Central Florida is the home to a unique terrain known as scrub, an area made up of sand dunes and hearty plants. The terrain is Florida’s version of a dessert and is considered one of the oldest ecosystems in the state. The present day scrub area was the first piece of land that was exposed as the ocean levels lowered. Despite the lands fortitude over thousands of years, it faces near extinction as developers continue to build.
A group of volunteers in southwest Orange County have gotten permission from local land developers to remove plants from the property. They plan to dig up as much of the plant life as possible in order to save endangered plant species. Any plants collected will be replanted in conservations and cataloged in a genetic library. The 485 acre area will eventually be bulldozed and have 1,557 homes built on it. A million years of ecosystem will be destroyed in only a few short months.
The volunteers, many of them members of the Native Plant Society, explain that collecting plant samples is clearly not the best option, but it is the only one that they have if they want to save many species. Ideally the land would be protected and safe from all development, but the protection of plants is far weaker than the environmental regulations that are in place to protect endangered animals.
Volunteers are however appreciative of the development company for allowing them the opportunity to save what they could, as many companies are not as cooperative. Companies often worry that the volunteers would discover an endangered or protected animal on the land. This could force them into court and make it illegal for them to build on that land. In this case, the volunteers have signed a contract that would not allow them to make any such claims.
The fracking industry is no stranger to current environmental issues, and recent concerns over workplace safety are no exception. The danger lies in the sand that is inhaled by workers. The sand is made up of extremely fine quartz silica which can lead to deadly lung diseases like silicosis.
Major attention to the issue began in 2011 when a government researcher visited a Colorado drilling site to study workers being exposed to potentially harmful fluids in fracking. The researcher’s attention was soon diverted once he saw the amount of dust that was generated in the process. The National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) soon began conducting research at eleven drilling sites in five different states. Samples taken from the area around worker’s heads revealed that many were being exposed to silica dust levels that were 10 times legal levels.Fracking sand becomes airborne when it is trucked to drilling site and unloaded onto conveyor belts where it is eventually mixed with fluid chemicals and pumped into the ground.
NIOSH has made several pleas to the federal government to develop environmental regulations concerning the amount of fracking sands that can be produced. The American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agree that exposure to silica is dangerous, but argue that creating regulations is not an economically wise decision. Therefore, most legislation is rejected. These groups recommend that the responsibility should be placed on the companies that own the fracking sites.
One company, Encana has taken responsibility and changed its practice to include using vacuums to collect potentially airborne sand. The company has also started to train their employees in silica awareness, including the use of respiratory masks. Despite these efforts, silica levels remain above federal standards in at least three Encana sites. Another company called Sandbox offers a unique solution in which all sand remains in a closed box as it makes its way to the conveyor belt to be mixed with fluids. This minimizes the amount of airborne dust significantly.
Unfortunately, the impact on fracking worker’s health may not be known for several years. Silicosis and other lung diseases take between five and ten years to develop. Currently, there is no research being done to monitor worker’s health.
The city of Eugene, Oregon had an unusual booth at the seasonal Harvest Festival this year. The booth was named “My Garden” and was a place in which individuals brought collected samples of soil from their yard and had it analyzed to see if it was safe to grow fruits and vegetables in.
Eugene had been brought to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) attention recently as an area concerned about their air quality as well as other potential hazardous waste materials from local industries. Surveys of city resident revealed that many of them were concerned with potential health risk, especially due to the amount of children in the area suffering with asthma. As a result, the EPA awarded small grants to an organization call Beyond Toxics so that further data could be collected. The grants went towards educating the community and allowing them opportunities to voice concerns.
The soil booth was the brainchild of concerned citizen Joanne Gross who asked a simple question of whether her soil was safe to grow food in. Gross joined forces with Beyond Toxics and sought out to answer her question. Upon research the team discovered that similar programs had already been done in Philadelphia in a “Soil Kitchen” event.
Weeks before the Harvest Festival Joanne Gross and other volunteers distributed 250 kits throughout the Eugene community so that soil samples could be collected. The kits contained a spoon, a baggie, and illustrated instructions on how to collect and deliver the sample. The day of the Festival 38 samples were brought to the booth for analysis. The results were then explained to the individual. There was even a Spanish speaking individual at the booth to explain results, since the population is so diverse. After a log day and weeks of preparation, all 38 samples tested were deemed safe for growing food safely.
The Clackamas, Oregon community has taken it upon themselves to protect their local rivers from potential water contamination that results from the spraying of pesticides. The concept is simple; prevent as many pesticides as possible from being blown into waterways by the wind. The Clackamas County Soil and Water Conservation District’s solution is even simpler; to have local farmers attach a windsock to the back of their spraying tractors. Each windsock determines the wind speed from 2 to 12 miles an hour. Farmers will judge the wind speed based on the height that the windsock is flying. The farmer can use the wind speed information to determine which area of crops would be ideal for spraying.
The Clackamas District doesn’t believe that it will be difficult to convince farmers to get onboard with the windsock project. Knowing the wind speed allows farmers to spray more efficiently and more effectively with minimal waste. Reducing the amount of waste will save farmers a significant amount of money. The project is voluntary and is at no cost to the farmer, so any cash they save due to more efficient spraying goes in their pockets. There are also plans to provide the farmers with better spraying nozzles in the near future. The nozzles will be phase two of this project. The Oregon State University Integrated Plant Protection Center will analyze all the data from the project and determine its success and future.
Ultimately, the Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District is trying to avoid having to wait on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to apply the Clean Water Act to its waterways. The EPA will only invoke the Clean Water Act if a waterway exceeds the concentration of chemicals allowed under law. The majority of pesticides have no environmental regulations and creating them can be a lengthy and difficult task. Taking matters into their own hands and creating voluntary programs seemed like a much simpler first step toward water protection. The combined efforts of the Clackamas community are commendable and have the potential to protect over 400,000 individuals who rely on the area for safe drinking water.
Residents of Patagonia, Arizona have become unsettled after observing two local waterways turn into orange sludge with a milky film. It has been determined that heavy September rains have caused nearby mines to flood and leach minerals, metals, and other chemicals into the waterways. The orange or reddish color is the reaction that occurs when iron and magnesium are mixed with water. Essentially the reaction creates rust. The milky film is believed to be aluminum, which is considered a potentially dangerous heavy metal.
Researchers state that the water contamination resulting from the local mines is nothing new. Every year the streams are contaminated with acidic runoff. This year was amplified due to the heavy rains and was also more visually extreme. Residents did not have to do pH test to know something was wrong; the discoloration was a glaring red flag. Researchers did however test the water, revealing a pH of about 4.7 on a scale in which 7 is the neutral. The water located directly in the mines has been measured with pH levels as acidic as 2 and 3.
The two mines that are sourcing the water contamination are located six miles and twelve miles South of Patagonia. The closest mine, known as the Trench Camp Mine has not been operational since it closed in the early 1980’s. The mine is privately owned by the Asarco Multi-State Trust, a group set up after the Asarco Company went bankrupt in 2009. The Trust has been cited several times for not meeting environmental regulations and allowing acidic chemicals and metals to discharge from the mine site. Despite citations the trust did not face any fines in this most recent incident. Since its establishment the Asarco Multi-State Trust has spent an estimated $23 million to clean up three mine sites in Arizona. About $2.3 million was put toward the cleanup of the Trench Camp Mine. Cleanup efforts included the creation of an earth dam as well as a man-made wetland area to serve as a buffer for overflow. The September rains overwhelmed both preventative measures, allowing the acidic sludge to reach the Patagonia waterways.
The other mine, known as the Lead Queen Mine was closed in the 1940s and is located on Forest Service Land. There is currently no cleanup plan in affect at this mine site, since Forest Service Officials are still trying to decide on the best solution. Originally hay was going to be used to absorb any toxic runoff, but fear of erosion nixed the plan. Ideally, Forest Service’s hopes to have the Lead Queen Mine become a designated Superfund site by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but this can be an arduous process.
Officials point out that although it is important that flood preventative measures are taken, it is more important to find the source of the acidic orange sludge. Finding the cause would solve the problem forever as opposed to quick band aid fix. Other individuals believe that finding the source in a mine full of seemingly endless shafts, tunnels, and cracking rock may prove an impossible task, so flood prevention is all that can be done.