Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: U.S. EPA

Obama proposes CO2 regulations

The Obama Administration announced Tuesday its intention to regulate CO2 emissions from power plants for the first time. The new rule, nimbly titled “Greenhouse Gas New Source Performance Standard for Electric Utility Steam Generating Units,” would allow the Environmental Protection Agency to create emissions standards for new power plants.

It is another end-run around a Congress that has balked at passing cap-and-trade legislation or other remedies to curb greenhouse gases.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA had the right and responsibility to determine whether greenhouse gases endangered public health, making them subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act. The agency released its "endangerment" finding, a prelude to such regulation, just before the 2009 Copenhagen summit on climate change.

Since then, however, the White House and the EPA have delayed proposing new regulations, under intense pressure from Republican lawmakers, who have tagged the agency as a source of "job-killing regulation."

The White House has said that if Congress failed to act on carbon emissions, it would eventually step in.

The move could appeal to the president’s base at a time when he is taking many other unilateral steps to move his agenda, and as his reelection bid kicks into high gear.

David Doniger, policy director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement, “Setting carbon pollution standards for new power plants is an important first step. President Obama campaigned on moving America to a clean energy future. Cutting dangerous carbon pollution from the nation’s dirty power plants is an essential part of fulfilling that pledge.”

It is likely that the appearance of the rule in the White House agenda will only intensify the political slugfest over the regulation of greenhouse gases. When the EPA first announced that curtailing these gases would fall under its purview, the business community erupted in a fury that continues today.

"We don’t believe that unelected bureaucrats should be doing what Congress was elected to do," said Nicolas Loris, policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, which has battled the EPA regulation of carbon from the outset. “The economic costs of regulation by the EPA or by a cap-and-trade system far outweighs any environmental benefit we would get from these measures."

Asked how the Heritage Foundation would like to see this problem addressed, he added: "First we need to step back and look at what the real problem is: CO2 isn’t black smoke that is emitted from factories; it’s a colorless, odorless gas. Does it contribute to global warming and climate change? Sure. But it’s the role of Congress to figure out the best way to address those effects in a way that protects our economy."

Charlotte Baker, press secretary for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, stated, “The committee plans to review the rules recently submitted to OMB and remains focused on finding ways to promote common-sense regulations that will protect our environment without destroying jobs or driving up electricity prices for families and job creators."

The committee is chaired by Congressman Fred Upton, who spearheaded a House effort to block the EPA from regulating CO2 and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.


EPA's secret list shows pollution unchecked

Judge restricts release of emails among climate scientists

Are birds getting bigger because of global climate change?

-- Dean Kuipers

Photo: The Encina Power Power Station in Carlsbad, Calif. Proposed EPA rules would regulate CO2 emissions from new power plants. Credit: Sandy Huffaker/Bloomberg News.

EPA’s secret list shows pollution unchecked

A secret EPA “watch list” unearthed by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity revealed that hundreds of the nation’s worst industrial air polluters violate toxic air emissions standards with little or no action by state agencies, sometimes for decades. Several of the plants on the list are in Southern California.

NPR reports that about 1,600 power plants and other industrial facilities were flagged as requiring urgent action to reduce emissions, and nearly 300 were marked as “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act for more than a decade.

If a facility is noted as needing urgent action, and no enforcement action is taken within nine months, it is automatically bumped onto a watch list, which now includes more than 450 plants. It’s unclear why the list was kept secret, although a former Environmental Protection Agency official noted in the story that it was to prevent tipping off the facilities that were the targets of criminal investigations.

Not all the plants on the list are being investigated, and some end up there for bureaucratic reasons not directly related to the seriousness of the violations.

The upshot is that some big polluters skate by for years without any remediation. CPI used this data to put together its “Poisoned Places” report, telling the story of communities across the U.S. that are wrestling with elevated incidence of cancer and other illnesses thought to be related to high concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, mercury and other toxic substances released by industrial plants.

In response to Freedom of Information Act requests, NPR and CPI received watch lists from July and September 2011. California companies on those lists are noted below. In notes included on the lists, several of the companies explain why they do not belong on the list or how they ended up there due to administrative error.

Aera Energy, San Ardo (Monterey County).
Big West of CA, LLC, Bakersfield.
Blue Lake Power, Blue Lake.
CA Portland Cement Co., Mojave.
Cold Canyon Landfill, San Luis Obispo.
ConocoPhillips Santa Maria Refinery, Arroyo Grande.
ConocoPhillips SF Refinery (Phillips 66), Rodeo.
E&J Gallo Winery and Brandy, Modesto.
Forward Inc. Landfill, Manteca.
Red-Scotia, LLA (Town of Scotia Co.), Scotia.
Shell Oil Products U.S., Martinez Refinery, Martinez.
Tamco, Rancho Cucamonga.
Tesoro Refining and Marketing Co., Martinez.
TXI Riverside Cement, Oro Grande.
Valero Refining Company, California, Benicia.


Keystone XL pipeline decisions to be probed by State Department

Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

-- Dean Kuipers

Photo: Oil refinery near Martinez, Calif. Several area refineries are on an EPA watch list with unaddressed Clean Air Act violations. Credit: Ray Saint Germain/AP Photo/Contra Costa Times

Fracking used more diesel fuel than estimated, lawmakers say


Three U.S. House members investigating the use of toxic substances in the fluids injected into natural gas wells have revised their estimate of the amount of diesel fuel used in the practice, known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."

Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles, the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, joined Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) in sending a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. The letter said two companies had erroneously reported usage of diesel fuel in fracking fluids, which are injected at high pressure into rock formations — usually shale — to create fissures that allow natural gas to be extracted. 

More than 32 million gallons of diesel were used from 2005 to 2009 by 12 companies employing fracking in states including Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, among others.

Oil service companies such as Halliburton have maintained that fracking does not affect drinking water, despite anecdotal evidence in places such as Wyoming that show methane and other chemicals in residential wells near fracking activities.

The amount of diesel under-reported was about 500,000 gallons, the lawmakers said in their letter to the EPA, which pressed the agency for better oversight and more uniform reporting requirements. 


Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Former Keystone pipeline lobbyist hired by Obama campaign

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: A natural gas well pad near Rifle, Colo., in the Rocky Mountains. Credit: David Zalubowski / Associated Press 

Burning oil from BP spill produced carbon plumes

BP oil spill controlled burns released an estimated 1 million pounds of soot into the atmosphere, a study found
Chalk up another environmental impact from last summer's Deepwater Horizon oil spill: Nine weeks of burning off oil slicks from the surface of the Gulf of Mexico following the BP spill released an estimated 1 million pounds of soot into the atmosphere, according to a study released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The burns were conducted to reduce the size of the slicks and to minimize the amount of oil reaching the gulf’s coast and wetlands systems. But the study, which was co-written by researchers at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences in Boulder, Colo., found the plumes of smoke from the burns produced an amount of carbon equal to the total black carbon emissions normally released by all ships that travel the Gulf of Mexico during a nine-week period.

Black carbon, whose primary component is often called soot, is among the most light-absorbing particles in the atmosphere. The new study, published online in Geophysical Research Letters, provides some of the most detailed observations made of black carbon sent airborne by burning surface oil.

The study found that the soot plumes reached much higher into the atmosphere than ship emissions normally rise, and that the average size of the soot particles was larger than normally emitted from other sources in the gulf region. Researchers also found that the soot particles were almost all black carbon, unlike forest fires, for example, which produce other particles along with black carbon.


California adopts historic cap-and-trade regulations

Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

Climate skeptic admits he was wrong to doubt global-warming data

-- Julie Cart

Photo: A controlled burn on June 19, 2010, attempting to remove oil floating near the leaking BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

Group launches online environmental accident map

The environmental monitoring group SkyTruth launched an online map that tracks pollution accidents
The nonprofit environmental monitoring group SkyTruth on Thursday launched a real-time alert system that uses remote sensing and digital mapping to track pollution events in the United States.

The SkyTruth Alerts system shows air and water pollution, toxic spills and other incidents on an interactive map, noting the time of the event and whether toxic materials are involved. Users can track specific geographic areas and receive updates via email or RSS feeds.

The group culls satellite images, aerial photography and reporting data from federal and state emergency response agencies to compile the maps.


Gov. Jerry Brown signs ban on chemical BPA in baby bottles

Pregnant California women show high levels of flame retardant

Texas fire: Chemical plant processes toxics, produces pesticide

-- Julie Cart

Photo: Fires burn off oil near the crippled BP well site in June 2010. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times


Australia moves closer to law establishing carbon tax

The Australian government's goal of implementing a carbon tax passed its toughest test today as the lower house of Parliament overwhelmingly approved a package of bills that institutes a phased-in carbon tax, to be followed by a carbon-trading system.

The 18 bills now go to the Senate, where the law is all but assured of passage in mid-November.

According to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the system will reduce Australia's carbon emissions by 159 million tons by 2020. Australia is the largest per-capita carbon polluter, with an economy deeply dependent on coal.

The first phase of the law will tax carbon at $22.90 a ton beginning in the middle of next year. The surcharge will rise modestly until mid-2015, when the carbon-trading system will take effect. Other bills call for a national emissions caps, exempting farming and other agricultural sectors.

The tax will not extend to the price of gas for consumers, although rail, shipping and large trucking businesses will pay the tax indirectly on fuels such as diesel.

Australia’s biggest carbon emitters -- power companies, mining companies and industrial manufacturers -- immediately attacked the legislation, and the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, vowed a “pledge in blood” to repeal the law should he become prime minister.

The Australian law would go well beyond what the California Air Resources Board is considering. The board voted in August to reaffirm its cap-and-trade plan, which put the nation's first state carbon-trading program back on track.

California's on-again, off-again rules have been years in the making and are meant to complement AB 32, the state's landmark climate-change law that mandates a reduction in carbon pollution to 1990 levels by 2020. The air board adopted a preliminary carbon-trading plan in late 2008 but was sued by environmental justice groups in 2009.

The state plan calls for capping greenhouse gases at more than 600 industrial plants and allowing companies to buy and sell emissions permits. It is modeled on Europe's 6-year-old cap-and-trade system. California is considering whether to work with Canada under the Western Climate Initiative, a collaboration involving the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

California's program would be North America's biggest carbon market, three times larger than a utility-only system in 10 Northeastern states. By 2016, about $10 billion in carbon allowances are expected to be traded through the California market.


Clean natural gas? Not so fast, study says

Rising sea levels could take financial toll on California beaches

EPA scolded on greenhouse gas report review process

-- Julie Cart

Photo: People walk across the frozen Songhua River near smokestacks at Jiamusi in China's Heilongjiang province in 2005. Credit: Greg Baker / Associated Press

Increased monitoring finds more water pollution in California

Malibu Lagoon

The latest review of water pollution data in California shows substantial jumps in toxic and pesticide contamination, the number of dirty beaches and tainted fish. But federal regulators attribute the rise to improved monitoring and data collection by the state rather than a tide of new pollution.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, states are required to monitor water quality and periodically submit the results to the Environmental Protection Agency. California's 2010 list, which the EPA finalized Tuesday, shows a number of dramatic increases compared with the 2006 list.

--Waters with toxic pollution increased 170%. 

--Locations in which bacteria levels were unsafe for swimmers climbed 90%.

--Waters fouled by trash jumped 76%.

--The number of waterways tainted by pesticides increased 36%.

--The number of waters inhabited by fish unsafe to eat was 24% higher. Mercury contamination was up  the most.

Although many of the more remote streams, rivers and coastline lack monitoring data, EPA Water Division Director Alexis Strauss said “California has done a a superb job" of assembling pollution information. The state used 22,000 data sets to compile the new tally, seven times the number reviewed for the previous listing.

More than 1,000 waterways are deemed "impaired" by pollution of one kind or another. “To me it was fairly shocking,” EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld said of the new figures.  "That really does speak to the enormity of the problem in front of us."


Heal the Bay: Long Beach water quality improves dramatically

$4.4-million settlement reached for San Gabriel Valley cleanup

California toxic waste case settled

--Bettina Boxall

Photo: A man wades between Surfrider Beach and Malibu Lagoon in Malibu. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

Texas fire: Chemical plant processes toxics, produces pesticide

A fire broke out Monday morning at the Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahachie, Texas

The Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahatchie, Texas, where a raging fire broke out this morning, processes tons of toxics, and uses large amounts of anhydrous ammonia, which is caustic, hazardous and can cause breathing problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's risk management plan.

The plant, about 30 miles south of Dallas, also is listed as a pesticide producer, and mixes or produces chemicals used in agriculture and the petroleum industry, including fluids for hydraulic fracturing (the most common of which are benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene).

Nearby facilities include two other agricultural chemical plants.

Here is a list of chemicals released or transferred at the plant, in pounds, by year, according to the EPA:

COPPER COMPOUNDS                 5  
CERTAIN GLYCOL ETHERS               250 250  
ZINC COMPOUNDS 5 5         800 35 250  
FORMIC ACID                 250  
METHANOL 40 40 45 45 45 45 2,412 1,680    
ETHYLENE GLYCOL 1 1 1       8,700 5 505  
DAZOMET                 250  

The plant is located in the Upper Trinity watershed, which has reported contaminants in fish tissue, including chlordane, a chemical formerly used in pesticides, and PCBs, according to the EPA.

More information on the Magnablend chemical plant in Texas.

BPA ban passes California state Senate

Pesticide exposure linked to prostate cancer

High levels of toxic PBDE found in pregnant California women

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: The Magnablend chemical plant in Waxahachie, Texas. Credit:

Decision postponed, again, on Yellowstone snowmobile rule


Once again the National Park Service has punted instead of issuing a final rule regarding the number of snowmobiles it will allow to operate each day in Yellowstone National Park.

Supt. Dan Wenk announced Thursday that the issue required additional analysis and that the park would implement an interim policy of allowing up to 318 commercially guided snowmobiles in the park each day, and 78 commercially guided snowcoaches.

Wenk said that when the winter use season starts Dec. 15, the same rules that have been in place the last two years will still apply. 

He said a final "sustainable" rule is expected before the start of the 2012-13 season. 

The debate over the use of snowmobiles in the nation's oldest park dates to the Clinton administration, when the use of the machines was to be phased out because of concerns about noise, air and sound  pollution, as well as visitor and wildlife safety. That rule was reversed by President George W. Bush.

The issue of snowmobiles in the park has been studied for more than a decade, at a cost of more than $10 million.


Secluded park threatened with closure

Yellowstone park releases report on grizzly attack

EPA scolded on greenhouse gas report review process

-- Julie Cart 

Photo: A bison crosses the road ahead of snowmobilers at Yellowstone National Park in a 2003 photo. Credit: Craig Moore / Associated Press 

EPA scolded on greenhouse gas report review process

Opponents of the federal government's efforts to rein in planet-warming greenhouse gases were trumpeting victory Wednesday over a report by the Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general that chided the agency for its peer-review process on a scientific document.

At issue is how the agency subjected a "technical support document" to scrutiny before finding that greenhouse gases posed a danger to the public and therefore merited regulation.

Few decisions by the agency have met with more uproar than the so-called endangerment finding on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases -- despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled that the EPA had the statutory authority to regulate such emissions.

Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), a denier of the scientific consensus that human activity is causing the planet to warm, had requested the review last year in his role as ranking GOP member of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

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