Are you having a good day? Well, you aren’t anymore.
Maryland legislators have introduced a bill to make the state’s poultry producers pay a whole 5 cents a bird to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed from runoff from these incredibly polluting facilities. Governor
Carcetti O’Malley has backed away from such legislation in the past, afraid of angering big business in his desperation to become president. Of course, the poultry plutocrats are claiming this will drive all production out of Maryland. But this is obviously sensible legislation given the enormous environmental impact of meat production on the waterways of the mid-Atlantic.
Plumer has a good summary of one of the nation’s most underreported energy/environmental problems–coal ash storage. Storing this nasty stuff safely is a real problem. Environmentalists have pushed for new regulations, but the Obama Administration has moved very slowly. What’s the risk of coal ash?
One big worry is a sudden catastrophic spill like the one that happened in Tennessee. But there’s also the risk that ash could contaminate the water or air on a smaller scale, too. Coal ash often contains a variety of toxic elements like selenium, mercury, and lead — although the precise amounts vary. These heavy metals can pose health risks to humans and wildlife.
The big spills are somewhat rarer, with the 2008 Kingston disaster in Tennessee being the biggest to date. But it’s not impossible: The EPA has identified 45 wet ash ponds around the country that are “high hazard” — that is, if the encasing broke, it could lead to a loss of human life. (It would be as if a massive dam broke.) Two of those high-hazard ponds are located at Duke Energy’s Dan River site in North Carolina.
The risk of smaller contamination is also worth noting. In its 2010 proposed rule, the EPA identified a variety of ways this could threaten human health: If the coal ash was deposited in an unlined landfill or sand pit or quarry, some of those toxic elements could leach into the groundwater or migrate off-site. Or liquid waste could leak into surface water during a flood. Or dust from dry ash could become airborne.
The environmental group Earthjustice has found 207 sites in 37 states where coal ash has contaminated the water or air in violation of federal health standards. For example: Out in Prince George’s County Maryland, millions of tons of coal ash from a landfill leaked into a nearby creek after two recent hurricanes. Out in Nevada, the Moapa River Reservation has alleged that dry coal ash was frequently blowing into their communities from uncovered dumps, leading to a rash of illnesses.
Not surprisingly, the facilities where this stuff is stored tends to be in impoverished areas and so whether in big or small accidents, the poor are the one paying the wages of coal production. This is very much an environmental justice issue, as much as it is an energy policy issue.
For quite awhile, the AFL-CIO has tried to tread a middle ground on fossil fuel development. Understanding that its constituent unions had differing feelings on the issue and finding itself between the knowledge that it desperately needs alliances with other progressive organizations in order to remain a politically potent force on one hand with the demand for immediate jobs on the other, it tried to remain relatively neutral on the Keystone XL Pipeline and other issues.
The nation’s leading environmental groups are digging their heels in the sand by rejecting President Obama’s “all-of-the above” domestic energy strategy—which calls for pursuing renewable energy sources like wind and solar, but simultaneously expanding oil and gas production.
But it appears the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, won’t be taking environmentalists’ side in this fight, despite moves toward labor-environmentalist cooperation in recent years. On a recent conference call with reporters, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed two initiatives reviled by green groups: the Keystone XL pipeline and new natural gas export terminals.
“There’s no environmental reason that [the pipeline] can’t be done safely while at the same time creating jobs,” said Trumka.
In response to a question from In These Times, Trumka also spoke in favor of boosting exports of natural gas.
“Increasing the energy supply in the country is an important thing for us to be looking at,” Trumka said. “All facets of it ought to be up on the table and ought to be talked about. If we have the ability to export natural gas without increasing the price or disadvantaging American industry in the process, then we should carefully consider that and adopt policies to allow it to happen and help, because God only knows we do need help with our trade balance.”
The call came amidst a series of three speeches by the AFL-CIO leader pushing for more investment in energy and transportation infrastructure. Trumka did not specifically praise Keystone and natural gas exports during the first speech, at the UN Investor Summit on Climate Risk on January 15, and it is unclear whether he will in the remaining two. But the labor leader’s comments on the conference call were enough to peeve environmentalists.
I understand the need for jobs. But the AFL-CIO is just wrong here. Yes, members need jobs. And if the pipeline is going to be built anyway, then they should be union jobs. But there is also some moral component to the jobs that we create and actively supporting the jobs that are contributing to catastrophic climate change is not something the federation should be doing.
I’m sure that no small part of this is that unions like the Laborers who have most actively supported the pipeline are a lot more powerful than the opposing unions and they care more about it. So no doubt Trumka is feeling the pressure internally. But this just reinforces the belief that basically every other progressive organization in the country has toward American unionism–out of touch, inclined toward political reaction, clannish, and old-fashioned. Now, maybe unions shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks. Certainly that’s been the position of many of the building trades going back to their creation. But labor should also stop wondering why other progressive movements don’t take it seriously.
Why doesn’t West Virginia have decent environmental regulations? Because the state legislature has to approve each one!
West Virginia imposes an unusual hurdle for its Department of Environmental Protection: Regulations it writes are not enforceable until approved by the Legislature, giving lawmakers influenced by lobbyists a chance to revise them. Last year a regulation requiring natural-gas drillers to disclose the chemicals injected into the ground during hydraulic fracturing was revised at the request of Halliburton, the giant oil-services company, to keep the disclosure confidential.
In recent years the Department of Environmental Protection has moved to weaken limits on the amount of aluminum, a mining pollutant, in state waterways. Last year a bill sought by coal lobbyists ordering the department to revise limits on discharges of selenium, which is toxic to fish and expensive to clean up, passed the House of Delegates and the State Senate without opposition.
“A lot of our elected officials think it’s political suicide to take a stand against coal or in favor of the E.P.A.,” said Angie Rosser, the executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, a conservation group.
Other notes from this excellent article:
1. Joe Manchin is horrible.
2. The largest employer in West Virginia is Wal-Mart.
3. West Virginia politicians are all-in for an industry that has left the state 49th in the country in median household income, down from 47th in 1969.
As another oil train is dangling over a railroad bridge in Philadelphia, some wonder whether pipelines or trains are better for transporting oil. The answer from available evidence in the United States seems that the difference is fairly negligible.
Including major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
By comparison, from 1975 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom.
The federal data does not include incidents in Canada where oil spilled from trains. Canadian authorities estimate that more than 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6, when a runaway train derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. The cargo originated in North Dakota.
The March 2013 Exxon Mobil Pegasus tar sands oil pipeline disaster in Mayflower, Arkansas that poisoned nearby wetlands and killed dozens of birds, turtles and snakes. Exxon has never provided a definitive total of how much oil spilled, estimating 210,000 to 294,000 gallons. Mayflower and its wildlife are still struggling to recover.
An 840,000 gallon oil pipeline rupture in North Dakota discovered last October, but that may just be the tip of the iceberg. According to one news report, there have been hundreds of publicly unreported oil pipeline spills in North Dakota in the last two years.
A 27,000 gallon fuel leak in Utah last March that could’ve been much more disastrous if not for a beaver dam.
17,000 gallons of crude oil spilled by the Koch Pipeline Company in Texas last October.
In other words, transporting oil from Canadian tar sands is going to be terrible for the environment and public health of the United States whether it comes via pipeline or rail and both need to be opposed.
You might think corn-based ethanol is the worst possible “green energy” alternative. And I’d like to think you are right. After all, turning the entire Midwest into a giant corn monoculture and destroying the remnants of a once fertile ecosystem in order to force an inefficient and dirty way to create ethanol on a nation all because of an already powerful industry with a huge lobbying arm is a pretty bloody awful idea.
But then there’s biomass. And sure, efficient use of plant resources makes sense. After all, the timber industry realized by the 1940s that rather than wasting all that sawdust and stumpage, turning it into wood alcohol or other products was a smart economic strategy that ultimately meant needing to cut less trees for the same amount of product. But biomass as a core alternative energy source? Only if you like massive deforestation.
In 2007, the European Union set an ambitious goal to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 20 percent below their 1990 levels by 2020. That, in effect, required power plants across the continent to quickly find new ways to make energy. Some turned to wind and solar. But for coal-fired power plants it was much cheaper to convert their facilities to burn wood. The conundrum for those companies is that much of western Europe doesn’t have sufficiently large forests left to meet the demand, and the remaining woodland is heavily regulated. So corporations turned to the Southeastern U.S., where wood is plentiful, and regulations about what can be done on private land are lax.
Wood pellet manufacturing in the U.S. is now booming.
Drax, Britain’s largest coal plant, is in the process of converting most of its operations to biomass fuel, and other power plants across the continent are following suit.
In 2008 Europe imported about 2.5 million tons of wood pellets. By 2012 it imported 9 million. And by 2020 it’s projected to import upwards of 20 million tons, largely from the United States and Canada, according to John Bingham of Hawkins Wright, a British forest products consultancy.
Quaranda said his group has documented several cases of forests clear-cut for biomass fuel. A Wall Street Journal report also found clear-cutting in North Carolina.
Seth Ginther, a lawyer with the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, insists the pellet industry is not responsible for environmental damage. But he acknowledged that private landowners are free to do what they wish, including cut down whole trees on their land.
And in the South, where nearly 90 percent of land is privately owned, there is no law on the books requiring landowners to grow those trees back.
Dozens of biomass facilities have been built in the South. There are currently two in Louisiana, with eight more planned, according to Quaranda.
With a permit to build roads for logging in a protected area of the Atchafalaya pending approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, Dean Wilson worries he’s just seen the beginning of a decades-long battle to protect the woods he’s been looking after since the 1980s.
Now Wilson is trying to employ the same tactic he used when he found out retailers were selling cypress mulch taken from the Atchafalaya.
Biomass as a major industry basically means the elimination of the United States’ private forests. It would provide a lot of short term profit for companies and land-owners and unbelievably enormous long-term problems, including the destruction of ecosystems, huge losses of carbon-using greenery, erosion, degraded water quality, and widespread deforestation. And if anyone believes the idea that trees are a crop and thus will be replanted for future use, especially on private land, please contact me about the oceanfront property I have to offer you in western Nebraska. The regulatory regime on reforestation, especially in the South is basically zero.
Industrialized biomass is a terrible idea and while we need a multifaceted energy production future and while all energy production has a cost, this cost is completely unacceptable.
House Republicans passed a bill yesterday gutting Superfund. Yes, that’s right, the Republican Party supports the exposure of Americans to toxic waste.
Of course, as we all know there is no meaningful difference between the parties and thus Rand Paul is the only true progressive alternative in 2016 because of some grandstanding speeches on a single issue that he has taken no concrete actions to change.
The plastisphere, a new ecological regime of the oceans defined by humans dumping plastic into the oceans, has the potential to dramatically remake water life.
About 245 million tons of plastic is produced annually around the world, according to industry estimates. That represents 70 pounds of plastic annually for each of the 7.1 billion people on the planet, scientists say.
The waste gathers in vast oval-shaped ocean “garbage patches” formed by converging currents and winds. Once trapped in these cyclonic dead zones, plastic particles may persist for centuries.
The physiological effects of plastic debris on the fish, birds, turtles and marine mammals that ingest it are well-documented: clogged intestines, restricted movement, suffocation, loss of vital nutrients, starvation.
The effects of the plastisphere are only beginning to be understood.
Edward Carpenter, a professor of microbial ecology at San Francisco State University, first reported that microbes could attach themselves to plastic particles adrift at sea in 1972. He observed that these particles enabled the growth of algae and probably bacteria and speculated that hazardous chemicals showing up in ocean animals may have leached out of bits of plastic.
Carpenter’s discovery went largely unnoticed for decades. But now, the scientific effort to understand how the plastisphere influences the ocean environment has become a vibrant and growing field of study. From Woods Hole to the University of Hawaii, scientists are collecting seawater and marine life so they can analyze the types, sizes and chemical compositions of the plastic fragments they contain. Their findings are shedding new light on the ramifications of humanity’s addiction to plastic.
“We’re changing the basic rhythms of life in the world’s oceans, and we need to understand the consequences of that,” said marine biologist Miriam Goldstein, who earned her doctorate at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography by studying plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California.
So far this year, nearly 1,000 bottlenose dolphins — eight times the historical average — have washed up dead along the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Florida, a vast majority of them victims of morbillivirus. Many more are expected to die from the disease in the coming months.
The high death toll from the resurgence of the virus, which killed 700 dolphins in an outbreak 25 years ago, has alarmed marine scientists, who say it remains unclear why the dolphins have succumbed to the disease. The deaths, along with a spate of other unrelated dolphin die-offs along Florida’s east and west coasts, raise new questions about the health of the ocean in this part of the country and what role environmental factors may be playing, scientists said.
The Indian River Lagoon, a diverse estuary, has been tainted by huge algae blooms caused in part by too much nitrogen. Research on some of the dead dolphins in the estuary — 76 died this year, the third series of deaths since 2001 — has showed that some had high levels of mercury, fungal diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and oral-genital tumors. The dolphins found were emaciated.
“You have to think, ‘Where does antibiotic-resistant bacteria come from in dolphins?’ ” said Dr. Bossart, who is involved in a long-term study of the Indian River Lagoon dolphins. “One thought is that it comes from environmental pollution.”
It’s not just the state of the oceans that makes me want to drink. Reading about the Great Lakes will do just fine.
Tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of toiletries like facial scrubs and toothpastes are slipping through water treatment plants and turning up by the tens of millions in the Great Lakes. There, fish and other aquatic life eat them along with the pollutants they carry — which scientists fear could be working their way back up the food chain to humans.
Scientists have worried about plastic debris in the oceans for decades, but focused on enormous accumulations of floating junk. More recently, the question of smaller bits has gained attention, because plastics degrade so slowly and become coated with poisons in the water like the cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs.
“Unfortunately, they look like fish food,” said Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres organization, speaking of the beads found in the oceans and, now, the lakes. His group works to eliminate plastic pollution.
Studies published in recent months have drawn attention to the Great Lakes, where there may be even greater concentrations of plastic particles than are found in oceans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also been looking at the impact of microplastics on marine life.
Remember folks, every time you brush your teeth, you poison aquatic life. And eventually, yourselves.