Last year, the EIP releasedseveral reports showing that drinking water near coal ash disposal sites in states across America contained dangerous levels of heavy metals and other toxins, including arsenic. In total, last year’s report revealed 53 sites in the United States where coal ash had polluted drinking water supplies.
The new EIP report resulted from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the EPA, which revealed that 49 different coal-fired power plants acknowledged that their own testing showed that groundwater pollution around their disposal sites far exceeded the federally acceptable levels. Among the chemicals reported to exceed federal standards at the coal-fired plants’ disposal sites are:
As demand for coal in the United States has cooled off in recent years, coal mining companies have been scrambling to deliver their dirty loads to customers abroad. But what does this mean for communities along the transportation routes, particularly at the ports and export terminals where the coal is offloaded from trains and onto boats?
The U.S.EPA, for one, is warning of the potential for “significant impacts to public health” in one such port town.
But that’s a small drop in the bucket (or lump in the stocking? sorry, couldn’t resist) of what coal companies hope to export in the very near future. (Farron Cousins covered the coal export trend here on DeSmogBlog earlier this year.)
Nowhere is the push to export coal being felt more than in the Pacific Northwest, where there are currently plans to ship more than 100 million tons each year, according to the Sightline Institute.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment on April 18 to the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2012 (HR 4348) that would effectively pre-empt the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating coal ash, the waste from coal burning plants, as a hazardous waste. About 140 million tons of coal ash are produced by power plants in the United States each year. There are about 1,000 active coal ash storage sites across the country.
According to the EPA, the ash contains concentrations of arsenic, boron, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and other metals, but the coal industry has claimed there is less mercury in the ash than in a fluorescent light bulb. However, the EPA found in 2010 that the cancer risk from arsenic near some unlined coal ash ponds was one in 50 – 2,000 times the agency’s regulatory goal. Additionally, researchers from the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, and Sierra Club have documented water contamination from coal ash sites in 186 locations. The new bill would strip the EPA’s authority to regulate the ash and hand it over to the states.
The coal industry and its allies have been pushing several levers to stop the EPA from regulating coal ash, including passing resolutions through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Along with its coal ash provisions, the transportation bill, which is intended to extend highway and transit funding through September, includes measures that would advance the controversial trans-Canada Keystone XL pipeline.
In late March, a federal court ruled to open the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, WV, to mountaintop removal coal mining. The EPA had originally vetoed the permit back in January of 2011, explaining that the destructive practices of mountaintop removal would endanger communities' health and access to clean water.
The permit authorizes the largest single mountaintop removal site in West Virginia's history.
“It posits a scenario involving the automatic self-destruction of a written permit issued by an entirely separate federal agency after years of study and consideration. Not only is this nonrevocation-revocation logistically complicated, but the possibility that it could happen would leave permittees in the untenable position of being unable to rely upon the sole statutory touchstone for measuring their Clean Water Act compliance: the permit.”
Two recent court decisions in New York state upheld the right of towns to use zoning laws to limit or even ban fracking within their borders. Other states and cities such as Dallas, Maryland, and North Carolina, are still trying to figure out whether, and if so how, to proceed with new drilling.
But the big decision that concerned citizens are watching is the one to be made by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo about his state’s moratorium. New York received more than 40,000 public comments on fracking and is plowing through them now.
The state has yet to publish those documents on the web, but DeSmogBlog has obtained many of them. Here is our initial shortlist of comments that offer the most important warnings and useful insights.
A Hidden Threat?
One of the most overlooked but potentially dangerous public health issues relating to unconventional gas drilling is radon. This odorless and radioactive gas comes up from the wells mixed with the gas that gets piped to consumers. Highly carcinogenic, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, just behind cigarette smoking, according to the EPA.
In his comments, Dr. Marvin Resnikoff, director of Radioactive Waste Management Associates, concludes that radon levels in the gas that will come from Marcellus and likely be delivered to nearly 12 million New York residents will be far higher than current levels. As a result, “the potential number of fatal lung cancer deaths due to radon in natural gas from the Marcellus shale range from 1,182 to 30,448” he writes.
With the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set to finally enact stricter air pollution standards in accordance with the Clean Air Act and two subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions requiring them to do so, powerful Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are working to make sure that the new standards never see the light of day. The specific measures being targeted are the EPA’s new standards for carbon emissions from power plant smoke stacks.
Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, along with Republicans Joe Barton (TX) and Ed Whitfield (KY) sent a letter last week to the White House, demanding that the Obama administration take action to stop the EPA from regulating carbon emissions from power plants.
A few months ago the EPA released its draft report on the results from a study it conducted in Pavillion, WY. The residents there worried that the drilling rigs installed to extract natural gas were contaminating their drinking water after they started to experience health problems. After the state failed to produce conclusive results, the EPA was called in and later found benzene and other petroleum compounds not found naturally in groundwater aquifers at 50x the maximum contamination level set by the Safe Drinking Water Act.
After they ruled out other possible sources such as agricultural waste, pesticides, and dysfunctional septic systems, they concluded the contaminants were in fact from the gas wells. The EPA has released the raw data and quality assurance data for commenting and peer review.
The hearing was conducted mainly to assess the validity and integrity of the scientific findings. So naturally, out of the four panelists called to give testimony, none were actually scientists (one was at least a doctor). James Martin testified on behalf of the EPA and Dr. Bernard Goldstein testified to the public health concerns. The other two were Tom Doll of Wyoming Oil & Gas Conservation Commission on behalf of the Wyoming governor, and Kathleen Sgamma of Western Energy Alliance.
Earlier this morning, “Gasland” filmmaker and anti-fracking advocate Josh Fox was ejected out of the Energy and Environment subcommittee meeting on fracking after he attempted to film it. Claiming the First Amendment gave him rights to record, Fox refused to leave, so he was handcuffed, led out, and later arrested. An ABC news crew was also prevented from filming as well. House Republicans directed the Capitol Hill police to arrest Fox, and to block the ABC team.
The Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing on EPA's fracking study conducted in Pavilion, WY. A few months ago, the agency found benzene and other chemicals associated with fracking in resident's drinking water. The main focus of the hearing was to verify the scientific integrity of the study.
Puzzlingly, Fox was charged with “unlawful entry” to a public hearing. (How is that even possible? We'll await Republican explanation on how they're interpreting the First Amendment here.)
As Fox was led out of the room, Democratic Representative, Brad Miller (D-NC), attempted to suspend the committee rules to let the crews film the hearing but was blocked by the Republican Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD). Normally, the committee chairman can give special permission to allow uncredentialed media members to film. They attempted to pass a motion that would either allow Fox and others to film or postpone the hearing until credentials could be obtained, both of which were voted down with Harris stating that the hearing could be viewed on the web.
Capitol Police public information officer Seargant Kimberly Schneider provided the following statement to HuffPost on the morning's events:
“At approximately 10:30 a.m. today, United States Capitol Police arrested Joshua Fox of Milanville, Pa. in room 2318 of the Rayburn House office building. He is charged with unlawful entry, and he is currently being processed at United States Capitol Police headquarters.”
The EPA's concerns echo those being shouted from the rooftops (or at least outside local town halls) for months from New York and Pennsylvania residents and advocacy groups, who are alarmed about the inherent risks to public health and drinking water that fracking imposes. The other looming question is whether the DEC can handle such a lofty task, seeing that they've experienced budget cuts and layoffs over the past couple of years.
Mainly, there are major concerns over drinking water buffer zones, wastewater treatment plans, those pesky earthquakes that seem to hang out near fracking-related sites, and the radiation hazards that could threaten workers and nearby residents.
Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy.
There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.