About Air and Water

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Penalties mean profit for polluters

By RICK CASEY - Houston Chronicle - July 14, 2009
Way back in the bad old days, many prosperous Texas companies made a happy discovery.
They could earn money by not paying their taxes on time.
Under the law, the penalties they faced for being delinquent on their property taxes were less than they could earn in interest over that period of time.
Tax laws have since been changed to take away the profit motive for tax delinquents.
In another arena, however, we still are in the bad old days. Very prosperous corporations understand that the fines they will be charged by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for dumping illegal amounts of pollutants into the air are likely to be much less than they would have to pay to upgrade their equipment and limit their emissions to permitted amounts.
There's no secret about this. Back in 2003 a state audit of the TCEQ found that refineries and other polluters were consistently fined less than what the law called for. What's more, the law often capped fines at considerably less than an amount that would deter polluters.
The result, according to the audit:
“Violators often have economic benefits that exceed their penalties, which could reduce their incentive to comply. For 80 fiscal year 2001, 2002, and 2003 cases we tested, the total economic benefit gained by violators during the period of noncompliance was $8,647,005. However, these entities were fined only $1,683,635, which is approximately 19 percent of the economic benefit gained from being out of compliance.”

Last year a study by the Galveston-Houston Association for Smog Prevention, a good organization with an egregiously cute acronym (GHASP), found that little had changed.
“The economic benefit gained and the cost of compliance thus far avoided are not recovered in the majority of penalties,” the report found, noting that violators thus “gain a competitive advantage over those that comply.”

State Sen. Mario Gallegos introduced a bill this spring that would have required that all fines would be equal to or more than the amount the company saved by not installing nonpolluting equipment and procedures.
If you breathe Houston's air, you won't be surprised to learn that the bill was buried early.
Still, some Houston clean-air activists took heart last month when Attorney General Greg Abbot filed a lawsuit against BP Petroleum on behalf of the TCEQ.
The suit seeks more than $100 million in fines, alleging that BP illegally dumped pollutants into the air at least 46 times, starting when 15 people were killed in 2005 at the company's Texas City plant.
The suit was filed after negotiations between BP and the TCEQ failed.
One clean air advocate said the suit against BP is “a big deal” that supports a local perception that in the past year TCEQ staff has been quietly increasing its enforcement activities while trying not to draw the attention of the agency's business-friendly board.
Others are more skeptical.
“I think it's a long time coming,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, an Austin-based nonprofit. “I think they're basically piling on after the EPA fined BP with a huge penalty.”

Still, he said he was glad for the suit, if skeptical that it will go far enough.
Metzger has standing to speak. His organization and the Sierra Club last year sued Shell Oil Co. for allegedly exceeding its permitted emissions at its Deer Park plant by 5 million pounds.
They won a settlement of $6 million plus an agreement by Shell to reduce its emissions by 80 percent within three years or face more penalties.
Metzger says more suits are in the works.
Here's a sweet competition for you: Can the TCEQ and the attorney general enforce clean air laws better than a little old nonprofit? Any bets?
Read more in the Houston Chronicle

Friday, July 17, 2009

Midland Texas Wells Contaminated with Chromium

By Dr. Shezad Malik - Dallas Fort Worth Injury Lawyer - July 16, 2009

Beverly Crouch spent hundreds of dollars on chemicals last fall to try to get the green tinge out of her backyard pool.
It wasn't until two months ago that she learned why the chemicals she put into her 13,000-gallon, above-ground pool wouldn't clear the water. The green color came from well water contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen.
Crouch, 44, isn't alone. Some of her neighbors' wells gushed water the color of urine.
Texas environmental officials are still trying to determine the extent of the contamination. Later this month, they will ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider the site for federal Superfund status.
After that, efforts will begin to find who dumped the dangerous chemical, which appears to have been in the area for years, according to one environmental investigator.
Residents have enlisted the help of Erin Brockovich, who helped Hinkley, Calif., residents after their groundwater was found to be contaminated by the same chemical.
Industrial workers who breathe airborne hexavalent chromium may get lung cancer, and it can irritate or damage the nose, throat and lungs if inhaled at high levels. It can also damage eyes or skin.
People and animals exposed to hexavalent chromium in drinking water face an increased risk of stomach tumors.
As of June 30, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has found contamination in about one-third of the 125 wells tested in Cotton Flats, a community south of Interstate 20 on the fringe of Midland.
Most of the Cotton Flats homes are in Midland County and are not connected to the city's water supply.
The highest reading was 5,250 parts of chromium per billion — or more than 50 times the maximum allowed by the EPA.
Hexavalent chromium compounds, a toxic form of the element chromium, are man-made and used as an anticorrosive and rust inhibitor; in chrome plating; in pressure treating of wood; in dyes and pigments; and in leather tanning.
The state environmental agency continues to test wells; so far the commission has spent more than $1 million on testing and dealing with the contamination. Texas law allows the agency to seek reimbursement from polluters for costs associated with dealing with the contamination. Such costs would include filtration systems the commission has installed at homes where levels of hexavalent chromium exceed the EPA maximum.
The filtration systems provide water that is safe for all household uses, agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.
The well tests began in early April, but it not known how long the chemical has been in the groundwater, Morrow said.
The concentrations of hexavalent chromium are the highest he's ever seen in groundwater, and he believes the chemical has been in the groundwater for up to five years.
The culprit is definitely oilfield activity, Bowcock said, saying that's the only industry in the area.

Bowcock and some Cotton Flats residents believe Schlumberger, an oilfield services company, is responsible. In an e-mailed statement, company spokesman Stephen T. Harris denied Schlumberger is to blame.
"Schlumberger fully appreciates the concern of the public and continues to cooperate with the TCEQ to help identify sources of chromium in the area," Harris wrote. "Independent groundwater tests, however, indicate that the source of the contamination is likely an adjacent site unrelated to our facility."

Sheldon Johnson, who has lived in Cotton Flats for 17 years and works for the city of Midland, said he doubts whoever is responsible will step forward.
Johnson and others frequently check and change the filters inside the system to ensure they are working properly. The potential heath threat is never far from their thoughts.
Read more in Dallas Fort Worth Injury Lawyer

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


By Matthew Berger - TerraViva EU - Wed. July 1, 2009

LONDON (IPS) - Governments and interest groups around the world followed the U.S. House of Representatives' vote Friday on the first U.S. policy to limit the country's greenhouse gas emissions. They were especially interested in Europe, where a system similar to the bill's cap-and-trade scheme already exists and where EU countries agreed last December to tough emissions targets.

The reaction among European groups has been as mixed as it has been among their U.S. counterparts, with the notable difference that those opposing the passage of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or the Waxman-Markey bill, largely feel it does not go far enough.

Most of the 212 U.S. representatives that voted against it, on the other hand, felt it imposed excessive restrictions and costs.

"We are disappointed. The U.S. has a responsibility when it comes to climate change," Sonja Meister, climate change coordinator for Friends of the Earth Europe told IPS Friday. Developed nations need to reduce emissions by at least 40 percent by 2020, she said, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's recommendation for the most ambitious government action.

The U.S. bill calls for a reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions of 17 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. The EU's '20-20-20' targets call for a 20 percent reduction over the same time, compared with 1990 levels.

The position taken by many in Europe is that anything is better than nothing, however. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was quoted by the Associated Press Friday as saying, "We want the U.S. to go as far and as fast as they can on climate change. We want Waxman-Markey to succeed."

On Monday, Lena de Visscher, the Commission's spokesperson for the environment office, told IPS, "We welcome the approval of the Waxman- Markey bill by the House. This is an important signal of Congress's desire for the U.S. to re-engage in the global debate on climate change."

The French daily Le Monde led its Sunday-Monday edition with the headline 'Climate: Barack Obama launches his green revolution', largely focusing on the change in policy since last year when, it says, "a law aiming to fight climate change would have been unthinkable."

This rejoicing that legislation addressing climate issues is on the table now after eight years of silence under the Bush Administration is not universal, however.

Leaders in Europe were following the Waxman-Markey bill very closely, said Martin Kaiser of Greenpeace International last week from Amsterdam. They are pleased legislation is on its way after nothing happening under former president George W. Bush, but are uncomfortable with the level of emissions targets at the moment, he said.

The cap-and-trade aspects of the bill have also been criticised in European environmental circles, where they have seen first-hand the successes and failures of their own Emissions Trading System (ETS).

The EU's system, agreed in 2005, distributed a set amount of allowances to industry, mainly in the energy sector. These were distributed for free initially, though the goal was to sell the carbon permits in auction by 2013. Many concessions, including the partial delay of this auctioning, were wrangled by industry as the EU tried to strengthen the ETS in order to bring it in line with the 20-20-20 targets last winter, and the story of U.S. legislation looks very similar.

Concessions to industry and opposition in the House led to the Waxman- Markey bill's original hopes being set aside in the name of simply getting something passed. Among the concessions included in the final draft, the bill would initially distribute 85 percent of allowances for free.

According to Meister, cap-and-trade programmes could work well, but only when they have 100 percent auctioning for all sectors, no offsetting, and earmarking of revenue to help the countries and industries that need the most help in adapting.

"Governments tend to over-rely on market-based solutions," she said. "Because of our experience in the EU, I'm skeptical that this could work, particularly because of the pressure that will come from industry and the loopholes that will develop over time as businesses adapt to the new restrictions."

But the most interesting aspect for Europeans may be not the efficacy of the legislation in the U.S. but the way it affects international climate change discussions, as will take place at the G8 talks in Italy Jul. 8 to 10.

De Visscher, speaking for the European Commission, said the bill shows the U.S. is "ready for a climate change deal in Copenhagen at the end of this year."

There seems to be one consensus - U.S. domestic legislation has an international effect which can raise or lower the bar for everyone else.

"It is really hard to push the EU to enact stronger targets if everyone else is much weaker," says Meister. "The EU says, 'Look, we have the strongest emissions targets.' But even those targets aren't in line with the science."

The bill now moves to the U.S. Senate, where it is expected to face even more scrutiny and criticism than it did in the House. The debate will surely continue in Europe, as well. Read more in TerraViva EU

Travel to other worlds ... UTA Planetarium

Immersive full-dome 3-D Digital planetarium show narrated by Ewan McGregor (Obi wan Kepobi from Star Wars) - Astronaut takes you exporing the worlds of inner and outer space. The movie is projected all around you. You recline in specially constructed chairs which enables you to comfortably view the immersive full-dome planetarium show. Astronaut! (produced from the National Space Centre in England) goes beyond the stereotypical space movie. Experience a rocket launch from inside the body of the astronaut. Float around the international Space Station moving thorugh the microscopic regions of the human body! Discover the beauty and perils as "Chad", the test astronaut experiences everything thrown at him.

Summer Schedule (June 2-August 26):


shows at the UTA Planetarium.

Wed. through Saturdays at 11 a.m.
and Thursday at 7:00 p.m.

Cosmic CSI

shows at the UTA Planetarium 3-D Digital Dome.

Wed. through Saturdays at 2 p.m.

Rock Hall of Fame 1 (The Original)

shows at the UTA Planetarium.

Thursday at 8:00 p.m.

Read more (Warning their flat dull website doesn't give much of a glimmer of the multi-dimensional experience you'll have once you enter the dome of the UTA Planetarium!)

Admission: Adults: $5.00

Seniors, Students, Children: $4.00

UTA Faculty, Staff & Alumni (with ID): $3.00

UTA Studens (with ID): $2.00

Groups of 10 or more with reservation: $3.00

Call 817 272-1183 or e-mail planetarium@uta.edu