US Update: February 2006Published by MAC on 2006-02-15
US Update: February 2006
6th February 2006
Bush has promised to reduce US dependence on oil imports and boost the pretended benefits of "clean coal" and nuclear power. But his administration faces a massive wall of scepticism that it can - or indeed should - deliver on such promises.
His "state of the nation" address last week also failed to address the health and environmental impacts of vastly increased output of uranium, as well as coal - including destructive mountaintop "removal".
Meanhile, the country's clean air and water legislation continues to be eroded. A new report reveals alarming deficiencies in monitoring and preventing lead and copper contamination.
Draft legislation to curb Asbestos-related compensation continues to be beset by controversy. One culprit corporation has agreed to pay out US$4 billion to victims: over four times what they would be entitled to under the proposed bill.
EPA's Lead and Copper Rule Found to Be Inadequate
by ENS, WASHINGTON, DC
31st January 2006
A report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) lead and copper rule is inadequate and may be putting public health at risk.
The GAO is the investigative branch of the U.S. Congress. The 1991 rule aims to minimize lead and copper in drinking water by reducing water corrosivity. Lead and copper enter drinking water primarily through plumbing materials. Exposure to lead and copper may cause health problems ranging from stomach distress to brain damage.
Lead is particularly dangerous for children, who retain about 68 percent of the lead that enters their bodies while adults retain about one percent. Children exposed to lead experience low birth weight, growth retardation, mental retardation, learning disabilities, and other effects.
After revelations about extremely high levels of lead in the drinking water in Washington, DC in 2004, the GAO report was asked to evaluate the effectiveness of federal regulations for lead and copper by Senator James Jeffords, a Vermont Independent, and Representatives John Dingell of Michigan and Hilda Solis of California, both Democrats.
The GAO report released last week found that, "EPA claims of widespread, national compliance with the rule are not supported by data."
The report identifies "…significant and longstanding gaps in the amount of information available..." that impair the agency's ability to oversee implementation of the lead rule. For example, even after an effort to update its data following the Washington, DC case, the EPA still does not have test results on over 30 percent of the community water systems.
Through June of 2005, the EPA did not have any information regarding the implementation of actions required to reduce lead in drinking water for more than 70 percent of the nation's community water systems.
In 2000, the EPA rulemaking regarding data collection requirements stated that this data was the only means available for EPA to evaluate progress in removing lead in drinking water. GAO found that the EPA had not followed up on missing implementation data, and that it has been slow to act on potential underreporting of violations.
"Few schools and child care facilities have tested their water supplies for lead - or adopted other measures to protect users from lead contamination" and "no focal point exists at either the national or state level to collect and analyze test results," the GAO said.
The GAO recommended that homes and other sites of highest risk for lead be used for sampling. Homeowners who participate in tap sampling should be notified of test results to protect their health.
GAO evaluated EPA's compliance data and determined that 49 large and medium water systems were in violation of the action level and appeared to be on reduced monitoring schedules. A reduced monitoring schedule reduces the chance that high lead levels will be detected and that the public will be warned of a potential health risk.
Controls over when and how treatment changes are implemented should be adopted to avoid increases in lead levels, the GAO advised.
Plumbing standards should be updated, reflecting availability of low-lead fixtures and GAO's finding that some products currently classified as "lead-free" leach high levels of lead into drinking water.
Harbor Island Smelter Pays $8.5 Million in Superfund Costs
by ENS, SEATTLE, Washington
2nd February 2006
RSR Corporation and its subsidiaries, Quemetco, Inc. and QRI, Inc., (RSR) have agreed to pay $8.5 million to resolve RSR’s liability for cleanup costs relating to the contamination of Harbor Island in Puget Sound, the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Tuesday.
The settlement concludes a lawsuit which alleged that RSR was liable for costs incurred by EPA for investigative and cleanup actions in response to hazardous substance contamination of soils and groundwater by a lead smelter owned and operated by RSR from 1972 to 1983.
Harbor Island is a man-made island in the mouth of the Duwamish River near downtown Seattle where industrial enterprises, including the Port of Seattle container terminal, are located.
The lead smelter owned and operated by RSR from the 1970s to the early 1980s released lead into Harbor Island soils, through airborne emissions of lead from the smelter and fugitive lead dust emissions from smelter buildings. At one point, a Washington Department of Ecology investigation revealed that 18 percent of the surface soil at the RSR smelter building was composed of lead.
Under the terms of the consent decree, lodged in district court in Seattle, RSR will pay $8.5 million into the Superfund, the fund used by the EPA to clean up hazardous wastes sites.
Under this and an earlier settlement, parties responsible for the pollution at Harbor Island have contributed a total of approximately $40.5 million in cleanup work and cash reimbursement.
“This settlement is good news for the site and for the Puget Sound,” said Michael Bogert, EPA Region 10 administrator. “By recovering cleanup expenses under the Superfund law, EPA ensures that polluters pay their fair share and taxpayers aren't forced to foot the bill. This cleanup will prevent further pollution of a local resource we all treasure.”
During the 20th century, extensive industrial activity on Harbor Island caused its soil, underlying groundwater, and nearby marine sediments to become contaminated with hazardous substances, including lead and other toxic metals, pesticides, and petroleum hydrocarbons.
The EPA placed Harbor Island on the Superfund list in 1983. In the 1980s, the EPA confirmed the presence of lead from RSR’s operations and also discovered volatile organic compounds from numerous other companies.
In 1993, the EPA selected and proposed a cleanup plan for soil and groundwater contamination on Harbor Island. In 1996, the Justice Department and the EPA entered into a consent decree with 38 Harbor Island businesses, including the Port of Seattle, under which those companies agreed to pay for the implementation of EPA’s selected environmental cleanup plan for Harbor Island soils and groundwater at a cost of $32 million.
As RSR was not a party to the 1996 agreement, the U.S. filed the lawsuit against RSR seeking reimbursement of costs not covered in that agreement.
While the surface cleanup work on Harbor Island is complete, the EPA requires further investigations and cleanup work in subsurface areas and groundwater. In a related matter, the Port of Seattle is working under agreements with EPA to investigate and cleanup contamination in the adjacent East Waterway.
US Senate Minority Leader to Oppose Asbestos Bill
1st February 2006
WASHINGTON - Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said Monday he would try to stop legislation establishing a $140 billion asbestos compensation fund from being debated on the floor of the US Senate next week.
The Nevada Democrat, a long time opponent of the legislation, said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist that the adequacy and solvency of the proposed trust fund remained in serious doubt. "Please be advised that I intend to oppose the motion to proceed to the asbestos legislation," said Reid in the letter dated Jan. 30.
"This bill is simply not ready for consideration by the full Senate." Debate is scheduled to begin Feb. 6
The bill, that would curb asbestos suits and pay victims' claims from a fund financed by asbestos defendant companies and insurers, has supporters and critics in both parties. Frist responded by saying the Supreme Court had repeatedly asked Congress to address the inefficient asbestos litigation system that had enriched lawyers at the expense of victims of the fibrous mineral.
"Yet again, Minority Leader Reid would rather obstruct than solve complex problems with bold leadership and ideas," said Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, in a statement.
Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Reid would "urge members of the caucus to oppose the bill" but was not counting potential votes. When a senator formally objects to consideration of a measure, the Senate then needs 60 votes to proceed with it.
Asbestos fibers are linked to cancer and other lung-scarring diseases, and hundreds of thousands of injury claims have clogged courtroom dockets and helped push more than 70 US companies, like W.R. Grace & Co. and USG Corp, into bankruptcy proceedings.
Earlier on Monday, building products company USG said it had reached a $4 billion settlement to resolve current and future claims against it for asbestos-related injuries.
The USG settlement reflected uncertainty about the fate of a national asbestos fund. The agreement contains $900 million in cash with a $3.05 billion note payable if a national fund fails to become law in the current session of Congress.
USG Corporation in $4 Billion Asbestos Claim Settlement
31st January 2006
NEW YORK - Building products company USG Corp. on Monday said it reached a nearly $4 billion settlement to resolve all current and future claims for asbestos-related injuries against it, sending its shares soaring to highs it had not touched in more than a decade.
Asbestos claims have pushed more than 70 US companies into bankruptcy. Fibers from the material have been linked to cancer and other lung-scarring diseases.
USG said the claims trust would be funded with $900 million cash and a contingent note for $3.05 billion. However, the contingent note would be cancelled if the US Congress passed a bill in its current session creating a national fund.
Shares in other companies with asbestos exposure, which fell on Friday on news that USG was near a settlement, also rose as details of the agreement emerged. People with long experience in asbestos litigation said the deal was a sign that USG believes legislators will not establish a national fund.
"It's an unbelievable vote of no confidence in the asbestos bill," said Jeff Cooper, managing partner of Simmons Cooper, a law firm that represents people with the asbestos-linked cancer mesothelioma in cases against companies, including USG.
USG, which believes it would have to pay just $900 million into a national asbestos compensation program, said it continues to support legislation creating a national trust fund that is due to reach the floor of the US Senate next month.
The settlement paves the way for USG to emerge from bankruptcy around the third quarter, fully repaying bondholders, bank lenders and trade suppliers with interest.
USG's contingency arrangement is not without precedent. The settlement for McDermott International Inc.'s Babcock & Wilcox unit includes just over $600 million in payments that would be required if the bill did not pass by Nov. 30.
Legislation to create a $140 billion national fund is due to come to the floor of the Senate for debate on Feb. 6. The fund would be financed by companies and insurers, but there are doubts about whether the bill has the support to become law.
"I think this bill going away is going to do wonders for the speed with which companies which are already bankrupt work their way out of bankruptcy," Cooper said.
But an attorney who researches asbestos litigation issues for insurers said the USG settlement was not necessarily a comment on the likely fate of the asbestos fund legislation.
Mark Behrens of Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP said the political arena was full of uncertainty for all parties in asbestos suits. "As in litigation, the parties may have chosen to settle 'on the eve of trial' rather than risk a 'winner takes all' type of outcome," he told Reuters.
Consumer group Public Citizen said the difference between $900 million and the $4 billion USG would pay in the absence of a national fund "makes plain that the federal trust fund is a corporate bailout in sheep's clothing."
USG said its payments due to unsecured creditors would total about $1.4 billion, and it would reinstate about $240 million in debt.
The company said the settlement would be funded from $1.6 billion cash on hand, a $1.8 billion rights offering to existing shareholders being backstopped by Berkshire Hathaway Inc., up to $1 billion in new debt and a cash tax refund of up to $1.1 billion.
USG shares were up $14.72, or 18.4 percent, to $92.57 in late afternoon New York Stock Exchange trading. They reached as high as $99.01 - a level the shares last touched in the early 1990s. Other asbestos-linked shares were mixed. W.R. Grace and Co. was up 3.3 percent at $11.20, and Owens Corning, was down up 5.8 percent at $4.05. (Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington)
Green Rules Could Shut up to 500 US Coal Plants - Study
by PlanetArk USA
2nd February 2006
NEW YORK - New clean air rules could force up to 500 US coal plants to shut spurring billions of dollars in construction of cleaner plants to replace them, according to a study.
Pollution laws including the Clean Air Interstate Rule that caps emissions of smog components sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (NOX and SOX) could shut the plants in 25 states, according to the study by Colorado-based E3 Consultants, which advises energy companies.
The study, which was funded by E3, said that capital and construction costs to build cleaner new plants could reach well over $50 billion over the next five or 10 years.
Jim Short, one of the report's authors, said states most hit would be Texas and most of the states east of the Mississippi.
Mercury emissions limits being imposed in 2018 add to the costs of operating older dirty plants. And potential global warming gas emissions caps, such as proposed by the seven-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast, or potential nationwide limits, would make running such plants even dearer.
Companies with aging coal plants may have been betting that NOX and SOX emissions markets would allow them to simply buy credits from newer cleaner plants for the right to pollute. But they could be mistaken, said Short.
"Allowances will be in very short supply and will be expensive," he said. "Where are the allowances going to come from? The answer is retrofits and retirements (of old plants)."
E3 believes that most of the old plants will be replaced by cleaner coal plants that can burn the fuel more efficiently and to which carbon dioxide capturing can be added more cheaply than conventional coal plants.
Bush Would Break U.S. Oil Addiction With Renewables, Nuclear, Coal
by ENS, WASHINGTON, DC
1st February 2006
"Keeping America competitive requires affordable energy. And here we have a serious problem: America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world," said President George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address, delivered last night before a Joint Session of Congress.
"The best way to break this addiction is through technology," the President said. To bolster technological solutions to the problem of oil addiction, Bush announced an advanced energy initiative to change two energy sectors - how buildings are powered and how automobiles are powered.
"Since 2001, we have spent nearly $10 billion to develop cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable alternative energy sources, and we are on the threshold of incredible advances," said the President, announcing a 22 percent increase in funding for clean energy research to be implemented by the Department of Energy.
"We will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies, and clean, safe nuclear energy," Bush said.
To change how automobiles are powered, Bush said, "We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars, and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen."
"We'll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years,"
"Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025, he told the legislators and government officials assembled in the House of Representatives chamber.
"By applying the talent and technology of America, this country can dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy, and make our dependence on Middle Eastern oil a thing of the past," said the President. President Bush's emphasis on renewable energy was historic, said Rhone Resch, president of the national trade association the Solar Energy Industries Association.
“Tonight, the president told the world that solar power will be an important component of energy in the U.S. This is the first president in 25 years to urge solar power development in the State of the Union," said Resch.
The solar industry will partner with the Department of Energy on cutting-edge research that will accelerate solar’s development as a mainstream energy resource, Resch said. "We will also partner with the administration to extend the tax credits through 2015 and ensure that the U.S. is the global leader in the next great high tech growth industry, solar energy."
But not all renewable energy proponents were that enthusiastic about the President's plans. A network of U.S. businesses and community organizations called the Sun Day Campaign said President Bush’s State of the Union call for "expanded use of nuclear power and so-called 'clean coal' while simultaneously cutting funds for wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, and energy efficiency programs is continuing the administration’s blind-as-a-bat energy policies that offer no solutions to climate change, energy imports, or rising energy costs."
Nuclear power remains uneconomic and unsafe with no solution to the problem of radioactive waste disposal. It affords no answer to global warming, said Sun Day Campaign Executive Director Ken Bossong. The technologies being promoted by the administration will yield only advanced nuclear proliferation he said. "Most importantly, nuclear power is not needed. There are safer, cleaner, cheaper, and far more publicly acceptable alternatives available," he said.
President Bush is offering only implementation of the very inadequate energy efficiency provisions of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and investments in longer-term alcohol fuels, photovoltaic, fuel cells, and hydrogen technologies, Bossong said, calling for "aggressive promotion" of energy-saving technologies as well as much greater use of renewable energy technologies that are now commercially available.
In fact, Bossong said, "the President is expected to offer a budget request next week for Fiscal Year 2007 that will slash, and possibly eliminate, funding for the U.S. Department of Energy’s core wind, geothermal, hydropower, and concentrating solar accounts as well as make deep cuts in key DOE energy efficiency programs and the sustainable energy programs in other federal agencies."
President Bush was correct in acknowledging America's addiction to oil, Republicans for Environmental Protection (REP) said in response to the 2006 State of the Union address.
"While we are pleased and encouraged by the President's remarks, we call on him and Congress to follow up with action that will improve energy efficiency and develop the clean energy technologies that the President spoke about, said REP Government Affairs Director David Jenkins.
The President needs to "push congressional leaders in a new energy direction, away from the addiction-feeding notion that this nation, with only two percent of the world's oil, can drill its way to energy independence," Jenkins said.
"Congress must pass a legislative package that includes stronger efficiency measures, as well as accelerated research and development of clean energy technologies," Jenkins said.
"Our congressional leaders must stop clinging to the fantasy that oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas will strengthen our energy security,"
REP Policy Director Jim DiPeso said, "The hazards of our oil addiction are increasing every year. Oil consumption pollutes the air. It increases emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases that are worsening the risks of dangerous climate change. Our heavy oil appetite takes money out of our pockets and subsidizes dangerous regimes that can do us harm. Greater competition for oil is a seedbed of international conflict."
The Nuclear Energy Institute President and CEO Skip Bowman was pleased with the President's support of nuclear power.
"President Bush's comments on nuclear energy are a positive sign that the United States should seek to expand our nation's reliance on this emission-free source of electricity," he said on behalf of the nuclear energy industry organization.
"Several utility companies already are identifying potential new plant sites and testing new federal licensing processes for advanced design nuclear power plants," Bowman said. "The industry anticipates building 12 to 15 new nuclear plants by 2015."
Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Clean Vehicles Director Jason Mark said, "The President has admitted we're addicted to oil. There's no reason to drag that addiction out 20 years. We could save more than 75 percent of Middle East oil imports within 10 years by increasing the fuel economy of our cars and trucks to 40 miles per gallon."
Mark said the latest UCS analysis shows that the United States is "sending $500,000 overseas every minute to import oil."
"Solutions are available now to relieve Americans' pain at the pump," Mark said. "It's time to get serious about the dismal gas mileage of our vehicles today while we work on the renewable fuels of tomorrow."
Mountaintop Removal Mining Permits Challenged in West Virginia
by ENS CHARLESTON, West Virginia
2nd February 2006
To stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from permitting streams, valleys, historic places, and communities across West Virginia to be destroyed by mountaintop removal coal mining and valley fills, West Virginia citizen groups went back to court Wednesday.
The groups asked the U.S. district court to require the Corps to rescind permits for three strip mines in Logan, Kanawha and Boone Counties that they claim will permanently destroy seven and a half miles of central Appalachian headwater streams.
The plaintiff groups are seeking a court ruling that would stop agency from allowing any further activities at these sites that violate the law and cause irreparable damage to
vital water resources, and to the health and welfare of West Virginians living downstream.
“Trying to get the Corps of Engineers to follow the law is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall: it is awfully hard to make it stick,” said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. “The Corps gives coal companies permits that are little more than a wink and a nod, and the coal companies waste little time before ripping out trees, choking off streams, and filling in valleys with mining waste.”
According to the Bush administration’s own estimates, mountaintop removal mining in the region has already destroyed over 1,200 miles of Appalachian streams.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that at least 2,400 miles of streams will be permanently wiped out by 2013 if additional environmental restrictions are not enforced.
“The blame for this environmental destruction really rests upon the Corps of Engineers for its failure to follow the law,” said Cindy Rank with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, a plaintiff group. “The Corps is dodging its responsibility to scrutinize these permits that blatantly violate the Clean Water Act.”
Today’s move by the citizen groups is a significant step in the most recent of the legal battles over mountaintop removal and the Clean Water Act, the plaintiff groups said.
The case began last fall when the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and Coal River Mountain Watch, represented by the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit challenging permits for two huge mines - the Camp Branch surface mine in Logan County, and the Black Castle contour mine in Boone County.
The groups also are challenging a third mine, Republic No. 2, in Kanawha County.
The Corps acknowledged that the valley fills from these mines will permanently annihilate streams yet the agency still approved both permits, claiming that the resulting environmental impact will be insignificant.
This latest legal action seeks to protect streams and valleys from further destruction until the court can determine whether the permits comply with the law.
“Time and again the Army Corps of Engineers has danced around the law when they approved these permits,” said Janice Nease with Coal River Mountain Watch. “If we don’t stop this soon, the Corps will continue to abuse the process and there will be nothing left of West Virginia to enjoy.”
Dr. Margaret Palmer, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland and an expert on stream restoration and aquatic ecosystems, wrote in a declaration for the court that, “The mining activities and valley fills will fundamentally and permanently alter the hydrological and sediment regimes which are master variables controlling ecological functioning in impacted streams."
She wrote, "Since watersheds act as a unit and a considerable amount of land in the watershed is to be cleared, the impacts are expected to extend far beyond the buried headwater streams.”