once ingested the beads are not broken down and have been found in the intestines of fish caught for human consumption. The plastic beads are also easily coated with toxic pollutants as they float on the lakes’ surface. Once again the beads are eaten by fish, exposing the animal to toxins, which may in turn be consumed by human beings. Many of the toxic chemicals found in the fish have been classified as dangerous to human beings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is important to mention that approximately 65 million pounds of fish are harvested from the Great Lakes a year for human consumption.
Unfortunately there is not much that can be done to clean up the existing plastic beads in the Great Lakes. Large scale filtering would capture particles and food sources essential to the ecosystem. The solution to the water contamination issue is to prevent any future bead pollution. Companies like Johnson & Johnson have agreed to stop using the beads in all of their products over the next two years. Other companies like Burt’s Bees and St. Ives have been vocal regarding their use of natural exfoliates like crushed nut shells, oat kernel flour, and jojoba beads. There are currently no environmental regulations being broken by companies still using the beads, and water treatment facilities are completely compliant in their filtration practices. Water filters were simply not designed to capture particles that tiny.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking is once again at the forefront of environmental news. This time the news is not all bad. Researchers have discovered that the fracking process is not directly linked to drinking water contaminated by natural gas in North Texas or in Pennsylvania, the homes of two of the nation’s largest shale.
Researchers from several different universities figured out the exact source of the water contamination by testing seven separate locations in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and one in the Barnett Shale in Texas. The samples were then examined based on their elemental make up, which allowed researchers to determine exactly where the gas originated, including the depth that is was released from.
This allowed the researchers to pinpoint that the water contamination was linked to natural gas wells that had not been associated with active fracking practices. Researchers feel that this is relatively good news since the safety of gas well construction can be improved to ensure leaks do not occur in the future.
Water Contaminated with natural gas is not only dangerous to human health, but it also poses a huge public safety hazard. If water contains enough gas, fumes can be leached into the home creating an extremely flammable environment. Since natural gas is so flammable, dangerous explosions can occur. One homeowner near the area in which the Barnett Shale sample was taken, demonstrated the danger of natural gas in local water by creating a home video of his garden hose being lit on fire, shooting a fiery stream.
The homeowner, Steve Lipsky, was sued for defamations by a local gas company as a result of the video. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agreed with Lipsky in blaming the gas company for the contamination. The company was later found not responsible for the contamination by The Railroad Commission in a private hearing. The EPA soon changed its opinion on the matter.
The natural gas industry has exploded over the past decade due to fracking, especially in the Barnett Shale of North Texas and the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. The Barnett Shale is located to the west of Dallas, Texas and is about 5,000 square miles. Approximately 20,500 permits have been granted for well drilling over the past nine years alone. The Marcellus Shale is five times as large at approximately 95,000 square miles, spanning several states east of the Appalachian Mountains. Many officials in the area see the fracking industry as new way to spark the area’s slow economy. Other advocates see fracking as a means to creating an energy independent Unites States.
Critics of fracking are still not convinced that the process is completely innocent in potential water contamination. For instance, university researchers involved in this study have admitted that while the natural gas found in water supplies was not directly associated with the fracking process some of the gas in the leaky wells had traveled from deeper layers of the shale. With that said, they specify that fracking is not releasing natural gas directly into water supplies. They also said that if that was the case water contamination would be much more severe.
The City of Chicago seems to be treading water when it comes creating environmental regulations regarding the storage of petroleum coke. Petroleum coke, better known as Petcoke is a powdery hazardous waste material created during the oil refinery process similar in appearance to coal. Petcoke is usually stored and then moved to power plants so it can be used as fuel. Although the byproduct is solid, it is also extremely powdery. It is the dust created by the storage piles that is of concern for Chicago residents. If the dust is inhaled it can lead to health issues.
Early this June, Chicago area environmental groups composed a letter to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) expressing the disapproval of the Agency’s decision to not pursue comprehensive laws regarding the storage of petcoke. This decision came as a complete surprise since previous agency actions had indicated that the IEPA would create progressive environmental regulations. In fact, one year ago the IEPA had campaigned for emergency petcoke rules are put into place. This sudden change of heart is not sitting well with the Chicago people.
Critics argue that a lack of regulation on petcoke storage could prove harmful to both residents of Chicago as well as people in surrounding communities. The city has recently prohibited the establishment of any new petcoke storage facilities from being built in the city limits, which is forcing companies to look elsewhere. While limitations of future storage sites are a good thing, there is no regulation of the current process in Chicago or any other Illinois community.
The entire state of Illinois is at risk of petcoke exposure due to the lack of regulation. The Calumet River which borders a current storage facility flows outside the city limits and could easily be at risk of water contamination. The likelihood only increases if more facilities are built along its shores. Similarly railways throughout the state would be ideal petcoke storage facilities, many of which are located near the Mississippi River. Large deliveries of petcoke by barge or railway can also affect the local air quality as they do not by law have to be covered or wetted to prevent clouds of dust.
After the hurricane’s winds have died down and after the floods have subsided, unexpected dangers lurk in the aftermath. While hurricane victims are typically aware of the immediate hazards such as being hit with falling debris and drowning, they may not think of the residual problems that can be just as deadly—and much longer lasting.
One major environmental issue that areas affected by Irene, or any hurricane, have to deal with is water contamination. The high water from ocean swells, rising rivers, and broken water mains creates a runoff that can pick up contaminants from industrial, commercial, and even residential buildings in its path. This can be particularly poisonous when dry cleaners, gas stations, dumps, cars, and other pollution contributors end up in the water’s wake. As Patrick Breyesse of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health describes the phenomenon; it’s a “soupy mess.” That soupy mess can bring toxic water into homes, playgrounds, into drinking wells—places that put people at a real risk of health problems.
Another area of concern is the possibility that toxic mold can grow in buildings that Irene has affected. Water intrusion and flooding can leave floorboards, walls, and ceilings damp for extended periods of time which in turn breeds the noxious spores that adversely affect many peoples’ health. Black mold in particular is a culprit and can be hard to detect when it doesn’t grow in a visible area of a building. Mold can sprout up behind walls and under carpets. It’s important to conduct a thorough site assessment after a hurricane, especially if you notice abnormal health symptoms in yourself or your family.
Irene swung an unusually strong sucker punch to the Northeast where many states found more than half of their population without power. Victims of the hurricane in the Northeastern states may be particularly vulnerable to the silent killers since they are not used to the damage that many states in hurricane zones have grown accustomed to dealing with.
As Robert Kendall, of the Institute of Environment and Human Health at Texas Tech University said after Irene, “It’s not like the flood waters just come and go, and people can go back to normal. For somewhere like New York City, this is uncharted territory. This storm is as big as the state of Texas.”
The state of Texas is about to get a little greener. No, scientists haven’t developed an space-age version of Miracle Grow. A new Texas Supreme Court ruling will now allow for the cleanup and redevelopment of “hundreds of thousands of condemned, dilapidated and possibly dangerous properties that have been neighborhood eyesores throughout the state of Texas…,” said Leonard Cherry of CHRON.com.
Urban blight and suburban decay have been a problem for cities and towns in Texas for many years because of pesky ordinances that prevented anyone from stepping in and knocking the problem buildings down, even when building inspections proved there were environmental safety concerns.
The court ruling states that cities now have the right to demolish blighted buildings as long as the “owner is given a specific amount of time after the initial notification to appeal,” explains Cherry.
This ruling does much more than just create prettier cities. Many of the run-down buildings were places of high crime, including violent crime, and drug dealing. Buildings like the ones discussed in the case brought down the property values of entire neighborhoods, not to mention the spirits of the residents who live in them.
Remediating the properties will bring new life to the areas. Allowing the dilapidated buildings to be knocked down is a positive step towards environmental sustainability. New businesses and homes can be built once environmental engineering companies and construction crews get in and clean up and rebuild. Neighbors can feel safer from the hazardous waste materials that often linger in abandoned buildings.
The demolition crews of today have environmental safety as a top priority. Cherry says, “Many of today’s demolition contracting firms are trained as environmental specialists and are skilled at necessary services, such as tank cleaning and removal, asbestos abatement, soil remediation and hazardous waste management.”
Here’s a Texas-sized hurray for smart environmental management.