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Month: October 2014 (page 1 of 2)

Is Suffolk County Still at the Forefront of Environmental Legislation?

Over the last 50 years, Long Island’s Suffolk County has often been a leader in championing environmental causes and enacting legislation geared toward protecting the environment.  Due to the unique geography and topography of Long Island, most specifically the underground aquifers that provide its sole source of drinking water and the wetlands and coastal waters that surround it, the need to be proactive in protecting the local water supply has, of necessity, become a matter of great concern to local environmentalists and lawmakers alike.

In 1971, the Suffolk County Legislature passed the first detergent ban in the United States.  This unprecedented measure was prompted by findings that common synthetic detergents of the time contained surface agents such as alkyl benzene sulfonates and alcohol sulfates that were not degrading sufficiently to prevent their entry into the ground water table through the private septic systems common to the region.  From there, these chemicals went on to contaminate local drinking water supplies.  To put a stop to this untenable situation, all detergents containing the problematic surface agents (i.e., Tide, Wisk, All, Fab, Gain; if you can name it, it was banned) were prohibited by law from being sold in Suffolk County.  Admittedly, the laundry soaps that filled Suffolk grocery shelves during the ban didn’t clean as well as detergents did, and many county residents surreptitiously traveled to stores in neighboring Nassau County to purchase the contraband laundry products and smuggle them back home.  Still, in the years that followed, and at least partially as a result of Suffolk’s ban, the detergent industry implemented sweeping changes to the chemical composition of its products, and Suffolk eventually lifted its detergent ban in 1981.

Now, local officials on Long Island’s East End, or as you might better know the area, the Hamptons, have begun gathering support for a ban on plastic grocery bags in the five eastern Suffolk townships of East Hampton, Riverhead, Shelter Island, Southampton and Southold.  The incorporated Villages of East Hampton and Southampton both enacted bans on these plastic bags in 2011.  In Southampton Town, where an estimated 54,000 plastic bags are distributed daily by area stores, Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst believes that a plastic bag ban should ideally include all of Suffolk County, but must at least encompass the five East End towns to create a level playing field for grocers and residents.  “I don’t think there’s any disputing the environmental value of moving in that direction,” Throne-Holst opined.  While several other East End supervisors have gone on record as supporting the ban, Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman would prefer to see a five- or ten-cent East End surcharge on each plastic bag. This, he feels, would encourage recycling and repurposing of the bags, while retaining the convenience they offer and providing a funding source for litter cleanups and other environmental projects.  “I’m guilty,” Schneiderman admitted.  “I like to use those plastic bags [and] feel like I’m a responsible user of them.”  I can certainly relate to that, and will keep you posted on any new ban-the-bag developments.

Fracking Our Way into Oblivion …. Conclusion

This series has examined hydraulic fracturing or, as it is more commonly known, fracking, and some of the types of harm it is doing to the environment.   We didn’t even touch on the threat of induced seismicity (increased earthquake activity) that seismologists have associated with the business of fracking; that will have to be a topic for another series.  Specifically, we’ve focused here on the July, 2014 Halliburton fire and chemical spill in Clarington, Ohio, where a statutorily-created dearth of pertinent information regarding the nature of the chemicals involved hindered first responders and other emergency personnel in their efforts to contain the blaze and minimize the damage.   We also learned that the Ohio “shield law” that allowed Halliburton to conceal the list of chemicals involved at the Clarington site until it was too late is quite a common one in fracking, where widespread exemptions to federal regulations, weak state laws and overarching industry-encouraged cluelessness on the part of local and regional officials as to what is actually taking place at these fracking sites is leading this country down a very dark path.  In light of last  summer’s environmental disaster, it is astonishing that Ohio happens to be one of the six states with the strongest current fracking regulations!

 

You might also find this hard to believe, but due to widespread exemptions from federal laws won by the gas and oil industry, along with the passive approach adopted by the federal government in overseeing the industry, there is no public information available that even lists all places in the United States where fracking is taking place.   Weak federal oversight has relegated the bulk of fracking regulation to the individual states, and some states don’t even require energy companies to inform their own state regulators that they will be conducting fracking operations!  There is little consistency among state fracking laws; some states charge their environmental regulatory agencies with overseeing fracking, while others regulate the practice solely through their state oil and gas commissions’ permitting procedures.  This regulatory mishmash has prompted many experts to call upon the feds to enact national fracking laws.  Considering the current gridlock in Congress, such legislation isn’t in the cards any time soon.

 

According to exhaustive research by the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the most powerful environmental groups in the country, as of January, 2013 fracking has occurred in at least 32 states since 2005.  The only states where fracking activity was not confirmed are:  Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont and Wisconsin.   In New York, where I live and where some fracking has taken place since 2006, the practice has been halted under a de facto moratorium for the past seven years while the industry is “evaluated,” debate rages between fracking proponents and environmentalists, and Governor Andrew Cuomo refuses to take sides regarding a total fracking ban in New York, at least until after this November’s elections.   Illinois, California and Michigan have proposals for tougher fracking regulations in the works, and Ohio may not be far behind.  The problem is enormous and it’s truly time to enact the only sane solution: a complete ban on fracking in the United States of America.

Fracking Our Way into Oblivion, One Ecological Disaster at a Time – IV

The huge Halliburton fracking fire and fish kill in Ohio this past July was likely prolonged, and the ensuing damage greatly exacerbated, by a legally-enforced information vacuum that prevented first responders, the EPA and government officials at all levels from learning the content of the chemical spill as they struggled to contain the fire and keep residents safe.  In the aftermath, attorney Nathan Johnson of the Ohio Environmental Council explained that the Ohio fracking disclosure law not only prohibits anyone other than the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) or “doctors treating a specific patient” from accessing this “trade secret” information about fracking chemicals, it also prevents ODNR and physicians-in-the-know from sharing this vital information with emergency responders or other public officials!  “We sorely need changes to Ohio law to protect the public and get this essential information to officials in order to protect public health.  Water authorities need secret chemical information immediately… [or else] our drinking water is at risk,” says Johnson.

 

Of course they need the information, as do officials in other states where the energy companies have managed to ensure that their proprietary information is protected while the population in harm’s way can pretty much go to hell.  However, this particular environmental debacle may be bringing to light some crucial but heretofore rarely disclosed information about fracking.   For instance, did you know that fracking is exempt from many federal environmental regulations?  Yes, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 contains what is known as the “Halliburton Loophole,” an exemption from the underground injection control (UIC) requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act granted just for gas drilling and extraction (a/k/a fracking).  There are also other fracking exemptions in the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.  As if that isn’t bad enough, fracking is also exempt from individual state water use regulations, despite the fact that it consumes and fouls between two and five million gallons of local fresh water for each fracking well.  Who, exactly, is in charge of the asylum?

 

Given all of this, would it really surprise anyone to learn that many energy companies that engage in fracking also have a history or failing to act in good faith?   A Congressional investigation uncovered that over 30 million gallons of diesel fuel, the only chemical regulated by the UIC program under the Halliburton Loophole, was used illegally at fracking sites in 19 states between 2005 and 2009.  Five years later, diesel fuel was also detected in the recent Clarington, Ohio spill. Still, the industry insists that fracking is safe, all the while hiding behind its legislative pass on disclosing these so-called “safe” chemicals.  We’ll ponder the likelihood of meaningful legislative reform as it pertains to the fracking industry in the conclusion to this series.

Fracking Our Way into Oblivion, One Ecological Disaster at a Time – III

A fire and some 30 related explosions at a Halliburton fracking site in rural Clarington, Ohio this past July rained shrapnel over the neighboring area and resulted in the release of tens of thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into a tributary of the Ohio River located less than 10 miles upstream from a public water intake on the West Virginia side of the river.  It took firefighters a full week to put out the conflagration, and the chemical spill caused a massive fish kill and untold damage to the ecosystem, not to mention the strong likelihood of local drinking water contamination.  Yet, as efforts to contain the blaze were ongoing, public safety officials were kept in the dark as to exactly what chemicals and toxins they were actually dealing with.  Not only did this hamper their ability to function efficiently, it exposed everyone involved, including residents of the surrounding area, to a laundry list of chemical poisons including diesel fuel, hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol and radioactive celium-137.  Officials only ordered the evacuation of residents within a one-mile radius of the fire but, in hindsight, the evacuation should have been far wider.

 

Why weren’t more people evacuated?  Why did it take a whole week to control the blaze?  Why didn’t local and regional officials know exactly what chemicals and toxins were involved in the disaster?  The answer is, in large part, that energy companies are routinely given a pass on transparency and accountability when it comes to fracking “accidents.”   Whether this is due to their cozy political ties, the utter ineptitude (dare I imply corruption?) of those charged with regulating the industry and protecting the citizenry, or a combination of both, I can’t say for certain.  However, according to an Ohio law which is mirrored on the books of many other states where fracking is lucrative, an energy company’s right to protect its proprietary trade secrets (i.e., the mix of chemicals it uses to extract natural gas from the earth) outweighs the public’s right to access the information necessary to protect itself.  Shockingly, of the 30 states where fracking occurs, only six require the advance disclosure of fracking chemicals that will be used.

 

In the aftermath of the massive Halliburton fire and fish kill, Ohio Governor and long-time fracking supporter John Kasich has gone on record as favoring changes in his state’s fracking laws.  Governor Kasich now finds it “unacceptable for emergency responders, including federal and Ohio EPA officials, not to know the full list of chemicals that might have spilled into the river.”  No kidding!  Can’t wait to see what happens next.

Fracking Our Way into Oblivion, One Ecological Disaster at a Time – II

As we discussed last time, fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is the business of creating fractures in shale formations by drilling first vertically, then horizontally into the earth and then injecting a high-pressure mixture of chemicals, sand and water into the well to create fissures in the rock formation, allowing the natural gas trapped inside to be released into the wellbore, where it can then be extracted and processed.   Championed by many as a “transitional solution” to our nation’s energy dilemma that pits traditional fossil fuel usage against ever-increasing evidence of global warming and the urgency to devote resources to the development of sustainable energy sources, natural gas is anything but a “bridge fuel.”  Studies have shown that the fracking process causes as much harm to the environment as does burning coal, and that’s certainly not all. At least nine states have reported the fracking-related contamination of surface, ground and drinking water, and in Pennsylvania alone, over 1400 environmental violations have been attributed to fracking wells.  Furthermore, pollution and chemical contamination with resultant ecological damage and destruction are routinely found in areas where fracking has occurred.

 

Witness a July, 2014 occurrence in Clarington, a rural community in southeastern Ohio where a fire erupted at a fracking site owned by energy giant Halliburton.  The flames caused numerous tanker trucks containing chemicals and fracking wastewater to explode, spilling thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into a tributary of Opossum Creek, which flows into the Ohio River and supplies drinking water for millions of residents.   Upwards of 70,000 fish died in a massive resultant fish kill, and the fire took a week to extinguish.  Astoundingly, it also took a full five days for the EPA to obtain a list of exactly which chemicals had been spilled into this drinking water source!  Why?  Because the fracking companies have managed to secure legislation that protects their trade secrets, including the poisons they pump into the ground to get at the natural gas.

 

As explained in a MotherJones.com piece, “Halliburton was under no obligation to reveal the full roster of chemicals.  Under a 2012 Ohio law … gas drillers are legally required to reveal some of the chemicals they use, but only 60 days after a fracking job is finished.  And they don’t have to disclose proprietary ingredients, except in emergencies.”  Can you believe it?  According to the EPA, this particular debacle spilled more than 25,000 gallons of chemicals, diesel fuel and God-knows-what else, killing fish and other wildlife for miles along the river.  Time was of the essence to contain the damage and protect the populace, yet Halliburton put its “trade secrets” ahead of all else and only divulged limited information to selected recipients who, presumably, could be trusted to keep their mouths shut.  Meanwhile, local water authorities were kept completely in the dark, and the State of Ohio not long afterward declared that the water was safe to drink.  Think Dick Cheney would drink it?  More next time.

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