Whether you have a natural gas drill pumping in your backyard or you are a dutiful headline reader, it’s hard to ignore that hydrofracking has become one of the hottest environmental stories across the country.
Each week the war of words and PR releases escalates between drillers and conservationists, the former driven by potential profits and homegrown energy, the latter by desires to protect health, communities and landscapes.
Here in New York it is perhaps most fractious thanks to a moratorium on fracking that may either be lifted—or extended—as early as this summer. As petition drives ratchet up on both sides, an umbrella coalition, New Yorkers Against Fracking, is planning a rally and concert today (May 15) in Albany, on the state capitol’s front lawn.
Hosted by ardent fracking opponent Mark Ruffalo and Hudson Valley resident Melissa Leo, the concert will feature both music (Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne, Meshell Ndegeocello and more) and spoken word, in an effort to put pressure on Governor Andrew Cuomo as he contemplates the options of banning hydrofracking in New York, or following suit with 30+ other states and allowing it.
Evidence against fracking mounts. Last week the journal Ground Water, put out by the National Ground Water Association—a nonprofit group representing scientists, engineers and businesses—published a study about the safety of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which runs from New York across Pennsylvania to West Virginia. It concluded that chemicals used in fracking would reach drinking-water supplies far more quickly than experts had previously predicted.
According to the study, between mid-2009 and mid-2010, operators injected up to four million gallons of a chemical and water solution, under more than 10,000 pounds of pressure, in the course of drilling 5,000 wells.
Scientists testifying on behalf of energy companies have argued that the thick layer of rock a mile or more below the surface would keep the contaminants away from aquifers and other drinkingwater sources. But the new study concluded that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus, made worse by explosions deep underground, could allow the chemicals to reach the surface in just a few years.
The Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Park Foundation, two upstate New York organizations opposing fracking in the state, paid for the research.
river on fire, polluted river, cuyahoga river, ohio river pollutionriver on fire, polluted river, cuyahoga river, ohio river pollutionriver on fire, polluted river, cuyahoga river, ohio river pollutionriver on fire, polluted river, cuyahoga river, ohio river pollution
11 Most Polluted Bodies of Water in the World
Attention swimmers: beware the dangers lurking below the surface of these hazardous waters.
See Full Gallery
Like so many environmental issues, the truth—like the chemicals—will surface only years from now, when many of the energy companies will have moved on and people and landscapes left behind will be forever impacted, negatively.
While Governor Cuomo continues to weigh the issue and its impact on his state—against the background of a potential presidential run in 2016, in which he would not have wanted to offend the wealthy energy companies or smalltown voters—communities are acting on their own. In New York alone more than 100 towns have banned or have moratoriums against fracking.
Across the U.S., another 23 states are considering 127 bills legislating the practice. Both sides are paying for hundreds of studies. The EPA has weighed in by issuing new air regulations intended to cut down on the methane emissions that are part of the fracking process, and environmental groups are pressuring the EPA to force disclosure of the chemicals being used underground.
So far only Vermont has totally banned hydrofracking, though in Europe—which depends a lot on nuclear energy—two countries (France and Bulgaria) have just said, “No.” Germany may be next.
To reasonable people it makes a whole lot of sense that the act of pumping tons of unidentified chemicals, water, and sand into the Earth’s surface and then exploding them will result in catastrophes for both land and man.
Yet the energy and natural gas industry question that outcome, insisting that the long and short-term impacts of hydraulic-fracturing on human health demand “more study.”
While evidence of pollution mounts in heavily fracked regions across the country—with ground and surface water contaminated, livestock dead from drinking from it, and strange cancers and respiratory illnesses on the rise—the natural gas industry continues to accept no role, or certainly blame, insisting only that it will involve long scientific studies (which will take years to complete and cost millions of dollars) to sufficiently prove a link.
Go to Takepart.com for my list of five ways fracking could be making you sick.
Just a few days after Vermont’s governor banned fracking in his state, we went to Albany to suggest to Gov. Andrew Cuomo that he follow his neighbor’s lead. Given the potential for the governor lifting the four-year moratorium on hydraulic-fracturing in New York at any moment — despite recent rumors that he will soon ask for more “cumulative impact” statements regarding the health and environmental risks related to the drilling process — the timing seemed appropriate to make an appeal at his front door.
The rally and concert were led by several Academy Award caliber actors and filmmakers — including actors Mark Ruffalo and Melissa Leo and documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney — and thirty-plus New York musicians, led by Natalie Merchant, Medeski-Martin-and-Wood and John Sebastian. Speakers during the unique night of spoken word and music included Sandra Steingraber and ‘Gasland’ producer Trish Adlesic; photos, videos, graphics and maps illustrated precise reasons fracking should not be allowed in the state.
The event grabbed the media’s attention, ranging from Rolling Stone to the Wall Street Journal, but my favorite review was posted within 90 minutes of the stage emptying, by a critic from the Albany Times-Union, who understood the night perfectly when he summed up that it was about “the message more than the music.”
Mark Ruffalo introduces concert, photo by Giles Ashford
Natalie Merchant and Erik De la Penna open concert with Paul Simon's "American Tune," photo by Giles Ashford
Melissa Leo gives an impassioned reading of a letter written by an Ohio woman whose life has been badly impacted by fracking, photo by Giles Ashford
Mark Ruffalo leads a rally inside the Albany statehouse, photo by Giles Ashford
Out of sight, out of mind is generally the rule of thumb around the globe when it comes to the garbage we create every day. No matter how religious we might be about recycling, invariably each one of us is still responsible for filling a garbage bag or two each week, which then gets sets out on the curb, and—poof!—magically disappears.
In supersized nations like the United States, Canada, Russia, or Germany, landfills are usually hidden from view (out of sight, out of mind) but in small island-nations like the Maldives, entire islands have been turned into dumps.
The name of the Maldivian rubbish island is Thilafushi. It sits just four miles off the main island of Male and is distinguished by the thick black smoke rising from it all day long. To reach the trash-only island, you pass Prison Island (to hold miscreants and scofflaws) and Apartment Island (to hold the country’s ever-expanding human population).
On Male, rocked recently by a presidential coup, more than 100,000 people live squeezed into one-and-a-half-square miles. Despite the cramped space on an island in the heart of the Indian Ocean, theirs is a modern existence, with cars and motor scooters, apartment buildings, shopping malls, markets and government offices. Nearby, Airport Island is connected by a flotilla of floating taxis.
All of this living produces a lot of garbage. Rather than sink it to the bottom of the sea (which I’m sure was the practice not so long ago), it is now all boated to Thilafushi, which is today completely covered in trash. Sadly, a poisonous fog hangs over what might have been just another of the 1,200 gorgeous Maldivian islands.
This one is a faux island, though, created in 1992 to hold the country’s garbage. Today it receives 300 to 400 tons of trash each day. Locals are responsible, of course, but so are the 850,000 tourists who visited last year, each of them producing more than seven pounds of trash a day (five times what small island Maldivians produce). A few of the resort islands have focused on recycling, reducing use of plastic, and have built their own waste-to-energy plants, but just a handful.
Jumbo Jet Hotel for Cost Rican LayoverJumbo Jet Hotel for Cost Rican LayoverJumbo Jet Hotel for Cost Rican LayoverJumbo Jet Hotel for Cost Rican Layover
Upcycled and Repurposed: Awesomely Weird Stuff Finds a Second Life
Who knew jumbo jets, blow-up sex dolls, and analog tape cassettes were so adaptable?
See Full Gallery
One major worry is that if toxic products such as mercury, lead, or asbestos leak into the sea, it will have a dramatic effect on the undersea environment and will eventually find its way into the food chain. Initially, the garbage was buried on the island; now it is burned. The nasty smoke gives residents of Male headaches and coughs, especially when the winds blow from the west. Bluepeace, the 30-year-old environmental group that monitors local issues, calls the garbage island a “toxic bomb in the ocean.”
Fifty years ago when waste produced on islands was fish bones and coconut shells, getting rid of it was simple. Toss it into the sea. Those days are long gone. On every island I’ve visited in the Maldives, there are trash heaps lining one shoreline or another. This was made most evident the first time I visited—just after the tsunami of 2004—because the big waves that washed over the islands carried the trash everywhere.
With sea levels rising in the Maldives—eight inches in the last century—and with 80 percent of the nation’s land less than three feet above sea level, where to put trash is just one of its many problems.
Maldivian authorities say they are working to reduce the toxic effects from Thilafushi. A proposed law would limit the types of garbage allowed to be burned to only organic materials. Another solution is exporting its recyclable waste, mostly iron and plastic, to China, Malaysia, and neighboring India.
Meaning that soon the Maldives’ two biggest exports will be fish…and garbage.
What should island-nations, like the Maldives, do with the trash they produce: a) bury it; b) burn it; or c) ship it to China? Tell us your answer in the comments.
On April 20, 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 men and releasing as much as five million barrels of crude oil into the sea. Up to 53,000 barrels of oil a day flowed from the broken well until BP was able to plug the leak on July 15, 2010. It was the biggest offshore spill in U.S. history.
Two years later, Gulf of Mexico oil drillers are busier than ever, with eight new deepwater rigs expected this year, bringing the active number to 29—just short of the pre-spill number.
“…swim a little deeper, according to various reports, and you’ll find that not all is well with the marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially Louisiana.”
Standing at the docks in Venice, Louisiana, at the tip of Plaquemine Parish, one can see sport fishing boats piled high with big red fish zip in and out, shrimpers loaded with ice and crew pull into the currents, and barges fitted with drill equipment bump against their moorings. It’s hard to see any evidence of the spill. The economy seems revived, fish would seem to be plentiful, and there’s no visible sheen on the water.
Things are looking good…at least from this vantage point.
But swim a little deeper, according to various reports, and you’ll find that not all is well with the marine life in the northern Gulf of Mexico, especially Louisiana. “Although the oil has stopped flowing from the wellhead, the Gulf oil spill is not over,” Doug Inkley, senior scientist for the National Wildlife Federation, told the New Orleans Times Picayune.
A recent NWF report claims there are six key areas still at risk due to the spill —as well as a variety of creatures, including bottlenose dolphins, a variety of sea turtles, brown pelicans, and Atlantic bluefin tuna. It’s still too soon to assess the long-term impact on much of the region’s wetlands, but the NWF is asking Congress to pass the Restore Act, which would dedicate fines and penalties against BP and other responsible parties toward long-term restoration of the Gulf.
As for the seafood shipped from the Gulf across the country, the verdict is still out on how healthy it is. Seafood processors say last year’s brown-shrimp season was good, but the white-shrimp catch was off. Oyster beds unharmed by the floods of fresh Mississippi River water—released to keep the oil offshore or to relieve record flooding last year—have seen strong harvests. Areas where the harvest was delayed in 2010 because of concerns about oil tainting the shellfish have seen weaker harvests. A variety of studies and reports detailing just how much of that crude oil still lurks in both the ocean, and the fish, are anticipated soon.
Here are some sea organisms gravely hit by the spill:
The most visibly at-risk creatures are the bottlenose dolphins, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has labeled in “poor health” since the spill, thanks to an “unexplained mortality event.” Stranded dolphins have been showing up on beaches from Louisiana to Peru since the spill, suffering from lung and liver disease and abnormally low levels of hormones that help with stress response, metabolism and immune function.
“They are at the top of the food chain in the Gulf, perhaps even more than we are, because they eat whole fish. They consume everything,” said George Crozier, retired director of Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama. “That creates a situation where they might be bio-accumulating any toxics in the food chain.”
Because they breathe air, the dolphins are also likely to have inhaled toxic fumes, in addition to have swum through oil.
Travel seven miles from the site of the spill, dive a mile deep and, according to a study cofunded by NOAA and BP, the corals lining the ocean floor are dead and dying and coated in “brown gunk.”
Extensive damage to the coral became apparent eight months after the spill. Many thought the bulk of the ecological damage would be limited to close to the surface, but thanks to the depth of the spill and cold temperatures, plumes of oil particles remained deep, causing unprecedented damage.
“A simple surface spill would be unlikely to have an impact at this depth,” says Chuck Fisher, a Penn State University professor, and one of the authors of the report.
Coral and starfish at the reef showed “widespread signs of stress,” including dead specimens, discoloration, and, in the case of the starfish, abnormal behavior.
“Things happen very slowly in the deep sea, whether it’s life or death. One of the surprising things we found when we came back is that it looked almost exactly as it did two months before,” says Fisher. “It will be a long time before we know the full effects of the spill.”
It’s not just the charismatic sea creatures that suffered; scientists have confirmed that hydrocarbons from the spill have entered the ocean’s food chain through zooplankton, small organisms that drift through the ocean and are used as food by shrimp and baby fish.
The contaminated zooplankton serve as food for small fish and shrimps, thus acting as “conduits for the movement of oil contamination and pollutants into the food chain.”
In a study published in Science Daily, Dr. Michael Roman, of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said “Traces of oil in the zooplankton prove that they had contact with the oil and the likelihood that oil compounds may be working their way up the food chain.”
Insects have not escaped scrutiny, or the oil.
A Louisiana State University entomologist says that since the spill, her studies show falling numbers for a variety of bugs.
Linda Hooper-Bui of the LSU Agricultural Center collected insects about 20 or 25 times last year at 45 sites, from Cocodrie to Breton Sound, Louisiana, using both vacuums and nets. She has been studying the same sites since 2009, and has discovered that insects and spiders hit by the spill have declined in population. She reports seeing growth only in some species, while others are still low in numbers, or even collapsing.
“Every single time we go out there, the Pollyanna part of me thinks, ‘Now we’re going to measure recovery’” she said. “Then I get out there and say, ‘Whaaat?’’”
Do you think marine life in the Gulf will ever return to its pre-spill normalcy?
It turns out the Japanese are not the only ones worried about radiation exposure one year after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plants flooded and melted down. Californians are now number two on the list.
Such worries have pushed many in Japan into the arms of hucksters pushing instant “cures,” so far debunked.
“Still, with elevated levels of radiation showing up in everything from beef and rice to fertilizer and concrete, anxious Japanese want to know what exactly is building up in their bodies”
A pair of new studies, from the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, question just how dangerous the radioactivity is while simultaneously making clear that the impacts of the accident on human and marine life are spreading across the Pacific Rim.
Highlights from the two studies:
1. Scientists now say that concentrations of radioactive cesium in marine life are higher farther away from Japan’s coast than near it, by as much 100 to 1,000 times.
2. At the same time seaweed along California’s coastline is already measuring 500 times higher in radioactive iodine.
3. Government monitoring stations in Anaheim have recorded new highs of airborne concentrations of the same element.
4. Since the Japanese have burned much of the materials made radioactive by the meltdown, rather than disposing of or burying it, “radioactive rain” is already falling across the Pacific.
5. That giant mass of seaborne flotsam/jetsam resulting from the 2011 tsunami is said to be composed largely of non-biodegradable plastics that will most likely have longer-term effects on humans and the marine ecosystem than nuclear radiation.
While the NAS study, conducted by scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, found radioactivity in zooplankton, tiny crustaceans, shrimp, and fish, it says the levels were below what is allowed in food in Japan.
Its authors also suggest that the risk of swimming in the waters off the coast of Japan are extremely minimal given the evidence that artificially-produced radionuclides near the shoreline are no higher than the levels of naturally produced ones.
Still, with elevated levels of radiation showing up in everything from beef and rice to fertilizer and concrete, anxious Japanese want to know what exactly is building up in their bodies. A rash of curatives have found their way to the marketplace in Japan (coming soon to California!).
According to a story in The Wall Street Journal, many of these faux treatments are rightfully being questioned by authorities:
* One company claims that for $100 it can measure an individual’s internal radiation accumulation using a machine that reads “electromagnetic aura” from snips of hair.
* Another advertises a suit that can allegedly help wearers “sweat out” radiation; the government has dubbed the process “suspect.”
* Japan’s consumer-watchdog agency has also questioned bathtubs selling for $6,500 that propose to “suck radiation out.”
* A plethora of homeopathic remedies have been advertised, and questioned, as has the process of X-raying your drinking water. “X-rays are just light,” said one critic, “even after the process, what you’re left with is just…water.”