Environmental Policy (2/19/13)

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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 Environmental Protection Agency (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.

Recent Action

 

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Previous Action

EPA Reports Water at Dimock, PA Safe to Drink (07/12)
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced in July that contaminant levels in Dimock, Pennsylvania’s water supplies show no health threat and no connection to chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has not allowed Cabot Oil and Gas to drill near Dimock, the town featured in the documentary “Gasland.” The wells were shut down in 2009 because the town claimed poor well construction caused the migration of methane gas into water resources. The DEP found unnatural gas concentrations on 18 properties. The EPA methane tests found five wells with methane levels above the 28 parts per million threshold. People receiving water from these wells were already aware of methane levels present in local water.

The EPA tested for naturally occurring substances including arsenic, barium, and manganese. Levels of concern for health impacts were identified at five households, however all have built, or plan to build, water treatment systems to reduce the risk.

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Background

Superfund
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
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
The term asbestos refers to the fibrous form of six different minerals that have been used in industry for such products as insulation, roofing shingles, ceiling tiles and brake pads. Occupational exposure and inhalation of certain types of asbestos has been linked to asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. The EPA classifies it as a toxic material and as a carcinogen, though it does not distinguish among the chemically and physically different minerals. 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 U.S. 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 Congresses 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.

Hydraulic Fracturing
Much of the energy and environmental legislation and reports introduced in the 112th Congress dealt with hydraulic fracturing. With concerns over environmental contamination and the possibility of induced seismicity, states such as Vermont and Maryland have enacted bans on the process. The BLM proposed a hydraulic fracturing rule that would require companies to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing on public and Indian land, increase regulation of well bore integrity to prevent leaks, and require companies to have a water management plan for handling flowback water. Legislation was introduced in both the House and Senate to remove natural gas companies’ exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and the Clean Air Act (CAA). The EPA is currently researching the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater and drinking water, and expects to release their final results in 2014.  Meanwhile, President Obama has signed an executive order creating a working group of more than twelve agencies to promote the safe domestic production of natural gas through unconventional techniques such as hydraulic fracturing. The Obama Administration also requested $45 million to study hydraulic fracturing in fiscal year 2013.

The EPA completed testing of groundwater in the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania and announced in July 2012 that “there are not levels of contaminants present that would require additional action by the Agency.” The town was featured prominently in the documentary “Gasland” as a location where water from faucets could be lit on fire. Residents stated that their wells had become contaminated due to hydraulic fracturing. After testing wells for 64 residences, the EPA found that only five homes had levels of hazardous substances that could pose a health risk; however, with the use of personal water treatment systems, these contaminants will be reduced to safe levels.

Investigation continues into potential water contamination from hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, Wyoming, an area where fracturing occurs within and below the aquifer and near wells that provide drinking water. The EPA delayed release of their final results, allowing the U.S. Geological Society (USGS) to complete additional testing. A draft report issued in December 2011 indicated that while contaminant concentrations were generally below harmful levels, evidence supports movement of methane, petroleum hydrocarbons, and chemical compounds associated with fracturing into the drinking water. The USGS released their data in September 2012 which inspired additional debate: the EPA stated that both agencies produced generally consistent data while the gas company Encana claimed the opposite. Objections have been raised over the EPA’s methodology and, thus, the accuracy of their data.

Oil Spills
During the 112th Congress, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling as well as the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and U.S. Coast Guard Joint Investigation Team (JIT) released separate reports on their investigation of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In an agreement with the Justice Department, BP will plead guilty on 14 criminal charges and pay a record $4 billion in claims. Deepwater Horizon prompted the introduction of bills in the House and Senate dealing with oil spill research and response, but none passed.

Another oil spill occurred in July 2011 when an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured under the Yellowstone River near Billings, Montana. This spill reopened congressional debate about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. While legislation was introduced in support of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Obama Administration announced it will not make a decision on the pipeline until 2013.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
Numerous bills were introduced in the House during the 112th Congress to attempt to block the EPA’s implementation of climate, water, and air quality regulations. In January 2011, the EPA decided to delay setting greenhouse gas permitting requirements for three years for industries that use biomass as fuel, citing the need to for more scientific analysis into emissions from burning biomass.

In March 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that property owners facing potential enforcement actions under the Clean Water Act (33 U.S.C. 1251) can challenge the EPA’s determination before being forced to comply. This case dealt with challenging the designation of a property as a wetland.

White Nose Syndrome in Bats
White nose syndrome refers to the fuzzy white fungal spores visible on the nose, ears, and wings of an infected bat. The U.S Geological Survey (USGS) identified the fungal pathogen affecting the bats as Geomyces destructans, which attaches itself to the hair and exposed skin of bats causing lesions and burning holes in their wings so they can no longer fly. Once it has penetrated the skin, the fungus causes bats to use limited body-fat reserves, retreat deeper into caves, or exhibit odd behavior such as flying in daytime and cold weather when there is limited access to food resources. Because the fungus thrives in cold conditions it targets bats mainly during hibernation season, killing as much as ninety percent of a hibernating bat colony. It spreads from bat-to-bat contact. Little-brown bats and tricolored bats have been hit hardest, but twelve out of forty-five bat species in North America are experiencing white nose syndrome. First reported in a cave in Albany, NY in 2006, it has been located in 19 states and 4 Canadian provinces. It has since killed seven million bats in eastern North America and scientists predict that it could eliminate some species of bats within 15 years. Bats pollinate specific ecosystems and save the U.S. agricultural industry $3 billion per year by eating insects such as mosquitoes and beetles that damage crops.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced $1.4 million in grants to study and manage the spread of white nose syndrome. Though the FWS was directed by Congress to spend $4 million on white nose syndrome management and research, the Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning for a coordinated federal response to prevent the further spread of the disease. The President’s FY 2013 budget proposed providing the USGS’s Ecosystems Mission Directorate $1 million and the FWS $7.3 million in State Wildlife Grants for work to prevent the syndrome’s spread. Additionally, the FWS has asked visitors to stay out of affected areas and has closed off cave access on agency lands.

Miscellaneous
The Bureau of Ocean Energy, Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) was restructured into two agencies: the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE). BOEM will have a Chief Environmental Officer and be responsible for resource development, including leasing. BSEE will enforce safety and environmental regulations. Within the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Offshore Energy Safety Advisory Committee was created to advise the DOI on research and development relating to drilling safety, spill response and containment, and drilling testing technology.

Legislation was introduced on a variety of environmental topics in the 112th Congress.  The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed the Resources and Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities, and Revived Economies (RESTORE) Act (S. 1400) to provide interest-based funding to a national endowment for the oceans and direct 80% of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill fines to Gulf Coast states for environmental and economic restoration. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Energy and Environment approved the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2011 (H.R. 2484) to ensure funding for research on harmful algal blooms (HABs) and hypoxia or dead zones but at reduced FY 2010 funding levels. Neither bill passed either house.

The Office of Surface Mining (OSM) has been drafting a new Stream Protection Rule to replace the Bush Administration’s Stream Buffer Zone Rule. The OSM is drafting an Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed rule which seeks to protect waterways from mountaintop-removal mining. Proposed alterations in the new rule include requiring that coal companies electing to bury or mine through streams gather more specific baseline data on the site's hydrology, geology, and aquatic biology; defining "material damage to the hydrologic balance" with regard to watersheds outside the permit area; and developing more effective requirements for ensuring mines are returned their approximate original contour. The House Natural Resource Committee Republicans and the mining industry have criticized the proposal, many objecting that the rule will result in job losses in the thousands.

Contributed by Wilson Bonner, Geoscience Policy Staff; Kimberley Corwin, 2013 AAPG/AGI Spring 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 Geoscience Policy.

Last updated on February 19, 2013