Tag Archives: Environmental Impacts

Washington State: rail safety regulators express concerns

Repost from Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission

Rail safety regulators express concern over proposed Grays Harbor Rail Terminal

November 3, 2014

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Rail safety regulators in Washington state submitted comments today expressing concern about the proposed Grays Harbor Rail Terminal (GHRT) in response to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) scoping.

The Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) sent a letter to GHRT addressing specific concerns and requesting rail safety evaluations during the EIS process.

GHRT has proposed to construct a new rail facility at the Port of Grays Harbor. The facility would accommodate an average of 45,000 barrels per day of bulk materials, primarily, various types of crude oil for export.
The UTC recommends that the EIS require comprehensive track and safety evaluations and appropriate upgrades be implemented prior to any operation of trains hauling crude oil on this line.
The letter states:
“In the UTC’s view, the EIS should evaluate the potential impact of the GHRT on the safety of the public on and around all railroad lines and crossings that would be used to deliver crude oil to the facility. Currently, up to six trains per day serve the Port of Grays Harbor. Increasing the train traffic could potentially require upgrades to the rail infrastructure, including upgrading track, new crossings, or new or expanded sidings or upgrades to existing crossings.”
The letter also references three derailments of train cars that occurred during a 16-day period along the rail line between Centralia and the Port of Grays Harbor earlier this year. The frequency of the derailments is a significant concern, and the UTC recommends that the EIS require comprehensive track and safety evaluations, along with appropriate updates, before any operations of trains hauling crude oil on this line.
The commission addresses the issue of blocked crossings due to increased train traffic. Blocked crossings pose an inconvenience to the public and can also increase public safety risks by preventing emergency response vehicles from reaching emergencies on the other side. The UTC recommends that the EIS evaluate and offer mitigation strategies for blocked crossings along the line between Centralia and the GHRT.
Finally, the UTC recommends the EIS include an in-depth analysis of all railroad crossings between Centralia and Hoquiam. The analysis should review whether there are grade crossings along all routes that require additional warning devices; supplemental safety devices; modification of existing warning devices; crossing closures/consolidation or grade separation. UTC staff should be involved in the analysis.
The UTC regulates railroad safety, including approving new grade crossings and closing or altering existing rail crossings, investigating train accidents, inspecting public-railroad crossings, approving safety projects, and managing safety education through Operation Lifesaver.

Residents and environmental groups sue to stop Kern County crude oil project

Repost from The Sacramento Bee
[Editor: For details and contacts, see the press release by The Center for Biological Diversity.  Here is a link to the full complaint.  – RS]

Environmentalists sue to stop Kern County crude oil project

By Tony Bizjak, Oct. 9, 2014

A coalition of residents and environmental groups has filed a lawsuit challenging Kern County’s approval last month of what would be the largest crude-by-rail project in the state.

Kern officials unanimously gave the OK in September to the Alon USA refining company to transform a mothballed Bakersfield refinery into a combination refinery and receiving station for trains transporting crude oil from out of state.

It would be the largest crude-by-rail transfer station in California, twice the size of a similar facility being planned in the Bay Area city of Benicia by the Valero Refining Co. Potentially, the Bakersfield station could receive trains carrying flammable Bakken oil from North Dakota through Central Valley cities, including Sacramento.

The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice, contends the county did not fully assess the project’s health risks to state residents. Those risks, Earthjustice says, include the possibility of explosions if trains derail enroute to the refinery. The lawsuit argues that the project will further degrade air quality in the San Joaquin Valley and cited the region’s high levels of pediatric asthma.

“Restarting a shuttered oil refinery is a huge step backwards for cleaning up some of the worst polluted air in the nation. This project will only exacerbate asthma and other respiratory illnesses that already plague Bakersfield residents and children at extraordinarily high rates,” said Gordon Nipp, vice chairman of the local Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club, which is a plaintiff in the case.

Kern County officials could not immediately be reached for comment. The county conducted what it described as a comprehensive environmental review before approving the project, and expressed confidence that the transports would be conducted safely.

How Media Coverage Misses the Big Story

Repost from TomDispatch.com

Ending the World the Human Way

Climate Change as the Anti-News

By Tom Engelhardt, February 2, 2014

Here’s the scoop: When it comes to climate change, there is no “story,” not in the normal news sense anyway.

The fact that 97% of scientists who have weighed in on the issue believe that climate change is a human-caused phenomenon is not a story.  That only one of 9,137 peer-reviewed papers on climate change published between  November 2012 and December 2013 rejected human causation is not a story  either, nor is the fact that only 24 out of 13,950 such articles did so  over 21 years.  That the anything-but-extreme Intergovernmental Panel on  Climate Change (IPCC) offers an at least 95% guarantee of human causation for global warming is not a story, nor is  the recent revelation that IPCC experts believe we only have 15 years left to rein in carbon emissions or we’ll need new technologies not yet  in existence which may never be effective.  Nor is the recent poll showing that only 47% of Americans believe climate change is human-caused (a  drop of 7% since 2012) or that the percentage who believe climate change  is occurring for any reason has also declined since 2012 from 70% to  63%.  Nor is the fact that, as the effects of climate change came ever  closer to home, media coverage of the subject dropped between 2010 and  2012 and, though rising in 2013, was still well below coverage levels for 2007 to 2009.  Nor is it a story that European nations, already light years ahead of the United States on phasing out fossil fuels, recently began considering cutbacks on some of their climate change goals, nor that U.S. carbon emissions actually rose in 2013, nor that the southern part of the much disputed Keystone XL pipeline, which is to bring particularly carbon-dirty tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast, is now in operation, nor that 2013 will have been either the fourth or seventh hottest year on record, depending on how you do the numbers.

Don’t misunderstand me.  Each of the above was reported somewhere and  climate change itself is an enormous story, if what you mean is Story  with a capital S.  It could even be considered the story of all  stories.  It’s just that climate change and its component parts are  unlike every other story from the Syrian slaughter and the problems of  Obamacare to Bridgegate and Justin Bieber’s arrest.  The future of all  other stories, of the news and storytelling itself, rests on just how  climate change manifests itself over the coming decades or even  century.  What happens in the 2014 midterms or the 2016 presidential  elections, in our wars, politics, and culture, who is celebrated and who  ignored — none of it will matter if climate change devastates the  planet.

Climate change isn’t the news and it isn’t a set of news stories.   It’s the prospective end of all news.  Think of it as the anti-news.

All the rest is part of the annals of human history: the rise and  fall of empires, of movements, of dictatorships and democracies, of just  about anything you want to mention.  The most crucial stories, like the  most faddish ones, are — every one of them — passing phenomena, which  is of course what makes them the news.

Climate change isn’t.  New as that human-caused phenomenon may be —  having its origins in the industrial revolution — it’s nonetheless on a  different scale from everything else, which is why journalists and  environmentalists often have so much trouble figuring out how to write  about it in a way that leaves it continually in the news.  While no one  who, for instance, lived through “Frankenstorm” Sandy on the East Coast in 2012 could call the experience “boring” — winds  roaring through urban canyons like freight trains, lights going out  across lower Manhattan, subway tunnels flooding, a great financial  capital brought to its proverbial knees — in news terms, much of global  warming is boring and repetitive.  I mean, drip, drip, drip.  How many times can you write about the melting Arctic sea ice or shrinking glaciers and call it news?  How often are you likely to put that in your headlines?

We’re so used to the phrase “the news” that we often forget its essence: what’s “new” multiplied by that “s.”  It’s true that the “new” can be repetitively so.  How many times have you seen essentially the same story about Republicans and Democrats fighting on Capitol Hill?  But the momentousness of climate change, which isn’t hard to discern, is difficult to regularly turn into meaningful “new” headlines (“Humanity Doomed If…”), to repeatedly and successfully translate into a form oriented to the present and the passing moment, to what happened yesterday, today, and possibly tomorrow.

If the carbon emissions from fossil fuels are allowed to continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, the science of what will happen sooner or later is relatively clear, even if its exact timetable remains in question: this world will be destabilized as will humanity (along with countless other species).  We could, at the worst, essentially burn ourselves off Planet Earth.  This would prove a passing event for the planet itself, but not for us, nor for any fragment of humanity that managed to survive in some degraded form, nor for the civilizations we’ve developed over thousands of years.

In other words, unlike “the news,” climate change and its potential devastations exist on a time scale not congenial either to media time or to the individual lifetimes of our short-lived species.  Great devastations and die-offs have happened before.  Give the planet a few million years and life of many sorts will regenerate and undoubtedly thrive.  But possibly not us.

Nuclear Dress Rehearsal

Here’s the strange thing: we went through a dress rehearsal for this in the twentieth century when dealing (or not dealing) with nuclear weapons, aka the Bomb — often capitalized in my youth as a sign of how nuclear disaster was felt to be looming over life itself.  With the dropping of that “victory weapon” on two Japanese cities in 1945, a new era opened.  For the first time, we humans — initially in Washington, then in Moscow, then in other national capitals — took the power to end all life on this planet out of God’s hands.  You could think of it as the single greatest, if also grimmest, act of secularization in history.  From 1945 on, at least prospectively, we could do what only God had previously been imagined capable of: create an End Time on this planet.

In itself, that was a remarkable development.  And there was nothing figurative about it.  The U.S. military was involved in what, in retrospect, can only be considered operational planning for world’s end.  In its first “Single Integrated Operational Plan,” or SIOP, in 1960, for instance, it prepared to deliver more than 3,200 nuclear weapons to 1,060 targets in the Communist world, including at least 130 cities which would then, if all went well, cease to exist. Official estimates of casualties ran to 285 million dead and 40 million injured.  (Those figures undoubtedly underestimated radiation and other effects, and today we also know that the exploding of so many nuclear weapons would have ended life as we know it on this planet.)  In those years, in the most secret councils of government, American officials also began to prepare for the possibility that 100 Russian missiles might someday land on U.S. targets, killing or injuring 22 million Americans.  Not so many years later, the weaponry of either of the superpowers had the capability of destroying the planet many times over.

The U.S. and the USSR were by then locked in a struggle that gained a remarkably appropriate acronym: MAD (for “mutually assured destruction”).  During the Cold War, the U.S. built an estimated 70,000 nuclear warheads and bombs of every size and shape, the Soviet Union 55,000, and with them went a complex semi-secret nuclear geography of missile silos, plutonium plants, and the like that shadowed the everyday landscape we knew.

In 1980, scientists discovered a layer of particularly iridium-rich clay in sediments 65 million years old, evidence that a vast asteroid impact had put such a cloud of particulates into the atmosphere as to deprive the planet of sunshine, turning it into a wintry vista, and in the process contributing to the demise of the dinosaurs.  In the years that followed, it became ever clearer that nuclear weapons, dispatched in the quantities both the U.S. and USSR had been planning for, would have a similar effect.  This prospective phenomenon was dubbed “nuclear winter.”

In this way, nuclear extermination would also prove to be an apocalyptic weather event, giving it an affinity with what, in the decades to come, would be called “global warming” and then “climate change.”  The nuclear story, the first (and at the time the only imaginable) tale of our extinction by our own hands, rose into the news periodically  and even into front-page headlines, as during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as into the movies and popular culture.  Unlike climate change, it was a global catastrophe that could happen at any moment and be carried to its disastrous conclusion in a relatively short period of time, bringing it closer to the today and tomorrow of the news.

Nonetheless, nuclear arsenals, too, were potential life-enders and so news-enders.  As a result, most of the time their existence and development managed to translate poorly into daily headlines.  For so many of those years in that now long-gone world of the Cold War stand-off, the nuclear issue was somehow everywhere, a kind of exterminationist grid over life itself, and yet, like climate change, nowhere at all.  Except for a few brief stretches in those decades, antinuclear activists struggled desperately to bring the nuclear issue out of the shadows.

The main arsenals on the planet, still enormous, are now in a kind of nuclear hibernation and are only “news” when, for instance, their very backwater status becomes an issue.  This was the case recently with a spate of headlines about test cheating and drug use scandals involving U.S. Air Force “missileers” who feel that in their present posts they are career losers.  Most of the major national arsenals are almost never mentioned in the news.  They are essentially no-news zones.  These would include the gigantic Russian one, the perhaps 200 weapons in the Israeli arsenal, and those of the British, French, Indians, and Pakistanis (except when it comes to stories about fears of future loose nukes from that country’s stock of weapons).

The only exceptions in the twenty-first century have been Iran, a country in the spotlight for a decade, even though its nuclear program lies somewhere between prospective and imaginary, and North Korea, which continues to develop a modest (but dangerous) arsenal.  On the other hand, even though a full-scale nuclear war between Pakistan and India, each of which may now have about 100 weapons in their expanding arsenals, would be a global catastrophe with nuclear-winter effects that would engulf the planet causing widespread famine, most of the time you simply wouldn’t know it.  These days, it turns out we have other problems.

The End of History?

If the end of the world doesn’t fit well with “the news,” neither does denial.  The idea of a futureless humanity is difficult to take in and that has undoubtedly played a role in suppressing the newsiness of both the nuclear situation and climate change.  Each is now woven into our lives in essential, if little acknowledged, ways and yet both remain remarkably recessive.  Add to that a fatalistic feeling among many that these are issues beyond our capacity to deal with, and you have a potent brew not just for the repression of news but also for the failure to weave what news we do get into a larger picture that we could keep before us as we live our lives.  Who, after all, wants to live life like that?

And yet nuclear weapons and climate change are human creations, which means that the problems they represent have human solutions.  They are quite literally in our hands.  In the case of climate change, we can even point to an example of what can be done about a human-caused global environmental disaster-in-the-making: the “hole” in the ozone layer over Antarctica.  Discovered in 1985, it continued to grow for years threatening a prospective health catastrophe.  It was found to be due to the effects of CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) compounds used in air-conditioning units, refrigerators, and aerosol propellants, and then released into the atmosphere.  In fact, the nations of the world did come together around CFCs, most of which have now been replaced, while that hole has been reduced, though it isn’t expected to heal entirely until much later this century.

Of course, compared with the burning of fossil fuels, the economic and political interests involved in CFCs were minor.  Still, the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer is evidence that solutions can be reached, however imperfectly, on a global scale when it comes to human-caused environmental problems.

What makes climate change so challenging is that the carbon dioxide (and methane) being generated by the extraction, production, and burning of fossil fuels supports the most profitable corporations in history, as well as energy states like Saudi Arabia and Russia that are, in essence, national versions of such corporations.  The drive for profits has so far proven unstoppable.  Those who run the big oil companies, like the tobacco companies before them, undoubtedly know what potential harm they are doing to us.  They know what it will mean for humanity if resources (and profits) aren’t poured into alternative energy research and development.  And like those cigarette companies, they go right on.  They are indeed intent, for instance, on turning North America into “Saudi America,” and hunting down and extracting the last major reserves of fossil fuel in the most difficult spots on the planet.  Their response to climate change has, in fact, been to put some of their vast profits into the funding of a campaign of climate-change denialism (and obfuscation) and into the coffers of chosen politicians and think tanks willing to lend a hand.

In fact, one of the grim wonders of climate change has been the ability of Big Energy and its lobbyists to politicize an issue that wouldn’t normally have a “left” or “right,” and to make bad science into an ongoing news story.  In other words, an achievement that couldn’t be more criminal in nature has also been their great coup de théâtre.

In a world heading toward the brink, here’s the strange thing: most of the time that brink is nowhere in sight.  And how can you get people together to solve a human-caused problem when it’s so seldom meaningfully in the news (and so regularly challenged by energy interests when it is)?

This is the road to hell and it has not been paved with good intentions.  If we stay on it, we won’t even be able to say that future historians considered us both a wonder (for our ability to create world-ending scenarios and put them into effect) and a disgrace (for our inability to face what we had done).  By then, humanity might have arrived at the end of history, and so of historians.

Tom Engelhardt, a co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

[Note: I would like to thank Jonathan Schell for loaning me the term “anti-news” in relation to climate change.]

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Copyright 2014 Tom Engelhardt