frackgassafety2

[This post is for day three of the Stop Fracked Gas Exports Blogathon and social media week. Read other posts here. Follow twitter posts #StopGasExports. The blog blitz will make clear why we need to show up for the mega rally Sunday, July 13, at FERC’s DC headquarters. Speakers include Mike Tidwell, Sandra Steingraber and Tim DeChristopher. So, be there.]

In December, I spoke briefly on the phone with a Dominion spokesman. Near the end of our conversation, I mentioned concerns about fracking. “Oh, we won’t be doing any fracking at Cove Point,” he rushed to assure me.

We know that no fracking will take place at Dominion’s Cove Point facility.

That remark, however, shows Dominion’s duplicity throughout this approval process. Its stance has been that the shale-gas liquefaction and export facility proposed for Cove Point has nothing to do with fracking. And yet, this project has everything to do with fracking. That is the only source of the gas. To approve the project is to require the fracking.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission failed us in its review of Dominion’s plans. FERC accepted Dominion’s mantra that this facility has nothing to do with fracking, in Maryland or elsewhere. Or at least nothing measurable. Because Dominion couldn’t be sure where and how many wells would be drilled, FERC concluded that all this fretting about fracking was mere conjecture. “[D]etails, including the timing, location, and number of additional production wells that may or may not be drilled, are speculative,” FERC said on page 25 of its review. “As such, impacts associated with the production of natural gas … are not reasonably foreseeable or quantifiable.”

And with that shrug of its regulatory shoulders, FERC dismissed all harm from this project of fracking, pipelines and compressor stations next to our homes and schools, parks and rivers. Even as the List of the Harmed steadily grows. Even as research mounts about the threats to our health, especially for pregnant mothers and children. Even as illness and water contamination from methane, radon and hormone-disrupting chemicals comes to light despite industry’s efforts to hide behind nondisclosure agreements. Even as health professionals repeatedly call for a fracking moratorium.

In addition, FERC’s review says that methane, which leaks at every stage of gas exploitation and transmission, is 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2. That ratio is over 100 years, an arbitrary and useless time frame. We don’t have 100 years. Over 20 years, according to the International Panel on Climate Change, methane is at least 84 times more powerful than CO2. FERC needs to redo the math.

If FERC had conducted its highest level of review and bothered to calculate the damage to our health, economy, environment and climate from fracking millions of metric tons of gas a year to ship to Asia, the agency could not have approved this project.

Once upon a time, FERC’s approval of every energy project imaginable raised few questions. That template no longer works. Because of the twin threats from our poisoned planet and climate change, we can no longer afford to have FERC be the handmaiden to the fossil fuel industry. On Sunday, July 13, we’ll tell President Obama and FERC to get this right. 

–elisabeth hoffman

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living with fracking

June 18, 2014

garrett county by crede calhoun

Unfractured Garrett County. //photo by Crede Calhoun

Despite frequent strong objections last week from three of its members, the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commissioners signed off on — or voted that they could “live with” — a set of best practices for fracking in Maryland.

Here are a few practices the majority accepted or said it could live with:

  • cultural and historic sites, state and federal parks and trails, wildlife management areas, scenic and wild rivers and scenic byways 300 feet (the length of a football field) from the edge of a frack pad;
  • aquatic habitat (such as streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, seeps and wetlands) 450 feet from the edge of frack pads;
  • irreplaceable natural areas and wild lands 600 feet from the edge of drill pads and permanent infrastructure;
  • homes, schools and other occupied buildings 1,000 feet from the edge of a frack site;
  • private and public water sources 2,000 feet from the drill hole (with exceptions that could allow drilling within 1,000 feet of a gas well).

The centerpiece of the best practices is the mandatory Comprehensive Gas Development Plan (CGDP), an overarching timeline and siting of “clustered drilling pads” and infrastructure. A public meeting is also part of this CGDP, giving property owners, local officials and organizations up to 60 days to comment. If your property is within 2,500 feet of a proposed drill site, you’ll be notified. No drilling would be allowed on state lands or within the watersheds of the Broadford Lake, Piney and Savage reservoirs.

The three frequently dissenting commissioners — Ann Bristow of the Savage River Watershed Association, citizen representative and farmer Paul Roberts, and Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited — had wanted to delay the best practices vote until the risk assessment and health study were complete. They asked how the best practices would be updated to reflect those reports, along with evolving science.

Roberts also asked whether a fundraising event for Gov. Martin O’Malley at the D.C. headquarters of America’s Natural Gas Alliance had any bearing on the rush to finish the best practices. Robert M. Summers, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), who occasionally attends these monthly meetings, called out from the back of the small and crowded classroom at Allegany College that “the campaign is completely separate” from government offices. “So, there is no connection whatsoever.”

Weber said repeatedly that too many of the best practices, from flaring to cementing to casing, seemed to be mere suggestions urging drillers to “Do the right thing” and pointing to American Petroleum Institute guidelines. Drillers need to avoid this or minimize that, he said, and are granted altogether too much leeway. Weber, a scientist formerly with the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, has long argued that the state should develop best practices only after analyzing the risks fracking poses to human and animal health and the environment.

But that’s not how the state is proceeding.

Brigid Kenney, a senior policy adviser at MDE, said the in-house risk assessment will analyze potential harms in light of this snapshot of best practices. Based on that analysis, if a risk were still deemed too high, she said, MDE would consider additional practices. The votes, she said, will appear in an appendix to the final best practices report. “I should point out: It’s two years late already,” Kenney said of the best practices report.

The governor’s June 2011 executive order setting up the three-year study commission said the best practices were due in August 2012, but progress was slowed by lack of funding. Drs. Keith Eshleman and Andrew Elmore delivered their best practices recommendations to the commission in February 2013, and the commission, MDE and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have been working on them on and off since then.

Worth noting here is that the best practices will be the basis for updating the state’s regulations, which until now have dealt only with conventional drilling and mining. In fact, the state had been months away from granting permits for fracking in the Marcellus Shale under Garrett and Allegany counties under existing regulations when concerned residents raised alarms, setting in motion the advisory commission and what amounts to the state’s three-year moratorium. The 15-member commission, working (without pay) with MDE and DNR, is charged with determining whether fracking “can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources.” That determination has not yet been made.

Jeffrey Kupfer, a fellow at the Asia Society and former senior adviser at Chevron, urged fellow commissioners to press on with the best practices votes. “This is MDE’s and DNR’s report. We play a role in this, but at the end of the day, it’s their words on the paper. It’s their report,” he said on a conference phone line. “We don’t need to push the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. A ‘best practice’ is something we’ve seen somewhere else and that works.”

Given the practices and accidents in other states and threats emerging in health studies, Kupfer’s definition of a best practice could fall well short of the “gold standard” to which state officials say they aspire.

But the vote commenced, with each commissioner indicating by a show of hands whether the proposed standard was 1) “appropriate,” 2) might not be appropriate “but I can live with it” or 3) “not appropriate because_______.”

VOTING ON THE CGDP

First up for a vote was the CGDP, which, Kenney said, “is the most important thing we can do to minimize impacts.” The state would require a company or group of companies to seek approval for a drilling plan covering a large area and including the location of well pads, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure.

Although the state’s goal has been to have the best practices grounded in science, Roberts said, no research demonstrates that CGDPs reduce harms. In fact, John Quigley, who oversaw similar development plans for fracking in Pennsylvania’s state forests and who produced a report for Maryland saying the CGDPs would be a win-win for the business and the environment, testified in a lawsuit last month that the impact on forests in his state had been “underestimated.”

“There are going to be impacts,” said Commissioner Stephen M. Bunker of the Nature Conservancy. He said his organization is developing a tool to determine where best to locate roads and gas lines to “minimize impact on the landscape.”

To which Roberts replied: “But as someone who lives out here, what I’m concerned about here is a 40-acre industrial fracking compound 1,000 feet from my house.”

“There is nothing showing [the CGDP] is consistently superior to other techniques,” Bristow said. The CGDP might lessen forest fragmentation, she said, but it doesn’t address threats to public health. In fact, she said, “intense aggregation [of wells] may be worse for public health.” Workers and nearby residents will be exposed to more air emissions, for example. The risk of explosion and well casing failure might also increase. “The point is that [the CGDP] is a land-use decision. It is not a public health model.” she said.

Commissioners who voted that the CGDP was an appropriate practice were: David Vanko, chairman and Towson University dean; state Sen. George C. Edwards; Pennsylvania attorney Harry Weiss; Bunker from Nature Conservancy; Oakland Mayor Peggy Jamison; Garrett Commissioner James M. Raley; and Clifford S. Mitchell M.D., director of the Environmental Health Bureau of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Kupfer said he was a 2 — he could “live with” the CGDPs — or was between a 2 and a 3. He said he supported the idea “in principle, but my concern is the way it’s laid out here it’s not workable in practice” for industry.

Voting that the CGDP was “not appropriate” were Bristow, Roberts and Weber.

(Allegany Commissioner William R. Valentine couldn’t attend because he was assessing flood damage from several days of heavy rain in his county. Commissioners Heather Mizeur, Shawn Bender and Dominick E. Murray didn’t attend.)

BUFFERS FROM FRACKING

Voting on setbacks yielded similar split votes. The separation between the well pad’s edge of disturbance and streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, seeps, wetlands, reservoirs and 100-year floodplains would be 450 feet. Again, Bristow, Roberts and Weber dissented. “I don’t see 450 feet as protective” of agricultural uses, or for humans and other animals, Bristow said.

Of the distance protecting wildlands and other special conservation areas, Bristow and Roberts dissented. “It’s shocking to me that Maryland is going to [allow a drill pad] 600 feet from an irreplaceable natural area,” Roberts said.

Mitchell joined Bristow, Roberts and Weber in opposing the 300-foot setback from cultural and historical sites, state and federal parks, trails, wildlife. He said “aesthetic issues” and noise were at stake and he wanted to see the health study results before deciding if that buffer would be sufficient.

The buffer of 1,000 feet from occupied buildings fails to protect farm animals, Bristow said. “We don’t have data on goats and cows … [and] we’re going to be eating their byproducts. It’s not protective enough.” That setback also ignores undeveloped property, Roberts said. But Kenney as well as Commissioner Bunker said that was a local property rights matter beyond the scope of the commission.

Kupfer, the Chevron representative, joined Bristow, Roberts and Weber in opposing the 2,000-foot setback from private drinking wells. Kupfer dissented because the setback seemed too large: “This one seems over the top and unsubstantiated.” Roberts, however, has long urged 1-kilometer (3,280-feet) setbacks, based in part on Duke University research that was presented to the commission in April. At the suggestion of Chairman Vanko, the state will run the risk assessment using the 1-kilometer setback as well as the proposed 2,000 feet.

DISCLOSURE OF TOXIC CHEMICALS

The best practice on chemical disclosure satisfied no one, although, again, many could “live with it.” Kenney said Maryland would have the “most stringent regulation” in the nation, requiring disclosure of toxic chemicals and their concentration used at a frack site. Companies claiming a trade secret, however, could withhold the brand name and concentration. Should someone fall ill or be injured by one of these trade secret chemicals, a doctor would contact the company for information. (Medical organizations have complained, for starters, that doctors won’t necessarily know which company to call. Knowing the concentration of chemicals is also key. ) Doctors would be allowed to share the information with the patient and, if the patient is a minor or unconscious, the patient’s family, as well as public health officials — although the information would still be deemed confidential. A company could ask physicians to sign a nondisclosure form, although signing such a form could not be a condition of receiving the information. Health professionals, toxicologists and epidemiologists could also request information about the secret chemicals for research, but that could be conditioned on confidentiality agreements.

Vanko, Kupfer, Raley, Weiss, Mitchell, Edwards, Bunker and Jamison said they could “live with” the proposal. Bristow, Roberts and Weber dissented. “One very strong standard we can set is to start opening this up so research can be done,” said Bristow, who called the proposal “grossly inappropriate” and suggested that “trade secret” chemicals not be permitted.

THERE IS NO ‘AWAY’

What to do with the waste also split the commissioners. Maryland’s geology is unsuited for disposal in deep injection wells, and the state won’t allow sewage treatment plants to accept the toxic and radioactive waste. So, although companies would be encouraged to reuse as much as possible, eventually millions of gallons of Maryland’s fracking waste would be loaded on trucks and shipped out of state. Kenney said the state would require record-keeping on the waste hauler, volume and shipment dates.

Bristow, Roberts and Weber asked about the integrity of tanks and how long waste could be stored on site. They feared a “shell game,” with tanks of toxic and radioactive waste being moved from one temporary spot to another.

“Our shipping our crap to other states that don’t have our regulations” is a “social justice issue,” Bristow said. “Wastewater is going to be the Achilles’ heel of this industry,” she said. “For Maryland to say, ‘We don’t want it here, ship to Ohio,’ seems to me very inappropriate.”

“What will we do in 2021 when Ohio can’t take more?” Roberts asked. Scientists have linked injection wells and fracking in Ohio to earthquakes.

“There’s a problem here,” said Commissioner Weiss, the attorney. “Somebody’s going to make a lot of money off it. But we don’t have [a solution] yet.”

Voting that the practice is appropriate: Edwards, Vanko, Weiss and Kupfer. Willing to “live with” it: Raley, Bunker, Mitchell, Jamison. And dissenting: Bristow, Roberts and Weber. “It’s inappropriate to dump the problem somewhere else,” Bristow said.

FAILURE TO PROTECT

After listening to six hours of voting on these and other best practices, those who would have to live near future drilling sites were sharply critical.

“It’s frustrating that people who do not live on the shale are asked to say if they can ‘live with’ a regulation that can fail to protect those who ‘live on’ the land about to be industrialized,” said Nadine Grabania, who owns a farm and winery in Garrett County with her husband, Commissioner Roberts, and who serves on that county’s Shale Gas Advisory Committee. Calling in between customers at her Friendsville winery, she asked the state officials “to consider weighting the dissenting contributions to this consensus process because these commissioners represent actual residents who will experience the impacts that regulations are intended to mitigate. The state should place a higher value on protections than on the perception that our priority is to facilitate industrial development in rural and residential communities.”

“You ‘number 2s’ can ‘live with’ your decisions, but we will be the ones actually living with your decisions,” said Gabriel Echeverri of Frostburg, who was arrested in February in an act of civil disobedience to stop the facility in Cove Point that would liquefy and export fracked gas. “We are going to have to be living with the eventualities — not the possibilities — of degradation of water, land and air that give us sustenance in this place we call home.”

“Conservation areas get setbacks while farms do not,” said Paul Durham of the Garrett County Board of Realtors. “A limestone cave gets a setback while a field of corn does not. If you are a forest-dwelling bird, you get a setback, but if you are cattle you do not. And if you are fortunate enough to have a well or occupied building on your property, you get a setback, but if your property is unimproved the setback from compressor stations and gas infrastructure is zero feet from your property line and the setback to the well bore is cut in half.” Three studies, he said, have confirmed that proximity to drilling activity lowers property values. He questioned whether the state was trying to set a gold standard when it was ignoring best practices that would protect property values.

The day after the meeting, West Virginia Host Farms gave several commissioners a tour of fracking sites in that state. Members of the public were not permitted to go along.

–elisabeth hoffman

a tale of two walls

June 2, 2014

wall and boxes

A mock vapor-cloud wall suggests what’s at stake from Dominion’s plans for Cove Point. //photo from Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community.

Outside was the mock vapor-cloud wall.

Listed on the mock wall were the air pollutants and carcinogens that Dominion’s proposed plant would routinely or accidentally send from its compound into the lungs of playing children and their parents. Forming part of the mock wall were boxes with labels, each written on by opponents of Dominion’s plans: Wall of Shame, Wall of Poisons, Wall of Cancer, Wall of Decreased Property Values, Wall of Corruption.

Inside the Patuxent High School auditorium in Lusby was the seemingly impenetrable wall of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Also possibly mock, as two FERC staff members and a court reporter — instead of the commissioners — sat at a table on the stage Saturday for this single public hearing on the environmental review of Dominion’s planned facility that would liquefy and export fracked gas. FERC concluded in May that the facility would pose no significant risks.

Outside, Dominion erected a tent and catered pulled-pork sandwiches and side dishes for its mostly blue-shirted supporters.

Between the Dominion tent and Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s mock vapor wall, Chesapeake Earth First! and Food Not Bombs set up a card table and handed out brown bag lunches with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple and a banana to the mostly red-shirted opponents waiting in line to enter the school.

Initially, opponents of the project and the real vapor wall had wanted to set up the replica in another spot opposite Dominion’s tent. But an officer had rejected the idea.

“This is their event. This is their expansion,” the officer told Lusby resident Tracey Eno. By “their,” he meant Dominion’s.

“Whose event?” Eno said, incredulous. “This is everyone’s event.”

Back inside, the FERC staff seemed earnest enough and extended the hearing an extra 90 minutes, until 7:30 p.m., giving everyone who had signed up a chance to speak. Anyone who could wait that long, anyway. Drew Cobbs’ name was called out in the late afternoon, but the executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council was long gone.

One of the FERC staff, Environmental Project Manager Joanne Wachholder, became tearful while praising the patience of 13-year-old Katie Murphy, who spoke late in the day.

“Please stop this expansion. You might just save some lives,” Katie said.

“I’m so glad you got to talk,” Wachholder said, rising and walking to the edge of the stage to offer a box of doughnuts to the girl.

Mostly, the staff listened intently, took notes and kept track of time, cutting off the very few who went beyond the allotted three minutes.

Those in favor called Dominion a “great corporate citizen” and the project a source of jobs and tax revenues and perhaps a pool for the high school. “This is about jobs, about good family-sustaining jobs,” said Mark Coles of the Building and Trades Council. Tax revenues would pay for teachers and public safety, said Brad Karbowsky, a Huntingtown resident and member of United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters. Kelvin Simmons of the Lusby Business Association said he had confidence that Dominion would protect the Chesapeake Bay. “All construction jobs are temporary,” said Austin Pacheo, whether 2 days, 2 weeks or 2 months. These jobs, he said, would last three years.

Where proponents see jobs, those opposed see poisoned air, the threat of a catastrophic fire, and increased fracking with accompanying pipelines and compressor stations. They pressed FERC to conduct its most thorough environmental review and said the risks to safety, health and the climate of this venture far outweighed jobs, tax revenue and corporate benevolence. Most were from Lusby and Southern Maryland, but some had traveled from Montgomery, Howard and Frederick counties, Baltimore and Virginia.

“Come to my house, sit on my front porch swing and look across the street and imagine the future of my home,” said Rachel Heinhorst, whose front door is a hundred yards from Dominion’s front door. Her three children play football, soccer, Frisbee and catch fireflies less than 200 yards from where the boilers and turbines would be.

Coming from the plant, she said, would be nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, hazardous air pollutants. “My children will be breathing dangerous levels of these pollutants every day. They will know what is across the street, because we will have to explain emergency preparedness, and they will be scared. My daughter will be scared. She will look at me and want me to assure something that I cannot. I cannot say that I can protect my children from this, but you can.”

just wall

“Dominion and the Calvert County commissioners focus on two things:  jobs and tax revenue,” Tracey Eno said. “That’s all they’ve got. They never talk about the risks.” Such as, Eno said, “Risk of death by asphyxiation in the event of a flammable vapor cloud; 20.4 tons of air pollution emitted every year; 275,000 gallons of water used every day; constant noise for the next 20 years or more; up to 85 more tankers polluting the [Chesapeake] Bay each year; foreign ballast water bringing invasive species to the Chesapeake; more traffic; increased greenhouse gases; terrorist target. Does Homeland Security know about this?”

Don’t sacrifice people for profits, Eno said. “Everyone says ‘money talks’ and ‘this is a done deal.’ It’s ‘David and Goliath.’ … I want you to at least know who your decision will affect and how unfair this is.”

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Bill Peil lists the hazardous and cancer-causing chemicals that would come from the plant. //photo by @johnzangas DCMediaGroup

“Who would put 20 tons of toxic and hazardous pollutants on a neighbor’s lawn?” asked Bill Peil of Dunkirk. Hearing no takers, he continued: “That’s what’s going to happen every year” if Dominion’s plans proceed. And that would be in a routine year, never mind an accident. Many of the pollutants are carcinogens, he said. “Unfortunately, the word carcinogen is not mentioned” in FERC’s environmental review.

“This is not about jobs,” said Marcia Greenberg of St. Mary’s City. Although everyone is concerned about jobs, she said, “Dominion has turned this into a discussion about jobs.” She voiced her outrage that the commissioners weren’t present. They have “a huge responsibility” to balance the facts in this divided community, she said.

Several speakers noted that the environmental assessment omitted the population of Lusby: 2,473 live within a mile of the plant, according to Calvert County emergency planners. The evacuation plan is not so much a way out as a way in for emergency crews, Eleanor Callahan of Lusby complained: The plan “maroons residents.”

“No jurisdiction can handle a fire” of the sort that could happen at Cove Point, said Mickey Shymansky, a DC firefighter and Lusby resident. In April, he resigned his post as local assistant fire chief because he thought the department was understaffed and ill-trained to handle an accident at the export plant. “I am so brokenhearted,” he said. His brother was a firefighter at the Pentagon when terrorists attacked on 9/11. “We cannot have that here. Please hear my words. When I’m at work protecting the nation’s capital, who’s going to protect my family?”

For six and a half hours, the FERC staff called on speakers according to names on sign-up sheets at the entrance to the school auditorium. By the end, 105 people had spoken, 38 in favor, 67 opposed and urging the more stringent environment impact statement. Dominion said on its Facebook page that 75 to 80 percent were in favor. Which is wrong even if Dominion counts the 50 comment sheets that one proponent turned in.

Wachholder, from FERC, had sharp remarks for only one speaker: Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Council.

The day before, Tidwell told the FERC staff, the state Public Service Commission had ruled that the proposed project would provide no “net benefit” for Marylanders. For causing higher utility bills, the PSC ordered Dominion to pay $400,000 a year for 20 years to help compensate low-income families. For contributing to climate change, Dominion would have to pay another $40 million over five years into a fund for renewable energy. But the PSC approved the permit for the on-site power plant.

“It’s inconceivable that FERC doesn’t see the hazard” of this plan, Tidwell said. “FERC seems to not want to see how hazardous this is….Why wouldn’t FERC want to quantify the risk?” He criticized FERC’s failure to consider the consequences of fracking: “If fracking weren’t happening, what would Dominion export?” He called FERC’s environmental assessment a failure and said the people in Garrett and Frederick and other counties across the state want a similar public hearing.

“NO. We are not doing that,” Wachholder said sternly.

Tracey Eno says she remains an optimist. That David and Goliath battle? We all know how that turned out, she said. “All we need is one stone.”

— elisabeth hoffman

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The hearing is underway.//photo by @johnzangas DCMediaGroup