Environmental Must-Reads – April 15, 2015


Federal researchers ID at least 9 VOC inhalation deaths at oil site

At least nine oil workers have died since 2010 from inhaling toxic amounts of vapors while measuring crude oil in storage tanks at well sites, according to new findings by federal researchers.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report, posted Friday, documents a poorly understood hazard in the oil field from volatile hydrocarbons, also called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Many oil workers and supervisors don’t realize the petrochemicals can kill

Weather Underground: The arrival of man-made earthquakes.

In the fall of 2011, students in Katie Keranen’s seismology course at the University of Oklahoma buried portable seismograph stations around the campus, in anticipation of a football game between the Sooners and the Texas A. & M. Aggies. The plan was to see if the students could, by reading the instruments, detect the rumble of eighty-two thousand fans cheering for a touchdown. “To see if they can figure out if a signal is a passing train or a cheering crowd—that’s much more interesting for them than discussing data in theory,” Keranen, an assistant professor of geophysics, told me.

But at 2:12 A.M. on November 5th, the day of the game, people in seventeen states felt an earthquake of 4.8 magnitude, centered near Prague, Oklahoma, a town of roughly twenty-five hundred, which is about an hour’s drive from Norman, where O.U. is situated. The students quickly packed up the seismographs and headed to Prague, hoping to measure the aftershocks. “Obviously, this was more worthwhile than a game,” Keranen said.

North Dakota approves project to recycle oil drilling waste

North Dakota lawmakers on Tuesday approved a measure to create a pilot project aimed at treating and recycling some of an estimated 1 million tons of oil drilling waste annually for road building and other uses.

Rep. Todd Porter, R-Mandan, said the project is intended to turn “mounds and mounds and piles and piles” of the drilling byproduct into beneficial use.

Oil Layoffs Hit 100,000 and Counting

Like many other oil-field workers, Chris Sabulsky spent years working a schedule known as “14 on, 14 off:” two weeks at an oil or gas well somewhere followed by another 14 days at home in East Texas, fishing for bass and crappie.

But now Mr. Sabulsky, 48 years old, is spending his days sending out résumés, calling acquaintances to see if they know of job openings, and pondering his future. His job managing hydraulic-fracturing, or fracking, operations at well sites evaporated in February after the oil-price plunge last year. Fracking, which uses water, chemicals and sand to free oil and gas from shale formations, has been a crucial factor in the U.S. energy boom.

Sierra Club opposes Tempe power plant plan

The Sierra Club has filed a 57-page critique of a plan to upgrade a natural-gas fired power plant in Tempe with county air-quality regulators.

Arizona Public Service Co. plans to upgrade the Ocotillo Power Plant near Tempe Marketplace by replacing some of the old generators on the site with newer, faster-starting generators.

Regulators increase distance needed between homes, drilling

Wyoming oil and gas regulators granted the petroleum industry a compromise Tuesday by voting unanimously to widen the minimum distance between oil and gas wells and occupied structures from 350 to 500 feet.

The move disappointed landowner advocates. Groups including the Powder River Basin Resource Council had sought a minimum distance of a quarter of a mile, or 1,320 feet.

EPA loophole allows streams of wastewater in Wyoming

The Environmental Protection Agency last month issued revised permits for oil companies to dump literally rivers of wastewater—including hydraulic fracturing fluids—on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.

When the companies pump oil, water from deep in the earth comes up too. This water can include naturally occurring substances, such as metals, that can pollute streams. It can also include toxic chemicals the companies injected into the wells during hydrofracturing to make the oil flow better. Under these EPA permits, the companies release water onto the dry ground in quantities large enough to create permanent streams. Some flow for long distances on the arid reservation and join the Wind River and Little Wind River.

Drilling Chaco: What’s actually at stake

The sky is the way the sky gets sometimes around here, that high-cloud, flat grey. I’m on a promontory in the ash-colored badlands of Kutz Canyon in northwestern New Mexico with my brother, Geoff. We look at our compasses and then scan the horizon toward true north and true south, looking for clues. Nothing. Instead, I see gas wells scattered here and there, a white truck driving a road down below. Then my eye alights upon a set of tracks leading into the bleached-white sprawling bed of Kutz Wash. They end at the carcass of a horse, a reminder of how harsh this landscape can be.

Proposed bill puts limit on fracking

A Piedmont Triad legislator has filed a bill that would prevent companies from being able to drill for natural gas on a person’s property without the landowner’s consent.

Current law would allow the state to compel an unwilling property owner to participate in a drilling operation, a process called compulsory or forced pooling.

Judge denies Broomfield motion to dismiss COGA fracking complaint

A judge has denied Broomfield’s motion to dismiss a Colorado Oil & Gas Association lawsuit that seeks to invalidate the local fracking moratorium.

COGA on Nov. 24 filed a complaint for declaratory judgment to invalidate the temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing. Measure 300, which passed by 20 votes in November 2013, imposed a five-year halt to fracking in Broomfield.

Disaster Plans for Oil Trains

Imagine a mile-long train transporting crude oil derailing on an elevated track in Jersey City, N.J., across the street from senior citizen housing and 2 miles from the mouth of the Holland Tunnel to Manhattan.

The oil ignites, creating an intense explosion and a 300-foot fireball. The blast kills 87 people right away, and sends 500 more to the hospital with serious injuries. More than a dozen buildings are destroyed. A plume of thick black smoke spreads north to New York’s Westchester County.

Oil train safety bill clears Washington House

Amid a surge in the volume of volatile crude oil moving through the state, Washington representatives passed a measure Tuesday aimed at strengthening safety and transparency efforts.

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, called it “a good step.” She said she’s confident that, this legislative session, the state will “end up with a greater margin of safety for the public, the environment and the economy.”

Is Gulf Oil Spill’s Damage Over or Still Unfolding?

Every spring, scientists tromp through Louisiana’s mud and waist-high grass, hunting for the hidden nests of a palm-size bird called the seaside sparrow. Their goal: to see whether the massive oil spill from a broken Gulf of Mexico rig known as Deepwater Horizon has hurt creatures that don’t actually inhabit the water.

Five years after the worst oil spill in U.S. history, early reports from this and other research suggest that the ecological damage lingered in unexpected ways. But scientists say cataloging what that means for the Gulf’s future grows more complex with time.

White House tightens oil-drilling rules as BP spill anniversary nears

Five years after the country’s worst maritime petroleum spill, the Obama administration took steps Monday to tighten regulations for offshore oil rigs, saying the new measures would help prevent oil-well blowouts and minimize environmental damage from future leaks.

The proposals announced by the Interior Department would substantially overhaul the technical guidelines for drilling on the U.S. continental shelf, adding dozens of new requirements aimed mostly at stopping high-pressure undersea wells from blowing their tops.

5 years after the Gulf oil spill: What we do (and don’t) know

On April 20, 2010, a final cement seal of an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico failed, causing what has been called the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and taking the lives of 11 rig workers.

For 87 straight days, oil and methane gas spewed from an uncapped wellhead, 1 mile below the surface of the ocean.

Gulf remains ‘resilient’ 5 years after oil spill, Texas researchers say

Five years after the largest oil spill in U.S. history, the Gulf of Mexico is showing “encouraging” signs of resiliency, according to one research institute working in the Gulf.

“The state of the Gulf five years after the spill is encouraging,” said Larry McKinney, executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, in a video news release. “It seems to have snapped back from that really horrible incident.”

Vancouver oil spill in English Bay spawns likely lawsuits

The City of Vancouver has hired an outside lawyer to pursue a possible lawsuit over the bunker-fuel spill in its harbour last week, to ensure it recovers the money it has had to spend.

And that’s apparently not the only lawsuit on the horizon.

“The lawyers are starting to arrive on the scene,” city manager Penny Ballem said, and agencies are doing as much as they can to collect the maximum amount of data before the fear of litigation stops the flow of information.

Mexico oil spill affects drinking water for Tabasco city

Mexico’s Gulf coast state of Tabasco has set up an emergency plan to supply drinking water to the capital of Villahermosa after oil thieves punctured a pipeline, contaminating rivers that normally supply the city.

The spill late last week sent workers with the state-owned oil company scrambling to limit damage, and four of Villahermosa’s water treatment plants were shut down as a precaution.

Oil spill in Lac St-Louis prompts water quality concerns

Environmental clean up crews were hard at work on the shores of Lac St-Louis, to tackle what appears to be a large-scale oil spill.

“I’ve never seen oil in Lac St-Louis to that extent,” said Pointe-Claire’s Mayor Morris Trudeau. “We’re doing everything possible to clean up the water to make sure our environment is okay”

The City of Pointe-Claire has launched a full investigating and a pumping truck has been on site since Monday.

Environmentalists Demands Broader PCB Cleanup In Upper Hudson River

A group of environmentalists and elected officials renewed their call Tuesday for a broader cleanup of the upper-Hudson River as a final year of dredging looms.

General Electric Co. is scheduled to begin its sixth and expected final season of PCB dredging next month as part of a $2 billion federal Superfund project. Long-running calls for GE to dredge PCB “hot spots” outside the project’s boundaries are taking on urgency because the company will dismantle the sprawling facility that treats the contaminated river sediments after dredging ends.

Judge urged to vacate oil-suit order

A federal judge should vacate his order dismissing a class-action lawsuit against Exxon Mobil because the oil giant suppressed evidence involving interference with property owned by plaintiffs, attorneys contend in a new filing.

In March, Judge Brian Miller, ruling in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, dismissed the lawsuit filed in response to a March 2013 oil spill in Mayflower on behalf of landowners whose property is physically crossed by Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline from Corsicana, Texas, to Patoka, Ill.

Quebec City rally targets tar sands

As a member of the Lubicon Cree First Nation in northern Alberta – and a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace – Melina Laboucan-Massimo has experienced the effects of tar sands devastation first-hand.

A few days before the last federal election four years ago, a massive pipeline spill dumped 4.5 million litres (28,000 barrels) of oil, leaving a huge swath virtually unrecognizable. The community wasn’t fully informed about the massiveness of the spill or its potential dangers until days later.

Tar Sands Megaprojects Hurt Canada’s Ability to Meet Climate Goals: Report

As Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders meet Tuesday in Quebec City to develop a national energy strategy in the face of federal inaction on climate change, a new report warns that tar sands megaprojects like the Energy East pipeline could hinder the country’s ability to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

“Canada’s premiers have an opportunity to collaborate and provide leadership through a Canadian Energy Strategy,” said Erin Flanagan, an analyst with the Pembina Institute and author of the report, Crafting an Effective Canadian Energy Strategy (pdf). “But to achieve shared climate objectives, the provinces will have to address carbon-intensive megaprojects and their consequences in terms of emissions.”

Canada Seeks New Crude Customers as Keystone Pipeline Languishes

Canada is seeking new customers for its crude oil as a U.S. review of the Keystone XL pipeline drags on and oil prices languish near $50 a barrel, the country’s Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford said.

Canada sells nearly all of its oil and natural gas to the U.S., a partnership that amounts to a $140 billion a year business, Rickford said Tuesday at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Future of Energy Summit in New York. A downturn that has seen oil prices fall about 50 percent will cost Canada $40 billion a year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Dallas pipeline giant sues landowners over Michigan pipeline

A company behind a proposed natural gas pipeline that could run through parts of Michigan has sued several landowners to gain access to their property for surveys.

John DeVries, a lawyer for Rover Pipeline LLC, which is a subsidiary of Dallas-based pipeline giant Energy Transfer Partners, told The Ann Arbor News that 17 lawsuits have been filed in Washtenaw, Lenawee and Livingston counties. Eleven of the lawsuits were filed in Washtenaw County Trial Court.

County committee requires pipeline operator Enbridge Energy to carry pollution insurance

Dane County officials will require a Canada-based company to carry special pollution insurance in order to gain permits for planned upgrades to a pipeline running through the county.

The Dane County Zoning and Land Committee’s unanimous decision follows a consultant’s recommendation that the county require Enbridge Energy to carry $25 million in pollution insurance in order to proceed with its pipeline capacity expansion.

The Battle to Save the Arctic from Drilling is Heating Up

If you happened to be drifting in the Pacific Ocean last Monday, 750 miles northwest of Hawaii, you might have seen what looked like the opening sequence of an action movie—a rigid-hulled, inflatable boat skipped along the high seas. Briny wind and ocean spray whipped across the occupants of the craft as they sped towards their target: an Arctic-bound oil rig being hauled toward a Seattle port. When they reached the steep side of the rig, the climbers mounted it using ropes and climbing gear.

Could Seattle activists throw a wrench in Shell’s Arctic drilling plans?

As a Shell drilling rig advances ever closer to Seattle, activists from the city and beyond are hell-bent on foiling the oil giant’s plans.

Shell is preparing to drill for oil off the Northwest coast of Alaska this summer, undaunted by its notorious botched drilling attempts of 2012. The company plans to use the Port of Seattle as a staging ground for its operations up north, and is currently shipping the Polar Pioneer rig across the Pacific Ocean to Washington state waters. The rig and its carrier ship are set to arrive at the end of this week in Port Angeles, 60 miles northwest of Seattle, and could be docked there until May for inspections and other preparations, reports Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger. After that it will move on to Seattle ­– if activists don’t stop it first.

Nuclear Reactors in Japan Remain Closed by Judge’s Order

Fukui Prefecture, with 13 commercial nuclear reactors clustered along a short, rugged coastline, has earned the area a reputation as a political stronghold for the atomic power industry. Nuclear-friendly politicians dominate most of Fukui’s government offices, and the region is nicknamed Genpatsu Ginza, or Nuclear Alley.

Fukui has now emerged as a battleground for the Japanese government’s effort to rebuild the nuclear industry and reverse the economic impact of the reactor shutdowns. On Tuesday, a local judge blocked the latest attempt to get atomic power back on the grid, issuing an injunction forbidding the restarting of two nuclear reactors at the Takahama power plant in the region.

Landmark Injunction Cheered as Crushing Blow to Japan’s Nuclear Restart

Critics of nuclear energy are cheering a ruling by a Japanese court that blocks the restart of two reactors at a plant in western Japan.

Australia’s ABC reports that

Local residents sought the injunction against Kansai Electric Power Company, arguing that restart plans underestimate earthquake risks, fail to meet tougher safety standards and lack credible evacuation measures.

Tepco resumes survey of crippled Fukushima reactor vessel with new robot

The operator of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant resumed a video survey inside a reactor containment vessel on Wednesday, inserting a second robot after an earlier effort left a similar robot stranded inside.

Tokyo Electric Power Co. began the probe last Friday, in its first attempt since the 2011 meltdown to check the interior of the No. 1 reactor’s primary containment vessel and to ascertain the position of the melted-down fuel. The shape-shifting robot produced valuable images and radiation readings but stopped moving after only a few hours and the utility gave up on retrieving it.

Forget Fukushima: China powering ahead with plans for new reactors

In February, four years after pressing pause on one of the world’s most ambitious nuclear energy programs, China quietly green-lighted the construction of two new nuclear reactors.

The first new approvals in over two years, the decision seems to bode well for the almost 200 proposed projects that have sat in limbo since the country’s nuclear industry ground to a halt following the March 2011 disaster at Japan’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear complex.

New, Haunting Video Inside Ground Zero Of Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown Shows Colossal Radiation

The first video and photos taken inside ground zero of the Fukushima nuclear powerplant that melted down in the 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami show a devastating radioactive mess.

For the first time, researchers were able to see and measure conditions inside the doomed facility, including inside Reactor Number 1.

That Time the US Accidentally Nuked Britain’s First Satellite

When it comes to nations with a long and rich history of space travel and exploration, Britain isn’t normally a country that comes to most people’s minds. However, they were the third country in the world to operate a satellite in orbit. It’s just a shame America ended up accidentally killing it just a few months later…

The satellite in question was the Ariel-1, which was developed as a joint-venture between the United States and Britain, with Britain designing and building the core systems of the satellite and NASA launching it into orbit via a Thor-Delta rocket.

Utah Radiation Control Board insists depleted uranium hearings go on

Utah Radiation Control Board members Tuesday pushed back against EnergySolutions’ request to delay a public review of the company’s plans to bury depleted uranium in Tooele County.

Board members told company executives they want to move forward with a public process that will culminate this summer with a decision of whether to accept the nation’s 700,000-metric-ton stockpile of radioactive waste that is low-level now, but becomes increasingly hotter over the next 2 million years.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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