Pittsburg: Suit claims EPA failed to investigate complaints of environmental discrimination
By Bay City News Service, 07/21/2015 09:43:40 AM PDT
PITTSBURG – A consortium of environmental groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to investigate complaints of discrimination in the placement of power plants or hazardous waste dumps in various locations across the country, including two power plants in Pittsburg.
The EPA has 180 days to respond to the complaints, but according to the suit, which was filed on July 15, the federal regulator has not responded to the complaints in 10 to 20 years in some cases.
The suit includes allegations about facilities in Michigan, Texas, New Mexico, Alabama and California.
In Pittsburg, the suit alleges that the local regulatory agencies — the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the California Air Resources Board, and the California Energy Commission — discriminated against residents by locating two power plants in an already environmentally over-burdened area, according to Marianne Engelman Lado, a lawyer with Earthjustice, which is representing the plaintiffs.
“This is in a community where people have high rates of asthma or cancer and they were concerned that these plants would add to that,” Engelman Lado said.
Californians for Renewable Energy, or CARE, filed a complaint with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights in April 2000 charging the local agencies discriminated against the predominantly nonwhite and low-income residents by failing to consider the additional environmental burden of the two new plants, the complaint alleges.
Permitting for the plants, the Los Medanos Energy Center LLC and Delta Energy Center, continued and the plants were approved and went online in 2001 and 2002, respectively, according to the complaint. The EPA accepted the complaint in December 2001 but has yet to conduct an investigation into the allegations, despite attempts in 2006 and 2009 by CARE to prompt the federal agency to respond, the complaint alleges.
In June 2002, the EPA classified Los Medanos Energy Center as being in “significant violation” of the Clean Air Act and over the last five years the facility has had to pay over $3,000 in fines for violating the act, according to the complaint.
In the meantime, residents have been suffering the consequences, Engelman Lado said.
“The plants are still standing and they’re polluting,” she said. “They’re emitting toxins and the community is living with that everyday.”
Engelman Lado said it’s clear the EPA has violated the law, and she’s hoping the lawsuit will result in the EPA completing their investigation.
Engelman Lado added she’s confident that when the EPA does complete the investigation, it will make findings of discrimination.
“We would hope, whether through a court order or by sitting down at the table, we could bring resources to bear to say, ‘What can we do to help these communities who are suffering from a lack of infrastructure or resources,'” she said.
That could take the form of more monitoring, infrastructure to mitigate some of the negative impacts of the power plants, or more extensive buffers between the community and the plants.
A representative from the EPA did not return a request for comment.
“After years of exhaustive research and examination of the science and facts, prohibiting high-volume hydraulic fracturing is the only reasonable alternative,” said New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens in a statement. “High-volume hydraulic fracturing poses significant adverse impacts to land, air, water, natural resources and potential significant public health impacts that cannot be adequately mitigated. This decision is consistent with DEC’s mission to conserve, improve and protect our state’s natural resources, and to enhance the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state.”
The Findings Statement concludes that “there are no feasible or prudent alternatives that adequately avoid or minimize adverse environmental impacts and address risks to public health from this activity.” Two groups heavily involved in the campaign, New Yorkers Against Fracking and Americans Against Fracking, praised the decision.
Mark Ruffalo, an advisory board member of Americans Against Fracking, worked diligently to ban fracking in his home state and recently made an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart to encourage the U.S. to go 100 percent renewable by 2050. In a statement on the finalization of New York’s ban on fracking, Ruffalo said:
I applaud the Cuomo Administration for protecting the public health and safety of New Yorkers by finalizing the ban on high volume fracking. Governor Cuomo has set a precedent for the nation by carefully considering the science, which shows a range of public health and environmental harms, and doing what’s best for the people, not the special interests of Big Oil and Gas. Already, other states and countries are following New York’s lead, with prohibitions including Maryland, Scotland, Wales and just today a crucial county in England. Along with many New Yorkers, I look forward to working on advancing renewable energy and efficiency, showing the world that a cleaner, healthier, renewable energy future is possible. Today I’m proud and thankful to be a New Yorker.
Industry groups have, of course, threatened to sue but the attorneys at Earthjustice are confident that the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s exhaustive review “will withstand legal challenge” and Earthjustice pledges “to stand alongside the state in any legal challenge.”
“Today, nearly a year to the day after communities won the right to ban fracking, New York’s historic statewide ban on fracking is now the law of the land,” says Earthjustice Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg, who represented the town of Dryden, New York, which won its precedent-setting fracking ban case one year ago tomorrow. “We salute Governor Andrew Cuomo’s refusal to bow to industry pressure. He had the courage to do what no other state or federal leader has had the courage to do: let the available scientific evidence dictate whether fracking should proceed in New York.”
New York now joins Vermont in outlawing the practice altogether, which has been banned in the Green Mountain state since 2012. As Ruffalo mentioned, this spring Maryland approved a moratorium on fracking in the state until October 2017. Scotland and Wales have also instituted moratoriums. And today a county in England rejected applications for fracking permits, which the Wall Street Journal says “effectively extends the moratorium on fracking in the U.K.” Meanwhile, Texas and Oklahoma both passed legislation this spring, barring local municipalities from instituting fracking bans.
“New Yorkers can celebrate the fact that we won’t be subjected to the toxic pollution and health risks fracking inevitably brings,” said Alex Beauchamp, northeast region director for Food & Water Watch. “By banning fracking, Governor Cuomo stood up to the oil and gas industry, and in so doing became a national leader on health and the environment. He set a standard for human health and safety that President Obama and other state leaders should be striving for.”
Battle Over New Oil Train Standards Pits Safety Against Cost
By David Schaper, June 19, 2015 3:30 AM ET
The federal government’s new rules aimed at preventing explosive oil train derailments are sparking a backlash from all sides.
The railroads, oil producers and shippers say some of the new safety requirements are unproven and too costly, yet some safety advocates and environmental groups say the regulations aren’t strict enough and still leave too many people at risk.
Since February, five trains carrying North Dakota Bakken crude oil have derailed and exploded into flames in the U.S. and Canada. No one was hurt in the incidents in Mount Carbon, W.Va., and Northern Ontario in February; in Galena, Ill., and Northern Ontario in March, and in Heimdal, N.D., in May.
But each of those fiery train wrecks occurred in lightly populated areas. Scores of oil trains also travel through dense cities, particularly Chicago, the nation’s railroad hub.
According to state records and published reports, about 40 or more trains carrying Bakken crude roll through the city each week on just the BNSF Railway’s tracks alone. Those trains pass right by apartment buildings, homes, businesses and even schools.
“Well just imagine the carnage,” said Christina Martinez. She was standing alongside the BNSF tracks in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood as a long train of black tank cars slowly rolled by, right across the street from St. Procopius, the Catholic elementary school her six-year-old attends.
“Just the other day they were playing soccer at my son’s school on Saturday and I saw the train go by and it had the ‘1267’, the red marking,” Martinez said, referring to the red, diamond-shaped placards on railroad tank cars that indicates their contents. The number 1267 signifies crude oil. “And I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Can you imagine if it would derail and explode right here while these kids are playing soccer and all the people around there?”
New federal rules require stronger tank cars, with thicker shells and higher front and back safety shields for shipping crude oil and other flammable liquids. Older, weaker models that more easily rupture will have to be retrofitted or replaced within three to five years. But Martinez and others wanted rules limiting the volatility of what’s going into those tank cars, too.
Oil from North Dakota has a highly combustible mix of natural gases including butane, methane and propane. The state requires the conditioning of the gas and oil at the wellhead so the vapor pressure is below 13.7 pounds per square inch before it’s shipped. But even at that level, oil from derailed tank cars has exploded into flames.
And many safety advocates had hoped federal regulators would require conditioning to lower the vapor pressure even more.
“We don’t want these bomb trains going through our neighborhood,” said Lora Chamberlain of the group Chicagoland Oil by Rail. “Degasify the stuff. And so we’re really, really upset at the feds, the Department of Transportation, for not addressing this in these new rules.”
Others criticize the rules for giving shippers three to five years to either strengthen or replace the weakest tank cars.
“The rules won’t take effect for many years,” said Paul Berland, who lives near busy railroad tracks in suburban Elgin. “They’re still playing Russian roulette with our communities.”
A coalition of environmental groups — including Earthjustice, ForestEthics and the Sierra Club — sued, alleging that loopholes could allow some dangerous tank cars to remain on the tracks for up to a decade.
“I don’t think our federal regulators did the job that they needed to do here; I think they wimped out, as it were,” said Tom Weisner, mayor of Aurora, Ill., a city of 200,000 about 40 miles west of Chicago that has seen a dramatic increase in oil trains rumbling through it.
Weisner is upset the new rules provide exemptions to trains with fewer than 20 contiguous tank cars of a flammable liquid, such as oil, and for trains with fewer than 35 such tank cars in total.
“They’ve left a hole in the regulations that you could drive a freight train through,” Weisner said.
At the same time, an oil industry group is challenging the new regulations in court, too, arguing that manufacturers won’t be able to build and retrofit tank cars fast enough to meet the requirements.
The railroad industry is also taking action against the new crude-by-rail rules, filing an appeal of the new rules with the Department of Transportation.
In a statement, Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said: “It is the AAR’s position the rule, while a good start, does not sufficiently advance safety and fails to fully address ongoing concerns of the freight rail industry and the general public. The AAR is urging the DOT to close the gap in the rule that allows shippers to continue using tank cars not meeting new design specifications, to remove the ECP brake requirement, and to enhance thermal protection by requiring a thermal blanket as part of new tank car safety design standards.”
AAR’s President Ed Hamberger discussed the problems the railroads have with the new rules in an interview with NPR prior to filing the appeal. “The one that we have real problems with is requiring something called ECP brakes — electronically controlled pneumatic brakes,” he said, adding the new braking system that the federal government is mandating is unproven.
“[DOT does] not claim that ECP brakes would prevent one accident,” Hamberger said. “Their entire safety case is based on the fact that ECP brakes are applied a little bit more quickly than the current system.”
Acting Federal Railroad Administrator Sarah Feinberg disagreed. “It’s not unproven at all,” she said, noting that the railroads say ECP brakes could cost nearly $10,000 per tank car.
“I do understand that the railroad industry views it as costly,” Feinberg adds. “I don’t think it’s particularly costly, especially when you compare it to the cost of a really significant incident with a train carrying this product.”
“We’re talking about unit trains, 70 or more cars, that are transporting an incredibly volatile and flammable substance through towns like Chicago, Philadelphia,” Feinberg continues. “I want those trains to have a really good braking system. I don’t want to get into an argument with the rail industry that it’s too expensive. I want people along rail lines to be protected.”
Feinberg said her agency is still studying whether to regulate the volatility of crude, but some in Congress don’t think this safety matter can wait.
“The new DOT rule is just like saying let the oil trains roll,” U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in a statement. “It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to address the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars.”
Cantwell is sponsoring legislation to force oil producers to reduce the crude’s volatility to make it less explosive, before shipping it on the nation’s rails.
“We think the federal government needs to go back to the drawing board and take a really hard look at fracking pollution threats to water, air and public health,” he says.
The environmental lawfirm Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch. Oil companies named in the suit maintain their operations are safe and comply with all regulations.
Sullivan says fracking and oil drilling put the environment and nearby residents at risk.
“The EPA has found instances in which fracking has contaminated drinking water across the country,” he says. “Here in California we know oil companies have dumped waste fluid into protected underground aquifers.”
The federal lands in question stretch across the San Joaquin Valley, southern Sierra Nevada and along the Central Coast in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.