MAC: Mines and Communities

US Update

Published by MAC on 2007-04-21

US update

21st April 2007

It's now nearly two years since WR Grace, and seven of its senior employees, were indicted for knowingly endangering employees by explosing them to asbestos during vermiculite mining. The accused still haven't come to court. Meanwhile. research shows that even more workers have fallen victim to the fatal asbestos-related diseases.

While some NGOs continue discussing the "best" ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, two NGOs have done with the talking - and resorted to imaginative action against big investment banks which continue to back a "carbon-dependent" future.

More than US$27 billion of taxpayers' money has been allocated to determining how uranium gets into groundwater and how to clean it up. That's fair enough, perhaps - except that mining companies (such as Rio Tinto) are shelling out more even money to dig up more of the yellow stuff.

Legacy of Libby's asbestos contamination still being set

By MARY PICKETT , Billings Gazette

21st April 2007

Nearly eight years after an environmental and health crisis in northwest Montana came to national attention, a Libby clinic continues to treat patients with diseases linked to asbestos exposure.

Along with tracking 1,500 patients, the Center for Asbestos Related Disease hopes to help develop new treatments, and perhaps a cure, for those diseases.

Brad Black, the center's medical director, will be among the speakers at an April 24 medical history conference in Bozeman, which will address the health effects of mining.

Until 1990, vermiculite was mined near Libby for 70 years, the last 27 by W.R. Grace & Co. Because Libby vermiculite deposits lay near veins of asbestos, the two became mixed during mining.

Miners and mill workers were exposed to the asbestos, and their families and other Libby residents were, too.

During processing of the vermiculite, asbestos was released into the air, in particularly heavy amounts in the 1950s and 1960s. Residents also were exposed to asbestos through vermiculite used in public parks, school tracks, baseball fields and insulation in schools.

Black came to Libby in 1977 to practice as a pediatrician in partnership with an internist. Black's partner, who began seeing some of the early cases of lung disease related to asbestos, tried to get W.R. Grace to screen its employees for asbestos-related diseases.

By the 1980s, the state health department also was aware of high levels of asbestos in Libby, Black said.

The situation was a "public-health failure all the way through," he said.

By the time Black arrived in Libby, less asbestos was in the air.

By the 1990s, asbestos-related diseases were showing up in people who had just lived in Libby and had never been miners.

In 1999, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran articles noting that 192 people had died and at least 375 had been sickened by illnesses linked to asbestos.

Libby became one of the EPA's Superfund sites, with millions of dollars spent on cleaning up the town.

In 2005, W.R. Grace and seven senior employees were indicted in federal court on charges that they knowingly endangered employees and the community by exposing them to vermiculite containing asbestos. A trial on the charges still is pending.

In 2000-01, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry did a communitywide screening with X-rays and breathing tests that showed about 19 percent of the population had abnormalities consistent with exposure to asbestos. Similar tests of other groups of people, such as patients in veterans' hospitals, show about 2 percent of people had such abnormalities.

"We knew then that we had a large problem and expected to see a lot more" asbestos-related diseases, Black said.

The problem isn't limited to Montana.

Asbestos-laced vermiculite was shipped to other parts of the country to be processed, and the ATSDR is checking into at least 26 of those sites.

The Center for Asbestos Related Disease was spun off from the hospital in Libby in 2003 and now screens and cares for patients who live in Libby or once did. The center is funded through insurance payments that W.R. Grace voluntarily began offering in 2001. The center is seeking other financial sources to ensure stability, Black said.

The center is run by a volunteer board, some of whose members have diseases linked to asbestos.

The center is collaborating with other research institutions across the country on projects related to asbestos disease.

One project is a community health assessment done through Montana State University in Bozeman. In conjunction with the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation, the center is studying a blood marker to detect cancer early. Mesothelioma is an aggressive form of cancer caused by asbestos.

Next month, the center will start a large research project with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health that compares conventional X-rays with digital X-rays.

The center's research also is important because Libby asbestos is different from the most widely found asbestos and has never been studied before.

Unlike the more common chrysotile asbestos, which is serpentine-shaped and flexible, Libby asbestos has hard, needlelike fibers.

Just how many deaths have occurred because of exposure to asbestos is hard to say, but Black considers the 192 deaths mentioned in the 1999 newspaper article a very conservative number.

He has seen 10 cases of mesothelioma in people who never were miners but had lived in Libby, a community of about 2,600.

For a small community, Black said, "that's a lot."

Climate Justice League Strikes Merrill Lynch

Climate Justice League, Asheville, NC, USA

13th April 2007

In a daring daylight raid, members of the Climate Justice League struck a blow against Merrill Lynch, a major financier of global climate change. At approximately 11am two masked avengers entered the Merrill Lynch building in downtown Asheville, NC dumping a bag of coal in the lobby, throwing fliers into the air which read "Merrill Lynch, stop funding climate change!", and locking the main entrance shut with a bike lock.

Merrill Lynch was targeted as part of a national day of action against the financial backers of the fossil fuel industry. Merrill Lynch is currently helping to seal the deal on 3 new coal plants in Texas being built by TXU. In the face of devastating global climate change we cannot allow companies such as Merrill Lynch to continue funding massive fossil fuel infrastructure. Merrill Lynch has previously been involved in funding coal companies such as Massey Energy, which is one of the largest companies involved in mountaintop removal coal mining. As long as Merrill Lynch and their ilk continue to invest in and support the fossil fuels industry, the Climate Justice League and others around the country will continue to target them.

For a fossil fuel free future, CJL

[Editorial note: Anglo American's chairman, Mark Moody-Stuart, claimed last week at the company's 2007 annual general meeting that, though his company would invest further in coal mining, it could off-set its increased carbon toll by investing (inter alia) in the US government's FutureGen project.In a statement issued at the same time, the Rainforest Action Network argued st rongly that this project was certainly no magic bullet.]

Activists Target Wall Street 7 to Stop Funding Coal
by Christina Aanestad
Monday Apr 16th, 2007

As part of the Step It Up 2007 day of climate action, activists from the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco staged a mock Billionaires for Coal party at the main offices of Morgan Stanley Freidman, Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers urging the banks to invest in renewable energy instead of new coal developments. Activists say burning coal is a main contributor to carbon dioxide a leading cause of global warming.

Billionaires for Coal staged a cocktail coal party outside the main offices of major financiers in new coal developments with a message for the Wall Street. Bill Barkley is a campaign organizer with the Rainforest Action Network.

"These banks are financing the infrastructure that's cooking our climate and killing our planet and this is no longer acceptable. There are over 150 new coal fired power plants that are on the books to be built and if these are built they will add over a half a billion tons of new emissions of carbon dioxide."

According to a report by the National Resource Defense Council, coal contributes 30% of US carbon dioxide emissions, the leading cause of global warming. But that doesn't matter much to the Wall Street 7 the major bankers that are investing in a majority of the 150 proposed coal power plants in the US. However, the coal industry and the Bush Administration say new technologies like coal gasification and the upcoming FutureGen power plant are more environmentally friendly. Tom Sarkus is the Department of Energy's Project Director of FutureGen.

"The plant is going to be based on a technology called Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle. It will achieve very low emissions of all criteria pollutants including mercury and additionally, it will capture and sequester geologically the carbon dioxide that is produced from the plant. Of course carbon dioxide emissions are known as being a greenhouse gas."

Sarkus says the liquid carbon dioxide could be injected into nearby salinated water sources but those are not used for drinking water. He adds that FutureGen is still a work in progress, although they expect to start approval of a site for the power plant in Texas or Illinois later this year. But environmentalists Barkley and Matt Leonard with the Rainforest Action Network say the whole process of extracting and using clean coal is a dirty deed.

"These are new technologies that haven't been developed yet. There's a bigger set of problems with coal, which is that you have to look at the entire life cycle of coal. The mining is also bad for the environment and for workers. In Meig's county Ohio there's a proposal for 9 power plants in a10-mile radius. This is a community that has already been ravaged by pollution and groundwater contamination. There's sky rocketing rates of asthma and lung cancer and other respiratory diseases. Closer to home in the southwest there's been a strong struggle from indigenous communities including the Navajo and Hopi fighting power plants that have contaminated groundwater and taken their water supply."

Coal isn't the only energy development on the rise that concerns environmentalists. After winning the battle to prevent 11 new coal plants in Texas, environmentalists are now grappling with the proposal of nuclear power reactors in the state. California lawmakers are also considering reviving nuclearpower, after a two-decade moratorium.

Climate Fears, Costs Threaten Coal-Fired Power Plans

PlanetArk US

18th April 2007

NEW YORK - When it comes to building more generating capacity, US power companies are in a quandary.

Increasing demand for electricity has prompted the industry to propose construction of more than 150 coal-fired plants. But rising development costs and the prospect of tighter environmental regulations could mean that most of those projects will not get past the drawing board.

Coal, which generates about half the power in the United States, is the nation's most abundant fuel and costs a fraction of cleaner-burning natural gas. It is also more economical and reliable than renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.

"The cheapest available technology right now is the most polluting," said Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co. analyst Kevin Book.

Experts say that even under optimal conditions, many of these proposed plants would not be built as companies work through the complicated process of balancing capital spending, energy market price projections and regulatory approvals linked to new projects.

But the rapidly accelerating drive to tackle global warming combined with soaring building costs make construction even less likely.

Coal-fired plants spew out about 40 percent of US carbon dioxide, making them one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases.

As a result, these generators have become a top target of environmental groups and politicians who are advocating new laws that would cap carbon dioxide emissions, the main heat-trapping gas blamed for global warming.

Several states are mulling limits on carbon dioxide emissions, and federal rules, if passed, will make coal-fired plants more costly to run.

"A lot of companies that have coal plants on the drawing board don't know if they can build because of the uncertainty," said Dahlman Rose analyst Daniele Seitz.

In February, TXU cut the number of its planned coal plants to three from 11 under a pact with environmental groups to help win approval of the proposed US$31.8 billion private equity buyout of the Texas utility.

Dynegy Inc. Chief Executive Bruce Williamson told Reuters earlier this month that only one-third of its eight planned coal-fired power plants would probably be built to use that fuel, while American Electric Power Co. Inc. says it continues its push for four new coal-fired plants.

And North Carolina regulators recently approved only one of two 800-megawatt coal-fired power units proposed by Duke Energy . Even that plant's fate is not certain as it still requires environmental approval.


Along with other power companies, Duke has argued that rising demand for electricity will require new generation, even if homes and businesses incorporate new energy-efficiency measures.

"You can't save your way into the kind of supply need we'll have to 2011," said Jim Turner, president of Duke's utility operations. "You can't take coal out of the mix."

Building only gas-fired plants would leave Duke vulnerable to wild swings in fuel prices and make it overly reliant on a dwindling domestic supplies, Turner said, and new nuclear power plants will take decades to come online.

Power producers have sought to address the environmental concerns by proposing integrated gasification combined cycle plants that could enable them to strip out carbon that is emitted from burning coal.

IGCC plants turn coal into a cleaner-burning gas to reduce emissions. But this technology is more costly to build, and its reliability is unproven since the only IGCC plants now in operation are relatively small ones.

Duke Energy earlier last week raised its cost estimates for building an IGCC power plant in Indiana to US$1.99 billion, or about US$3,150 per kilowatt. According to Friedman, Billings, Ramsey analyst David Khani, the consensus estimates for these cleaner coal plants were US$2,400 per kW.

That compares with estimated construction costs of US$1,500 per kW for the traditional pulverized coal-fired plants, according industry sources. But those prices have also risen recently as countries across the globe ramp up coal plant expansions.

Southern Co. earlier this month said it had increased cost estimates for its planned IGCC plant in Orlando, Florida, mainly due to higher prices for commodities and labor.

Meanwhile, power producers say the need for more generation means the United States cannot rule out any type of fuel.

"There is no magic bullet," Duke's Turner said. "We think of it as a silver buckshot approach where you keep as many options on the table as you can. But as you keep coal on the table, you have to do it in a way that produces more megawatts for the carbon emitted."

Story by Lisa Lee


$27.5 Million Funds Uranium Contamination Studies

RICHLAND, Washington, (ENS)

16th April 2007

The Department of Energy has granted Pacific Northwest National Laboratory $27.5 million dollars over five years to investigate the movement of groundwater contaminated with uranium at sites in Washington and Colorado. The studies are intended to identify new approaches and strategies to help clean up the groundwater.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, PNNL, will lead the field studies at a uranium mill tailings site in Rifle, Colorado, and at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Richland, Washington, where some 60 percent of the nation's high-level nuclear waste is stored.

The Hanford study involves investigation of the groundwater and the subsurface soil and rock just above the groundwater - both of which are contaminated by uranium. The study area is adjacent to the Columbia River and located near the southern boundary of the Hanford Site, north of Richland.

PNNL Project Manager John Zachara says the field study at Hanford will help develop transport models that will be relevant to contaminant movement along the entire Columbia River corridor.

At the uranium mill tailings site in Colorado, PNNL geohydrologist Phil Long leads a diverse team of researchers examining the stimulation of subsurface microorganisms aimed at reducing and immobilizing uranium in the subsurface.

Researchers have found that bioremediation of uranium is possible, but optimal control and manipulation of the process is still unknown.

"We hope to understand the microbial factors and the associated geochemistry that is controlling uranium movement, so that DOE can confidently remediate the uranium plumes," Long said. "Our approach should lead to new knowledge that can then be used to develop effective flow and reactive transport models."

Participants in the field studies include the United States Geological Survey, Oregon State University, Purdue University, the University of Alabama, the University of California-Berkley, and DOE’s Pacific Northwest, Lawrence Berkley, Los Alamos and Idaho national laboratories.

Both the Hanford and Colorado studies are part of Energy Department’s Integrated Field-Scale Subsurface Research Challenge, a new program that commits multi-investigator teams to performing large, benchmark-type experiments on formidable field-scale science issues.


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