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5 Recent Underreported Environmental Disasters

Devastating toxic events are the new normal

Underreported Environmental Disasters

E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

On March 22nd, almost 170,000 gallons of heavy marine fuel poured into Galveston Bay on the Texas coast after two commercial boats collided in the busy waterway. In Indiana, on March 24th, energy giant BP spilled as many as 1600 gallons of oil — a mix of domestic crude and tar sands oil from Canada — into Lake Michigan, the primary source of drinking water for Chicago's seven million residents. And on March 17th, 20,000 gallons of pipeline oil leaked into a nature preserve in southwest Ohio. Meanwhile, January's Elk River chemical spill, which contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians, continues to frighten citizens, many of whom are still not drinking or bathing in it.

Pollution has long been an accepted cost of cheap energy production, particularly in states desperate for jobs. Big Energy is a powerful presence in Washington, working hard to block and gut environmental regulation and to defang the agencies tasked with protecting the country's natural resources. Weak or outdated laws governing toxic chemicals, and the absence of standardized oversight, tracking mechanisms or meaningful punishment for oil spills and leaks gives industry the leeway to keep polluting.

In the last twelve months, a rash of devastating oil, coal ash and chemical incidents have highlighted how extreme environmental degradation is now standard practice. Here are some of the worst.

By Coco McPherson

Galveston Bay oil spill

AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, PO3 Manda Emery

Galveston Bay, Texas, Oil Spill

The March shipping accident that dumped almost 170,000 gallons of RMG 380 marine fuel into Galveston Bay fouled the nation's seventh largest estuary, one that is second only to the Chesapeake Bay in seafood production. Unlike a larger 2010 spill at nearby Port of Texas, which was contained in a channel, this spill is in open water and the oil is now being spotted in the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists and commercial fisherman say the heavy fuel threatens every aspect of marine life in Galveston Bay as it could sink and smother fish, animals and birds. The Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary has reported hundreds of oiled birds at this, the start of spring migration. The bay is a nursery ground for baby crab and for shrimp who have just begun to spawn; once the oil enters the food chain at the bottom, it will contaminate other, larger species.

Who's responsible
The investigation is ongoing. The company that owns and operates one of the boats was already on probation for a federal criminal pollution violation, pleading guilty in 2012 and ordered to pay a $300,000 fine.

Who suffers
Fish, marine animals and birds, and those involved in the area's multi-billion dollar commercial and recreational fishing industry. In late March, fifty local businesses filed a class action lawsuit in federal court against the two companies whose boats were involved in creating the spill.

Dan River coal ash spill

John D. Simmons/Charlotte Observer/MCT

Dan River, North Carolina, Coal Ash Spill

On February 2nd, more than 80 tons of coal ash, a highly toxic byproduct of coal burned for electricity, leaked out of a Duke Energy containment pond and into the Dan River. The spill, the third largest of its kind in U.S. history, ultimately coated 70 miles of the river in North Carolina and south central Virginia. Coal ash contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals including lead, selenium, mercury and arsenic; though these are threats to the environment, to ground water and to human health and wildlife, coal ash isn't classified as hazardous and isn't federally regulated. On March 20th, North Carolina regulators cited Duke for illegally pumping 61 million gallons of coal ash wastewater into the Cape Fear River.

Who's responsible
Duke Energy. America's biggest electricity provider and the former employer of North Carolina governor, Pat McCrory, Duke is currently valued at nearly $50 billion, making whatever fines it incurs for polluting easily absorbed. One piece of good news: the Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation into the Dan River spill, including the company's cozy relationship with the state environmental agency tasked with regulating it.

Who suffers
Besides the environment, the citizens of North Carolina and Virginia. 

Texas fertilizer plant explosion

AP Photo/LM Otero, File

West, Texas, Fertilizer Plant Explosion

On April 17th, 2013, the West Fertilizer Company, a plant housing anhydrous ammonia gas and an unreported stockpile of ammonium nitrate blew up, killing 15 people (including 12 first-responders who had never been trained to fight fires at a plant full of chemicals used in fertilizer production) and injuring hundreds of residents. The blast destroyed dozens of homes and a middle school. Registering as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake on U.S. Geological Survey seismographs, the explosion was likened by West's mayor to the detonation of a nuclear bomb. 

Who's Responsible
West Fertilizer Company and state and federal regulatory agencies. According to reports, the company failed to register its 270 tons of ammonium nitrate with Homeland Security as required by law; a stockpile of this size is 1,300 times the amount that would normally trigger a review by DHS. In 2011, the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) fined the company $5,250 for safety violations. OSHA's last inspection was conducted nearly thirty years ago when, noting five significant violations, officials issued a $30 fine. 

Who suffers
Everyone. According to Greenpeace, one in three Americans lives near a facility storing highly toxic chemicals. In the West Fertilizer disaster, the only criminal investigation was of a local paramedic who would, months later, plead guilty to conspiring to possess a destructive device and obstructing justice. Never linked to the explosion, he began serving 21-month prison sentence in January. The cause of the blast remains unknown.

mayflower arkansas exxon oil spill

Courtesy of KARK-TV

Mayflower, Arkansas, Oil Spill

On March 29, 2013, the 65-year-old ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline ruptured beneath a subdivision in Mayflower, Arkansas, soaking lawns and streets with an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy toxic tar sands crude. For Mayflower's 2,200 residents, the existence of a pipeline running under their homes (and partially through the watershed that provides water to 400,000 people) came as a shock. Considered a "major spill" by the EPA, it sickened hundreds of residents and exposed them to known carcinogens like benzene and to hydrogen sulfide, which causes respiratory illnesses.

Who's Responsible
ExxonMobil. The Pegasus pipeline was built to carry lighter oil north from the Gulf Coast. In 2006 it was repurposed to carry the far heavier bitumen south from Canada. Bitumen is so thick that it has to be heated and diluted with gas in order to flow properly. In November, PHMSA proposed fining ExxonMobil $2.6 million for safety violations and for failing to adequately test the pipeline for the north-to-south conversion. Because the company is valued at over $420 billion, settling this and other lawsuits that have been filed over the Mayflower spill should be a snap.

Who suffers
Groundwater, people, wildlife.

elk river west virginia chemical spill

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Elk River, West Virginia, Chemical Spill

We covered the Elk River spill, but recent developments suggest the problems aren't going away anytime soon. Here's an update:

Three months after the Elk River chemical spill contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians — an event the National Science Foundation's William Cooper called "one of the largest human-made environmental disasters in this century" — there is frustratingly little consensus about the long-term health and environmental effects of MCHM, the coal-cleaning chemical involved. Anecdotal evidence suggests that thousands of West Virginians are still not willing to drink or bathe in their water and sample tests conducted in February revealed the continued presence of MCHM in residential tap water. On April 1st, a panel of experts appointed to study the spill called the Center for Disease Control's threshold limit (for acceptable levels of concentration) of one part per million too high. They recommended a more protective level of 120 parts per billion.Also on April 1st, West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law a bill designed to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks like the one that leaked into the Elk River, but confusing information about current safety of the water worries constituents living with the MCHM contamination. As the executive director of the Kanawha Charleston Health Department recently said, "The fact is, we are unwilling participants of a live human experiment."