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A paper published today in Environmental Health has raised concerns about air quality in areas surrounding oil and gas operations, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking) sites. Caroline Cox, an author on the paper, is Research Director for the Center for Environmental Health, a US nonprofit working to end health threats from toxic chemicals in air, water, food, and the products we use every day. Here she tells us more about what their new study has found.
Decades ago, when I was a graduate student, my advisor often said that our job as scientists was to put numbers on the obvious. Maybe it should be obvious that oil and gas production, including as it does the extraction, transport, and processing of enormous quantities of hydrocarbon mixtures, will result in air pollution, but studies that put numbers on this pollution have been rare.
The complexities of topography, weather, and the variability in the production processes themselves make such studies difficult. Today Environmental Health publishes a new study that “puts numbers” on air pollution near oil and gas infrastructure in five US states and finds sobering results.
The Environmental Health study is a collaboration between 15 local, state, and national nonprofit organizations. Our groups came together to conduct this study because we all share concerns about the potential but little studied health threats from the expansion of oil and gas operations, and in particular from hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
Our study is an example of community based participatory research: the health concerns experienced by the local partners in the study were the impetus for the research. The local partners were trained to collect air samples and used their knowledge of local conditions to determine where and when to take the air samples.
About 40% of the samples we took contained at least one chemical at concentrations that exceeded risk levels established by either of two U.S. agencies, the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
Concentrations of eight different volatile chemicals in samples from four of the five states studied exceeded these standards. The chemicals which most frequently exceeded the risk levels were benzene and formaldehyde, both known carcinogens, and hydrogen sulfide, which can cause dizziness, sore throat, labored breathing, and unconsciousness. Some of the pollution levels measured were extraordinary: for example one site found benzene at levels that were 12,000 times the safety level established by ATSDR.
Our results may surprise those who have heard claims that natural gas from fracking is a cleaner ‘bridge fuel’ to a climate friendly future. Our results suggest that oil and gas operations may not be as clean as advertised, and could pose unaddressed health risks to neighboring communities.
Given the gaps in air quality research around oil and gas operations, those of us who helped with the study hope that it will encourage more extensive future research, especially that which uses the expertise of local communities. We also hope that it will spur more robust air pollution monitoring by government agencies, more disclosure about the chemicals used in oil and gas production, a precautionary approach to new oil and gas development, and increased investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy.
[UPDATE: Tonight, Oct. 28th, Andrés Soto from Communities for a Better Environment is giving a presentation on the Crude By Rail phenomenon, the Kinder Morgan – Richmond operation, and what actions local communities and governments might take in response. The talk will begin about 7:30 PM at the Richmond City Council Meeting, located at the Community Services Building, 440 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond, CA 94804. Don’t miss it! It will include options to undo the wrongs you will read about below!]
By Tom Griffith, Martinez Environmental Group
Friday, September 5th, 2014, was court day. Not for the protesters who had locked themselves to the Kinder Morgan gates the previous day, but for Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), Kinder Morgan, and Tesoro.
On behalf of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), Sierra Club, and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against Kinder Morgan and BAAQMD. Earthjustice argued that since there was no public notice or environmental review, the crude-by-rail project at Kinder Morgan should be shut down, pending a full California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review.
This was an important moment for those of us tormented by the ever increasing likelihood of a new rail disaster. It was our best shot at shutting down the bomb trains until a proper CEQA review examined all the angles.
Such an important case should be determined on its merits. But Superior Court Judge Peter Busch took the easy way out and dismissed the Earthjustice case on a technicality.
It was a technicality, but a questionable one.
The judge ruled that the statute of limitations of 180 days had run out prior to the Earthjustice filing. It didn’t seem to matter that Kinder Morgan’s secrecy made it impossible to know what was going on, and once the local CBS news affiliate KPIX broke the story, a petition was immediately filed. The judge actually said that normal citizens could have seen what was going on at the facility and been able to file a lawsuit within the 180 day limit! It didn’t seem to matter that Kinder Morgan didn’t even have a permit to handle Bakken crude oil until February 3rd, 2014 although they had been transloading for 5 months prior to the issuance of the permit. The judge decided to start the 180 day statutory clock running when the 2013 permit to construct was issued, not the permit to handle. See the full timeline below.
It was a cowardly and random decision, at least it was from my vantage point.
By Tom Griffith, co-founder, Martinez Environmental Group Oct. 15, 2014
Last night, sixteen Contra Costa County residents presented testimony asking the Martinez City Council to vote against a weak resolution on Crude By Rail (CBR).
With about fifty supporters in attendance – including the Martinez Environmental Group (MEG), Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC), Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment, (CRUDE), the Sunflower Alliance, and local candidates for Mayor, Gay Gerlack and for City Council, Mark Thompson – all speakers asked the council to postpone the vote and work on strengthening the proposal for the good of the community.
Despite the presentation of a fully fleshed-out proposal by MEG to the council in May of this year, Mike Menesini sprung his alternative on community members two weeks ago. MEG members let him know that his proposal was unacceptably weak. Multiple efforts to meet with all members of the council proved fruitless, with the exception of Lara Delaney, who made time to meet with MEG members, and also made a last minute attempt to bring stronger wording to the proposal.
Unfortunately, the council voted unanimously to pass the flimsy resolution, while also promising “to do more” in the future. It’s difficult to understand their hurry – a desire to be done with it or an election stunt? Their resolution says nothing about a desire to stop CBR through Martinez, until/if it is made into a safe mode of transport.
These kind of trains roll through our town every 7 to 10 days, over that rusty old John Muir trestle on their way to Kinder Morgan in Richmond. Once there, the extreme crude oil is loaded onto tanker trucks and driven back over the tinder dry area on either side of Highway 4 to Tesoro for refining. So Martinez gets it coming and going!
At one point, Mark Ross suggested that the only way things change is when something awful happens, citing the deadly Caldicott Tunnel explosion and fire that initiated a ban on explosive materials passing through the tunnel. Clearly he has not paid attention to the (at least) 11 other derailments and spills caused by CBR in the USA just this year, or the tragedy in Quebec that killed 47 people and destroyed their downtown area. The council seems content with responsive rather than proactive safety measures. But it should be crystal clear to everyone that by the time we respond to an event of this nature, the people are already dead and the water, land, and wildlife have been devastated. All you can do is let the fireball burn itself out.
MEG is so grateful to all the passionate speakers who showed up with the intention to stop the next accident before it happens! Public testimony was insightful, educational, and heartfelt.
Although many of us were visibly disheartened at the outcome, we will be back to continue this on-going struggle. CBR is just beginning. If the oil companies and politicians in their pockets have their way, California will soon be crawling with bomb trains carrying extreme crude oil!
By Tom Griffith, Martinez Environmental Group
Photos by Kelly Johnson Revolutionary Photography and by Peter Menchini
September 4th, 2014.
Today was different.
I don’t usually wear an adult diaper or publicly stuff foam into the back of my jeans. I don’t usually crawl through a hole in a fence and put a u-lock around my throat and through the gate of the Richmond Kinder Morgan transfer facility.
But in California we are up to our necks in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions! So today I did these things, along with 7 other community members and an amazing support team.
We did it in order to register our demand for environmental justice, to stop the danger of unnecessary death and destruction driving through our towns, if only for a couple of hours, and to bring attention to how the staff of Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) chose an imminent threat for the people they are supposed to protect. (And they did so ILLEGALLY but that will be covered in the next blog.
Somehow, as I sat there with unusually good posture due to that u-lock around my neck and the gate, I felt very calm. On the day of the action, it went off without a hitch – easier than we expected due to a gaping hole in the fence. We were in and locked within just a few minutes. Four of us locked our necks to the gates and then four others “lock-boxed” themselves to one of our arms. Our support team made contact with nearby workers to let them know we were peaceful protesters. Then we waited for whoever was going to come – the Richmond police, the Kinder Morgan/Tesoro security team – and incredibly, it took about twenty minutes for anyone to show up. Not exactly what you’d expect at a facility full of explosively hazardous materials! Photo by Peter Menchini, 2014.
An unexpected turn of events ended our protest. Although we were far enough away from the railroad track that runs into Kinder Morgan, some “authority” decided that it was “too dangerous” to have trains going by while we were chained to the fence. This allowed them to halt the trains and potentially charge us with interfering with interstate commerce. And no one had envisioned a possible 25-year prison term. So we unlocked ourselves, gathered our tools and left of our own accord.
While we blockaded Kinder Morgan for 2.5 hours, we turned away, or kept inactive, about 7 tanker trucks. We made it on local TV news stations – important mainly for getting the issue of Crude by Rail out in prime time.
The Richmond Police were really good to us – much of that due to our tremendous support team, and the many years of work community organizers put into reforming the once notorious Richmond Police Department. The Mayor of Richmond, Gayle McLaughlin, even stopped by to support our protest. It was so odd – as we left, we shook hands with the policemen, the Mayor, and even the guy from Kinder Morgan. What I think is that everybody knows history will be on our side – if there is a future worth arguing about. Those against us just can’t seem to let go of all that cash money.
And yes, the photo below is a real sign at Kinder Morgan.
By Tom Griffith, Martinez Environmental Group
The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) has been working on a new oil refinery emissions rule for years now. Environmental groups like Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), and multiple refinery community groups have worked tirelessly to hold the air district accountable to its overlooked mission statement. The BAAQMD is supposed to “protect and improve public health, air quality, and the global climate” to create a “healthy breathing environment for every Bay Area resident.” But as the air district recently neared completion of the new refinery emissions rule, their staff had almost entirely taken the teeth out of it. What remained was this: more health studies and more emissions tracking – in other words, let the current levels of pollution continue with no end in sight. Click here to read the proposed elements of the rule.
Impacted refinery communities like mine, in Martinez, are not happy with merely reporting, comparing, updating, and monitoring. After 100 years of refinery pollution in the Bay Area, shouldn’t BAAQMD already have a pretty good idea of the mortality rates, childhood asthma rates, cancer rates, and pollutant emissions rates associated with the 5 Bay Area refineries? How long will BAAQMD bow to Big Oil’s tactic of studying us to death?
So, on September 3rd, community members, myself included, showed up at the BAAQMD Board of Directors meeting to give them a wake-up call. Community leaders demanded:
- meaningful controls on emissions
- mandatory replacement of old outdated equipment
- monitoring systems for multiple pollutants with website access to real-time air quality data for ALL refinery communities
And we want these safeguards in place before any of the myriad oil projects already “in the pipeline” go forward.
After multiple community groups, including the Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition (BARCC), the Martinez Environmental Group (MEG), Crockett Rodeo United to Defend the Environment (CRUDE), and Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community (BSHC), all registered our displeasure, the BAAQMD Board directed their staff to seek emission reductions from refineries and to come back with a plan. So now we will wait a little longer for staff to finally prepare a document that offers tangible options to lessen refinery emissions levels.
That is what we originally thought we were waiting for during the air district staff’s two year preparation. So until those meaningful ideas are presented, I remain both skeptical and hopeful.