Environmental issues encompass a broad range of topics that interest the geoscience community. Topics include environmental clean-up of contaminated sites through the Superfund and Brownfield programs, health and environmental concerns associated with asbestos, and the environmental concerns associated with the disposal of solid waste. The EPA is the primary government agency responsible for protecting environmental health and safety through its regulatory, enforcement, and remediation authority. Issues related to clean air, clean water, nuclear waste and climate change are covered on separate AGI policy pages
National Oil Spill Commission Finishing its Work
The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling held its final public meeting on December 2 to 3 in Washington DC. The meeting covered regulatory oversight of the drilling industry; environmental review and drilling in the Arctic; oil spill containment and response in the Gulf; oil spill impacts in the Gulf; and recovery and restoration of the Gulf. A video and written archive of the meeting is available online.
The commission also announced that their final report will be released on January 11 and they will hold a public forum in New Orleans on January 12, 2011.
Lead Reduction Act Passes Congress and Becomes Law
The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act (S.3874) passed Congress in late December and was signed into law by President Obama on January 4, 2011. The law amends the Safe Drinking Water Act to prohibit the sale of lead pipes, solder and fixtures used for drinking water and redefines “lead free” to reduce the fraction of lead that may be used in any drinking water fittings and fixtures. The goal is to further reduce potential lead contamination in drinking water, however, the new requirements of the law will not take affect until 3 years after enactment.
EPA Considers Hexavalent Chromium in Water Supplies
In mid-December, the Environmental Work Group released a report showing that 25 of 35 cities had hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, in tap water supplies above the level proposed by California to protect human health. The problem of hexavalent chromium in drinking water was dramatically brought to public attention by the efforts of Erin Brockovich, who won a multimillion-dollar settlement for Hinkley, California. The story was further popularized by a movie, “Erin Brockovich”.
The environmental group’s water testing results received immediate reaction from the public, the media and policymakers. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking for information about EPA’s water testing and EPA’s ongoing review of hexavalent chromium. A day after the letter was sent, Jackson met with Durbin, Kirk, Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), Daniel Akaka (D-HI), Bob Casey (D-PA), Ben Nelson (D-NE), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). Senators Feinstein and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) wrote a separate letter to Jackson and requested a decision within two weeks about a possible health advisory regarding hexavalent chromium. The senators from Illinois and California suggested they might propose legislation to address the issue.
EPA released a statement indicating the agency would carefully review all data before making a final decision about any new standards or testing for hexavalent chromium. The federal government through the EPA has a federal standard for total chromium that is much higher than the proposed California standard for just hexavalent chromium. EPA does not require utilities to test for hexavalent chromium, so the potential scope of the concern is not really understood. The National Toxicology Program is studying hexavalent chromium and noted in a 2007 factsheet that the compound is a human carcinogen when inhaled and may be carcinogenic when ingested. The factsheet also states that the U.S. is a leading producer of chromium compounds, used in electroplating, steelmaking, leather tanning, textile manufacturing and wood preservation.
United Nations Climate Change Meeting in Cancun
Negotiators from 194 countries met in Cancun Mexico for the 16th session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) from November 29 to December 10, 2010. The parties reached two major agreements (called the Cancun Agreements). First, nations agreed to keep the average global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and acknowledged that this efforts requires more than the emissions reduction pledges by the U.S., China and others at the Copenhagen meeting (COP 15). Second, nations pledge to establish a $100 billion annual fund to promote adaptation and clean energy in developing nations. A few details of particular interest to the geosciences include an agreement to establish a program to preserve forests (i.e., reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, REDD) and to establish guidelines for carbon capture and geological sequestration.
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Dangerous Corrosion in BP's Alaska Pipelines (11/10)
A British Petroleum (BP) internal maintenance report, leaked by journalism group ProPublica, has revealed that at least 148 different pipelines on Alaska’s North Slope have received a grade of F, meaning that more than 80 percent of the pipe wall is corroded and in danger of rupturing. Some are only a few thousandths of an inch away from this threshold. BP claims to be pursuing maintenance and upgrades aggressively, and increased their maintenance budget four-fold after two pipeline spills in 2006. However, current spending rates mean it would take 20 years to replace the systems in need of upgrade. Meanwhile, BP has reduced their regular maintenance budget for Alaska for next year, although they will maintain higher spending for new projects and major repairs. Some inspections and the replacement of one pipeline will be deferred.
BP employees have also alleged that the fire and gas warning systems fail to work properly, the turbines pumping oil and gas are in need of replacement, and some oil and waste holding tanks are nearing collapse. Concerns about the fire and gas detectors have persisted since 2001, and the systems must be shut down every time engineers conduct maintenance or inspections. This means that some systems are off up to a third of the time. A turbine fire in 2007, caused by a jury-rigged hydraulic oil hose, failed to set off the alarms because they were turned off at the time, and the fire suppression system had to be activated manually. While no one was injured, the incident could have been catastrophic as the turbine was near pipelines that had the potential to explode.
Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force Releases Report (10/10)
The Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force announced in a press release on October 14, 2010, the completion of their progress report, titled Recommended Actions in Support of a National Climate Change Adaptation Strategy. The Task Force is chaired by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and includes representatives from twenty different government agencies. While supporting efforts to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions and promoting green industry, the Task Force acknowledges that average temperatures are already rising and some amount of climate change is unavoidable. In order to prevent disastrous consequences, the nation will require a coordinated plan to adapt to new climatic conditions.
The report emphasizes the need for the federal agencies to consider adaptation in all of their planning processes, ensuring that federal investments will have lasting value, and to integrate their efforts and decision-making with other federal, state, and local agencies. Planning and decision-making must be based on the best available science. The public should have ready access to accurate and comprehensible information on climate change and adaptation, both for community preparedness and to direct private investment. As coastal communities will be particularly affected as sea levels rise, the insurance industry will have to reassess risk and adjust its policies accordingly. The challenge of adaptation will have to be considered on an ecosystem scale, rather than as isolated effects.
Climate change adaptation also has international significance. Many developing countries benefitting from U.S. foreign aid will be significantly affected by climate change, and, according to the report, it is the responsibility of the U.S. and international aid agencies to direct funds towards programs that will make recipients less vulnerable to climate change. International collaboration will be critical, as many systems affected by climate change, such as the ocean and the atmosphere, do not respect national boundaries.
The Task Force’s Interim Report, released on March 16, 2010, is available here. The next report, documenting progress toward implementing these recommendations, will be available in October of 2011.
Update on BP Oil Spill Investigations (10/10)
In the most significant update from the investigations of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the chief counsel of the presidential commission, Fred Bartlit, Jr., released a letter to the commission on October 27 blaming Halliburton for using a cement mix in the Macondo exploratory well that the company knew was unstable. The letter details laboratory tests conducted on the cement mix two months before the spill showing the mix was unstable. Bartlit indicates that the cement mix probably did not work and therefore was unable to prevent hydrocarbons from entering the well bore. Bartlit does not fault the cement mix as the primary reason for the accident and the ongoing investigation continues to consider many factors. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling will hold a public meeting on November 9, 2010.
The joint investigation by the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard has been granted a 60-day extension. The joint federal investigation report was originally due in January of 2011, but now will be due in March. The investigators requested more time to complete forensic tests and to hold public hearings. More information about the Deepwater Horizon Joint Investigation is available online.
The National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council committee on “Analysis of Causes of Deepwater Horizon Explosion, Fire, and Oil Spill to Identify Measures to Prevent Similar Accidents in the Future” continues their work, but have not released any interim reports.
EPA Rehabilitates Brownfields with Renewables Project (10/10)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is hosting a series of webinars on a new plan for an initiative called RE-Powering America’s Land, which would site renewable energy projects on brownfields and other contaminated sites. These sites, which are prohibited from most uses, already contain the infrastructure necessary for such projects and are connected to the grid. They could also be a valuable source of income to neighboring communities. The webinars, which began in October, will occur again in December and January. Comments on the plan may be emailed to Lura Matthews by November 30, 2010.
China and U.S. Spar over Climate Talks (10/10)
A preparatory conference for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) December meeting in Cancun, Mexico, was held October 4 to 9 in Tianjin, China. The host country took several opportunities to criticize the U.S. for insisting on greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions from developing countries while not making reductions of its own. China and the U.S. have agreed to the Copenhagen Accord, which states the severity of climate change and the importance of reducing GHG emissions but provides neither formal targets nor mechanisms for those reductions. The key point of disagreement between the two countries involves plans for measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of GHG reductions. China did announce, at a side event, that it is working to develop a centralized database of GHG emissions that would be open to the public.
For a text of the Copenhagen Accord, press releases from the Tianjin meeting, and a schedule for the meeting, see the UNFCCC web site.
Update on BP’s Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative on Oil Spill (10/10)
On September 29, BP and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance issued a press release on their plans for the remaining $470 million of the $500 million pledged by BP for oil spill impacts research. The Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative will be administered by the alliance, which will set up a board of scientists from academic institutions with peer-recognized credentials. An equal number of board members will be selected by BP and by the alliance. The research will focus on five themes: distribution and fate of contaminants, chemical and biological evolution of the contaminants, environmental effects of the contaminants on the ecosystems, technological developments to mitigate future spills, and integration of these four themes in the context of human health.
The research will be conducted primarily by Gulf Coast academic institutions; however, “appropriate partnerships” will be allowed. The research projects will be selected using a merit review by peer evaluation as described in a National Science Board report on the National Science Foundation’s Merit Review System. Researchers are expected to comply with the professional standards described in the National Academy of Sciences publication – On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research (2009).
BP Releases Report on Causes of Gulf Spill (9/10)
BP has released a report from an internal incident investigation team on the cause of the Gulf spill. The report found that decisions made by "multiple companies and work teams contributed to the accident.” The accident involved a well integrity failure, followed by a loss of hydrostatic control of the well, and a failure to control the flow from the well with the blow-out preventer.
The report summarized eight key elements that contributed to the catastrophe. First, there were weaknesses in the cement design, testing, quality assurance, and risk assessment. The cement that was pumped down the production casing and up into the wellbore likely experienced a nitrogen breakout, which allowed hydrocarbons to enter the wellbore. Second, the “shoe track barrier” did not stop the movement of hydrocarbons in the well. The shoe track is installed at the bottom of the production casing, and consists of both cement and a float collar that prevent fluid movement into the production casing. Neither of these barriers prevented the movement of hydrocarbons following the initial cement failure. Third, the negative-pressure test to confirm well integrity was not properly interpreted. The test was conducted, and pressure readings indicated that the barriers were not intact, but the rig crew and BP well site leaders reached the “incorrect view that the test was successful and that well integrity had been established.”
Fourth, the influx of hydrocarbons was not recognized until hydrocarbons were in the riser. Because of the accepted negative-pressure test, hydrocarbons were allowed to flow through the production casing and past the blow-out preventer, to the riser on the surface. Fifth, the rig crew failed to regain control of the well and divert fluids overboard rather than into the mud gas separator system. Sixth, because hydrocarbons were diverted to the mud gas separator, the separator system was overwhelmed and gas was able to vent onto the rig. Seventh, the fire system on the drill rig did not prevent ignition of the escaping hydrocarbons. The heating and air conditioning systems probably transferred the gas-rich air to the engine rooms, creating a source of ignition for an explosion. Eighth, the blow out preventer’s three emergency modes did not seal the well as intended. The first system was likely disabled by the explosion and fire on the rig. The second system, which depended on control pods on the blow out preventer, failed because of a faulty valve in one pod and insufficient battery life in the other. The third system failed because the blind shear ram failed to seal the well. The indicators for these potential weaknesses were apparent in audit findings and maintenance records performed before the accident according to the BP report.
The report stressed that several factors contributed to the accident including mechanical failure, human judgment, engineering design, operational implementation, and team interfaces over time; no single team or action caused the accident. The full report can be found on the BP website, along with a detailed video that illustrates the investigation team’s findings.
USDA Report: Agriculture Can Reduce GHG Emissions (9/10)
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has released a report, The Role of Agriculture in Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, which reviews the contributions that agriculture can make to climate change mitigation within, and in addition, to the preexisting Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) framework. The report concludes that well-known management strategies – namely conservation tillage, reduction of nitrogen fertilizer use, changing livestock management, and planting trees and grasses – can increase carbon sequestration and decrease greenhouse gas emissions from most farms. Actions taken under the CRP, that is planting trees and grasses, would be profitable for many farms under cap and trade legislation, according to the report. The USDA estimates that farmers would require compensation of $7 to $32 per ton of CO2 for planting trees and $29 to $82 per acre for planting grasses. These price ranges intersect those of proposed cap and trade legislation, as estimated by the EPA. The report indicates that actions taken under Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) could be candidates for offset credits as well, provided there is no double counting under the programs.
The USGS plays a role in measuring soil-carbon storage and the affects of agriculture and forestry management on carbon sequestration. Soils are, according to the USGS, “the most stable long-term surface reservoir for carbon,” and the agency is committed to mapping carbon across the U.S., calculating carbon storage, and identifying areas with the greatest potential for carbon sequestration. Read about the National Soil Carbon Network, in which the USGS participates. The network is presenting its database at the Fall AGU meeting this December.
This report is the second in a series released by the USDA, regarding climate change and agriculture. The first report, entitled Agricultural Land Tenure and Carbon Offsets, EB-14, is available here.
Report Calls for More Federal Research to Predict and Prevent Hypoxia (9/10)
A report from the National Science and Technology Council’s (NSTC) was released in September of 2010, detailing the federal government’s response to hypoxia in major U.S. water bodies. The report, Scientific Assessment of Hypoxia in U.S. Coastal Waters, was released by the Interagency Working Group on Harmful Algal Blooms, Hypoxia, and Human Health. It identifies the scale and effects of hypoxia in the U.S. and outlines the legislative action to date, as well as the current federal research addressing the hypoxia issue. Among other things, the report calls for expanded monitoring of dissolved oxygen in vulnerable waters, the development and increased use of predictive hypoxia models, and the monitoring and source-identification of nutrient loads in streams.
The report makes clear that hypoxia is a large and growing problem, contributing to fish kills and ecological degradation that have large economic costs. Despite established point source regulation and increased concern for soil and water conservation practices, hypoxia incidence has increased 30-fold in U.S. waters since 1960. In response, the federal government has attempted to decrease nutrient pollution and hypoxia with several pieces of legislation. The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act (HABHRCA) of 1998, and the Coastal Zone Management Act address hypoxia directly, while portions of the Clean Water Act and the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 authorize regulation of activities that influence hypoxia-inducing conditions.
As hypoxia sustains further fish kills and compromises coastal and lacustrine ecosystems, the Interagency Working Group has recognized a need to tackle the issue with new research and adaptive management. In particular, the progress to date calls for the use of adaptive management as a means of addressing uncertainty in future hypoxia trends, and for more basic research on the watershed scale impacts and causes of hypoxia.
This report complements a review from the Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology entitled Charting the Course for Ocean Science for the United States in the Next Decade: An Ocean Research Priorities Plan and Implementation Strategy.
EPA Requests that Companies Disclose Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids (9/10)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has requested that nine oil and gas drilling companies provide the EPA with a list of the chemical additives used in hydraulic fracturing fluids, as well as locations where fracturing has been used.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracing,” is a drilling technique used in natural gas extraction. Water and chemical additives are forced into wells, physically breaking the rock to allow for gas to flow to the wellbore. These fractures are held open by “proppants” like sand or silicates that are also added to the fracturing fluids. Hydraulic fracturing is most commonly used in coal beds and oil shale formations. The EPA does not normally regulate the injection of hydrofracing fluids, but is in the process of conducting a multiyear, $1.9 billion, congressionally mandated study to examine the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The information disclosed by oil and gas companies as a result of the September 9th request will help inform that study. In an effort to demonstrate that the technique is safe, the contacted companies are likely to provide the requested information. “(If asked) we will of course fully cooperate with their request” said a Halliburton spokeswoman.
Multi-Agency Report Finds No Spill-Related Dead Zones in Gulf (9/10)
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Office of Science Technology and Policy (OSTP) released a joint report looking at dissolved oxygen levels in areas where federal and independent scientists had previously reported the presence of subsurface oil from the BP/Deepwater Horizon spill. The report found that in areas where subsurface oil had been reported, oxygen levels have dropped by 20 percent from their long-term average, but these levels are not low enough to characterize the areas as “dead zones.” Dead zones are areas where dissolved oxygen concentrations fall below 2 mg/L, low enough that most life forms are impacted. These zones are commonly found in the near shore waters of the western and northern gulf in summer, but do not normally occur in deep water like where the study was performed. Scientists believe that the observed low oxygen levels at depths around the underwater oil plumes are due to microbes that are using oxygen to consume the oil from the BP spill.
The findings of the report are consistent with findings of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists, who also did not find dead zones where subsurface oil was found.
Oil Spill Update (9/10)
***National Commission Investigations of Oil Spill Continue
The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling held a public meeting in Washington DC on September 27-28 and interviewed government officials, scientists, Gulf coast community officials and a BP executive. National Incident commander Thad Allen called for a third party to be put in charge of any future oil spills and suggested the response should involve more local people. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson defended the use of chemical dispersants as a risk management decision and called for more study of their use and environmental impact. Other scientists interviewed by the commission expressed concern about the long-term impacts of dispersants and called for more research. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists noted the errors in the early estimates of spilled oil and indicated that some of the problems were caused by a lack of data. A recent paper in Science has estimated the amount of oil spilled from videos and their estimated total is the same (within uncertainties) as the government’s final estimate of 4.9 million barrels.
Ken Salazar, Interior Secretary, and Michael Bromwich, Director of Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement discussed current offshore drilling plans, the Gulf moratorium and reforms of the offshore drilling program. David Hayes, Interior Deputy Secretary, discussed science related to offshore drilling and response, especially research in the Arctic. He noted that the U.S. Geological Survey has been asked to conduct a special analysis of the Arctic environment.
The Interior Department has withdrawn offshore oil leases in the Arctic until more information is available about the science, the conditions, and the abilities of the government and industry to respond to any problems. Bromwich also noted that even after the Gulf moratorium is lifted, there will be additional technical requirements placed on industry that will likely delay any offshore drilling. Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Mark Begich (D-AK) appeared before the commission and requested an end to the moratorium. Landrieu also called for more support for restoration of wetlands in the Gulf.
The commission interviewed BP Executive Doug Suttles and criticized the BP report on the causes of the oil spill and suggested that the company was woefully unprepared to deal with the catastrophe.
A video archive of the two-day meeting is available from C-SPAN.
***Gulf Spill Research
BP has committed $500 million for research on the impacts of the Gulf oil spill on the environment. About $40 million was distributed to researchers. After some initial delays, it appears likely that the rest, $460 million, will go to a Gulf of Mexico Alliance, a consortium of state officials, to distribute the funds to research groups within the Gulf.
Research funds for understanding the impact of the oil spill on the Gulf will also be available through the government’s natural resource damage assessment program and through federal agencies that have provided support for basic research in these areas in the past.
***Administration Releases Long Term Recovery Plan for Gulf
The Administration released a recovery plan for the Gulf of Mexico calling for Clean Water Act penalties and other oil spill liability funds to be used in the Gulf region rather than being paid into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The plan calls for the elimination of a liability cap for offshore oil drilling damages. The plan also calls for a Gulf Coast Recovery Council to administer the restoration funds. Congress would need to enact legislation to fulfill these plans. On September 28, 2010, President Obama signed an Executive Order creating a Gulf Coast Ecosystems Restoration Task Force. The task force will be chaired by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Lisa Jackson. If Congress creates a council, it will replace this task force.
EPA Proposes Coal Ash Disposal Regulations – Comments Requested (8/10)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed to regulate the disposal of coal combustion residues, otherwise known as coal ash, that are generated from the combustion of coal at electric utilities with the proposed “Identification and Listing of Special Waste: Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities.” These combustion products present environmental concerns because of potential groundwater contamination and structural failures at impoundments. The proposed rule would regulate coal ash disposal under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The EPA will be conducting several public hearings on the proposed rule: in Dallas, TX on September 8, 2010; in Charlotte, NC on September 14, 2010; in Chicago, Illinois on September 16, 2010; in Pittsburgh, PA, on September 21, 2010; and in Louisville, KY, on September 28, 2010. Additional information on the hearings can be found on the EPA website.
Comments on the proposed rule can be submitted here before November 19, 2010.
EPA Supports Reinstating "Polluter Pays" Tax (6/10)
The Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have asked Congress to reinstate the “polluter pays” tax on petroleum and chemical companies that once helped pay for Superfund site cleanup. The tax expired in 1995 and was never renewed by Congress. Since 1995, the fund has dwindled from $5 billion to $65 million and since 2003 cleanup of so-called “orphaned” sites, where no responsible party can be found, has depended on congressional appropriations. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson estimated that reinstating the Superfund tax—four fees on crude oil, imported petroleum and chemical products, and corporate taxable income—would raise $18.9 billion over 10 years and help speed the rate of site cleaned up.
On June 22 the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health held a hearing to discuss the Polluter Pays Restoration Act (S.3164), legislation introduced by Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) that closely follows the EPA’s proposal. A full summary of this hearing can be found here. The testimony from the chair, ranking member, and panelists, as well as a video archive of the entire hearing, can be found here.
NEPA Procedures Under Review at MMS (5/10)
Following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20, and the subsequent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the White House Council on Environmental Quality announced that they will review the procedures outlined in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the Minerals Management Service (MMS) on outer continental shelf (OCS) oil and gas exploration. The announcement of the review comes after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar faced criticism over whether the NEPA guidelines were followed by the MMS prior to the April 20 incident. In addition to the review, the Obama Administration proposed changing the 30 day review period to 90 days, to allow the MMS more time to conduct environmental impact studies on OCS exploration plans. See the full press release from DOI.
Congress Looks into Abandoned Mine Clean-up and Abandons Mining Reform (3/10)
President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar have proposed cuts to the Abandoned Mine Land program that have met with some opposition in Congress. The Abandoned Mine fund collects royalties from coal production to cleanup primarily coal mines that were abandoned before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 became law. The Department of the Interior fiscal year 2011 budget proposes cutting payments to Wyoming, Montana, Louisiana and Texas and three tribes—the Crow, Hopi and Navajo—that do not have high-priority coal cleanup sites. These cuts would save $1.2 billion over the next 10 years.
Some of the states also use the money to restore abandoned hardrock mines, which do not have a comparable cleanup program. Those states oppose the cuts, though it is unclear if the funds can legally be used for programs other than coal mine cleanup. To clarify the 1977 law, Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has introduced legislation (S. 2830) that would specify the rights of states and tribes to use the money for hardrock mine reclamation.
Various environmental cleanup provisions for hardrock mining sites are in the Hardrock Mining and Reclamation Act of 2009 in the Senate and House (S. 796 and H.R. 699), however Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has declared there is no time for a hardrock mining reform bill on the floor this year. This leaves future funding for abandoned mine clean-up uncertain.
EPA Restricts Mountaintop Mining (3/10)
On April 1, 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced new water quality standards for surface mining that should help restrict mountaintop mining operations from dumping waste into streams. The standard requires a specified level of conductivity in streams. Mining waste can add salts, sulfides and other pollutants that alter conductivity, so requiring a certain level of conductivity may prevent waste dumping. The regulations are effective immediately, however EPA is accepting public comment and may consider revisions. The regulations only apply to surface mines in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Senator Byrd (D-WV) praised the regulations and environmental groups called the action long overdue, while industry groups called the action a job killer.
Study Says Investing in Nature Could Save Trillions (11/09)
The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) study sponsored in part by the United Nations, attempts to highlight the global economic benefits of biodiversity and the costs of ecosystem degradation. It stresses the value of nature to society and how often this value is overlooked in the international marketplace. The goal of the study is to increase the public awareness of nature’s value and encourage the introduction of effective policy.
The report shows that an annual investment of $45 billion to protect environmentally sensitive areas could save up to $5 trillion a year over several decades. The study sites one example in which Vietnam spent $1 million last year replanting mangroves which will result in a savings of $7 million on dike maintenance.
Mineralogists: Help Needed for Asbestos Research (11/09)
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) drafted a research roadmap, Asbestos Fibers and Other Elongated Mineral Particles: State of the Science and Roadmap for Research, in January 2009. The roadmap provides an overview of the state of the science and a plan for future research in areas including toxicology, mineralogy, epidemiology, and exposure assessment.
A National Academies committee has now reviewed the roadmap and provided a report. The committee notes “significant inconsistencies and deficiencies in mineralogical terminology and nomenclature.” The committee recommends more rigorous terminology, a more systematic and integrated approach to mineralogical research in support of human health and greater involvement in planning and implementation from the mineralogical community.
More information is available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asbestos/
EPA Proposes Mining Clean-up Regulations (7/09)
EPA has announced that it will write regulations on financial responsibility requirements for the hardrock mining industry. Hardrock mining contributes to about a quarter of the nation’s toxic releases and mining companies to date have been able to leave behind an environmental mess that American taxpayers are forced to pay for, according to the EPA. The agency was supposed to draft rules after the Superfund program began in 1983, but has cited competing priorities and insufficient funds until a recent court order instructed them to do so.
EPA will first determine what hardrock mining facilities will be required to provide financial assurances that they can pay for clean-up necessary from their operations under the Superfund law. These will likely include facilities that extract metals and minerals and processing plants. They plan to have their proposed rule ready by spring 2011. They have yet to say what the financial assurances may be, but they could include trust funds, surety bonds, insurance, or letters of credit naming the government as the beneficiary. Once EPA proposes its rule for the hardrock mining industry, it will look at other industries that warrant financial assurances rules, including wood-treatment facilities, hazardous waste generators, and metal finishers.
EPA’s announcement comes at the same time that Congress is discussing hardrock mining reform to update the 1872 mining law. The House and Senate versions of the bill set aside certain public lands vulnerable to environmental degradation from hardrock mining. They also propose royalties to be imposed on mining operations that could in part pay for an abandoned mine trust fund to rehabilitate the land and improve public safety.
Oil Spill Recovery Bill Introduced in House (6/09)
Representative Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) introduced The Federal Oil Spill Research Program Act of 2009 (H.R. 2693) on June 3 to amend the Oil Recovery Act of 1990. She introduced this bill in light of the low percentage of recovery in oil spills, and the need for better technology in clean up efforts. The bill would coordinate federal research and development of oil spill prevention, detection, recovery, and mitigation. H.R. 2963 would expand the direction of the oil spill recovery program set by the Oil Recovery Act of 1990 to cover emerging challenges and making the interagency structure more efficient. In addition, the bill would provide grants to universities and research centers to develop new technologies to prevent, combat, and clean up oil spills. The House Science and Technology Committee Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing on the legislation and oil spill prevention and clean ups. There was consensus from witnesses and members that more needed to be done to increase the amount that is recovered in spills. Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) recognized the need for more research and development to increase the level of mitigation when oil spills occur. The bill was forwarded to the full committee on June 16.
EPA Extends Comment Deadline For Cement Plant Rules (6/09)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is extending the public comment period to September 9, 2009 on a proposal to cut mercury emissions and other pollutants from Portland cement kilns. The proposed standards would limit the total hydrocarbon and particulate matter emissions allowed from the cement kilns that are large hydrochloric acid emitters. They will also hold three public hearings on the proposed rule on June 16, 17, and 18 in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Arlington, Virginia, respectively. Members of the public who want to speak may preregister up to two business days prior to the start of the hearing. To preregister to speak at the hearings, please contact Pamela Garrett at email@example.com or 919-541-7966.
More information on the proposed rule is available for download (PDF).
Asbestos Health Care And Clean Up In Montana (5/09)
Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) want the environmental and health problems associated with the former asbestos mine in Libby, MT addressed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). On May 13, 2009 Tester asked the two agencies to collaborate to help the citizens affected by asbestos exposure through site clean up and health care provisions. The announcement came one week after the mine executives were acquitted of conspiring to shield the public from the health risks of asbestos.
Libby, Montana is home to the W.R. Grace and Co. vermiculite mine, which shut down in 1990. Over that past 40 years, nearly 200 people have died and more than 375 others have been diagnosed with asbestos-related fatal diseases. This spurred numerous environmental investigations and lawsuits. The EPA added the site to the National Superfund Priorities list in 2002, and was about to declare it a public health emergency when the Bush Administration stopped the declaration according to a report released by Senator Max Baucus (D-MT). Senator Baucus has asked the new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to reconsider the declaration and other plans related to Libby.
A press release from Senator Baucus about the interference with clean-up and health care provisions for those affected by the asbestos mine is available from the Senator’s web page at: http://baucus.senate.gov/newsroom/details.cfm?id=303823&&
Bipartisan Group Supports Black Carbon Emissions Bill (5/09)
The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the Black Carbon Emissions Act of 2009 (S. 849). The bill requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the climate and health-related impacts of black carbon and to identify the most effective control strategies for the pollutant. The bill co-sponsors included Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), the leaders of the committee, who often disagree on policies and legislation, but have come together with other committee members from both parties in support of this measure.
The full text of the bill is available from Thomas at:
Bill Is Pulled After EPA Announces Coal Ash Regulation (3/09)
The House’s first proposed legislation for new standards in coal ash impoundment facilities following the 2008 Kingston power plant spill in Roane County, Tennessee was pulled from mark-up on March 9, 2009 after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced plans to start regulating such structures. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV) announced he was pulling the Coal Ash Reclamation, Environment, and Safety Act of 2009 (H.R. 493) after the EPA’s announcement. He felt this would remove potential delays and allow the EPA to move forward immediately. "I am pleased that the Obama administration has acted so quickly to overcome 29 years of bureaucratic inertia at the EPA," commented Rahall in a statement concerning the EPA’s planned regulation. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson stated on March 9, 2009 that the agency will have its proposed regulations on coal ash impoundments available by the end of the year.
Congress Considers Tougher Measures for Coal Ash Pit Disposal (2/09)
The December 2008 spill of 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash sludge into residential areas and the Emory River near Kingston, Tennessee after a break in a containment pond wall prompted Congress to consider modifying current coal ash disposal regulations. The Coal Ash Reclamation, Environment, and Safety Act of 2009 (H.R. 493), proposed by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall (D-WV), would require mandatory design and performance standards on coal ash impoundments to make them consistent with similar enclosures used for slurry waste in the coal mining industry. New requirements proposed in the bill include a geotechnical analysis of an embankment’s foundation area, an assessment of past surface mining activity at the proposed location of a structure, and mandatory inspection by a certified engineer during and after construction of the structure.
“We need to learn a lesson from what happened at Kingston, Tennessee. This issue cannot be ignored” stated Rahall at a February 12, 2009 subcommittee hearing. The bill was challenged by Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) for not including a funding mechanism for enforcement of new standards. The bill currently calls for a 6-month time frame for implementation, although John Craynon of the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining said it was unlikely the new standards could be in place in that short of a timeframe. Despite the potential delay, Rahall stated he was flexible with the timeframe and plans to bring the bill to full committee for mark-up as soon as possible. (02/09)
Stimulus Package to give $900 million to Environmental Cleanup (2/09)
At the start of the 111th Congress, the stimulus package gave $900 million to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the Hazardous Substance Superfund, Brownfields, and the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund Program. In the past the EPA has been criticized of its management of clean-up sites in the past, and few discussions of environmental issues occurred in the 110th Congress, though money has been continually allocated to clean up hazardous waste. Hopefully with this added funding, the new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson can work towards her pledge of making Superfund sites a priority.
Lisa Jackson Confirmed as the New EPA Administrator (1/09)
Lisa Jackson was confirmed as Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). At her confirmation hearing, she pledged “scientific integrity and the rule of law” at EPA. EPA has been in the news a lot lately because of decisions and rule makings, where the agency has been accused of ignoring the science in favor of special interests. Jackson will need to get to work right away because President Obama ordered an immediate review of the auto emissions waiver that California was denied a few months ago. The waiver would allow California to move forward with stricter auto emission standards and at least twelve other states would follow with similar restrictions.
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Superfund is the name given to the federal government’s environmental program established to address abandoned hazardous waste sites. It is also the name of the fund established by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), which was signed into law and last revised by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986 (SARA). A Superfund site is defined as any land in the United States that has been contaminated by hazardous waste and identified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment. CERCLA compels responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA led cleanups. The EPA maintains a Superfund website dedicated to educating the public about hazardous waste sites, including remediation activities, policy, cleanup process, and list of current sites.
Brownfields are contaminated sites with lower concentrations of hazardous material than Superfund sites. They are defined as a property where the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of the site may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. In 1995 the EPA began its Brownfields Program, to help involved parties prevent, assess, safely clean up, and sustainably reuse brownfield sites in a timely manner. Through passage of the Small Business Liability Relief and Brownfields Revitalization Act (H.R. 2869) in 2002, polices that EPA had developed over the years were signed into law (Public Law 107-118). The Brownfields Law expanded EPA's assistance by providing new grant programs and other tools to promote sustainable brownfields cleanup and reuse. For fiscal year 2009, the EPA has already announced that 12 states will receive job training grants for Brownfield cleanup.
Asbestos is a toxic material and classified as a carcinogen by the EPA due to health risks associated with inhalation. The EPA issued a rule prohibiting the manufacture, processing, and importation of most asbestos products in 1989 due to the related health problems. However a 1991 ruling by the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in response to a lawsuit brought by the American and Canadian asbestos industries, essentially negated the rule. The lawsuit argued that the EPA had not thoroughly studied alternatives to an asbestos ban.
In 1999 a Supreme Court ruling revoked a $1.5 billion class action settlement and said it was up to Congress to develop legislation to help move the numerous asbestos lawsuits through the court system at a faster pace. A 2002 report “The Impact of Asbestos Liabilities on Workers in Bankrupt Firms,” written by Joseph Stiglitz and put out by Sebago Associates and the American Insurance Association, estimated the cost of asbestos claims resulted in more than 60 companies filing for bankruptcy. Despite repeated efforts and growing support to pass legislation banning asbestos, previous Congress’ have not been able to create any laws further defining the asbestos issue.
The EPA maintains an asbestos website dedicated to educating the public about asbestos, the health hazards, and the EPA’s role in the asbestos regulation efforts.
In Libby, Montana, home to the W.R. Grace and Co.'s closed vermiculite mine, nearly 200 people have died over the past 40 years, and more than 375 additional people have been diagnosed with asbestos-related fatal diseases. A byproduct of the vermiculite mining was the release of tremolite, a form of asbestos, into the air. In addition, there is concern that vermiculite ore shipped from Libby across the country may have contaminated other plants as well.
After years of debating who had the authority to address the environmental and medical problems of Libby, the EPA finally insisted in May 1999 that the site must be cleaned up. Less than a week later the EPA announced that it had known about the asbestos situation in Libby since the mid-1980's and found that asbestos-related death rates would be nearly 100%, yet had done nothing about it. This spurred an outside agency to perform an audit of the activities surrounding the mine, which was released in 2001 one day after W.R. Grace filed for bankruptcy. In October 2002, the EPA announced the addition of the Libby site to the Superfund National Priorities List.
Sources: AGI's Monthly Review
Contributed by Corina Cerovski-Darriau, Rachel Poor, and Linda Rowan, Government Affairs staff; Merilie Reynolds, AGI/AAPG Fall 2008 Intern; Stephanie Praus, AGI/AIPG Summer 2009 Intern; Elizabeth Brown, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; Elizabeth Huss, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; Kiya Wilson, AGI/AIPG Summer 2010 Intern; and Matthew Ampleman, AGI/AAPG Fall 2010 Intern.
Background section includes material from AGI's summaries and updates for Asbestos the 110th Congress, Superfund/Brownfields in the 109th Congress, and the EPA website.
Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.
Last updated on January 6, 2011