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Posts tagged ‘toxic’

not plain or black and white

We just returned from spending several days in Pennsylvania, visiting family.  I love riding there – quiet empty roads, rolling hills, Amish farms, horse-drawn buggies sharing the road, and cooler temperatures.  And at the end of the ride, a slice of my mother in-law’s wonderful pie – usually apple or “Shoo-Fly”.

While I promised certain persons I would not go on some blog-based rant, I can’t help but feeling concerned about the explosion of natural gas wells that are mushrooming up across the landscape – including one that  sits in a corner of my in-laws’ property, a beautiful 20-acre wooded and pastured piece of land in NW Pennsylvania where they have lived most of their lives in their circa 1800’s farmhouse.

It feels like a new century Great Gold Rush is taking place.  If you own any property, an enticing lease will come in the mail with the offer of thousands of dollars per acre to lease the land and then provide an additional flow of royalty checks for coming years.

In an area that has seen the loss of industry and jobs over the past several decades, where unemployment is high and new industry is scarce, where the tax base has eroded, where municipal services struggle and schools have been closed and consolidated – players in the gas and oil companies are positioned to move in and bring jobs and an alluring cash infusion to struggling townships and boroughs.

Lucrative gas leases are the talk of the town and everyone seems to want to jump on board and cash in.  Landowner groups have formed to negotiate for the best possible price.  Shell and Chevron, among others, are ready to invest billions in petrochemical facilities.  The local papers are full of stories of not only the Marcellus Shale, but the Utica Shale, the Medina Sands … we’re sitting on a gold mine!

If you’ve spent the last twenty years struggling to make ends meet on your old family homestead, finding a check for tens of thousands of dollars in your mailbox can certainly feel like you just won the lottery.

I understand the needs, the draw.  And I support the prospect of clean domestically-sourced energy – if we can come by it safely and sustainably.  But the issues, as always, are not so black and white.  I know that everything comes with a cost … And looking at the construction of the well on my in-law’s land, and wells on nearly every property along their road and beyond,  I ask myself:  at what cost, this?

The immediate and contentious issue  is “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing – the process of drilling and injecting massive quantities of water combined with a toxic chemical “cocktail” (a proprietary recipe) deep into the ground to fracture the substrate along in order to release the trapped gas.  I won’t bother to  go into detail here, as the controversial issues – especially in regards to the eastern Marcellus Shale fracking – are all over the news and internet.  NPR recently did an excellent multi-part series about the issues at hand, called The Fracking Boom: Missing Anwers.  And of course there is the incredible award-winning documentary by Josh Fox called Gasland.

While I didn’t experiment and see if my inlaws’ water could be ignited and burst into flame coming out of their tap, I do know that their experience has not been without issues.  Recently, for instance, while they were out of town for several days, it was discovered that one of the pipes or fittings at the well had corroded to the point of failure, and that gas (and methane and probably heavy metals and proprietary chemicals) had been spewing into the air for an unknown amount of time.  My father-inlaw complained that “they must have used some really cheap pipe”.  I was thinking: you have no idea how corrosive the stuff coming out of that pipe really is –  (and you are probably breathing it, and possibly drinking it).

It bothers me – the possible (probable?) risks, borne from contaminated water and or air.  Multiply this by thousands – tens of thousands –  of virtually unmonitored well sites across huge swaths of land and cracked open beneath public water sources for millions, the unknown cumulative effect of widespread fracturing of the grounds below…  what will the cost be to public health and to the environment?

Extensive research on the effects has yet to be completed, the fracking cocktail recipes remain undisclosed to the public, and the big oil and gas players are moving as fast as they can with fists full of cash before time runs out and they face more stringent regulation.  Play now, pay later.  Only you know who will ultimately have to pay…

On the farms belonging to the Plain People, the Amish, I didn’t see a single gas well.  I saw their vegetable gardens, their windmills, their cabinet-making workshops.  We rode our bikes, they passed by us in their buggies.  I contemplate our progress.  And I don’t drink the water from my in-laws’ faucet.

#30daysofbiking Day23: river ride & Earth Day rant ~ Olin’s toxic fish

courtesy of Olin Chlor-Alkali, Charleston, TN - a reminder of what has NOT changed since Earth Day 1970

oblivious to the warnings, Brady, age 5: fishing for (toxic) bass with his Nana and Pa

Today is Earth Day.  Forgive me if I don’t feel like celebrating.  I might sound a little snarky, but I find too much of the current Earth Day celebrating to be nothing but a bunch of marketing hype, Earth Day-branded discounts, and various corporate greenwashing tactics – all aimed at wasteful consumerism.  “Go GREEN – buy this (useless-crap-you-don’t-need-that-will-end-up-in-the-landfill) and enter EARTH at checkout to receive your 15% Earth Day discount!” Throw in a few token speeches, a ceremonial planting of a tree, an elementary school poster contest, and you’ve got Earth Day 2010.

As the great Walter Cronkite reported on his CBS news special “Earth Day 1970’’, on April 22, 1970,  “The hoopla of (the first) Earth Day is over. The problems remain.’’

And so they do.

Today’s ride was to points along “our river” – the Hiwassee River that runs near our house.  The river that now, thanks to the wonderful folks at Olin Chlor-Alkali corporation, is so contaminated with their mercury discharge that the few remaining fish that survive outside of the “dead zones”, namely bass,  have been found to contain mercury levels 25% above EPA limits. The last documented EPA Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) indicated mercury discharge rates in tons – both airborne and “discharge to receiving streams and/or water bodies”.   The warning signs are posted at nearly every put-in and boat dock, yet I am continually stunned to see people fishing here – and keeping their catch.  Today was no exception.

Donnie and Vicky; this bass wasn't big enough to keep ... otherwise they keep and consume their catch, despite posted warnings

I stopped at the put-in closest to our house when I saw some people down fishing.  Decided to be brave and talk with them, to see if they would let me photograph them.  After their initial wariness, they were very friendly and obliging.  I asked them if they kept their catch – and they said they did.  I also asked if they were concerned at all about the posted warnings, or knew about the mercury issue.  I got an answer I had heard before, “Oh, we’ve been fishing here for a long time … ain’t never had any problems with it.”

further upriver, but just downstream from the Olin plant

further upriver

catching bass - upriver near the marina/boat ramp

catching bass - near the marina/boat dock just downstream from Olin

I stopped again near the boat ramp/marina – a location closer to the Olin plant and their discharge sites.  I’d been on the water just upstream from here near the plant (by boat) and you can visually see – in the water – a line of demarcation where there are “dead zones” from the pollutants.  Two gentlemen were out on the small dock fishing.  And catching a few bass.  I stopped and talked to them too.  They told me they kept what they caught, as well – “They’s some good eatin’!”  When I asked if they were concerned at all about the mercury discharge from Olin, one of them told me that he knew someone who worked there, and he knew it was “real bad” – but figured if the fish were out swimming, they were probably ok.

In both cases, I just didn’t know what to say?  “Are you out of your minds?!”  I couldn’t say anything, but just thanked them for letting me photograph.

Brady's dad ... taking his son out for an afternoon of (toxic) bass fishing

On my way back was probably the most disturbing encounter I had today.  It’s were I spotted the little boy, Brady (5 yrs old), out fishing with his dad near the bridge.  Again, I stopped, talked to them and asked if they would mind if I took a few pictures.  Sure, no problem.  This time, I only asked if they kept their catch.  They said yes.  It honestly nearly broke my heart.  How could they ignore the warnings? With no concern for possible cancer, reproductive, or brain development issues that can be caused by mercury consumption?  I had to leave.

I’ve had my rants about Olin in the past, and I will try not to repeat myself, but these are the facts:

  • Olin is on record, and has known of the impending need to convert their plant to mercury-free technology – yet has repeated chosen to ignore their responsibility, and they are now crying foul.  With the threat of pending legislation which would require them to convert their plant within 2 years, they are now attempting everything possible to stop passage of the bill.  And they are being facilitated by indulgent (and well-lobbied) politicians – namely Senator Bob Corker (R) and Representative Zach Wamp (R).
  • Olin has successfully converted other plants – including McIntosh, AL, Niagra Falls, NY, and St. Gabriel, LA – and yet continue their exuse-making when it comes to the Charleston, TN, plant.  Because they have been allowed to get away with it.  Because they know the political will to protect the health and well-being of the river and local citizenry doesn’t exist – it is the hallmark of every environmental disaster brought about by abusive corporations and the political power they purchase. Coupled with the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to overturn restrictions on corporate spending in elections, it can only get worse.
  • Olin bases their refusal to convert the Charleston plant on expense and jobs “lost” – which they know is complete fiction.  Over 100 other plants have demonstrated that the conversion to mercury-free technology can be completed within 18-24 months, with minimal production downtime.  The converted plants not only provide safer working environments for their employees and surrounding residents/neighborhoods, but also save energy and increase production capacity.  A similar conversion by PPG provided jobs for over 250 additional workers.  Olin, your excuses just don’t fly!

  • Olin continues to claim that conversion of the plant is “economically unfeasible” … So can they please explain to me how they can justify their recent disclosure of obscene executive pay increases?  Joseph Rupp, Chairman/President/CEO of Olin Corp. received 14% pay raise, awarding him annual salary of 5.7 million dollars. John McIntosh, President of the Chlor Alkalai received 12% pay raise, bringing his annual salary to $1.4 million.  Please explain to me how a plant conversion is “economically unfeasible” when contrasted with your executive compensation?

So, it’s Earth Day.  And Walter Cronkite was quite the visionary.  The problems remain.  The Mercury Pollution Reduction Act appears to be stalled in the federal bureaucratic black hole.  The mercury dumping continues.  A little boy is eating toxic fish.  The problems remain.

What could I say to him?