Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
Do not live or spend much time near fracking sites: the government is failing to regulate fracking and when businesses are given the opportunity, they poison the environment. Lisa Song and Jim Morris report at McClatchy:
People in natural gas drilling areas who complain about nauseating odors, nosebleeds and other symptoms they fear could be caused by shale development are usually told by state regulators that monitoring data show the air quality is fine.
But a new study suggests that the most commonly used air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they don’t catch toxic emissions that spike at various points during gas production. The study, reported this week in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health, was conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based near Pittsburgh.
A health survey the group released last year found that people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pa., in the Marcellus Shale, reported symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and nosebleeds, all of which could be caused by pollutants known to be emitted from gas sites. Similar problems have been reported by people who live in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas.
While residents want to know whether gas drilling is affecting the air near their homes – where emissions can vary dramatically over the course of a day – regulators generally use methods designed to assess long-term regional air quality.
They’re “misapplying the technology,” said lead author David Brown, who conducted the study with three of his colleagues at the Environmental Health Project. . .
An interesting and reasonably lengthy article in the Washington Post by Lydia DePillis:
MONTEGUT, La. — After a century of oil exploration, the wetlands of Southern Louisiana have been cut to ribbons. Companies dug deep channels to lay pipe and ferry black gold out of the bayous, but never stitched them up; the open sores now funnel sand out to sea and allow saltwater to corrode vegetation that held the land in place. Largely as a result, the coastal buffer zone is 25 percent smaller than it used to be back in 1932, and still losing about a football field’s worth of land every hour — leaving towns inland ever more vulnerable to the next giant storm.
Right now, there’s a huge fight underway in Baton Rouge that will determine whether industry pays to protect what’s left. If it doesn’t, it’s not clear who will.
Here’s the quick version: Last summer, the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East sued 97 oil companies for decades of negligence. The proceeds could provide a good chunk of the state’s $50 billion coastal restoration plan, which is still mostly unfunded. The state’s oil industry-backed Republicans, however, are scrambling to derail the suit — and just might be able to, with a bill that would essentially deprive the flood authorities of any power to litigate large environmental cases, now or in the future. If that happens, environmental groups are maneuvering to join the suit, or file another one that would accomplish the same thing.
And the consequences are not just abstract. The 711,000 residents of Louisiana’s five most coastal counties live in an ever more precarious reality — and few more so than the denizens of Isle de Jean Charles, a filigree of sandbars an hour southeast of New Orleans. Many of its residents can’t or won’t move away, either because it’s all they’ve ever known, or because the very industry flushing the land from beneath their feet is still the biggest source of vitality the region has. A walk through town shows us just how deep those conflicts run. . .
They really should be thinking, “What are our plans if it does turn out to be real? What should we now be doing if that turns out to be the case?” But it’s easier just to fall back on denial and work hard to stop people talking about it or studying it. Emily Atkin reports at ThinkProgress:
Two days after a U.N. report warned of increased famine, war, and poverty from unmitigated carbon emissions, the Republican-led House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that would require the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to focus less on studying climate change, and more on predicting storms.
The bill, introduced last June by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), wouldn’t require NOAA to stop its climate research entirely, but it would require the agency to “prioritize weather-related activities, including the provision of improved weather data, forecasts, and warnings for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy.” . . .
Timothy Eagan writes in the NY Times:
DON’T tell me, please, that nobody saw one of the deadliest landslides in American history coming. Say a prayer or send a donation for a community buried under a mountain of mud along a great river in Washington State, the Stillaguamish. Praise the emergency workers still trying to find a pulse of life in a disaster that left 25 people dead and 90 missing.
But enough with the denial, the willful ignorance of cause and effect, the shock that one of the prettiest valleys on the planet could turn in a flash from quiet respite in the foothills of the North Cascades to a gravelly graveyard.
“This was a completely unforeseen slide,” said John Pennington, the emergency manager of Snohomish County. “It was considered very safe.” He said this on Monday, two days after the equivalent of three million dump truck loads of wet earth heaved down on the river near the tiny town of Oso. Unforeseen — except for 60 years’ worth of warnings, most notably a report in 1999 that outlined “the potential for a large catastrophic failure” on the very hillside that just suffered a large catastrophic failure.
It is human nature, if not the American way, to look potential disaster in the face and prefer to see a bright and shining lie. The “taming” of this continent, in five centuries and change, required a mighty mustering of cognitive dissonance. As a result, most of us live with the danger of wildfire, earthquake, tornado, flooding, drought, hurricane or yet-to-be-defined and climate-change-influenced superstorm. A legacy of settlement is the delusion that large-scale manipulation of the natural world can be done without consequence.
What happened when the earth moved on a quiet Saturday morning in the Stillaguamish Valley was foretold, in some ways, by the relationship that people have with that sylvan slice of the Pacific Northwest.
Almost 25 years ago, I went into one of the headwater streams of the Stillaguamish with Pat Stevenson, a biologist with the American Indian tribe that bears the same name as the river and claims an ancient link to that land. The rain was Noah-level that day — just as it’s been for most of this March.
We drove upriver, winding along the drainage of Deer Creek, one of the main tributaries of the Stillaguamish. We couldn’t see Whitehorse Mountain, the dreamy peak that towers over the valley, that day. We could barely see beyond our windshield wipers. At last, we arrived at an open wound near road’s end. I’d never witnessed anything like it: an active slide, sloughing mud and clay down into the formerly pristine creek. We watched huge sections of land peel and puddle — an ugly and terrifying new landscape under creation before our eyes.
Stevenson pointed uphill, to bare, saturated earth that was melting, like candle wax, into the main mudslide. Not long ago, this had been a thick forest of old growth timber. But after it was excessively logged, every standing tree removed, there was nothing to hold the land in place during heavy rains. A federal survey determined that nearly 50 percent of the entire basin above Deer Creek had been logged over a 30-year period. It didn’t take a degree in forestry to see how one event led to the other.
The Stilly, as locals call the river, is well known to those who chase fish with a fly rod, and to native people who have been living off its bounty for centuries. Zane Grey, the Western novelist, called it the finest fishing river in the world for steelhead, the big seagoing trout that can grow to 40 pounds. What Stevenson showed me that day in a November storm was how one human activity, logging, was destroying the source of joy and sustenance for others. When the crack and groan of an entire hillside in collapse happened a week ago Saturday, I thought instantly of Stevenson and that gloomy day at Deer Creek.
And, sure enough, logging above the area of the current landslide appears to have gone beyond the legal limits, into the area that slid, according to a report in The Seattle Times.
Yes, but who wants to listen to warnings by pesky scientists, to pay heed to predictions by environmental nags, or allow an intrusive government to limit private property rights? That’s how these issues get cast. And that’s why reports like the ones done on the Stillaguamish get shelved. The people living near Oso say nobody ever informed them of the past predictions. . .
The outcome of the war on the environment is now obvious, and the environment loses. The reason is simple: you can go time after time after time defending the environment, and yet if just one time you lose—as in this article—and you have lost forever. Eventually, they’ll get a win, and when they do, a bit more environment is destroyed. And the natural environment is limited—and growing smaller annually through the process described: the occasional yet inevitable failure on some issue.
That, of course, is quite apart from the major devastation of climate change—but some in Congress, in a spectacular example of burying-head-in-sand, are determined to put an end to any discussion of that issue.
UPDATE: See also this article in Salon.
Perhaps it’s time to disincorporate Duke Energy and send its executives to prison. Emily Atkin writes at ThinkProgress:
North Carolina regulators on Thursday cited Duke Energy for illegally and deliberately dumping 61 million gallons of toxic coal ash waste into a tributary of the Cape Fear River, which provides drinking water for several cities and towns in the state.
The incident marks the eighth time in less than a month that the company has been accused of violating environmental regulations. The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said Duke — notorious for the February Dan River disaster which saw 82,000 tons of coal ash released into state waters — was taking bright blue wastewaterfrom two of its coal ash impoundments and running it through hoses into a nearby canal and drain pipe.
Duke is reportedly permitted to discharge treated wastewater from the ash ponds into the canal, but only if they are filtered through so-called “risers,” pipes that allow heavier residue in the water to settle out. DENR told ABC News on Thursday that Duke’s pumping bypassed the risers.
“We’re concerned with the volume of water that was pumped and the manner it was pumped,” DENR Communications Director Drew Elliot told ABC. “It did not go through the treatment facility as it should have.”
Duke’s most recent incident was discovered after the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance last week released aerial surveillance photos taken from a fixed-wing aircraft that showed Duke workers pumping wastewater from the two toxic coal ash lagoons into a canal.
Waterkeeper Alliance tried to go to the source of the pollution via boat but were warned off by plant employees and a policeman, so they resorted to aerial surveillance, as seen in this clip from the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC. . .
Continue reading. There’s more to the story and the video clip is interesting.
Not at the time, necessarily, though of course a gang member encounters many risks while active in the gang, but most will leave the gang after around 3 years or less and move into adulthood—whereupon they encounter ill health (mental and physical) more than those who did join a gang.
Lauren Kirchner writes in Pacific Standard:
Gangs are a favorite topic among social scientists and criminologists. Research has consistently shown that, when kids join gangs, they immediately increase the risks that they will commit crimes and be incarcerated, become addicted to drugs, drop out of school, and be on either the giving or receiving end of violence. None of these findings are particularly surprising. But what about the long-term impact? Most gang stints are relatively short, with kids joining in their early teens and getting out a few years later. Then what? Amanda Gilman, a doctoral candidate in the University of Washington School of Social Work, saw a gap in this field.
“We think of gang membership as being an adolescent phenomenon, but what happens when they grow up and have their own families, and become adults?” asked Gilman, who is the lead author of a new paper out in the American Journal of Public Health. “Our theory was that we would see some of these negative outcomes in adulthood, but to some extent we were surprised to see how pervasive this sort of risky lifestyle of being in a gang could be in transitioning to adulthood.”
Gilman found that the impact of those risks and stress were very pervasive indeed. Most people in the study who said that they had been in gangs said their memberships lasted for only three years or less. Even so, they felt the impact of this set of choices for years. Compared to those people who had never been members of a gang, former gang members reported much worse overall health—both mental health and physical health. Former gang members were more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, alcoholism, and “poor general health” physically when they were 27, 30, and 33. They were also three times as likely to be addicted to drugs.
The results stayed the same “even after controlling for individual, family, peer, school, and neighborhood characteristics.” It was gang membership that made the difference. And these negative effects of the gang life are so significant, the authors explained, that they go beyond the realm of mere community crime and disorder, and can actually impact the level of the overall health of a community.
“Gang membership has always been under the discussion of criminologists; it’s been like a juvenile justice issue, or a criminological issue,” says Karl Hill, a research associate professor and co-author on the paper. “What Amanda’s showing here is that it’s a bigger issue than that; it’s a public health issue. It’s not just the corrections systems and the police that need to be concerned about it, because it has broader public health impact.”
Aside from these particular findings, the source of Gilman’s data is also pretty remarkable. . .
When you disagree with someone about evolution, global warming, vaccines, or the like, I believe that you’re likely to encounter a way of thinking that is sufficiently foreign to me that I just now figured out what might be going on. What I have experienced in such arguments has convinced me that some people view a strong belief as in itself evidence that the belief is true (presumably because “if it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t believe it so strongly—duh!”). In other words, belief is treated as though it were evidence, and the intensity of the belief measures the evidence for it: intense belief equals strong evidence, just by itself.
When you try to argue against such a belief, you probably usewhat we normally think of as evidence, namely facts. You then run into another problem. The person who views beliefs as constituting evidence for the beliefs also views facts as opinions. Thus when you point out a fact that contradicts their belief (for which they have loads of evidence, in their sense: that is, they believe it strongly), a common response is, “That’s (just) your opinion.” That is, just as they weigh beliefs as we normally weigh evidence, actual evidence—that is, verifiable facts—is weighed as we normally weigh opinions: an opinion being something that’s perfectly fine for you to accept, but really has nothing whatsoever to do with whether I accept it—that is, whether it is also my opinion/fact. Just as someone can have an opinion on something without affecting my own opinion on the same thing, so the facts you present (which are viewed as merely your opinion) don’t really effect what the other believes. Daniel Moynihan specifically warned that, while you are entitled to your own opinions, you are not entitled to your own facts, and that was not an empty warning: some, I think, do view facts as opinions (as shown by their reasoning).
That does seem to describe what happens and shows why the arguments go nowhere: the rational person has been offering something that simply has no weight for the believer—the rational one thinks he’s offering evidence, but the believer views him as offering opinion, and of course his opinion is beside the point: “I have my own opinions.”
So: the question becomes, what does have weight for the believer and thus triggers a change in view? It may be couching ideas in terms the believer already accepts: e.g., “I say to you in the name of Jesus our Lord and Savior, send a donation now.” The demand for money is accepted because of the accompanying incantations from the belief system: the system passwords, in effect. And as we’ve seen from a long string of huckstering ministers, those incantations actually work: when the ministers demand money, they tie in salvation, and so it sounds like a pretty good deal: something real and of paramount importance (salvation) for mere money. I recall that Oral Roberts once advised his radio audience that God was going to take him if his listeners didn’t contribute $44 million before some date. (I believe this may have been for Oral Roberts University.) The listeners came through (or at least the Rev. Roberts said that they did, and it’s certainly true that he did not die at the time, which sort of proves it). The response seems a little odd given that the penalty—God taking Oral Roberts into His Kingdom and Arms—actually sounds like exactly what Roberts claims to want and has been working toward.
At any rate, perhaps we must cast our case for evolution, global warming, and vaccines in theological terms—invoking the name of our Savior liberally, but also sticking with the facts: rational Christianity, in effect. And isn’t that exactly what the Moral Mondays in North Carolina are all about? Aren’t the Moral Mondays an effort to get people to look at recent public policy and legislation and view the effects in religious terms. This seems natural enough: it’s what Jesus Himself did when facing in His time circumstances similar in some ways to the US today: helping and caring for the poor and humble—and, you will recall, He condemned wealth harshly. In effect, He was head of the Occupy Jerusalem Movement. And He suffered for it, as is often the case for those who try to help the poor and humble and protect them from the wealthy and powerful.
So it’s been done before. That indicates it might work.
Lamarck rides again: the inheritability of acquired traits—epigenetics—continues to be a field of study. Michael White has a good article on the topic in Pacific Standard:
You inherit some of your grandmother’s genes, but do you also inherit her experiences? Last month, a group of Swedish researchers at the Karolinska Institute and the University of Umeå released their latest in a series of reports on a long-term health study of people born between 1890 and 1920 in Överkalix, a small town in northern Sweden. These scientists have been making waves for more than a decade with claims that our health is influenced by the experiences of our grandparents. Using statistics of 19th-century harvests in Northern Sweden to determine how much food was available to the ancestors of the residents of Överkalix, the researchers concluded that the risk for cardiovascular disease among their study participants was influenced by the dramatic swings from feast to famine experienced by the participants’ grandparents during childhood.
Studies like this one are part of the hodgepodge of research that gets lumped together in the growing and increasingly ill-defined field of epigenetics. Scientific interest in this field has boomed over the past decade, thanks in part to technological advances that make new types of experiments possible. Epigenetics is hot in the popular press as well. It made the cover of Time in 2010. In Germany, Der Spiegel declared that epigenetics is a “victory over the gene,” illustrating both the victory itself and the sexiness of the science with an image of naked woman emerging from the confines of her gene pool. And of course, epigenetics is touted as the new secret to curing cancer. But the popularity of epigenetics is misplaced: It’s a badly over-hyped field whose recent findings aren’t nearly as revolutionary as many of its practitioners believe.
What is epigenetics? The term was coined in 1942 by British biologist Conrad Waddington, as a name for the study of how genes produce a fully developed organism from a single fertilized egg. More recently, epigenetics is commonly defined as the study of processes that transcend our genes—processes that produce different outcomes from a single, fixed set of genes by controlling how those genes get used. A classic example is a strain of laboratory mice that carry a particular version of a gene that can cause two different coat colors. Two mice may carry identical versions of this gene but nevertheless appear very different, with either light or dark fur, depending on its epigenetic state—whether the gene is in an on or off state.
What is surprising about this gene is that its epigenetic state can be passed from parents to offspring. This is not supposed to happen. Biological development depends on a complex process of switching the epigenetic states of tens of thousands of genes, as a newly fertilized egg gradually transforms itself into an adult organism made up of trillions of cells that come in hundreds of different types. In order for all of this epigenetic switching to happen correctly, genes must reset to a default state at conception. But researchers are finding evidence of exceptions, genes that somehow escape the reset. If states of genes can be inherited, and not just the genes themselves, then life experiences that happen to alter the epigenetic state of your grandparents’ genes can be passed on to you.
Recently developed technologies make it possible for scientists to measure the epigenetic states of genes more comprehensively than ever before. The result is a wave of studies showing how our life experiences impact the state of our genes. These studies are fascinating, but the results shouldn’t be particularly surprising to anyone familiar with the last 60 years of molecular biology. DNA is not a static biological blueprint. Much as your body adapts to a high-altitude environment by ramping up the production of red blood cells, our genomes respond to environmental signals by changing which genes get expressed. This is not news. A trio of French scientists won a Nobel Prize in 1965 for showing how this process works in bacteria, and there have been decades of studies of this phenomenon in humans.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that our physical and even our mental environment can influence the behavior of our genes in many different cells in our body. Epigenetic states of genes are manifestations of DNA doing its job, and many scientists are currently focused on trying to understand what those different epigenetic states mean. This research is important and interesting, but not paradigm-breaking.
The question of inherited epigenetic states is another matter. . .
Ryan Koronowski writes at ThinkProgress:
Alpha Natural Resources, the third-largest coal company in the U.S., agreed to pay a $27.5 million fine after violating water pollution permits in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Over the last seven years, Alpha and its subsidiaries discharged heavy metals into waterways across those five Appalachian states 6,289 times, through 794 different discharge points, sometimes by as much as 35 times the legal limit.
The pollutants that spilled from the coal mines throughout Appalachia include “iron, pH, total suspended solids, aluminum, manganese, selenium, and salinity,” according to an EPA press release.
The giant coal company will also spend $200 million to stop sending toxic discharge into the nations rivers and streams. According to the AP, which obtained details about the settlement on Wednesday, “under the agreement, the mine operators will install wastewater treatment systems and take other measures aimed at reducing discharges from 79 active coal mines and 25 coal-processing plants in those five states.”
Cynthia Giles, who runs the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement office, told the AP that the settlement was “the biggest case for permit violations for numbers of violations and size of the penalty, which reflects the seriousness of violations.”
“This is the largest one, period.”
A big part of the reason this settlement was so comprehensive and expensive is because in 2011, Alpha Natural Resources bought a coal company called Massey Energy. Massey’s coal operations account for more than half of the violations represented in Wednesday’s settlement.
Alpha spent $7.1 billion to purchase Massey, and it has been picking up the pieces ever since. Months after the purchase agreement was announced, Massey was still fighting a legal battle over dumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into old underground coal mines — knowing all the while that the mines leaked into the water supply. Alpha settled the lawsuit with hundreds of West Virginia residents in 2011.
Massey received global headlines for the tragic explosion in 2010 that killed 29 miners, and stayed in the headlines as Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s confrontational relationship with safety regulators prompted shareholder calls for his resignation. In 2009, Blankenship called the idea that safety regulators cared more about coal miners than he did “as silly as global warming.” This despite the small world encompassing coal industry and coal regulators: President Bush appointed a former Massey official to an MSHA review commission in 2002.
In 2012, Massey mine superintendent Gary May pled guilty to charges of criminal conspiracy over deceiving federal safety regulators. When the Mine Safety and Health Administration would come for an inspection, May would warn miners, increase air ventilation, falsify records, and cut corners in order to hide dangerous safety violations.
Though 2014 is barely two months old, the U.S. has seen a raft of coal spills — in West Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia again, and West Virginia again — signalling the problem of dirty coal is not going away.
Trip Gabriel reports in the NY Times:
Last June, state employees in charge of stopping water pollution were given updated marching orders on behalf of North Carolina’s new Republican governor and conservative lawmakers.
“The General Assembly doesn’t like you,” an official in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources told supervisors, who had been called from across the state to a drab meeting room here. “They cut your budget, but you didn’t get the message. And they cut your budget again, and you still didn’t get the message.”
From now on, regulators were told, they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said, according to three people in the meeting, two of whom took notes. “If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.”
But when the nation’s largest utility, Duke Energy, spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in early February, those big changes were suddenly playing out in a different light. Federal prosecutors have begun a criminal investigation into the spill and the relations between Duke and regulators at the environmental agency.
The spill, which coated the river bottom 70 miles downstream and threatened drinking water and aquatic life, drew wide attention to a deal that the environmental department’s new leadership reached with Duke last year over pollution from coal ash ponds. It included a minimal fine but no order that Duke remove ash — the waste from burning coal to generate electricity — from its leaky, unlined ponds near drinking water. Environmental groups said the arrangement protected a powerful utility rather than the environment or the public.
Current and former state regulators said the watchdog agency, once among the most aggressive in the Southeast, has been transformed under Gov. Pat McCrory into a weak sentry that plays down science, has abandoned its regulatory role and suffers from politicized decision-making.
The episode is a huge embarrassment for Mr. McCrory, who worked at Duke Energy for 28 years and is a former mayor of Charlotte, where the company is based. And it has become yet another point of contention in North Carolina, where Republicans who took control of the General Assembly in 2011 and the governor’s mansion last year have passed sweeping laws in line with conservative principles. They have affected voting rights and unemployment benefits, as well as what Republicans called “job-killing” environmental regulations, which have received less notice.
Critics say the accident, the third-largest coal ash spill on record, is inextricably linked to the state’s new environmental politics and reflects an enforcement agency led by a secretary who suggested that oil was a renewable resource and an assistant secretary who, as a state lawmaker, drew a bull’s-eye on a window in his office framing the environmental agency’s headquarters.
“They’re terrified,” said John Dorney, a retired supervisor who keeps in touch with many current employees. “Now these people have to take a deep breath and say, ‘I know what the rules require, but what does the political process want me to do?’ ”
Duke has apologized for the Dan River spill and says it is now committed to cleaning up some of its 32 coal ash ponds across the state. The company has also been subpoenaed in the federal investigation.
A spokesman for Governor McCrory said the governor had no role in the state’s proposed settlement with Duke. . .
Continue reading. The story at the link includes a video. And the comments are worth reading. People are becoming increasingly angry at the downfall of the US.
Rebecca Leber reports in ThinkProgress:
As ExxonMobil’s CEO, it’s Rex Tillerson’s job to promote the hydraulic fracturing enabling the recent oil and gas boom, and fight regulatory oversight. The oil company is the biggest natural gas producer in the U.S., relying on the controversial drilling technology to extract it.
The exception is when Tillerson’s $5 million property value might be harmed. Tillerson has joined a lawsuit that cites fracking’s consequences in order to block the construction of a 160-foot water tower next to his and his wife’s Texas home.
The Wall Street Journal reports the tower would supply water to a nearby fracking site, and the plaintiffs argue the project would cause too much noise and traffic from hauling the water from the tower to the drilling site. The water tower, owned by Cross Timbers Water Supply Corporation, “will sell water to oil and gas explorers for fracing [sic] shale formations leading to traffic with heavy trucks on FM 407, creating a noise nuisance and traffic hazards,” the suit says.
Though Tillerson’s name is on the lawsuit, a lawyer representing him said his concern is about the devaluation of his property, not fracking specifically.
When he is acting as Exxon CEO, not a homeowner, Tillerson has lashed out at fracking critics and proponents of regulation. “This type of dysfunctional regulation is holding back the American economic recovery, growth, and global competitiveness,” he said in 2012. Natural gas production “is an old technology just being applied, integrated with some new technologies,” he said in another interview. “So the risks are very manageable.”
In shale regions, less wealthy residents have protested fracking development for impacts more consequential than noise, including water contamination and cancer risk. Exxon’s oil and gas operations and the resulting spills not only sinks property values, but the spills have leveled homes and destroyed regions.
Exxon, which pays Tillerson a total $40.3 million, is staying out of the legal tangle. A spokesperson told the WSJ it “has no involvement in the legal matter.”
Emily Atkin writes at ThinkProgress:
There is an abandoned house in Alberta, Canada, where Alain Labrecque used to live. Tucked in the farming community of Peace River, it is a place brimming with personal history, rooted to his grandfather’s land where his parents and eight aunts and uncles grew up, and where Alain’s own children were born. Now, Alain’s property and the surrounding area are primarily home to large, black cylinders of oil.
The oil is from Alberta’s much-famed tar sands, a large area of land that contains clay, bitumen, and a good deal of sand. Inside the tanks, heavy crude from the sands is heated, until it becomes viscous enough to transport. Many of those tanks currently vent freely into the atmosphere.
As the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world and the key ingredient of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and with production value that is expected to nearly triple by 2018, the Canadian tar sands have become an unseen symbol in America. For some, that symbol represents jobs, energy security, and economic prosperity. For others, it’s pollution, addiction to fossil fuels, and a threat to a livable climate. What generally is not conveyed, however, is an image of the families who live there, and who have been there long before the tar sands boom.
Though Alain once thought having the tanks on his property would be a blessing, he now describes them as a curse. After experiencing an unusual kind of sickness — fainting, weight loss, gray skin, strange growths — that he believes was caused by the tanks’ unregulated emissions, Alain and his family were eventually forced to move to British Columbia. They have pegged Baytex Energy, the owner of the tanks, as their enemy. Baytex has produced studies claiming innocence, but has also offered to buy the Labrecques’ land in exchange for their silence. So, taking their doctor’s own advice, the family decided to move, and fight the battle for their home from afar.
The doctor’s words to them? “He said, ‘You are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot, and you don’t matter. Move.’”
Prosperity in Paradise
As a family with a rich history of working for and benefiting from the oil industry, never in their wildest dreams did Karla and Alain think they would be the ones fighting this fight.
“You’ve gotta understand, I’ve worked for oil sands, I was a contractor,” Alain said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “I’ve never been negative toward oil. Never thought this would happen.”
The Labrecques’ large and long family history begins in 1929, when 18-year-old Joseph Labrecque homesteaded a piece of land near Peace River, Alberta, Canada — an oil-rich area that Baytex Energy Corp. now calls the “Reno Field.” Joseph cleared the land, and eventually settled down with a wife and nine children, seven boys and two girls.
As Joseph’s children grew up, five of his sons stayed in the area, taking up the land that surrounded their father’s. Even now, the Labrecques still largely make up the population of the one-by-five mile Reno Field.
Oil came into the picture in 2004. Representatives for Koch Exploration, a company owned by notorious billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, approached one of Joseph’s sons, Mike, asking for permission to drill. Mike was in favor and Koch Exploration drilled the land, eventually selling it to Prosper Petroleum in 2008. Prosper continued to drill wells until the land was finally purchased by Baytex in February 2011.
But for the Labrecques, ownership was not really an issue — in fact, there were no issues. Their environment was clean, their kids were healthy. Drilling added value to their land and cash to their pockets.
One of Mike’s nephews, Alain, was happy with the royalty payments he received from the oil. They paired nicely with the fact that 2010 was his best farming year yet. “It was just no thought of negative thing, period,” Alain testified under oath before the Alberta Energy Regulator . “Things were just starting to click.”
Just as things were becoming comfortable for Alain in December of 2010, he began experiencing some minor health issues. He also owns a logging business, and was busy trying to get the trucks ready for the season. As he was working on the engines, he began to get headaches — nothing serious, he said, but big enough where he had to pop an Advil every few hours. As time went on, he gained a new ailment: eye-twitching, or as he says, a “quick little pull on the eyes.” The headaches persisted. And he was not the only one with problems.
“Why is the little girl always falling?” Alain recalled thinking of his then-two-year-old daughter. He assumed she was just clumsy. But then, in March 2011, his wife, Karla, fell down the stairs. She began to notice that she could make herself faint if she turned her head too far to the left. Around that time, Alain noticed his house smelled like gas — the same smell they would smell the evenings before outside, when Baytex would vent its simmering tanks of oil sands. He checked the furnace, the carbon monoxide monitor. Nothing.
The symptoms progressed. Every night, Karla said she would fall asleep to popping ears. She had sinus congestion, hot and cold flashes. She began to feel as if her arms were hollow. She developed “massive” headaches, like migraines, but different. “I get migraines; this is not like a migraine,” she said. “This is like somebody’s taking a two-by-four to your head.”
Their then three-year-old son, they said, started developing dark grey circles under his eyes, and struggled with constipation. Despite being put on laxatives, he would sometimes go a week without a bowel movement. He once went 12 days. As time passed, Alain developed a growth on his head, which was removed by a doctor.
Alain’s uncle Mike was initially annoyed at the complaining. “I guess in a way I thought I had a good job here, and I didn’t want anybody rocking the boat,” he said.
But then the symptoms started for him too. By winter of 2011, he was sweating through three pillows a night. His skin turned gray and he lost 45 pounds. His wife Leona, who lived in the city during the week for work, said Mike would go into “comatose sleeps.” His voice became hoarse, and his speech became slurred. He began to believe he had cancer.
Though Mike’s symptoms persisted, he continued to work. Since he lived right in the middle of the Reno Field, he was hired by Baytex to clear snow at the sites, and use his tractor to pull tanker trucks into and out of the sites whenever wet conditions or snow inhibited truck movements. In April 2012, he was called to go help another worker at a Baytex site. Feeling dizzy, Mike stopped at his office, and told his supervisor he was feeling too lightheaded to go the site, too dizzy to operate his tractor.
“I said the way I feel right now — I said, I — I can’t do it,” he recalled. “So I said, is there anything that you can do?”
A few phone calls later, Mike was fired.
Pinpointing the Problem
When Mike did work for Baytex, it was basically the same as it was when he worked for Koch and Prosper, the two companies that owned the site before. Except, he says, there was one change that he found peculiar. When Koch and Prosper operated the tanks, it would take nearly three hours to load the bitumen from the tanks into the tanker trucks. Now, with Baytex, it took only 30 to 45 minutes.
“[Mike] and the other landowners believe that Baytex increased the temperature of the tanks and possibly added chemical thinners to allow the heavy oil to be loaded faster,” a statement on the landowners’ “Stop Baytex” website reads.
Baytex spokesperson and director of stakeholder relations Andrew Loosely, however, told ThinkProgress that not only had the company not increased the temperature of the tanks, but that Baytex’s process for liquefying the tar sands is essentially the same as when Prosper Petroleum’s. “It’s untrue,” Loosely said. “Our process is no different than what was going down before. In fact, we’ve lowered the temperature that Prosper was operating their tanks at.”
When Prosper had owned the tanks, it operated them at 194 degrees, whereas Baytex operates them at 176, Loosely said. Prosper had also used an open venting system, he said, and no method of capturing its emissions. In fact, Baytex has more so-called “vapor recovery systems” that capture the emissions and turn them into usable fuel than Prosper did, he said.
Baytex’s process is called Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand, or CHOPS. It is a radically different production process than conventional oil drilling, and is designed for the hard-to-extract tar sands — a thick mixture of heavy oil, sand, and water. To extract the most tar sands, the CHOPS process uses wider drill holes. The well is then “perforated,” meaning there are holes up and down the sides of the underground pipe. Those holes are able to suck in everything — the sand, the oil, and the water.
Then, the mixture is put into tanks and heated. The heating process separates the sand and the water, and the oil is ready to be transported to a pipeline or rail facility. The process, according to the Alberta government, should produce anywhere from 94 to 314 barrels of oil every day, per well, “in almost all cases.” Considering Baytex has 23 well pads in the Reno Field, that could mean more than 300,000 gallons of oil produced from the field every day. In September 2013, Baytex produced 53,550 gallons per day.
But inevitably, CHOPS doesn’t just produce tar sands. It also winds up creating a good deal of chemical- and bitumen-related waste product, according to the Alberta government. There is so much waste, in fact, that the government estimates waste management accounts for 15 to 35 percent of operating costs for the CHOPS process. The waste is considered “non-hazardous,” however, so while it can be noxious and smelly, it presents “no known health hazards” to the community.
After identifying the smell in their home as the same smell from the CHOPS tanks, Karla and Alain in 2011 asked Baytex to take steps to remedy the emissions. Baytex responded by shutting down its drilling operations, and hiring a company called Chemistry Matters, Inc. to conduct an air quality study. Chemistry Matters’ founder and sole proprietor, Dr. Court Sandau, describes his company on his LinkedIn page as providing “data validation services for contentious or litigious matters — when you need it to be right.”
That air quality study found that no health-based limits on emissions were exceeded in the area surrounding the Labrecques’ home. The bitumen produced in the area is rich in sulfur, which likely contributed to the foul smells, but levels of sulfur in the air did not violate regulated standards for human health, the report said. Baytex resumed its operations.
The Labrecques take issue with Baytex’s study, and believe it failed to monitor air quality at night — the time when emissions were released and when odors were strongest.
“They produce air quality studies that say, ‘No, everything’s all OK,’ trying to prove that we’re lying to them,” Karla said. “They make you feel like you’re the troublemaker — a ‘Why don’t you just shut your mouth’ type of thing.”
Indeed, Baytex has attempted to keep the Labrecques quiet. Before moving to British Columbia in 2011, after a year of complaining, the Labrecques entered into alternative dispute resolution with Baytex, where the company offered to buy their 160-acre farm for as much as it would have been worth before the environmental damage. No one else would have offered the Labrecques that much. But there was a catch.
According to the sale contract the Labrecques provided ThinkProgress, the sale of their land would have meant silence. No social media posts from them, their children, or their children’s children about Baytex. No more StopBaytex.ca, no more “Stop Baytex” group on Facebook — those would be turned over to the company. No communicating with government representatives about issues concerning Baytex. No talking to the media.
Karla and Alain did not sign the contract, and wound up finding a buyer for the farmland portion of their property. They still own the land on which their home sits. The same cannot be said for Alain’s next door neighbor and brother, who took the deal partly because his wife was pregnant when the emissions were at their most unbearable. He is unauthorized to speak to the media.
At a January hearing on Baytex’s emissions, an environmental health expert hired by the Alberta government testified that many Alberta doctors are afraid to speak out against the oil sands, and afraid to connect it to health issues. A family doctor for the Labrecques, Dr. John O’Connor, agrees. He was threatened with having his license taken away for talking about cancer rates near the oil sands in 2006.
“My experience … strongly suggests to me that government does not want to know [and] is not interested in knowing what’s going on,” Dr. O’Connor told the Vancouver Sun.
Solutions and Regulations
In the eyes of the Canadian government, Baytex is operating within the rule-book. CHOPS operators are not obligated by current regulations to install odor-reduction or vapor recovery systems.
But from their new home, the Labrecques are calling for regulatory reform. . .
A strong editorial in the NY Times:
North Carolina citizens have good reason to wonder just whom their environmental regulators are trying to protect. The state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources has engaged in a series of maneuvers that seem designed to protect the state’s largest utility, Duke Energy, from paying big fines for water pollution from coal ash ponds and meeting reasonable requirements that it move toxic coal ash to lined landfills away from rivers and lakes used for drinking water and recreation.
Meanwhile, the rest of the country — having heard of the damaging North Carolina coal ash spill this month — must be wondering why the federal government has yet to move against a serious pollution problem it has known about for years.
One answer is the political power of the utilities. In North Carolina, a coalition of environmental groups, led by the Southern Environmental Law Center, tried three times over the past year to sue Duke Energy in federal court for violating the Clean Water Act, only to be pre-empted by the state regulatory agency, which asserted its authority to protect the public through enforcement actions in state courts. Once in control of the litigation, the state regulators quickly proposed a sweetheart settlement of suits against two Duke Energy plants. It would have imposed total fines and costs of about $99,000, a pittance for a company with operating revenues of $19.6 billion in 2012, plus a cleanup plan riddled with loopholes.
Critics blamed the new Republican governor, Pat McCrory, who had worked at Duke Energy for 29 years, and the businessman he appointed to head the environmental department, John Skvarla. Federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the Dan River spill and issued subpoenas for the records of Duke Energy and the environmental department.
The third suit was still pending when coal ash spilled on Feb. 2 into the Dan River, near the Virginia border, through a ruptured pipe at another Duke Energy plant that is no longer in use. The state’s Department of Health and Human Services has warned people not to have contact with the water or sediment downstream and not to eat fish or shellfish from that area.
On Feb. 9, The Associated Press revealed that lenient state regulators had maneuvered to block the environmental groups. The environment agency, embarrassed by the spill and the revelations, immediately asked the state judge to hold its proposed settlement in abeyance while it conducted a comprehensive review of all coal ash facilities in the state. We can only hope that this is a genuine attempt to solve the problem and not a stalling tactic. Meanwhile, Duke Energy has apologized for the big leak and pledged to make things right, but it has not committed to moving the waste to safer locations.
This tawdry tale illustrates . . .
Corporations have become accustomed to being unaccountable—at the worst, they may have to pay a fine, which they see as a cost of doing business. Emily Atkin describes at ThinkProgress a particularly bad example of a company that apparently believes it has not responsibility to answer for its actions:
Exactly one month and a day after 10,000 gallons of chemicals spilled into West Virginia’s water, members of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee on Monday traveled to the state’s capital city, ostensibly to ask state leaders the still-unanswered questions surrounding the leak. There are many.
Perhaps the most important party that could provide answers would have been Freedom Industries, the company whose chemical storage tanks leaked a coal-cleaning chemical called crude MCHM into the water. Company president Gary Southern had been invited to testify, but in the end, did not show up.
“I find that extremely telling,” said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV). “Freedom Industries’ decision not to testify today compounds its gross misconduct, and is an absolute affront to every person impacted by its spill.”
Freedom Industries’ decision not to show up to a hearing that otherwise housed every party that should be held accountable for the spill (Representatives from West Virginia American Water, West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board showed up, to name a few) is depressingly typical, and a painful reminder of the company’s non-presence throughout the month-long ordeal.
“They’ve been basically out of the picture since day one of this crisis, even though they were the cause of the crisis,” Executive Director of West Virginia Citizen Action Gary Zuckett, told ClimateProgress, recalling the events of the week following the spill. “The first thing that [Freedom] did was file for bankruptcy. The second thing they did was open a new corporation to loan the first corporation money.”
Indeed, after being being criticized for failing to immediately report the chemical leak, and faced with lawsuits from those who had been harmed, Freedom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy shielded it from lawsuits, and since then the company has been increasingly opaque — only breaking its silence to revise spill numbers (last week it said 10,000, not 7,500 gallons, had spilled) and admit that more than one chemical had actually spilled.
“That’s the big reason they filed bankruptcy, I think, so that they can be excused for stepping out,” Maria Gunnoe, spokesperson for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, told ClimateProgress. “They realize, they’re in — instead of hot water — poison water.”
Of course it’s hard to forget the one time Freedom Industries’ president Gary Southern decided to step out and speak, the day after the chemical spill was said to have begun occurring. Fumbling with reporters’ questions and attempting to excuse himself multiple times, an exasperated Southern took a sip of bottled water in front of the news cameras — an image that many called “brazen” considering his company was preventing others from that very luxury.
When asked for comment by the Huffington Post, a representative for Freedom Industries referred to its lawyer, Paul Vey, who said Southern did not attend “simply because the company is relatively small and we are focused exclusively on remediation of the spill.”
And considering all the bad press, Zuckett said maybe it was for the best that Southern didn’t show up to the hearing.
“He was digging this thing deeper,” Zuckett said. “They wisely decided to get him out of the spotlight.”
Andrew Breiner writes at ThinkProgress:
As the Obama Administration continued delaying regulation of coal ash, up to 82,000 tons of it spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River from an “antiquated” storage pit, contaminating the river with high levels of lead, arsenic and mercury. Danville, Virginia draws its drinking water from the Dan River and is located 25 miles downstream from the spill. Five days after the spill, Danville’s water appears to be safe, but the long-term effects of the spill will not be known for some time.
Sunday’s spill occurred at the kind of storage basin that has been long-criticized by public health advocates: an earthen pond located near a major waterway that provides drinking water to nearby towns. A storm pipe under the basin ruptured Sunday, allowing 27 million gallons of water mixed with up to 82,000 tons of ash to flow out and into the river before the leak was stopped. Many utilities have begun using lined storage ponds placed farther away from waterways to store ash, but absent federal regulation, spills like this one are likely to continue.
A judge ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set a deadline for creating the first-ever federal coal ash regulations due to a lawsuit from public health and Native American groups, which they set for the end of 2014. It is currently unclear what those regulations will entail or when they will be implemented.
Coal ash is the toxic byproduct that comes from burning coal, and typically contains arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium, which “can cause cancer and neurological damage in humans,” and harm and kill wildlife. Even outside of major spills, the 535 or more unlined ponds operating throughout the country pose a major threat to drinking water.
The EPA announced two paths it might take toward regulation in 2010. It could regulate coal ash as “solid waste,” the less-stringent classification, which would still require liners, more frequent inspections, and other safeguards that were absent in the Dan River spill, and could have helped prevent it. But enforcement would still be left up to the states, and citizen lawsuits.
On the other hand, if the EPA regulated coal ash as “hazardous waste,” the federal government would be in charge of enforcing and monitoring those new requirements. On top of that, wet ash ponds would be phased out entirely, in favor of special ash landfills. And companies would have to show they’re financially capable of cleaning up in the event of a disaster. Mining and utility companies claim this classification would cost too much, discouraging coal-fired power plants. In addition to the safety benefits of treating coal ash carefully, discouraging coal-fired power plants would have immense climate and air quality benefits.
Until the EPA steps in, regulation is left up to states, which Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel at Earthjustice, described to ThinkProgress as “a patchwork of programs, with many states imposing few, and sometimes, no, regulatory safeguards.” House Republicans passed a bill in July that would have kept it that way, preventing the EPA from regulating. But it went nowhere in the Senate.
I can’t help but note that the US seems to shoot itself in the foot a lot.
It’s truly out of control—that is, corporations now truly act as though they are unconstrained by law or regulations—cf. the recent chemical spill in West Virginia. Rachel Aviv gives another vivid example in the New Yorker:
In 2001, seven years after joining the biology faculty of the University of California, Berkeley, Tyrone Hayes stopped talking about his research with people he didn’t trust. He instructed the students in his lab, where he was raising three thousand frogs, to hang up the phone if they heard a click, a signal that a third party might be on the line. Other scientists seemed to remember events differently, he noticed, so he started carrying an audio recorder to meetings. “The secret to a happy, successful life of paranoia,” he liked to say, “is to keep careful track of your persecutors.”
Three years earlier, Syngenta, one of the largest agribusinesses in the world, had asked Hayes to conduct experiments on the herbicide atrazine, which is applied to more than half the corn in the United States. Hayes was thirty-one, and he had already published twenty papers on the endocrinology of amphibians. David Wake, a professor in Hayes’s department, said that Hayes “may have had the greatest potential of anyone in the field.” But, when Hayes discovered that atrazine might impede the sexual development of frogs, his dealings with Syngenta became strained, and, in November, 2000, he ended his relationship with the company.
Hayes continued studying atrazine on his own, and soon he became convinced that Syngenta representatives were following him to conferences around the world. He worried that the company was orchestrating a campaign to destroy his reputation. He complained that whenever he gave public talks there was a stranger in the back of the room, taking notes. On a trip to Washington, D.C., in 2003, he stayed at a different hotel each night. He was still in touch with a few Syngenta scientists and, after noticing that they knew many details about his work and his schedule, he suspected that they were reading his e-mails. To confuse them, he asked a student to write misleading e-mails from his office computer while he was travelling. He sent backup copies of his data and notes to his parents in sealed boxes. In an e-mail to one Syngenta scientist, he wrote that he had “risked my reputation, my name . . . some say even my life, for what I thought (and now know) is right.” A few scientists had previously done experiments that anticipated Hayes’s work, but no one had observed such extreme effects. In another e-mail to Syngenta, he acknowledged that it might appear that he was suffering from a “Napoleon complex” or “delusions of grandeur.”
For years, despite his achievements, Hayes had felt like an interloper. In academic settings, it seemed to him that his colleagues were operating according to a frivolous code of manners: they spoke so formally, fashioning themselves as detached authorities, and rarely admitted what they didn’t know. He had grown up in Columbia, South Carolina, in a neighborhood where fewer than forty per cent of residents finish high school. Until sixth grade, when he was accepted into a program for the gifted, in a different neighborhood, he had never had a conversation with a white person his age. He and his friends used to tell one another how “white people do this, and white people do that,” pretending that they knew. After he switched schools and took advanced courses, the black kids made fun of him, saying, “Oh, he thinks he’s white.”
He was fascinated by the idea of metamorphosis, and spent much of his adolescence collecting tadpoles and frogs and crossbreeding different species of grasshoppers. He raised frog larvae on his parents’ front porch, and examined how lizards respond to changes in temperature (by using a blow-dryer) and light (by placing them in a doghouse). His father, a carpet layer, used to look at his experiments, shake his head, and say, “There’s a fine line between a genius and a fool.”
Hayes received a scholarship to Harvard, and, in 1985, began what he calls the worst four years of his life. Many of the other black students had gone to private schools and came from affluent families. He felt disconnected and ill-equipped—he was placed on academic probation—until he became close to a biology professor, who encouraged him to work in his lab. Five feet three and thin, Hayes distinguished himself by dressing flamboyantly, like Prince. The Harvard Crimson, in an article about a campus party, wrote that he looked as if he belonged in the “rock-’n’-ready atmosphere of New York’s Danceteria.” He thought about dropping out, but then he started dating a classmate, Katherine Kim, a Korean-American biology major from Kansas. He married her two days after he graduated.
They moved to Berkeley, where Hayes enrolled in the university’s program in integrative biology. He completed his Ph.D. in three and a half years, and was immediately hired by his department. “He was a force of nature—incredibly gifted and hardworking,” Paul Barber, a colleague who is now a professor at U.C.L.A., says. Hayes became one of only a few black tenured biology professors in the country. He won Berkeley’s highest award for teaching, and ran the most racially diverse lab in his department, attracting students who were the first in their families to go to college. Nigel Noriega, a former graduate student, said that the lab was a “comfort zone” for students who were “just suffocating at Berkeley,” because they felt alienated from academic culture.
Hayes had become accustomed to steady praise from his colleagues, but, when Syngenta cast doubt on his work, he became preoccupied by old anxieties. He believed that the company was trying to isolate him from other scientists and “play on my insecurities—the fear that I’m not good enough, that everyone thinks I’m a fraud,” he said. He told colleagues that he suspected that Syngenta held “focus groups” on how to mine his vulnerabilities. Roger Liu, who worked in Hayes’s lab for a decade, both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student, said, “In the beginning, I was really worried for his safety. But then I couldn’t tell where the reality ended and the exaggeration crept in.”
Liu and several other former students said that they had remained skeptical of Hayes’s accusations until last summer, when . . .
When crime rates began to drop across the U.S. during the 1990s, city officials and criminologists were thrilled—but baffled. Violent acts, most often committed by young adults, had reached an all-time high at the start of the decade, and there was no sign of a turnaround.
By the close of the ’90s, though, the homicide rate had declined more than 40% throughout the country. Economists and criminologists have since proposed reasons for the unexpected plummet. Some have pointed to an increase in police officers. Others have suggested a rise in the number of offenders put behind bars. Economist and “Freakonomics” coauthor Steven D. Levitt famously hypothesized that the legalization of abortion in 1973 even played a role. Once the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, he argued, fewer unwanted babies grew into disturbed, crime-prone adults two decades later.
But recently, experts have been kicking around another possible player in the crime drop of the ’90s: lead. Cars burning leaded gasoline spewed the heavy metal into the air until 1973, when the Environmental Protection Agencymandated the fuel’s gradual phaseout. Lead-based paint was banned from newly built homes in 1978. Because of these actions, children born in the mid- to late-1970s grew up with less lead in their bodies than children born earlier. As a result, economists argue, kids born in the ’70s reached adulthood in the ’90s with healthier brains and less of a penchant for violence.
Today, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention considers 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in a child’s blood to be abnormal. Studies have shown that people who grew up with blood-lead levels at or above this threshold are more likely to have impaired cognition than those who grew up with less lead in their blood. In 1976, the average U.S. resident had a blood-lead level of 16 µg/dL, according to the National Health & Nutrition Examination Survey. By 1991, when there was less lead in the air and in housing, the average had dropped to 3 µg/dL.
As the lead-crime hypothesis gains traction in economics circles, critics are invoking the “correlation does not equal causation” mantra. But scientists argue that there is evidence that lead exposure increases aggression in lab animals. And even though lead, one of the oldest known poisons, affects the brain in a dizzying number of ways, researchers are beginning to tease out some of the mechanisms by which it might trigger violence in humans.
During the 1960s, doctors couldn’t label a child as lead poisoned unless he or she had a blood-lead level of at least 60 µg/dL—CDC’s defined limit at the time. But researchers like University of Pittsburgh psychiatrist Herbert L. Needleman questioned the cut-off value. Surely if 60 µg/dL was toxic, 50 µg/dL couldn’t be completely harmless.
Needleman and others began observing “silent lead poisoning” in children with blood-lead levels below the established limit. Rather than overt physical symptoms like hallucinations and kidney damage, these kids had low IQ scores, attention problems, and antisocial tendencies. As more and more reports of these deficits filtered in, CDC lowered the blood-lead level it deemed acceptable for kids further and further: In 1970, the amount was 40 µg/dL, and by 1991, it was 10 µg/dL.
Some physicians noticed that children exposed to blood-lead levels below 50 µg/dL could also be aggressive or violent. In 1996, Needleman and his group followed up on these anecdotal observations by examining a few hundred 12-year-old boys in the Pittsburgh area. The researchers measured the amount of lead in the boys’ bones with X-ray fluorescence to get an idea of how much of the heavy metal their participants were exposed to during childhood. The boys rated worst by their parents and teachers in terms of aggressive and antisocial behaviors had been exposed to the highest levels of lead (J. Am. Med. Assoc. 1996, DOI:10.1001/jama.1996.03530290033034). . . .
Continue reading. Later in the article:
. . . Research has shown that lead exposure does indeed make lab animals—rodents, monkeys, even cats—more prone to aggression. But establishing biological plausibility for the lead-crime argument hasn’t been as clear-cut for molecular-level studies of the brain. Lead wreaks a lot of havoc on the central nervous system. So pinpointing one—or even a few—molecular switches by which the heavy metal turns on aggression has been challenging.
What scientists do know is that element 82 does most of its damage to the brain by mimicking calcium. Inside the brain, calcium runs the show: It triggers nerve firing by helping to release neurotransmitters, and it activates proteins important for brain development, memory formation, and learning. By pushing calcium out of these roles, lead can muck up brain cell communication and growth.
On the cell communication side of things, lead appears to interfere with a bunch of the neurotransmitters and neurotransmitter receptors in our brains. One of the systems that keeps popping up in exposure experiments is the dopamine system. It controls reward and impulse behavior, a big factor in aggression. Another is the glutamate system, responsible in part for learning and memory.
On the brain development side of things, lead interferes with, among other things, the process of synaptic pruning. Nerve cells grow and connect, sometimes forming 40,000 new junctions per second, until a baby reaches about two years of age. After that, the brain begins to prune back the myriad connections, called synapses, to make them more efficient. Lead disrupts this cleanup effort, leaving behind excess, poorly functioning nerve cells.
“If you have a brain that’s miswired, especially in areas involved in what psychologists call the executive functions—judgment, impulse control, anticipation of consequences—of course you might display aggressive behavior,” says Kim N. Dietrich, director of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine….“Overall, the evidence is sufficient that early exposure to lead triggers a higher risk for engaging in aggressive behavior,” says U of Cincinnati’s Dietrich. “The question now is, what is the lowest level of exposure where we might see this behavior?” . . .
Read this story—very creepy indeed.
The subhead to the article in The Scientist: “Researchers are now spotting fewer cases of imposex—in which female sea snails develop male sexual organs—as a result of a chemical ban instituted in 2008.” So: good news—at least, regarding that particular chemical.