Tag Archives: Water quality

Federal spending deal falls short on environment

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Spending deal falls short on environment

By Annie Notthoff, December 17, 2015  |  Annie Notthoff is director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s California advocacy program.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

The spending and tax policy agreement Congress and the White House have reached to keep the government funded and running includes important wins for health and the environment.

But there’s good news to report, only because of the Herculean efforts of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the White House, who worked tirelessly to block nearly all of the dozens and dozens of proposals Republican leaders were pushing.

Those proposals would have blocked action on climate, clean air, clean water, land preservation and wildlife protection and stripped key programs of needed resources. The Republican leaders’ proposals were the clearest expression yet of their “just say no” approach to environmental policy. They literally have no plan, except to block every movement forward on problems that threaten our health and our planet.

The worst aspect of the budget agreement is another clear indication of Republican leaders’ misplaced priorities — they exacted an end to the decades-long ban on sending U.S. crude oil overseas in this bill, in return for giving up on key elements of their antienvironment agenda.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made that give-away to the oil industry one of his top priorities. It will mean increased oil drilling in the U.S., with all the attendant dangers, with the benefits going to oil companies and overseas purchasers. That won’t help the American public, or the climate. It’s simply an undeserved gift to Big Oil.

In good news, the agreement extends tax credits for wind and solar energy for five years, which will give those industries long-sought certainty about their financing.

Wind and solar will continue to grow by leaps and bounds, helping domestic industry, reducing carbon pollution and making the U.S. less vulnerable to the ups and downs of fossil fuel prices.

Democratic leaders deserve all our thanks for what they were able to keep out of the budget deal. Gone are the vast majority of obstacles Republican leaders tried to throw in the way of environmental protection. Recall for a moment the 100 or more antienvironmental provisions Republican leaders tried to attach to these spending bills. Those included efforts to:

• Block the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which sets the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants — our best available tool to combat dangerous climate change.

• Roll back the Obama Administration’s Clean Water Rule, which would restore protections for the potential drinking water supplies of 1 in 3 Americans.

• Repeal the EPA’s newly issued health standards to protect us from smog.

• Bar the Interior Department from protecting our streams from the pollution generated by mountaintop removal during coal mining.

• Strip Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves, the greater sage grouse, elephants, the Sonoran Desert tortoise, and other threatened animals.

• Force approval of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline, which President Obama already has rejected.

There’s more work ahead to protect the environment, starting with eliminating the threat of oil drilling in the Arctic and off the Atlantic Coast.

But despite the efforts of Republican congressional leaders to hold the public hostage and bring us to the brink of another government shutdown, a budget deal has emerged that protects environmental progress.

 

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California shuts dozens of oil wells to stop wastewater injection

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

State shuts 33 wells injecting oil wastewater into aquifers

By David R. Baker, October 16, 2015
A person walks past pump jacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) Photo: Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
A person walks past pump jacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

California regulators on Thursday closed 33 oil company wells that had injected wastewater into potentially drinkable aquifers protected by federal law.

The new closures bring to 56 the number of oil-field wastewater injection wells shut down by the state after officials realized they were pumping oil-tainted water into aquifers that potentially could be used for drinking or irrigation.

All but two of the latest closures are in Kern County, in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. One lies in Ventura County, another in northern Los Angeles County. Officials with California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources spent Friday verifying that they had, in fact, closed. Of the 33, only 21 had been actively injecting wastewater before Thursday.

“This is part of our ongoing effort to ensure that California’s groundwater resources are protected as oil and gas production take place,” said Steven Bohlen, the division’s supervisor.

California’s oil fields contain large amounts of salty water that comes to the surface mixed with the oil. It must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, often by injecting it back underground. Much of the water is pumped back into the same geologic formation it came from. But enough left-over water remains that companies must find other places to put it.

Fears of contamination

The division, part of California’s Department of Conservation, for years issued oil companies permits to inject their left-over water into aquifers that were supposed to be off-limits, protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The problem, detailed in a Chronicle investigation earlier this year, raised fears of water contamination in a state struggling through a historic, four-year drought.

So far, however, no drinking water supplies have been found to be tainted by the injections.

Still, some environmentalists expressed outrage that so few wells had been closed.

The division has identified 178 wells that were injecting into legally protected aquifers with relatively high water quality, defined as those with a maximum of 3,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids. More than 2,000 other wells inject into aquifers that would be harder to use for drinking water, either because they are too salty or because they also contain oil.

“This is too little, too late to protect our water,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With each passing day the oil industry is polluting more and more of our precious water.”

The division reported Friday, however, that not all 178 wells required closure. Some had already been shut down by their operators, while others had been converted into wells for extracting oil — not dumping wastewater.

An oil industry trade group noted that all of the wells closed Thursday had received state permits, even if the state now acknowledges that those permits should never have been issued.

“Both regulators and producers are committed to protecting underground water supplies, and today’s announcement reinforces the seriousness of that commitment,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association.

Safeguarding water supplies

“California’s oil and natural gas producers are committed to operating their wells in a manner that continues to safeguard public water supplies,” she said.

Revelations that the division allowed injections into relatively fresh groundwater supplies touched off a political firestorm, triggered lawsuits, and led Bohlen to launch a reorganization of his staff.

More well closures will likely follow. Under regulations adopted this year, wells injecting into aquifers with water quality between 3,000 and 10,000 total dissolved solids must cease injections by Feb. 15, 2017, unless granted an exemption from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

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Asked for info on bridge conditions, railroad carrying Bakken crude tells cities no

Repost from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Asked for info on bridge conditions, railroad carrying Bakken crude tells cities no

By Lee Bergquist, Sept. 13, 2015
A flotilla of kayaks and boats and a small crowd onshore hold banners and beat drums Sunday to raise concerns about the transport by rail of oil through Milwaukee and across an aging railroad bridge at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers near S. 1st Place.
A flotilla of kayaks and boats and a small crowd onshore hold banners and beat drums Sunday to raise concerns about the transport by rail of oil through Milwaukee and across an aging railroad bridge at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers near S. 1st Place. | Michael Sears

Despite urging from a federal agency that railroads hand over more information on safety conditions of bridges, a carrier moving Bakken crude oil through Milwaukee says it doesn’t plan to provide such details.

Trains carrying Bakken crude go through downtown Milwaukee, leaving some residents afraid of what will happen if there is a spill. This train passes by the apartment of Brian Chiu on W. Oregon St. | Brian Chiu

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) distributed a letter from Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, in which the regulator urged railroad carriers to provide more information to municipalities on the safety status of bridges. Milwaukee officials have complained about the lack of information on the structural integrity of railroad bridges used by Canadian Pacific in the city.

“When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response,” Feinberg wrote.

“I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide more timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.”

“CP’s position has not changed,” said Andy Cummings, a manager of media relations for the company.

“It is our policy to work directly with the Federal Railroad Administration, which is our regulator, on any concerns they have with our infrastructure.”

The exchange comes in the wake of growing concerns from communities along rail corridors used by railroads shipping a growing tide of oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota.

Those worries have been exacerbated by tanker accidents. The most notable is the July 2013 derailment of tankers that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The tankers had been routed through Milwaukee before the accident.

There have been no accidents involving crude in Wisconsin, but on March 5 a BNSF Railway train derailed and caught fire near Galena, Ill., after leaving Wisconsin. Twenty-one tankers derailed. Galena is about 10 miles south of the border.

In Milwaukee, one bridge in question is a 300-foot-long structure, known as a steel stringer bridge, at W. Oregon St. and S. 1st St. The bridge was constructed in 1919, according to Bridgehunter.com, which keeps a database of historic bridges.

Canadian Pacific said on Sept. 1 that it would encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns with concrete to prevent further corrosion and to extend the life of the columns. The carrier said last week that a protective layer of concrete will be applied late this month.

Since last spring, neighbors have expressed worries about the integrity of the bridge, and since July city officials have sought details on the condition of the bridge.

In addition to the threat to human safety, environmental groups such as Milwaukee Riverkeeper say about three dozen bridges cross rivers and streams in the Milwaukee River basin.

On Sunday, a flotilla of kayaks and canoes paddled at the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers to underscore the connection between trains and the city’s waterways.

Bridges must be inspected annually by railroads. But railroads are not required to submit the information to the federal agency. Railroads also are not required to make the information available to the public.

Cummings said the bridge on S. 1st St. has been inspected by a railroad bridge inspector. “We are confident in its ability to safely handle freight and passenger train traffic,” Cummings said.

In her letter, Feinberg said the agency is “re-evaluating” its programs to determine whether it needs to take additional steps.

Common Council President Michael Murphy said he isn’t satisfied by Feinberg’s comments.

“I would liked to have seen a little more teeth in it,” he said.

Murphy said Canadian Pacific should be more transparent, adding that he expects the company to brief the council’s public safety panel soon on the bridge’s condition.

Baldwin and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, said in an editorial in the La Crosse Tribune last week that oil trains have put “hundreds of communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin at risk for the explosive crashes that come when an oil train derails.”

Nationally, trains carrying crude oil in the United States have jumped from 10,840 carloads in 2009 to 233,698 in 2012 to 493,127 in 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Canadian Pacific is shipping seven to 11 Bakken crude trains a week through Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, according to the latest data sent to the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management. BNSF is shipping 20 to 30 trainloads along the Mississippi River.

In a federal transportation bill that has passed the Senate but not yet the House, Baldwin and Franken said they added language that would make oil train information available for first responders. It would also give state and local officials access to inspection records of bridges.

Sunday’s paddle protest in Milwaukee was meant to highlight concerns by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Citizens Acting for Rail Safety that the area’s aging bridges were not built to accommodate so much oil.

Cheryl Nenn of Riverkeeper said a rail accident that spilled crude could have long-lasting effects on the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, and Lake Michigan, the city’s source of drinking water.

Complicating a potential oil spill in downtown Milwaukee is wave action from Lake Michigan, known as a seiche effect, where surging water from the lake can push water upstream, she said.

“The Milwaukee River is cleaner today than it has been in decades, and now we face a threat from crude oil,” Nenn said.

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