I guess it was 15 years ago, pretty much on the dot, that a group of Twin Cities environmentalists came to see me at the Strib editorial board bearing a fruit jar of water, pebbles and — they said — crude oil from the Exxon Valdez.
You couldn’t see the oil, exactly. But you sure could smell it.
The occasion was the 10th anniversary of the tanker’s catastrophic grounding and the news that March was dominated by coverage of the decade’ s massive cleanup efforts, with a focus on how much better things were all over Prince William Sound, generally speaking, although some problems persisted, etc., etc.
My visitors had come to make the counterpoint — underscored by the jar that sat uncapped and fragrant on the conference table — that the successes were all superficial. The real problems, they insisted, continued just below the tidied surfaces. Sometimes just inches below, where this particular sample had recently been gathered.
Being new to environmental subjects, and inclined by newspaper service toward a certain alertness for gimmicks, I silently wondered: How do I know this really came from Cordova? How, for that matter, do they?
Now we are at the 25th anniversary of what was then the largest oil spill in U.S. history, although it holds that rank no longer. Further experience has unburdened this journalist and many others of much skepticism about the persistent impacts and possibly permanent harm that flowed from the Valdez’s ruptured hull on March 24, 1989.
Oil persists everywhere
And the fruit-jar demonstration for reporters remains popular. From a National Public Radio feature about Cordova’s 25-year struggle to survive the loss of its fisheries, its economic base and very nearly, at times, its will to endure:
Dave Janka captains the Auklet, a 58-foot wooden boat he uses for private charters. Most of his clients are scientists studying the oil spill’s impact. Along the way, Janka has collected his own samples.
He opens a jar labeled “February 19, 2014.” Janka collected the dark black oily-water mixture from Eleanor Island in Prince William Sound, digging down about 6 inches beneath the rocky shoreline. It smells like your hand after pumping gas at a service station.
“Looks like oil, smells like oil. It’s oil,” Janka says. “If you or I, in our backyard or at our mom and pop gas station, had a fuel tank leak, we would be held to the point of bankruptcy to clean that up.”
Bankruptcy is a fate that has been visited on more than a few Cordova households and businesses afflicted by the disaster but not, of course, on the company responsible for their misery. Exxon Mobil is mostly off the hook, though continuing cleanup needs are such that, according to the Anchorage Daily News,
The federal and state governments are still weighing the science of the spill’s effects and deciding whether to seek more money from Exxon Mobil for cleaning up remaining oil.
If there is evidence the spill is causing unexpected, continuing damage, the company could be forced to pay up to $100 million on top of the $900 million civil settlement that Exxon paid in 1991. The case lives on in the courts.
For perspective and fairness, I will point out this billion bucks is only a portion of Exxon Mobil’s total outlays for cleanup, out-of-court settlements and various other fines and penalties, which add to well over $4 billion.
Also, that Exxon Mobil spokesmen say the company learned valuable lessons from the Valdez disaster (which may be true), and that “The sound is thriving environmentally and we’ve had a very solid, complete recovery” (which is sheer snake oil).
Some species recover, others don’t
Here’s a summary of pluses and minuses for some of the marquee species in Prince William Sound:
Pink salmon and sockeye salmon are considered to have recovered, as have black cod. Herring, however, remain in bad shape, and this is bad news for the commercial fishing sector that was Cordova’s economic mainstay, because the spring herring catch filled in between the other important seasons.
The herring problem is also bad news for the overall ecosystem of Prince William Sound, because herring were an important food source for birds, other fish, and killer whales. One group of orcas is struggling back toward stability, another is expected to go extinct.
Sea otters have struggled to hold on, their greatly diminished numbers bumping along with little change until fairly recently, and though the recent populations have shown both ups and downs, federal officials announced a few weeks ago that their numbers had reached pre-spill numbers for the first time in 25 years. Cross your fingers.
For scientists studying the Valdez’s impacts, writes Elizabeth Shogren, also at NPR, there have been major revelations below the surface, from endeavors she likens to an autopsy that takes a quarter-century to complete:
When the tanker leaked millions of gallons of the Alaskan coast, scientists predicted major environmental damage, but they expected those effects to be short lived. Instead, they’ve stretched out for many years.
What researchers learned as they puzzled through the reasons for the delayed recovery fundamentally changed the way scientists view oil spills. One of their most surprising discoveries was that long-lasting components of oil thought to be benign turned out to cause chronic damage to fish hearts when fish were exposed to tiny concentrations of the compounds as embryos. …
Scientists had traditionally believed that oil basically had to cover an animal or embryo to hurt it. But the evidence they saw in Alaska suggested it didn’t take much oil to do a lot of damage. And that damage could manifest in different ways.
For example, oil under rocks and in sediments contaminated clams that sea otters ate. It didn’t kill the otters outright: Wildlife biologist Dan Esler of the U.S. Geological Survey says it shortened otters’ lives and suppressed the population for 20 years.
Social costs of destruction
Many who have followed the Valdez story will remember the early human misery, including the divisions between residents who got payouts from Exxon Mobil and those who did not; the mysterious illnesses that seemed to be related to chemical exposure from the spilled oil or the dispersants used to break it up; the suicide of a Cordova mayor.
That suffering continues, too, in different forms and at different levels. An interesting piece at phys.org focused on research by the University of Colorado’s Liesel Ritchie, who has been part of a 24-year-long (and counting) longitudinal study of “serious community conflict and mental health issues” in Cordova.
“What has fostered so much stress and anxiety in the community as a whole is different science says different things,” she said. “For example, Exxon scientists say everything is fine, that the impacts were minimal to begin with and that they subsided very quickly. Then other scientists who are not being paid by Exxon have other findings. What we’re talking about here at that level then is contested science which tends to cause uncertainty and stress in populations that are receiving this information and not knowing entirely how to interpret that.”
Even with a smaller than expected settlement, Ritchie says the people of Cordova appear to be moving on and doing their best to revive their fishing economy. However, she says, they have a long way to go. Before the spill Cordova consistently ranked in the top 10 most profitable U.S. seafood ports. A quarter century later, it’s not even in the top 25.
The most recent data, she said, show the first decline in community stress levels since the spill.
As a result of the Valdez grounding, Congress finally required tankers operating in U.S. waters to be of double-hull design, and federal and state regulations on tanker traffic in Prince William Sound and some other places were tightened, especially in regard to emergency preparedness.
A good look at some significant gains and serious continuing deficits can be found in the Homer Tribune, which noted that whatever preparations are made, ” the best plans can be challenged by weather. A drill last fall proved that when spill response efforts were entirely thwarted by a storm.”
“They couldn’t respond at all,” said Lisa Matlock, the council’s outreach coordinator. “It was one of those real-world experiences. From doing those real-world drills, we get better planning put in place.”
While the regional citizens advisory council set up in Prince William Sound has helped protect that 15,000 square mile body of water, other areas of the state, such as the Aleutian Islands, the Arctic and even Cook Inlet, which has an advisory council, are significantly less protected, many say. In those regions, if a tanker runs aground, rescue equipment can be hours or days away, and limited to what is available regionally.
Not all people who live Outside would necessarily know that Cook Inlet’s shoreline includes Anchorage.
Broken faith in justice
As I read about Alaskans’ broken faith with Big Oil, government regulation and especially the American court system, I was struck particularly by this comment from Jim Kallander, a fisherman and former Cordova mayor who watched Exxon Mobil fight successfully to have its penalties reduced in a 19-year series of appeals that reached finally to victory before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“All my life, I’d been brought up to think that, you know, you get to the Supreme Court and everything is made right. People are made whole. Issues are corrected. And I’m still disappointed. I’ll never get over it.”
Also, by the comments of Rick Steiner, an Alaskan professor of marine conservation who has studied the spill’s impacts for 25 years and does his own version of the fruit-jar trick with a pocket-size jar of oily stones he carries around. From Al-Jazeera America:
“This is beach gravel from Eleanor Island,” Steiner said, pointing out to Prince William Sound. ”It’s covered in oil from the Exxon Valdez, 25 years on, and I didn’t have to dig very deep to find it. I dug it up earlier this year.
… ”We can do better at reducing the risk. But once oil has spilled, you cannot clean it up, you cannot restore an oil-injured ecosystem and you can’t adequately rebuild human communities that are unravelled by these big industrial disasters.
“Some of these injuries persist. And industry rhetoric aside, we know these disasters do cause long-term, permanent environmental damage. And that’s one of the take-home lessons from Exxon Valdez a quarter of a century later: Once it happens, it’s never over.”
I suppose Minnesotans reading about Cordova’s plight and the hobbled ecosystem of Prince William Sound can be glad once again that we’re not an oil-producing state.
But we have our share of pipelines, and our share of risk in their probable future expansion, and in the expansion of terminals in the port of Superior, just across the bay from Duluth, to handle the rising flow of Canadian tar-sands oil.
Then there are the copper-nickel mines proposed at the edge of the Boundary Waters, whose champions assure us that new technologies guarantee that mining can be done right, that state regulation can ensure the natural environment is protected, that regulators and courts would insist that any accidental damage is mitigated and the responsible parties brought to account, that some kind of bond or insurance or trust fund will pay for whatever could possibly go wrong for centuries into the future.
Surely we can trust those official assurances. Can’t we?
Sophomore Jasmine Ruddy is from Morehead City, one of many coastal communities that could be directly affected by a bill to fast-track hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in North Carolina.
“That makes me really nervous for the health of my family who is still living there and drinks the tap water every day,” said Ruddy, an environmental health sciences major and a member of UNC’s environmental affairs committee of student government.
Fracking retrieves natural gas by pumping a mixture of water and chemicals into shale rock formations.
Proponents of the process say it taps into an otherwise inaccessible energy source that could reduce oil dependency.
But critics of the bill claim fracking uses too much water and could pollute drinking sources, especially in coastal areas suitable for waste deposits.
The bill, which passed the N.C. Senate and is currently in a House committee, would lift a ban on depositing industrial waste in deep wells and permit fracking starting in March 2015.
Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, said the state should establish more regulations before fracking begins.
“That’s not to say that I am totally opposed to fracking,” he said. “It’s just to say we should take a go-slow approach.”
McGrady said there are still unanswered questions about how to safely dispose of the chemical waste.
An April 2012 report by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources found that fracking can be done safely with more research and the proper regulations.
Richard Whisnant, UNC School of Government professor and former environmental lawyer, said many legislators and residents do not understand the complications of regulating a new industry.
“We can’t cut and paste regulations from other states,” he said. “The state ought to take whatever measures it can take to put a good regulatory structure in place.”
He said the process should not be rushed.
“I don’t see that the resource itself is going anywhere,” he said.
But Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, a member of the House environment committee, said fracking should not be attempted in the state.
“I don’t have a lot of confidence that we’re going to be able to establish a safe structure for fracking,” she said.
She said if the deep well ban is lifted, the chemical waste from fracking could imperil drinking sources.
“It can be a real problem for public health issues,” she said. “We ended that practice 40 years ago because we knew once you put poison in the aquifers you’re never getting that back.”
Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said fracking would create only short-term positions for N.C. residents.
Most long-term jobs would remain with out-of-state companies, she said.
She said depositing waste on the coast could slow tourism.
“There’s a danger of people thinking they’re coming to a place that’s polluted,” she said.
Contact the desk editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An oil platform explosion and fire today near the site of the nation’s greatest offshore oil spill in history—BP’s Deepwater Horizon—sent shivers up the spines of many Gulf residents as the U.S. Coast Guard reported that 11 crewmembers were flown to area hospitals and two crewmembers were still missing as of Friday evening. News reports said four workers were critically injured with burns.
A Coast Guard spokesman said the oil and gas platform was 20 miles southeast of Grand Isle, LA, and was owned by Black Elk Energy, a fast-growing oil and gas drilling operation based in Houston. News reports stated the oil platform was not actively producing oil and that a welder involved in a maintenance operation may have caused the accident. Although there were reports of an oil sheen near the platform, there were no reports of a major oil leak.
NRDC President Frances Beinecke, a member of the presidential national oil commission that investigated the BP oil disaster, issued this statement:
“Though the BP criminal case is settled, today’s accident makes clear that the hazards of oil and gas drilling are not in America’s rear view. It is a sad reminder that offshore drilling is an inherently dangerous business. Workers and communities are put in harm’s way every day and will continue to be as long as we prioritize this risky energy development. Our leaders must keep that squarely in mind when considering where and how to allow further drilling along our coasts and in our communities.”
The Black Elk Energy accident came the day after the U.S. Justice Department announced a criminal settlement with BP involving a record-setting $4.5 billion in fines, indicting three company officials on criminal charges. Civil penalties against BP are still pending.
Many people in the Gulf are still recovering from the BP oil disaster that residents say continues to impact their fisheries and beaches more than two years later. Grand Isle mayor David Camardelle, whose community has been one of the hardest hit by the oil disaster, said he was saddened to learn of the latest offshore oil rig fire and injuries to workers. “It’s a tragic accident and my sympathies go out to the families of the workers who were impacted. But thankfully it appears this is not another BP disaster.”
Tar balls found on Grand Isle, LA, this month Photo: Mac MacKenzie
Camardelle said his community still has oil and tar balls on its beaches after storms, especially after Hurricane Isaac hit their area last August. And he said many fishermen are suffering from reduced catches and have not been adequately compensated by BP for their losses. “We feel like we’re forgotten sometimes,” he said. “We can put robots on Mars, but we can’t tell how much BP oil is still out in the Gulf. Something’s wrong with that.”
Kindra Arnesen, wife of a fisherman in Buras, LA, said she too was saddened by the accident, which she says hits close to home since so many of her friends and neighbors work in the oil industry. “My heart goes out to those families,” she said. “This may have been a fluke accident, but it makes me wonder, what really has changed in the oil industry since the BP explosion? We’re still using the same blowout preventers, so it seems like we should be doing something better.”
That point was made in a blog this summer by NRDC’s David Pettit, part of a coalition of conservation groups that filed a lawsuit to push for greater drilling safety in the Gulf. He reminded people that many questions raised by the presidential commission still remain unanswered:
Their investigation uncovered serious flaws in oil industry and regulatory practices. These accidents-waiting-to-happen remain unaddressed, with the Gulf’s battered ecosystems and vital billion-dollar tourism and fisheries hanging in the balance. If drilling is to continue, more must be done to improve drilling safety and safeguard our natural resources. The largest oil spill in America’s history should have been a wakeup call. If we refuse to learn from that mistake, it will become a recurring nightmare instead.
That’s a nightmare no one wants to live through again.
By: Laurie Wiegler
As Isaac develops into a hurricane today, many are thinking not only of themselves but of their pets and of the wildlife and marine life that grace the Gulf of Mexico region.
In anticipation of the hurricane, Examiner tapped an expert to talk about these matters, Peter Tuttle, a Contaminants Specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Deepwater Horizon NRDA (Natural Resource Damage Assessment) Office in Daphne, Ala.
Following is the transcript of that e-mail conversation from today:
Examiner: Isaac could hit areas greatly impacted by the 2010 BP oil spill. What do you know about wildlife and marine life still in these areas, and which would be hardest hit?
The Gulf Coast supports a rich diversity of fish and wildlife and a variety of species occur in areas potentially impacted by the storm. On a positive note, bird nesting season is largely complete and many of the bird species that winter on the Gulf Coast have not yet arrived in the area. On the negative side, loggerhead sea turtle nesting season is in full swing, and many nests are at risk of flooding.
Examiner: Do animals and fish naturally have a sense to swim away from hurricanes? Can they get away fast enough?
Hurricanes are naturally-occurring events on the Gulf Coast. The plant and animal species that occur on the Gulf Coast have adapted to these periodic disturbances. As strong storm systems move in, there are shifts in water levels, temperature, and air pressure. Animals are sensitive to these quick shifts in conditions. Animals respond and seek refuge, whether it be thicker cover, higher ground, or deeper water.
Examiner: As horrific as a hurricane is for man, is there an upside at all when we think of the Gulf of Mexico? Could Isaac actually flush out some of the oil and contaminants (Corexit) still left in gulf? Is this just too simplistic?
The fate of much of the oil released in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill remains uncertain. Oil remains in some coastal marshes and submerged oil mats remain in some offshore areas. As such, hurricanes and tropical storms pose a risk of remobilizing this oil and causing recontamination in coastal areas.
Examiner: Are you seeing any improvement in the numbers of fish and wildlife in the Gulf? How, for example, is the brown pelican population doing? Are babies born to oil-spill-affected mothers surviving? What about egrets? Other birds and fish?
State and Federal Natural Resource Trustees are continuing to collect and evaluate information on the effects of the oil spill to fish and wildlife in the Gulf. In some cases, affected species appear to be recovering, while in other cases there is cause for continuing concern. The full impact of the spill on the survival and reproduction of fish and wildlife resources may not be understood for some time.
To read about the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries closures due to Isaac, please click here.
Read more about Laurie Wiegler here: http://www.lauriewiegler.com
With the Department of the Interior considering whether to grant Shell permits to drill in America’s Arctic Ocean, and Shell scrambling to get started amid a flurry of problems, a new NRDC report details the huge risks that come with the rush toward oil and gas development off of Alaska’s North Slope.
The findings are eye-opening for anybody who has listened to Big Oil’s laissez-faire approach to drilling in one of the world’s last truly pristine and wild places.
The author of the report is Jeff Goodyear, Ph.D., an accomplished oceanographer and marine ecologist with over twenty-five years of experience contributing to new scientific discoveries, who has led field research projects in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic. This report combines his expertise with interviews of local residents, scientists and officials. To read the full report, click here. Some highlights:
- Alaska’s North Slope lacks the infrastructure to support any significant spill cleanup. Essentially, there are no roads, few airports, no deep-water ports and the nearest Coast Guard base is 1,000 miles away.
- The likelihood of spills in the Arctic is high – too high. In fact, the report shows, on average there has been a spill of oil or associated chemicals once a day since oil and gas development began on the North Slope.
- Shell’s claims about its capabilities to clean up an oil spill in icy water are overblown. Traditional means of recovery and clean up—booms and skimmers, in-situ burning, and chemical dispersants—have each been shown to be dramatically less effective in conditions typical of the Arctic than in calmer, warmer waters such as those in the Gulf of Mexico. Given these factors, effectively responding to an oil spill would be nearly impossible.
The release of this report could not be more timely—the final drill permits have not yet been issued and last week Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced he would “hold [Shell’s] feet to the fire in terms of making sure that we are doing everything we can to abide by the standards and regulations that we have set and make sure the environment in the Arctic seas are protected.”
Peter E. Slaiby, Shell’s vice president in charge of Alaskan operations, responded, “We absolutely expect to drill this year.” Shell is chomping at the bit to begin drilling in the final weeks of the already short window of relief from ocean ice. However, the Arctic Challenger, a major component of Shell’s oil spill response plan, is undergoing a major retrofit in a shipyard near Seattle and is not yet certified by the Coast Guard. Raising additional concerns over Shell’s preparedness to safely and responsibly operate in the harsh, unpredictable conditions of the Arctic Ocean is the incident last month when the Noble Discoverer (a 1960’s log ship converted into a drill ship in the 1970’s) slipped anchor while in harbor.
Shell is acting as if drilling this summer is a done deal, as if final approval has been granted. It has not. And Shell is not ready to begin drilling in Arctic waters. The administration must absolutely hold Shell to its commitments. Secretary Salazar must stand by his words, “It’s a necessity for Shell to be able to demonstrate that they have met regulatory requirements…if they are not met, there won’t be Shell exploration efforts that will occur this year.”
America’s Arctic Ocean is too precious to wager on hasty oil and gas development. The risks involved, as the report shows, warrant postponing offshore drilling in the Arctic until comprehensive research can be completed and a proven and thoroughly effective system for responding to spills is in place.
The administration needs to hold Shell’s feet to the fire.
Clint Kincaid aided Chuck Clusen with this post.
While everyone is holding their collective breath, hoping that future developments do not worsen regarding the news that an Exxon pipeline carrying oil crude broke in the middle of the Yellowstone River outside of Billings Montana releasing thousands of gallons of crude into the river, industry’s record for safeguarding oil and gas pipelines in the state of Montana – and Exxon specifically – is dismal.
While we cannot predict what will happen in the near future, if other Big Oil disasters are any evidence, we can probably foresee in the next few hours and days that Exxon will pull out an all too familiar public relations playbook to avoid further scrutiny of their actions in order to avoid full culpability:
One, Exxon will claim that the immediate disaster is over and the natural resource damage and impacts to human health are minimal. They will also likely underreport, or deemphasize the amount of oil actually spilled. A day into the disaster, Exxon has already begun to do this. Exxon spokesman have said that the spill has been fairly well contained and that there is “very little soiling” of stream banks beyond 10-miles. Given that no one has been able to actually inspect the ruptured pipeline, since its submerged at the bottom of a raging free-flowing river that is two-feet above flood stage, one wonders how Exxon can claim so soon that everything is now abated and the damage is negligible.
Two, Exxon will pledge that they will fully clean and repair the damaged resources. Again, Exxon is saying as much in a statement today, “We will stay with the cleanup until it is complete…” Even if this is the case and Exxon is fully committed to cleanup, we know that their version of what is cleaned is not the same as others – see Prince William Sound. Exposure to oil, especially to aquatic life, is devastating and long-lasting (see NRDC’s Matthew Skoglund and his recent posting on the importance of the Yellowstone River’s fishery for the region and beyond).
Three, Exxon will claim that safety is their number one priority. Predictably, Exxon has said as much in the last 24-hours, that the pipeline was inspected six months ago and met “all regulatory requirements.” Given their emphasis on oversized profits, I would go back to the previous exhibit, which speaks to Exxon’s thought process leading it to site an oil pipeline in one the most scenic, ecologically critical, and longest undammed river in the contiguous United States.
Four, Exxon will probably maintain that this was a freak accident and could not have been foretold or prevented. A full airing of Exxon’s record will show that this is simply not the case. One only has to look at how it has maintained (or not) their Yellowstone Pipeline. The Yellowstone Pipeline is a 550-mile pipeline that originates from the refineries in Billings, MT, makings its way westward to deliver petroleum products to Idaho and the state of Washington (the Yellowstone Pipeline and the Silvertip crude pipeline that failed this week, are nominally part of a larger system that Exxon oversees). The pipeline was sited in some of the most rugged country to be found in this nation. But rather than respecting the fact that the Yellowstone Pipeline was situated in such a harsh environment, Exxon and Conoco who co-managed the pipeline, failed often to maintain it satisfactorily. In its 55-plus year history, it has leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum into Montana’s rivers and lands.
Most famously, Exxon and Conoco in the mid 1990’s realized that a right-of-way for the Yellowstone Pipeline that went through the middle of the sovereign Flathead Indian Reservation, was soon to expire and had to be renewed with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes who controlled the lease. Problem was the pipeline had spilled at least 71 times on the 1.2 million acre reservation, contaminating tribal fishing and hunting grounds. When it came time to renew, the tribal members had only recently witnessed a spill with the pipeline that resulted in a whopping 163,000 gallons leaking into a reservation creek.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, were to say the least, reticent to renew the lease given the damage that Exxon and company had caused. In this milieu, the Yellowstone Pipeline management went to the extraordinary measures to apologize to tribal members by posting a full-page advertisement in the tribal newspaper saying, “We’ve done serious damage to the land’ ‘For this we are truly sorry ‘ We’re asking for a chance to do things right.” And while Exxon and Conoco approved the ad, they did not notice the howling coyote that was seemingly inserted by the paper’s staff within the oil company’s advertisement. As High Country News reported at the time, “Tribal members must have noticed: Coyote is known as a trickster in many tribal legends, one who can’t always be trusted.” With that, the tribal members rejected the renewal of the lease, and turned away from millions of dollars from Exxon; possibly realizing that millions in dollars cannot compensate for the loss of irreplaceable natural resources.
Which brings me back to Claim #4 in trying to pawn this accident as a freak occurence, Exxon can commit all they want to cleaning up the damage – as they should – but we should question the accidental nature of these incidents. As history has shown, Exxon has often chosen a path that allows for spills, and the environment and human health are often the losers. The Yellowstone spill might actually be a rare accident – if and when all the facts come to light – but this only proves that stronger enforcement and accountability for current pipelines are an absolute must.
Note: this is not the only insult to Montana’s environment that is happening under Exxon’s watch. Exxon also plans to turn the scenic highways of Montana into an industrial superhighway to serve tar sands extraction in Canada by sending hundreds of “megaload” shipments through the state’s scenic highways. For more information see: Exxon Solves Their Megaload Problem - By Cutting the Trees to Shreds
After seeing the news footage of the earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that slammed into Japan in March and hearing about the Fukushima nuclear power plant explosion, I thought I wouldn’t be making a return trip to the country anytime soon.
I traveled to Japan in December, and I couldn’t wait to go back. Seeing news accounts of the destruction and devastation of so many of its people was heartbreaking, and I presumed the country as a whole was no longer a desirable destination or a safe place to travel.
I was fortunate enough, however, to have been able to take another trip to Japan, where I’ve found that presumption to be untrue. Tokyo and other large metropolitan areas are bustling as usual. Radiation levels in most of the country are back to normal, except in areas surrounding the Fukushima power plant. Most of the food and water is safe to consume.
If I were to confine myself to Tokyo or many other cities here, I would never know an earthquake or tsunami had struck the country. I might convince myself that it never happened, as the pictures and other news footage seemed so unreal to begin with.
Unfortunately, denial was not in the cards on this trip. The purpose of traveling here with my significant other was to oversee the installation of temporary housing units for earthquake and tsunami victims.
His company, CTSS Group, has begun to ship these small but functional units to earthquake- and tsunami-ravaged villages to help people begin to live independently again, rather than in classrooms or gymnasiums.
The three-month anniversary of the disaster passed a few days ago, and by the looks of things on the coast, little progress has been made in the affected region.
Some roads have been rebuilt and some debris has been sorted, but the scale of the storm-related damage is unfathomable and the government has released little or no funding for relief efforts. The turmoil in the inhabitants’ lives continues.
While visiting the affected areas, all of your senses are thrown for a loop. The sight of the destruction is unimaginable. Many towns are deserted, so the silence is eerie. The pungent odor is what I imagine the beach would smell like in hell.
The winding drive along the coast, with views of green mountains and calm blue water, prompts you to stop and ponder how nature can be so beautiful, yet so incredibly deadly.
In one of the small towns we visited Saturday, we met the mayor, who now lives with his family in a nearby shelter. All 28 families in the town lost their houses, but they all survived. They had prepared for an evacuation and had fled to the hills before the tsunami hit.
The mayor came to watch the few new temporary housing units being set up amid the debris of the destroyed houses. His house once sat by the water but had been pushed hundreds of yards inland. As he knelt down by the roof of his home, I watched and wondered what he was thinking.
Was he dreaming of his new life or mourning the loss of what once was? Either way, when I saw him gazing out over the ocean with the slightest gleam in his eye, I sensed he had hope for the future of his town.
As will many other towns in the United States that recently have been hit by storms, these small coastal villages will take years to recover. Still, I admire people who are so loyal to their hometowns and refuse to let Mother Nature deter them from calling a certain place home.
I can’t say that I’d definitely stay in Sewickley if such a catastrophe destroyed everything I once knew. I do hope that, like that mayor, I would look at my disaster-ridden community and believe that things eventually would be OK.
The author is currently visiting parts of Japan, including Sendai, which was destroyed by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
Commentary by Steven Hoffman
As the crippled reactors in Japan continue to emit radiation into the environment, the risk grows that it will appear in our food. Radiation has already been detected in trace amounts in milk across the U.S., and in strawberries, kale and other vegetables in California.
“The Swiss government Wednesday decided to exit nuclear energy, phasing out the country’s existing nuclear plants and seeking alternative energy sources to meet Switzerland’s energy needs, following widespread security concerns in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.” – Dow Jones, May 25, 2011
“We believe we can show those countries who decide to abandon nuclear power—or not start using it—how it is possible to achieve growth, creating jobs and economic prosperity while shifting the energy supply toward renewable energies.” – Chancellor Angela Merkel when announcing on May 30 that Germany would abandon nuclear power by 2022.
Nuclear energy is clean…until it isn’t.
The emerging reality of the ongoing nuclear reactor crisis in Fukushima, Japan—now in its third month after a devastating earthquake and tsunami caused nuclear explosions at the plant 150 miles north of Tokyo—is that it is not under control at all. Three of the six reactors are in meltdown. The crippled reactors are acting like a huge dirty bomb, emitting significant quantities of radioactive isotopes that are, in fact, contaminating our air, water, soil and food in a steady stream that may continue for a long time.
And it’s not just affecting Japan, though they’re certainly getting the worst of it. Since the accident on March 12, radioactive fallout from Fukushima has been spreading to the U.S. and across the northern hemisphere. Elevated levels of radiation caused by the meltdowns in Japan have been detected in drinking water across the country, in rainwater, in soil, and in food grown on U.S. farms.
The mainstream media is not really reporting on this. Since the initial weeks of the accident, there has been a disturbing silence. Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the utility that owns and operates the reactors, and the government of Japan have handled public relations around this monumental disaster about as well as BP handled the Gulf oil spill last summer, and they are losing credibility fast. The radiation has leaked much faster than TEPCO’s disclosure of information related to the crisis; it’s only now that we know that three of the six reactors at the plant are in full meltdown. One of the meltdowns occurred within hours of the accident on March 12, but was not revealed until May 15, more than two months later.
Crisis, What Crisis?
In announcing the news, TEPCO admitted that it did not want the public to know the extent of the accident early on to avoid panic. They continue to downplay the time it will take to get the reactors under control and the threat this unprecedented crisis presents to our food, health and environment. While TEPCO has given a time estimate of six to nine months to control the reactors, on May 29 a senior TEPCO official admitted that it may be impossible to stabilize the crippled plant by the beginning of 2012. One U.S. official, John Kelly, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear reactor technologies at the U.S. Energy Department, told the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in late May that the Fukushima reactors are still in grave danger and may continue to vent radioactive steam for a year or more, according to the Washington Post.
With the reactors in meltdown, TEPCO employees are racing to avoid a potential “China Syndrome” as superhot nuclear fuel melts down through holes burned into the steel and concrete containment vessels into the earth, thus liberating it into the environment.
Additionally, highly toxic radioactive iodine, cesium, strontium, plutonium and other toxic man-made radionuclides have leaked unabated since March 12 into the ocean and atmosphere. The radiation is contaminating large areas of Japan. Monitoring the ocean around the Fukushima plant, Greenpeace reported on May 26 that the contamination is spreading over a wide area and accumulating in sea life, rather than simply dispersing like the Japanese authorities claimed would happen.
Also, radiation continues to blow in a steady stream across the Pacific Ocean toward North America, following the course of the jet stream in the atmosphere, and major currents in the ocean that flow from Japan to America. It took less than a month for radioactive iodine and cesium from the Fukushima nuclear accident to first show up in U.S. milk, and it continues to be detected in trace amounts in milk produced in California, one of the only states conducting any kind of testing for radiation in food.
More on nuclear power:
- No more nuclear power for Switzerland
- Germany also says nein to nuclear power
- After Fukushima, Japan says no more nukes
- Japan nuclear mess: They really have no idea
- Japan melts down, Europe backs off, but US says “Full speed ahead”
- After Japan quake, new questions about nuclear power
- After the Gulf Oil Disaster You Should be Asking: How Much Safer is the Nuclear Industry?
- TED Talk: Pro vs Con on Nuclear Energy
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Tokyo- (PanOrient News) Greenpeace today slammed the Japanese authorities’”continued inadequate response” to the Fukushima nuclear crisis, after new data from its radiation monitoring showed seaweed radiation levels 50 times higher than official limits, raising serious concerns about continued long-term risks to people and the environment from contaminated seawater.
In a statement issued today, Greenpeace said that earlier this month, its radiation monitoring teams on shore, and on board the international environmental organisation’s flagship Rainbow Warrior, collected samples of marine life including fish, shellfish and seaweed outside Japan’s 12-mile territorial waters and along the Fukushima coast. Detailed analysis by accredited laboratories in France (ACRO) and Belgium (SCK CEN) found high levels of radioactive iodine contamination and significantly high levels of radioactive caesium in the samples.
In contrast, Japanese authorities claim that radioactivity is being dispersed or diluted and are undertaking only limited marine radiation monitoring. Path of radioactive water leak at Japan plant unclear, and “radioactivity is quickly diluted in the ocean, and the dump should not affect the safety of seafood in the area,” according to the Japanese government.
“Our data show that significant amounts of contamination continue to spread over great distances from the Fukushima nuclear plant”, said Jan Vande Putte, Greenpeace Radiation Expert. “Despite what the authorities are claiming, radioactive hazards are not decreasing through dilution or dispersion of materials, but the radioactivity is instead accumulating in marine life. The concentration of radioactive iodine we found in seaweed is particularly concerning, as it tells us how far contamination is spreading along the coast, and because several species of seaweed are widely eaten in Japan.
“Japan’s government is mistaken in assuming that an absence of data means there is no problem. This complacency must end now, and instead mount a comprehensive and continuous monitoring program of the marine environment along the Fukushima coast, along with full disclosure of all information about both past and ongoing releases of contaminated water.”
Most fish and shellfish sampled by Greenpeace were found to contain levels of radioactivity above legal limits for food contamination. This is just one of the multiple, chronic sources of radiation exposure to people living in the greater Fukushima area. In April, the authorities raised regulatory limits for levels of radiation exposure twentyfold to 20 milliSievert per year for all people – including children.
Greenpeace has criticised this controversial revision of regulatory standards, saying it only accounts for sources of external exposure - radioactive materials can also be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Any increased exposure consequently also increases the risk of developing cancer and other radiation-related illnesses, it said.
“Ongoing contamination from the Fukushima crisis means fishermen could be at additional risk from handling fishing nets that have come in contact with radioactive sediment (6), hemp materials such as rope, which absorb radioactive materials, and as our research shows, radioactivity in fish and seaweed collected along Fukushima’s coast,” said Wakao Hanaoka, Greenpeace Japan Oceans Campaigner. “Fishermen, their communities and consumers desperately need information on how radioactivity affects their lives, livelihoods and the ecosystems they rely on, and especially how they can protect themselves and their families from further contamination.”
For example, eating one kilo of highly contaminated seaweed sampled by Greenpeace could increase the radiation dose by 2.8 milliSievert – almost three times the internationally recommended annual maximum, according to the statement.
“Even if all the leaks caused by the Fukushima nuclear crisis were to stop today, the radiation problem is not going to go away. A long-term, comprehensive monitoring programme must be put in place, decisive action taken to protect the health of fisherman, farmers and consumers, and compensation given to all whose lives have been destroyed by this disaster,” said Hanaoka.
Article source: http://www.panorientnews.com/en/news.php?k=970
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Nearly a year after BP Plc’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill spurred a shutdown of new U.S. deepwater oil and gas drilling, offshore regulators have begun to approve a trickle of new permits.
But the 10 new wells that have received permits from the newly created U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management so far this year pale in comparison to the rate of permitting in prior years, according to a Reuters analysis of permits.
The pace of government-issued permits so far in 2011 is about a third the rate for the same period in each of the previous five years, 40 versus an average of 119 in 2006 through 2010.
Oil company executives are more hopeful they can get back to work after months of regulatory and legal delays after the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history prompted President Barack Obama to ban deepwater drilling from May 27 to October 12 last year. The Gulf of Mexico provides 30 percent of U.S. oil production and 11 percent of natural gas output.
With crude oil prices soaring to over $100 a barrel — and gasoline flirting with $4 a gallon — lawmakers have been pressuring the administration to remove impediments to domestic U.S. energy production.
The permitting halt blocked enough new drilling that in 2011 and 2012, Gulf oil production will fall by 190,000 barrels per day, or about 12.7 percent of its current level, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the statistical arm of the Energy Department.
“You need new wells, new production coming online to offset the natural decline,” said Doug Morris, an EIA analyst.
Most new production comes from deepwater projects like BP’s Macondo, which blew out on April 20, 2010, killing 11 workers, sinking the Deepwater Horizon rig and spewing more than 4 million barrels of oil into the ocean.
Industry officials complained that lack of clarity over new rules spurred a “de-facto” moratorium on Gulf drilling that stretched months longer. With new regulations in hand, Gulf of Mexico drillers are getting back to work.
“We could comply with whatever they wanted. We just needed them to say what they wanted,” said John Hollowell, executive vice president of the deepwater Gulf for Shell Oil Company. “I think the fog has lifted in that regard.”
Stringent new requirements called for the industry to prove it had rapid-response systems that could control a Macondo-like spill. Exxon Mobil Corp and Helix Energy Solutions Group organized consortiums to provide such systems.
With that, permit approvals have begun and “continue at a steady pace,” said Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.
NOT A SPIGOT
The pace of deepwater permitting probably will be slow in coming months as the government recruits more scientists and engineers to apply more stringent rules, said analyst Kevin Book of Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners.
“It’s not a spigot. It’s going to be a drip valve. They’re going to trickle them out,” Book said.