air pollution

Fri, 2014-12-19 18:27Mike Gaworecki
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New EPA Coal Ash Regulations Are Not Enough To Stop The Next Coal Ash Spill

The Environmental Protection Agency released long-awaited coal ash regulations today, the first rules ever to be imposed on the storage and disposal of the toxic waste left over after burning coal for electricity—the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S.

But according to Earthjustice and the 10 environmental and public interest groups it represented in suing to force the release of the regulations in the first place, the EPA’s new rules are not nearly stringent enough to stop the next coal ash spill before it happens.

The new rules will not phase out the practice of storing massive quantities of coal ash—which contains highly toxic substances like arsenic, mercury, lead and radioactive uranium—in unlined ponds shored up by earthen dams that are often unstable and likely to fail. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina this past February and the spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 that released 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry, covering up to 300 acres of surrounding land.

The typical coal ash dam is built from soil and ash and is used to impound millions of tons of coal ash and wastewater. The majority are over 40 years old, according to Earthjustice, and most do not have monitoring systems in place for detecting leaks of the toxic coal ash slurry they contain.

Thu, 2014-12-18 08:26Mike Gaworecki
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What Americans Don’t Know About Climate Change Could Be Really Bad For Their Health

When it comes to the health impacts of global warming, Americans are woefully uninformed.

In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only about one in four can even name a health problem associated with global warming that their fellow Americans might be suffering from.

Only 14% of Americans are aware of one of the most obvious health impacts of all the global warming pollution that has been dumped into our atmosphere: respiratory problems like asthma and other lung diseases. A mere 6% make the connection between illness, injury, and death resulting from extreme weather events and climate change.

Less than 5% of Americans could name any of the other consequences to human health from global warming.

Perhaps that’s no surprise, given that the survey also found 70% of Americans have given “little or no thought” to how global warming could affect human health in the first place.

Tue, 2014-12-16 05:00Mike Gaworecki
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Newspapers Complicit In Selling Phony “War On Coal”

U.S. newspapers are helping conservatives push their misleading “war on coal” narrative, according to a new report.

There are a number of reasons why the tide has turned against the coal industry around the globe. Mining and burning coal for energy poses huge risks for human health and the environment, for instance, mainly due to the vast amounts of air and water pollution created throughout coal’s lifecycle.

Then of course there’s the fact that coal is the single largest source of global warming pollution—while coal-fired power represents only 39% of all electricity generated in the U.S, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is responsible for 75% of carbon emissions.

And of course the health of coal miners and the safety of mining operations is a cause for concern, as well. The indictment of coal baron Don Blankenship is proof enough of that—a U.S. attorney recently pressed conspiracy charges against Blankenship for violating federal mine safety and health standards and impeding federal mine safety officials, among other offenses committed before and after the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010 that took the lives of 29 workers.

If you need more proof, there was a study conducted this year that found a severe form of black lung is affecting miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia at levels not seen in four decades.

But it’s not just the dangers of the job that are driving coal miners out of work: greater automation in coal mining operations and the rise of cheap, abundant natural gas thanks to fracking have also taken a heavy toll on the coal industry.

Yet a Media Matters analysis of the 233 articles published in major U.S. newspapers this year that mentioned the phrase “war on coal” found that more than half ignored all of these underlying causes of the coal industry’s decline.

Wed, 2014-12-10 14:00Julie Dermansky
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Citizens Take Monitoring Into Own Hands as Eagle Ford Shale Boom Continues Undaunted

Flare stack

Hugh Fitzsimons lll, a buffalo rancher on the outskirts of Carrizo Springs, Texas, cautiously watches the fracking industry’s accelerating expansion. His 13,000-acre ranch is atop the southwestern part of the oil-rich Eagle Ford Shale, which stretches from Leon County in northeast Texas to Laredo, along the Mexican border.

During the last two years Fitzsimons has watched the fracking boom transform a rural locale into an industry hub. Desolate dirt roads are now packed with truck traffic, and commercial development to service the growing industry has sprung up along state highways, creating air and noise pollution.

Hugh A. Fitzsimons III

Hugh A. Fitzsimons lll on a dirt road near his ranch in the Eagle Ford Shale. ©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films

Though Fitzsimons stands to profit from oil extraction, he has not turned a blind eye to the industry’s damaging effects on the environment. He wants to make sure the expanding industry acts responsibly and is doing his part to ensure that happens, a tall order since a state-sponsored report estimates the number of wells could grow from 8,000 to 32,000 by 2018 and industry polices itself for the most part.

Thu, 2014-11-27 08:00Julie Dermansky
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Unsafe Levels of Formaldehyde in Air Around Arkansas’ Fayetteville Shale

Fracking industry site next to the Greer Ferry Lake in Quitman, Arkansas

Results from air samples taken in the Fayetteville Shale show notably elevated levels of formaldehyde, a suspected human carcinogen that can cause respiratory and reproductive problems as well as birth defects — but citizens still have little faith U.S. regulators will step in to prevent further threats to human health.  

The tests were conducted by an Arkansas community group trained by Global Community Monitor to use equipment and methods certified by federal agencies to collect the air samples. Citizen groups in Colorado, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming were also trained for the community-based participatory research.

Over a period of two years, samples were taken at sites locals were concerned about. Laboratory analysis of the samples collected often revealed contaminants such as benzene, formaldehyde and other toxic substances above levels the federal government considers safe for brief or longer-term human exposure.

The implications for health effects are just enormous,” David O. Carpenter, director of the University at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment, told National Geographic.

Wed, 2014-11-19 10:00Mike Gaworecki
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Regulators Are Failing To Protect Californians From Oil And Gas Development

Two new reports show that California regulators are failing to enforce basic measures to protect the public—particularly in the most vulnerable communities—from the impacts of oil and gas development.

The FracTracker Alliance has a new report showing that there are 352,724 children in California who attend a school within one mile of an oil and gas well, including at least 217 wells using fracking, acidizing, and gravel packing as a stimulation technique.

State law and corresponding regulations do not place any limit on where the oil and gas industry is allowed to drill, nor do they require that notice be given to parents, teachers, or school officials when fracking or other high intensity oil extraction methods will be used in close proximity to schools, despite the growing number of scientific studies that have identified public health threats from oil and gas development, especially fracking.

State law and regulations are similarly lax in regards to the other end of the oil and gas development cycle, according to Clean Water Action, which has just released a report detailing the threat to California's air and water from the open, unlined pits used to store much of the oil industry's toxic wastewater.

California produced 8 billion gallons of oil and 130 billion gallons of wastewater in 2013—15 barrels of wastewater for every barrel of oil, the CWA report says. There has been no comprehensive analysis of the locations of these pits in relation to high quality groundwater sources, and many of the pits are being operated without any permit whatsoever.

Fri, 2014-11-07 12:01Mike Gaworecki
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Add Toxic Air Pollution To Growing List Of Problems With Fracking

The threat posed by fracking to water quality is an issue receiving a lot of attention lately (see here, here, and here, for instance), as is the looming collapse of the fracking boom. But the Center for Environmental Health, suspecting that the whole story wasn't being told, partnered with 15 different local, state, and national organizations to study fracking's impact on the air we breathe, and the results are not pretty.

Since 2012, community groups in six states—Arkansas, Colorado, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming—have been collecting air samples at oil and gas development sites where horizontal drilling, fracking, and other unconventional drilling and well stimulation techniques were employed.

The results, which were written up in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health and are also available in the report “Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution Identified at Oil and Gas Development Sites,” were analyzed by CEH and a team of specialists, who describe the results as “shocking.” The key takeaways:

  • Fifteen of the 35 “grab” air samples (meaning, where air is intentionally drawn into a sampling device), had concentrations of volatile chemicals that exceeded federal exposure risk levels for cancer, or for non-cancer health effects.
      
  • Fourteen of the 41 passive samples (where air naturally passes through a sampling device) had concentrations of volatile chemicals that exceeded federal exposure risk levels for cancer, or for non-cancer health effects.
      
  • One sample had air pollution levels that may pose an immediate danger to life or health, according to Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
      
  • Benzene, a known human carcinogen, was detected at sample locations in Pennsylvania and Wyoming, in levels exceeding health-based standards by several orders of magnitude.
      
  • In three states, formaldehyde was detected at levels exceeding the health-based standards of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).


At least 37% of the more than 600 chemicals used in fracking are endocrine disruptors, according to the report. Other health impacts from chemicals associated with oil and gas development include headaches, impaired motor function, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, liver damage, heart attacks, and cancers of the lungs, nose, and throat.

Thu, 2014-10-30 16:41Guest
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New Study Documents Air Pollution at Oil and Gas Fracking Sites Exceeding Risk Levels

This is a guest post by Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health.

Decades ago, when I was a graduate student, my advisor often said that our job as scientists was to put numbers on the obvious. Maybe it should be obvious that oil and gas production, including as it does the extraction, transport, and processing of enormous quantities of hydrocarbon mixtures, will result in air pollution, but studies that put numbers on this pollution have been rare.

The complexities of topography, weather, and the variability in the production processes themselves make such studies difficult. Today Environmental Health publishes a new study that “puts numbers” on air pollution near oil and gas infrastructure in five US states and finds sobering results.

The Environmental Health study is a collaboration between 15 local, state, and national nonprofit organizations. Our groups came together to conduct this study because we all share concerns about the potential but little studied health threats from the expansion of oil and gas operations, and in particular from hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Wed, 2014-10-29 13:16Mike Gaworecki
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EPA's Cross State Air Pollution Rule To Finally Move Forward

First issued in 2011 but quickly met with numerous legal challenges, the EPA's Cross State Air Pollution Rule is finally cleared for takeoff.

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit lifted a hold it had placed on the CSAPR, effectively giving the EPA a green light to begin implementing the rule, which regulates air pollution from power plants in 28 states that drifts across state lines, contributing to ozone and fine particle pollution.

The CSAPR creates a two-step process: first the EPA determines whether or not a state contributes more than 1% of the pollution causing a neighbor to exceed federal air standards, then the EPA gives the polluter state an emissions budget based on a complex modeling system.

It's been a long road for the EPA to get to this point. Courts struck down the agency's first two attempts to draft a rule for regulating sulfur and nitrogen emissions from power plants that drift from one state to another. After the EPA announced the final CSAPR in July of 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals placed a hold on the rule the following December before throwing it out altogether last year in response to a lawsuit filed by 15 power utilities and upwind states.

But in April of this year, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in favor of the EPA, upholding the CSAPR. In the majority opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that the CSAPR “is a permissible, workable, and equitable interpretation of the Good Neighbor provision” of the Clean Air Act, which grants the EPA the authority to regulate intersate pollution that threatens national air quality standards.

Thu, 2014-09-04 06:00Sharon Kelly
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Shale Oil Drillers Deliberately Wasted Nearly $1 Billion in Gas, Harming Climate

In Texas and North Dakota, where an oil rush triggered by the development of new fracking methods has taken many towns by storm, drillers have run into a major problem.

While their shale wells extract valuable oil, natural gas also rises from the wells alongside that oil. That gas could be sold for use for electrical power plants or to heat homes, but it is harder to transport from the well to customers than oil. Oil can be shipped via truck, rail or pipe, but the only practical way to ship gas is by pipeline, and new pipelines are expensive, often costing more to construct than the gas itself can be sold for.

So, instead of losing money on pipeline construction, many shale oil drillers have decided to simply burn the gas from their wells off, a process known in the industry as “flaring.”

It's a process so wasteful that it's sparked class action lawsuits from landowners, who say they've lost millions of dollars worth of gas due to flaring. Some of the air emissions from flared wells can also be toxic or carcinogenic. It's also destructive for the climate – natural gas is made primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and when methane burns, it produces more than half as much CO2 as burning coal.

Much of the research into the climate change impact the nation's fracking rush – now over a decade long – has focused on methane leaks from shale gas wells, where drillers are deliberately aiming to produce natural gas. The climate change impacts of shale oil drilling have drawn less attention from researchers and regulators alike.

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