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Study Finds Communities Exposed To Fracking Have More Fetal and Childhood Health Problems

As the oil and gas industry look for ever cheaper ways to extract resources from deeper pockets of shale, communities are increasingly taking measures to battling back with restrictions, bans, and moratoriums against controversial extraction practices known as fracking.

Fracking, also called hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking, is the process of forcing a mixture of freshwater and toxic chemicals under high pressure into a well, enlarging the rock fracture to increase the extraction of oil and gas.

Anti-fracking protesters on the march in Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post.

The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) reports that fracking exposes communities – among the most vulnerable being pregnant women, their unborn fetuses, and young children – to a cocktail of chemicals and substances, including: methane, BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes), arsenic, radium, ozone, formaldehyde, radon, nitrogen oxides, methylene chloride, and silica sand.

“These substances are associated with low birth weight, birth defects, respiratory problems, cancer and fertility problems, said the CEH in a report that looked at the health and social effects on communities when fracking is introduced.

The report specifically focused air and water pollution associated with fracking, as well as the social impacts. Focusing on the sheer pollution, it found that “every part of the fracking process” from well construction to operations to transportation can threaten the health of a community.

The report found that pollution can occur in several ways, including from the production and transporting of materials to and from development sites (such as sand mining and trucking wastewater); emissions from drilling and fracking equipment; and equipment used in gas production, processing, transmission, and distribution.

Some of the chemicals that have leached into drinking water from tight oil and shale development sites, include: methane, BTEX, arsenic, and radium. Each of these chemicals have their own particular sort of threat to nearby human populations.

Methane can be flammable and explosive, and when trapped in confined spaces, like a home or garage, can cause suffocation, unconsciousness, and death. For residents near fracking sites, this is a real concern because of the likely direct impacts to them.

The CEH found in a study of 68 drinking wells in Pennsylvania and New York that methane contamination rose significantly with increasing proximity to fracking sites.

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Alliance Receives $10 Million To Research The Viability Of Using Beetles-Killed Trees As Biofuel

The Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies (BANR)– a consortium of academic, industry, and government organizations led by Colorado State University – has been awarded $10 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research the viability of using beetle-killed trees in the Rockies as a sustainable source for creating biofuels.

Beetle damage in West Elk Mountains, Colorado. Photo by Jimmy Gekas.

Among the benefits of this plan would be the culling infested forests. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier this month that, “Infestation of pine and spruce bark beetles have impacted over 42 million acres of U.S. forests since 1996, and a changing climate threatens to expand the threat from the bark beetle on our forest lands .”

This isn’t a new concern, and warming winters over the last several seasons have greatly exacerbated the growth of beetle populations and forest destruction.

In 2009, Matt Skoglund, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s (NRDC) Northern Rockies office , talked about “the tragic demise of whitebark pine trees in the Northern Rockies, primarily caused by the mountain pine beetles,” which he added were “thriving with a warmer climate.”

Skoglund continued that “the destructive paths of both the spruce  beetle in the boreal forests of Canada  and the mountain pine beetle in the Rockies, both of which, thanks to warming temperatures [were] wreaking havoc on coniferous forests and leaving millions of acres of dead trees in their wake.”

Skoglund also added that the worst case scenario was already unfolding, saying that warmer temperatures were “enabling beetles to survive at ever higher elevations” and that as a result, the whitebark pines without natural defenses, were “being slaughtered by beetles across the Northern Rockies.”

Colorado State University explained the role of extreme cold in controlling beetle populations, saying, “For winter mortality to be a significant factor, a severe freeze is necessary while the insect is in its most vulnerable stage, i.e., in the fall before the larvae have metabolized glycerols, or in late spring when the insect is molting into the pupal stage.

“For freezing temperatures to affect a large number of larvae during the middle of winter, temperatures of at least 30 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit) must be sustained for at least five days.”

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EPA Has Finalized Plan For Cleaning Up Toxic Contamination Within New York’s Gowanus Canal

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just finalized a plan to clean up the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, N.Y., which is considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.

Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Completed in 1869, the canal has been one of the nation’s busiest commercial waterways, serving industries including: gas works (manufactured gas plants), coal yards, cement makers, soap makers, tanneries, paint and ink factories, machine shops, chemical plants, and oil refineries.

In recent decades, the canal has been used as a repository for untreated industrial wastes, raw sewage, and runoff.

Today, the EPA says that although much of the industrial activity along the canal has ceased, high levels of contamination remain in its groundwater and sediment. Contamination stills flows into the canal from overflows of sewer systems that carry sanitary waste from homes, as well as from rainwater coming from storm drains and industrial pollutants.

The EPA’s remedial investigation of the site found that it has been polluted with high levels of over a dozen contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and cooper.

PAHs and heavy metals were also found in the canal water. PAHs are a group of chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage, or other organic substances.

PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors, and other electrical equipment, and their manufacture was banned in 1979.

The EPA says that, “PCBs and PAHs are suspected of being cancer-causing, and PCBs can have neurological effects as well,” also expressing concern that, “To this day, people can still be found fishing in the Gowanus despite advisories about eating fish from the canal.”

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Food Deserts Shrinking in Chicago As Mayor Expands Community Gardens & Other Initiatives

Food deserts have become a major concern in the United States, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reporting to Congress that, “Limited access to nutritious food and relatively easier access to less nutritious foods may be linked to poor diets and ultimately to obesity and diet-related diseases.”

Food desert. Image created by Leigh Burmesch.

Generally speaking, a food desert is an area where residents live at least a mile from a large supermarket or grocery store, where they can buy quality meats, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables.

The USDA found in 2009 that about “23.5 million people live in low-income areas that are more than one mile from a supermarket or large grocery store.

“A key concern for people who live in areas with limited access is that they rely on small grocery or convenience stores that may not carry all of the foods needed for a healthy diet, and that may offer these foods and other foods at higher prices.”

While it’s a growing concern at the national level, the problem of food deserts and healthy eating is proving to be an issue primary being acted on at the local city level.

Over the past several years, Chicago has taken on the task of becoming a leader in making progress in combating food deserts and health-related issues, primarily obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Chicago’s A Recipe for Healthy Places initiative reported that, “Rates of obesity in Chicago have doubled among adults and tripled among children since 1980, which mirrors trends in other urban areas in the U.S. and the country as a whole.”

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Shell Oil To Pay Over $115 Million To Reduce Polluting Emissions From Its Houston Refinery

Shell’s Deer Park Refinery, Texas. Photo courtesy of Roy Luck.

Shell Oil Co. and its affiliated partners have agreed to resolve allegations against the refinery and chemical plant in Deer Park, Texas, just outside of Houston.

They are accused of improperly operating 12 steam-assisted flaring devices in a way that caused excess volatile organic compounds, including benzene and other hazardous pollutants to be emitted into the atmosphere, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

To understand things a little better, flare stacks are gas combustion devices used primarily to burn off flammable gases. These flare stacks are used largely in industrial facilities such as petroleum refineries, chemical plants, and natural gas processing plants. They are also commonly used within oil and gas production sites that have oil wells, gas wells, offshore oil and gas rigs, and landfills.

In this settlement, Shell and its partner Deer Park Refining LP, have agreed spend over $115 million in efforts to control air pollution from its industrial flares and other processes, as well as paying about $2.6 million in civil penalties as part of resolving alleged violations against the Clean Air Act.

Specifically, Shell Oil operates the refinery, which is owned by Deer Park Refining. Shell Chemical LP owns and operates the chemical plant.

Shell is expected to spend about $100 million on new technologies to reduce air pollution from the industrial flares. The EPA explains that, “Improper operation of an industrial flare can send hundreds of tons of hazardous air pollutants into the air.”

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