Lax regulations and radioactive water

The New York Times has just released an incredible story on problems with frack water. For quite a while, we've known that frack water contains all kinds of awful materials including benzene, a known carcinogen. And when it comes back up, many people have suspected that the Earth's pressure combined with the injection pressure combined with the minerals beneath the Earth's surface combined with the original mixture would create new levels of toxicity. How much?
[D]ocuments reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.

Guess what? The E.P.A. has not intervened. Other environmental agencies have not intervened either. In fact, in our own state of Pennsylvania, the newly-elected governor has made it more difficult for anyone to intervene. Public health and environmental integrity might be on the chopping block more than we suspected.
The risks are particularly severe in Pennsylvania, which has seen a sharp increase in drilling, with roughly 71,000 active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000. The level of radioactivity in the wastewater has sometimes been hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water. While people clearly do not drink drilling wastewater, the reason to use the drinking-water standard for comparison is that there is no comprehensive federal standard for what constitutes safe levels of radioactivity in drilling wastewater.
The story explains numerous other problems with frack water in Pennsylvania including an interactive map that you can peruse to see levels of radium, uranium, benzene, and gross alpha found in Pennsylvania water.

Of particular alarm is the following:

¶More than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater was produced by Pennsylvania wells over the past three years, far more than has been previously disclosed. Most of this water — enough to cover Manhattan in three inches — was sent to treatment plants not equipped to remove many of the toxic materials in drilling waste.

¶At least 12 sewage treatment plants in three states accepted gas industry wastewater and discharged waste that was only partly treated into rivers, lakes and streams.

¶Of more than 179 wells producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.

Though people might not be contaminated by showering, they may be exposed repeatedly through ingestion or through bioconcentration in the food chain. Fish, deer, and other managed and hunted species may accumulate radioactive material in their tissues and humans might then eat them. The gas industry calls this a perception problem. Is it? The gas industry reported in a 1990 study that "'using conservative assumptions,' radium in drilling wastewater dumped off the Louisiana coast posed 'potentially significant risks' of cancer for people who eat fish from those waters regularly."

Read on here.

Governor Tom Corbett is quoted at the piece's end. He is quoted as saying, “I will direct the Department of Environmental Protection to serve as a partner with Pennsylvania businesses, communities and local governments. It should return to its core mission protecting the environment based on sound science.”

What do you think should be done? How should government respond to public concerns and sound science?

Leave comments below.


Opening up forest lands...

There are many sides to sustainability issues. On many of our shows we have discussed the "triple bottom line" that integrates economic, environmental, and social costs into whatever cost-benefit analyses we do. Let's face it, the easiest to quantify in some respect are the economic. We value X and are willing to pay $Y for it and we figure out whether we are willing to make venture Z by how much we are willing to pay in dollars.

But as you might suspect, not everything is up for sale in dollars and cents. What is the value of clean water? What is the value of a healthy forest? Can a government, corporation, speculator, or risk assessor fairly determine the value to an ecological or social good like a healthy child or a healthy population of Great Blue Herons? Many of us suspect that their value lies beyond the pale of dollars and cents and that opening them up to exploitation would be awful. There are some things that might just have to be sacred.

Recently elected Republican Governor of Pennsylvania Tom Corbett just rescinded a major protection for state forest lands. According to the Pittsburgh Business Times, he has decided to reverse a Rendell administration moratorium on drilling in state forest land that was forwarded by the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The actual policy recommendation is no longer available at DCNR, a possible move by the Corbett administration to stop DCNR's and DEP's impact? (It is available here, at Penn Future.) We don't know at this point. But as the Pittsburgh Business Times notes,
The document called “Policy for the Evaluation of Impacts of Oil and Gas Development on State Parks and State Forests” has been rescinded and erased from the DEP website.
And DCNR's philosophy statement on Oil and Natural Gas says,
As of January 19, 2010, approximately 700,000 acres of State Forest lands are encumbered by oil and gas leases. This includes areas where the Commonwealth does not own the oil and gas rights. All of this acreage is located in the current Marcellus Shale fairway. To date, oil and gas development has been managed in concert with ecosystem management principles; affording the prestigious designation of a “well‐managed forest” by the Forest Stewardship Council. Considering the potential negative ecological and social impacts from increased oil and gas development, the Bureau of Forestry is currently focused on managing the activities occurring on the 700,000 acres under lease. Staff and resources are fully occupied. While it’s a component of the bureau’s Mission, and it has provided significant benefits in the form of revenues and domestic energy, the Bureau of Forestry has reservations about additional leasing at this point in time. The bureau needs time to evaluate large‐scale impacts of oil and gas activities over broad landscapes—something that cannot be accomplished in the near‐term. Oil and gas extraction is a part of the bureau’s history and will continue to be a part of its future in helping to provide both clean energy and economic returns, but must be done in a manner that conserves and protects the forest for future generations.
And therein lies the sustainability issue. DCNR, an already lightly staffed part of the state infrastructure is going to use its 300 employees to monitor several hundred thousand more acres of state forest land?

Look at the sheer acreage in the chart pasted below (also from DCNR). Almost half of the available state forests were under lease as of this publication, and now there will be more.

What do you think should happen? Can we assess these impacts in terms of dollars? Is that fair?

Leave comments here.


Electricity Deregulation and You

On Sustainability Now we've been talking a great deal about energy. On almost every show we discuss energy "needs," sources, problems, solutions, and approaches. From photovoltaic solar panels to wind energy to coal and the problems and possibilities in the way that communities face energy and power issues, we have explored a lot.

The Transition Town movement in the Centre Region has been one of the foremost community groups in our area considering some of the problems and community possibilities with electricity deregulation. We've hosted Katherine Watt and Bill Sharpe of the local movement on the show and they are looking beyond the diagnosis of the problems. They are looking to solutions and community actions.

Next Tuesday, February 22nd, they are holding a panel on deregulation hosted by Sustainability Now's Peter Buckland. This would be a great way to cap off your day following the incredible work of students at Penn State to Focus the Nation on climate change and renewable energy.

Over the last two years, the Pennsylvania electricity market has gone from regulation to deregulation. Proponents say increased competition affords people with better and cheaper options. Opponents say removing price caps and other regulations pave the way for excessive corporate profits. On one hand, you might buy "green energy." On the other, prices have risen unevenly around the state. For many, the Enron and California deregulation debacles are fresh in mind.

Join the Centre Region Transition Town for a panel presentation and discussion to learn more about energy deregulation.

7 pm on February 22 in Schlow Memorial Library in State College, in the back conference room, Transition Town will bring together a panel for presentations and to answer questions. Presenters include Erik Foley-DeFiore of Penn State's Office of Sustainability and Shaun Pardi of Envinity, a local "green" business.

Pennsylvania and climate change

How will climate change affect Pennsylvania?

Nels Johnson, deputy state director for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Pennsylvania, will identify the most important risks that climate change poses for Pennsylvania and key steps that should be taken now to reduce impacts as part of the spring EarthTalks series, "Where Climate Science Meets the Road: Managing Resources for Climate Change."

His talk, "Weathering Climate Change: Strategies for Climate Change Adaptation in Pennsylvania," is scheduled for 4 p.m., Monday, Feb. 28, in 112 Walker.

Johnson served as co-chair for the natural resources working group that recently completed the “Pennsylvania Climate Change Adaptation Planning Report.” That report describes how climate change will affect the state’s infrastructure, public health, natural resources, and recreation and tourism industries. The report also provides recommendations to reduce those impacts.

In addition to discussing the report and its recommendations, Johnson also will highlight work by The Nature Conservancy to identify resilient landscapes and connectivity areas in the central Appalachians.

The 2011 spring EarthTalks serminar series is sponsored by the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). For the full list of speakers, visit http://www.eesi.psu.edu.


Ethics, Economics, and the EPA

Right now there seems to be a parade of ugliness going on in Congress and people lobbying it about the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases. Newly elected Republican representatives are out in force trying to gut the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to do things it has been charged to do for 40 years and prevent it from enforcing its newest findings on limiting greenhouse gases. They want to hamstring the agency from preventing pollution, slash its funding by almost $2 billion, and gut the agency's enforcement potential.

It takes no stretch of the imagination for you to see that we at Sustainability Now think this is not only bad for people and our shared natural environment, it is also unsustainable. On several fronts, you might say it's immoral or unethical. The new push by the Tea Party candidates and the Republican faithful will unfairly burden poor people with the cost of unregulated fossil fuel extraction from coal to natural gas. It will cause health problems to people who can't afford health care. It will pollute water especially in poor places in America. It will line the pockets of people who already make well above the median income and expand income disparity. It will further pollute air, waterways, lakes, bays, and our common ocean areas. It lacks moral fiber.

And why? In the name of profit and jobs. I don't mean to suggest that jobs are somehow unimportant. We need income to survive in this country and we need fair wages to live well enough. Jobs it is.

But where are the jobs that could be supplied by the income of the CEOs of companies like BP, Chevron, Chesapeake Energy, Rex, and Massey? Why is it equitable, just, or fair? How is a corporation granted more and more powerful rights than a living person?

How can profit-maximizing and growth economics not only accept but benefit from issues like climate change?

On Friday's show, we will crack open some of these and many other issues with Don Brown. A major critic of the ethics (or perhaps lack thereof?) in economics, he will talk with us about the ethical dimensions of growth economics, of science and scientific uncertainty, and of climate change. He is a professor of Science, Technology, and Society and Law at Penn State. He has worked for the Clinton and Rendell administrations. He has been present at major international environmental negotiations including the 1992 Rio summit and the Bali (2008), Copenhagen (2009), and Cancun (2010) climate summits. He is one of the lead authors at climateethics.org, a major blog on the ethical and moral dimensions of climate change.

Listen at 4 pm on The Lion 90.7 fm from 4-5 pm on Friday February 18th. Feel free to call in: (814) 865-9577

* Peter Buckland was Don Brown's assistant when he was president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium.


The Ecologist's take on fracking

More things to think about with natural gas. One of its key selling points is that it is less toxic than coal and that it's CO2 emissions are lower than other fossil fuels. Watch this video from The Ecologist and you might think again.


Animal and Human Welfare

Gene Baur is the co-founder of Farm Sanctuary. He works for food system transparency, for animal well-being, and for healthier living through plant-based diets. In this interview, we discuss problems and solutions toward a more humane and sustainable food system.


An invitation to inspiration from a Penn Stater

You want to be inspired? You want to inspire?

Watch this!

Pilfering our "petri dish": the Earth

"There are too many people here...on this planet. Seven billion headed to nine. We have to stop population and economic growth." That's how Wes Jackson, farmer, founder of the Land Institute, and winner of the Right Livelihood Award, began his presentation to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Farming for the Future conference.

Jackson argues that "We" the industrial people need to take "a long view." "We" have to examine our past and realize our limits. "We" have to account for intergenerational justice and initiate a serious reduction of the afflictions that industrial humans have created and perpetuated. Overpopulation. Soil overuse and abuse. And amazingly, Jackson accused those present - farmers, sellers, buyers, eaters, and supporters - of not doing enough to stop the "terrible truths" that surround us: agriculture, massive deforestation for iron and bronze, coal, oil, natural gas, industrial expansion, and on and on.

Will we "efficiency" our way out of these problems? Not if we are tied to economic growth. This is known as Jevon's Paradox, named after W. Stanley Jevons who wrote in The Coal Question, “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth." The savings used from one area will be allotted to another area where it will expand. Jackson argues that if we were serious about sustainability, then we would plug the mine and the well.

How can we end economic growth? Do we need to turn a lot of these things off? Is there a calling to what Herbert Marcuse called "The Great Refusal" and more of us refuse to participate?

Jackson says that we have to answer questions that haven't even been asked yet. Like Darwin who answered the question of how life works, we need to ask a similar questions: How do we live sustainably? What are the other questions we need to start asking?

You can listen to the whole speech here.


Sustainable State Video Contest Announcement

Student listeners and blog-readers. Check this out. If you want to get involved with telling a great story of a more sustainable place, then maybe you'll want to enter this video contest.


What is sustainability?

Today on the show, we had two of our most interesting guests on the show today. Typically, we have people who have a hopeful or optimistic view of sustainability, but today we had guests who come from energy economics. One of our guests, Dr. Andrew Kleit challenged us to think about sustainability. The term is loose. Sustaining what for what and for whom?

He said, "With technological progress, society gets richer. So given that, I'm not sure why I should be poorer today so that someone thirty years from now can be richer. It's like people saving thirty years ago so that we could be richer. I just don't think it makes a whole lot of sense." This creates a great set of questions for us. To get the whole scope of his answer, you can listen here. As you will hear, Dr. Kleit asks some pointed questions and makes some points about energy we don't typically hear on Sustainability Now.

What is being "rich"? Is richness defined by monetary accumulation and expenditure that move on rationalized markets? Is richness defined by life expectancy? Is it measured by happiness and meaning? Is richness measured in number of children you have? The amount of stuff you own?

What is "technological progress"? The Hummer is a piece of technological progress and so is the F-16 and so are hydroponics and so are greenhouses. Are all of those things equally progressive? By what measure?

What do you think about these questions? What is sustainability? What is progress? What does it mean to be rich?