Dylan Petrohilos/AP Photos

Forget Oil. Here Are The More Insidious Things That Polluted America’s Air And Water This Year

This year, three billion gallons of waste were injected into California’s underground aquifers. Eighty millions pounds of toxic grey goop were spilled in a North Carolina waterway. Clouds of thick, black, oily dust coated children’s playground equipment in Chicago’s southeast side.

Like every year, 2014 saw a wide range of environmental pollution from fossil fuel development. But there was no BP-scale well blowout, no Lac-Mégantic-sized crude oil train explosion. Instead, many of this year’s major fossil fuel disasters came from a more insidious source — not the fuels themselves, but the waste products they create. These are essentially the leftovers from fossil fuel development: wastewater from oil and gas drilling, coal ash from coal burning, and petroleum coke from tar sands refining.

A hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River spill in February.

A hand covered with wet coal ash from the Dan River spill in February.

CREDIT: AP Photo

“I think it’s been a big year for coal ash, fracking, and petcoke,” said Abigail Dillen, the vice president of litigation at Earthjustice, an environmental law firm. “We saw some high-profile disasters, and they happened at moments in the news cycle where they got more attention.”

While 2014 was not devoid of conventional polluters, environmentalists say the news media has had an increased focus on waste-based pollutants in 2014 — a signal that the problem is growing. Most importantly, they say, it shines a light on the lack of federal environmental regulation that could assure safe disposal of the waste.

Here’s a look back at how fossil fuel wastes like coal ash, wastewater, and petcoke shaped the year in pollution.

The ‘Slow Burn’ Of Fracking Waste

Compared to big oil spills and mine explosions, waste-based pollution events don’t normally capture a ton of public interest, mainly because they don’t lend themselves to dramatic news coverage.

Take wastewater, for example. It’s just cloudy-looking water, hundreds of billions of gallons of which are disposed every year. And though it usually contains chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactive material, it doesn’t look like much. It’s usually stored in dormant pits or injected underground. So unless something drastic happens, pollution usually accumulates, slowly seeping into soil and groundwater, instead of happening all at once.

Think of it this way: you probably wouldn’t pay attention if 10 gallons of oil spilled in your neighbor’s driveway, but you would freak out if 10 gallons spilled there every day for a year.

A drilling field in California sits next to the site of two deep injection wells, owned by Anterra, a wastewater injection company, which has funneled almost 20 million gallons of wastewater deep underground since the beginning of 2014.

A drilling field in California sits next to the site of two deep injection wells, owned by Anterra, a wastewater injection company, which has funneled almost 20 million gallons of wastewater deep underground since the beginning of 2014.

CREDIT: Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking

“It’s the slow burn,” Dillen said. “You only have so many immediate catastrophes to raise the issue.”

The culmination of a slow burn into a scald is how wastewater pollution came into the public view in 2014. Though many individuals had complained in previous years of wastewater stored in unlined pits seeping into groundwater, or injected wastewater contaminating underground aquifers, two separate reports of pollution and a surge in scientific research this year shone a light on the cumulative nature of those individual events.

First, the actual reports of pollution. One was an August report issued by the government of Pennsylvania, one of the centers of the country’s fracking boom, which admitted that there had been 243 cases of contamination of private drinking wells from oil and gas drilling operations. Many of those instances came from wastewater spills. The second was a report based on a document request by the Center for Biological Diversity, which found that 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater had been illegally injected into underground aquifers in California — aquifers that supply both drinking water and farming irrigation.

Next, the research. This year, scientists published numerous peer-reviewed papers that heightened our knowledge of exactly what’s in drilling wastewater and if it can impact humans. In one study, scientists found unsafe levels of barium, chromium, copper, mercury, arsenic and antimony. Another found that the chemicals used to frack, which show up in the wastewater, could potentially threaten reproductive and developmental health. A third found that even when drilling wastewater goes through water treatment plants, and is disposed of in rivers that are not drinking water systems, the treated water still risks contaminating human drinking water.

“We’re learning a lot of really crazy things about oil and gas industry waste, which largely hasn’t been a public issue until now,” said Andrew Grinberg, the oil and gas program manager at Clean Water Action. “We started engaging on fracking, and the fracking itself is a problem, but really when you follow the industry and what they’re doing with water, it raises even more kind of alarming aspects.”

Fracking fluid and other drilling wastes are dumped into an unlined pit located right up against the Petroleum Highway in Kern County, California.

Fracking fluid and other drilling wastes are dumped into an unlined pit located right up against the Petroleum Highway in Kern County, California.

CREDIT: Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking

The proliferation of fracking across America has been worrisome to environmental advocates like Grinberg who say more protections are needed for drinking water. That’s proven by the fact that three billion gallons of contaminated water were injected into California’s drought-stricken aquifers without anyone noticing, he said.

According to the EPA Office of Water, the only federal environmental regulation addressing drilling wastewater is a requirement that companies obtain permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) every time they wish to discharge wastewater into U.S. waters. To inject wastewater into an aquifer, companies must receive an exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

For Grinberg, the ideal situation would be a complete prohibition on open air and unlined pits of wastewater. “That’s first and foremost, that’s low-hanging fruit. Don’t dump your stuff in open pits,” he said, noting the propensity of chemicals to seep into the soil. “We think it’s an outdated technology that’s totally counter to any type of best management practices. Even industry best management practices all call for closed tanks.”

On injecting water underground, Grinberg said the issue was a bit more complicated. One difficult-to-achieve change would be changing the policy that lets companies receive aquifer exemptions under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Those aquifers are generally considered low-quality, not fit for drinking or farming. But as California’s drought problems get worse, Grinberg said, farmers are already drilling deeper, using those lower quality aquifers in the face of necessity. Who’s to say those aquifers might not be one day used for drinking water, too? Grinberg says they shouldn’t be taken off the table because of radioactive waste injections.

“Our water issues are so critical right now and dire,” Grinberg said. “The burden of responsible management of waste shouldn’t fall on the public. If [companies] can’t dispose of their waste properly, they shouldn’t produce it.”

Petcoke’s ‘Gritty Black Dust’

Not all fossil fuel sources dispose of their waste. That’s the case with petroleum coke, or petcoke, the dusty byproduct of refining Canadian tar sands oil. The substance can actually be burned as a power source, like coal.

Because of this, the EPA does not define petcoke as a waste product. The problem is most power plants in the U.S. and Canada won’t burn petcoke, due to the high level of greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants it emits. So when petcoke is produced at U.S. oil refineries, it’s not disposed of. It’s stored until it can be shipped off to developing countries with looser pollution restrictions. And since we don’t use it, petcoke acts like waste in the U.S. because while it’s here, it sits in uncovered barges, waiting to be shipped.

This Aug. 30, 2013 cell phone image provided by Anthony Martinez, shows a dust cloud rising from piles of petroleum coke during a storm near residences on the southeast side of Chicago.

This Aug. 30, 2013 cell phone image provided by Anthony Martinez, shows a dust cloud rising from piles of petroleum coke during a storm near residences on the southeast side of Chicago.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Courtesy of Anthony Martinez

The petcoke sitting in those barges has been blowing on to homes, buildings, and playgrounds since at least 2013. And it didn’t stop in 2014. Reports from news outlets throughout the year described dismal situations: a hospice worker who can’t open her windows on hot days because of “gritty black dust” that comes in; kids with petcoke dust on their faces; an outdoor 60th birthday party ruined by a black, smelly cloud.

Both industry and the EPA assert that petcoke does not pose a significant enough risk to human health to deem it a hazardous waste. But the EPA does acknowledge that it presents health risks — if particles of the dust are small enough, they can pass through the nose and lungs, aggravating the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Nurses in the Chicago area said that’s too big of a problem to brush aside. This year, members of National Nurses United rallied to demand that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel put an immediate stop to large piles of petcoke stored along the Calumet river on Chicago’s southeast side, a primarily low-income area. The majority of those piles are owned by KCBX Terminals, a firm controlled by brothers Charles and David Koch.

Mayor Emanuel responded by introducing an ordinance in February that said the piles could stay where they are, but the operators have to enclose them by 2016 to prevent dust from blowing around. In addition, no new storage terminals can be built along the river.

But environmental advocates ramped up the pressure, saying two more years of black dust were still too many. And in September, that pressure drove Beemsterboer Slag Corp., one of the largest petcoke storage companies in the area, to move out of Chicago.

The fight is still raging with Koch-owned KCBX, which has already threatened legal action if the city does not allow it an extra two more years, until 2018, to cover up their petcoke piles. The company said it will also fight for larger piles than the city’s new limits — 45 feet high, rather than the current 30-foot limit. And with no federal environmental regulation on how petcoke should be stored to prevent pollution, safe to say Chicago’s petcoke woes will expand well into 2015.

Anger, Bitterness, And Coal Ash

Of all the pollution events from fossil fuel waste this year, the Dan River spill was undoubtedly the worst.

On February 2, 2014, a storm water pipe burst underneath an coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy, releasing up to 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27,000 gallons of contaminated water into North Carolina’s Dan River. It was a devastating spill, containing chemicals like lead, arsenic, mercury and radioactive uranium. In the words of the Associated Press’ Michael Biesecker, the river turned into gray sludge.

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River.

Coal ash swirls on the surface of the Dan River.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

It didn’t stop there. Just weeks after the Dan River spill, a second leak was found to be threatening the river.

The discoveries put North Carolinians in a frenzy, thrusting coal ash safety into the local and national spotlight. North Carolina residents had for years lived with Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, and many thought nothing of them until the spill. Communities near coal ash ponds across the state began testing their well water to see if they had been subject to contamination. In a small town called Dukeville, surrounded by Duke Energy coal ash ponds, residents found their water contained aluminum, chromium, lead, iron and manganese. Duke Energy has denied that their coal ash caused the contamination.

Either way, things have not been the same in certain areas of North Carolina. In Dukeville, resident Sherry Gobble told ThinkProgress that she had always believed the neighboring coal ash pond was safe, that there was no way anything would happen to harm her and her family. Now that she has undrinkable water, she said doesn’t know what to believe.

“This has changed my life and I don’t like it,” Gobble said. “You become angry and bitter inside. It makes you suspicious of everything. You’re not the way you were before.”

Coal ash is the second-largest form of waste generated in the United States, but there are currently no federal regulations surrounding how it should be disposed. That’s a problem, according to Jennifer Peters, the national water campaigns coordinator at Clean Water Action.

“Because coal ash is stored in ponds or dry landfills, it has direct contact with water and the environment,” she explained. “A lot of them aren’t monitored, so there’s lots of leaks. As soon as people start monitoring, they find leaks. There’s very little incentive for these companies to have protective liners that keep toxins from leaking into the water because they haven’t been required to, so why would they spend the money on it?”

Industry leaders argue that they have an inherent incentive to spend money on pollution reduction because of how costly environmental remediation can be. Either way, the status quo is about to change: the Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release its first-ever set of coal ash regulations on December 19, which will set certain requirements for companies to store and eventually close their ponds of coal waste.

It’s not yet clear what exactly the new regulations will entail, but environmentalists say they hope coal ash would officially be declared a hazardous waste, and that companies would be required to dispose of it in dry, lined landfills that have a lower chance of leakage. They also hope the regulations will include mandatory and frequent groundwater testing at ash dumps, shared public data on the results of that testing, and strict timelines for power companies to clean up the ponds.

A Spotlight On Waste

Though they came more sharply into focus in 2014, problems surrounding fossil fuel waste disposal in the United States are long-standing.

It’s hard to say if more waste-based pollution happened in 2014 than in years past. In fact, Earthjustice’s Dillen said, it may have been that the level of pollution was the same as previous years.

“It’s cyclical,” she said. “These disasters have always been happening. They happen and they stay under the radar until they float back up again. But our community is really trying to bring these issues into the spotlight.”

This year, Dillen said it may be working. Americans, it seems, are paying more attention.

“Our understanding of the scale of the problem is starting to catch up to the scale of development,” she said, “and the level of publicity is starting to catch up to the scale of the problem.”

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