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Archive for April, 2013

Wonkery on the EPA and Dispersants

Posted in Editorials on April 25th, 2013
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On Monday, the Daily Beast published an article titled, “What BP Doesn’t Want You To Know About the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill” an expose that was in part about the toxic effects of Corexit, a dispersant manufactured by Nalco and used by BP in the Gulf of Mexico to clean up the oil spill.

It appears that people who were exposed to Corexit are now suffering severe health problems, including headaches, fatigue, muscle spasm, short term memory loss, bloody coughing fits, and painful nerve damage. BP was allowed to use Corexit, but they did not follow the safety instructions for use as outlined by the manufacturer, Nalco.

I was very curious as to how a dispersant like Corexit was approved in the first place, and to understand what it meant for the government to approve a dispersant with “confidential” ingredients.

In 1990, during the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act. One provision of the act was that companies must have a “plan to prevent spills that may occur” and have a “detailed containment and cleanup plan” for oil spills. This provision led to an update to the National Oil and Hazardous Substances Pollution Contingency Plan which is overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1994, the EPA finalized rules which, in part created the National Contingency Plan (NCP) product schedule.

EPA maintains the NCP Product Schedule, which lists the following types of products that are authorized for use on oil discharges:

-Dispersants
-Surface washing agents
-Surface collecting agents
-Bioremediation agents
-Miscellaneous oil spill control agents

The full rules for the NCP are a part of the Code of Federal Regulations, and with regards to the process a manufacturer must undergo to have their dispersant listed in the NCP Product Schedule they state, in part:

300.915.a.10 Dispersing Agent Components.
Itemize by chemical name and percent-age by weight each component of the total formulation. The percentages will include maximum, minimum, and average weights in order to reflect quality control variations in manufacture or formulation. In addition to the chemical information provided in response to the first two sentences, identify the major components in at least the fol­lowing
categories:
surface
active
agents, solvents, and additives.

Additionally, it is stated that,

The submitter may assert that certain information in the technical product data submissions… is confidential business information… Such information must be submitted separately from non-confidential infor­mation, clearly identified, and clearly marked ‘‘Confidential Business Infor­mation.’’ If the submitter fails to make such a claim at the time of submittal, EPA may make the information available to the public without further no­tice.

It appears that Corexit was initially one of the products submitted with the ingredients marked confidential. But a quick perusal of the database shows that most of the products in the NCP schedule have at least some of their ingredients listed as “CONFIDENTIAL.”

The special handling instructions and worker precautions for Corexit state:

Avoid eye contact. In case of eye contact, immediately flush eyes with large amounts of water for at least 15 minutes. Get prompt medical attention. Avoid contact with skin and clothing. In case of skin contact, immediately flush with large amounts of water, and soap if available. Remove contaminated clothing, including shoes, after flushing has begun. If irritation persists, seek medical attention. For open systems where contact is likely, wear long sleeve shirt, chemical resistant gloves, and chemical protective goggles.

But as the Daily Beast detailed, these instructions were ignored.

In response to public outrage after Corexit had already been dumped into the Gulf of Mexico, the ingredients were released, and listed them on a Q&A page about dispersants designed to respond to Frequently Asked Questions about the Gulf Oil Spill.

The ingredients for Corexit 9500A and 9527A are still not listed in the NCP database. This is probably a bureaucratic oversight. But unless you knew about the special FAQ, you couldn’t find the full list ingredients of Corexit.

In response, EPA Chief Lisa Jackson and Senator Lautenberg supported the “Safe Dispersants Act” introduced in July 2010, which

would require better testing, approval, and disclosure of the health effects of dispersants used in response to an oil spill under the National Contingency Plan. It would also require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct a study to determine whether additional regulations are needed. The legislation would achieve the following:

Require testing on a wide range of acute and long-term environmental and health effects of specific chemical dispersants before they could be added to an approved products list.

Ban the use of dispersants that cannot be proven better for the environment and health than natural or mechanical removal of oil.

Require the public disclosure of both chemical dispersant ingredients and ingredient concentrations.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works, and no further action has been taken. Perhaps it’s time for another letter writing Sunday?

Cause for Optimism on Keystone

Posted in Editorials on April 23rd, 2013
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Although I am still unsure about the final outcome of the Keystone XL pipeline, there have been some developments in the past 24 hours that have made me feel very optimistic.

First, the EPA has released at statement that upon their review of the draft Environmental Impact Statement, they have rated the impact of the action as

EO (Environmental Objections) The review has identified significant environmental impacts that should be avoided in order to adequately protect the environment. Corrective measures may require substantial changes to the preferred alternative or consideration of some other project alternative (including the no action alternative or a new alternative).

and

(Insufficient Information) The draft EIS does not contain sufficient information to fully assess environmental impacts that should be avoided in order to fully protect the environment, or the reviewer has identified new reasonably available alternatives that are within the spectrum of alternatives analyzed in the draft EIS, which could reduce the environmental impacts of the proposal. The identified additional information, data, analyses, or discussion should be included in the final EIS.

Additionally, the EPA raises three concerns. First, that Keystone has not adequately addressed the greenhouse gas emissions of the project specifically because their argument that the tar sands will be developed anyway is a weak one, and they have not done enough to explain how this is the case, especially relating to the price of oil, and the railway infrastructure to ship it.

I’m really relieved that this isn’t flying, because it’s something that has been bothering me since I first read the executive summary of the dEIS, and something I included in my public comments. It is a bad argument caused by shoddy work at best, intentional deception at worst.

The EPA statement goes on to question the adequacy of the pipeline safety plan, and state that Keystone has not done enough to explain why alternate pipeline routes would not be a better alternative.

Next, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, 350.org and other environmental organizations have released their public comments on Keystone, which I haven’t had a chance to review in their entirety yet, but they raise similar concerns – that the consideration of the no action alternative was incomplete, that other alternatives haven’t been adequately considered, that the dEIS hasn’t addressed greenhouse gas emissions, and that tar sands oil is more difficult to clean up than other oil. They go farther than the EPA and criticize the dEIS for not sufficiently addressing Environmental Justice and tribal concerns, when the EPA applauded Keystone for good work in that area. Additionally, the Sierra Club et al raise procedural concerns; including that documents relevant to the dEIS were not released to the public.

I got a warm, fuzzy feeling reading about all of this today. The EPA and environmental NGOs are working as they are supposed to, and the idealists in the 1970′s who set up these procedures hoped they would act – in the best interests of the public. This is the first indication in years, if not ever at all, that the Obama administration may be opposed to Keystone XL. It’s highly unlikely that Cynthia Giles, the “top cop” of the EPA would release such a harsh rebuke without the administration on board. And this is a very good sign.

This past Saturday I was talking about Keystone XL with someone in my congregation and I was explaining how pessimistic I was about it and why. She asked me if there was any hope at all. I told her that if I was right, and the dEIS really shouldn’t have assumed the tar sands will be developed anyway, I trust that the Sierra Club will make it known in their public comments if not in a lawsuit. And some think that it is heading that way. It’s a really good feeling when that glimmer of hope becomes a giant ray of sunshine.

Earth Day 2013 – Hope Springs Eternal?

Posted in Editorials on April 22nd, 2013
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Despite my pessimism and cynicism about the Keystone XL Pipeline, I decided to submit a public comment anyway. This tip from a Council on Environmental Quality document called, “The Citizens Guide to NEPA” is in keeping with my understanding of the process:

Commenting is not a form of “voting” on an alternative. The number of negative comments an agency receives does not prevent an action from moving forward. Numerous comments that repeat the same basic message of support or opposition will typically be responded to collectively.

So I did not sign the numerous petitions that will be submitted today. Instead, I wrote a comment focusing on what I thought were the weakest part of the dEIS.

Dear Ms Genevieve Walker,

I am writing to voice concerns about the Keystone XL Pipeline draft Environmental Impact Statement. I have two main areas of concern – the impact of the project on climate change, and the ability to clean up any future oil spills.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement states that the impact on the climate will be negligible because the no action alternative assumes that the production and consumption of tar sands oil would remain unchanged. This is quite a large assumption to make considering the amount of greenhouse gas pollution that would be emitted from burning the tar sands and is resulting effect on our climate. It is my understanding that the no action alternative is meant to serve as a baseline/control measure, not as conjecture. Therefore I find it not only tremendously irresponsible to make this assumption but highly disingenuous. Although this dEIS appears to comply with the letter of the law I believe it to be incomplete until another scenario is added to the alternatives section which considers not building the Keystone Pipeline and no further development of the Canadian tar sands. I know that the United States has no control over Canadian companies, but the analysis is not complete without consideration of this scenario.

Secondly, I am concerned about the possibility of an oil spill within the United States. The dEIS states that measures would be put in place to prevent such a spill and that if one were to occur, procedures are in place to respond . However, the current spill of tar sands oil in Mayflower, Arkansas makes this plan highly suspect. It seems that the technology does not yet exist to adequately respond to a spill of tar sands oil.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Happy Earth Day.

New Post at Paradigm Shift – Silly Tequila Commercials

Posted in Editorials on April 19th, 2013
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Sauza Tequila Panders to Women…Badly

Congressman Steve Israel Responds on The SHIELD Act

Posted in Editorials on April 16th, 2013
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In March, I wrote a letter to several elected representatives about the SHIELD ACT. I have since received this response, dated April 10, 2013 from Congressman Steve Israel.

Thank you for contacting me in support of the Saving High-Tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes Act. I appreciate your thoughts on this matter and welcome the opportunity to respond.

As you may know, H.R. 845, the Saving High-Tech Innovators from Egregious Legal Disputes (SHIELD) Act of 2013, was introduced by Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon on February 27, 2013. If enacted, this bill would force companies who bring frivolous patent lawsuits and lose to pay all costs and attorney’s fees associated with the case. H.R. 845 was referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, where it awaits further consideration.

I believe American inventors need patent reform to be competitive in the global economy. Our current system can be slow and its backlog doesn’t foster innovation by entrepreneurs and small businesses. For these reasons last Congress I voted for, and President Obama signed into law, H.R. 1249, the America Invents Act. Among some of the larger changes in this overhaul are changes to help expedite the patenting process. It also creates a new method for challenging previously issued business method patents. Further, it allows the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to set or adjust all of its fees, including those related to patents and trademarks, instead of having Congress set the fees.

Please be assured I will keep your thoughts in mind should I have the opportunity to vote on this or other patent related legislation.

Thank you again for contacting me. Please do not hesitate to do so again on any matter of concern. You can also visit my website (http://house.gov/israel/) to learn more about the issues important to you and to sign up for my email updates.

This seems like tentative support to me. I’m also surprised that I had not heard the America Invents Act mentioned by the Electronic Frontier Foundation or the podcasting community in relation to the SHIELD Act. It appears to have measures to prevent patent trolls.

Has anyone else gotten a response?