eco-toxin clippings

Prenatal Air Pollution Exposure Linked to Low Childhood IQ

Prenatal exposure to pervasive air pollutants may adversely affect a child’s intelligence by preschool, researchers reported today.

In New York City, children exposed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the womb had significantly lower full-scale and verbal IQ scores when they turned 5, according to Frederica Perera, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, and colleagues.

“The present findings are of concern because verbal and full-scale IQ scores measured … during the preschool period were shown to be predictive of subsequent elementary school performance in a range of populations,” they reported online in the journal Pediatrics.

From ABC News


Kent pollution cleanup stalls
A year after the state announced a legal settlement requiring cleanup of long-standing pollution problems at a chemical plant near Chestertown on the Eastern Shore, the work remains stalled by disputes with the plant’s owner.

Genovique Specialties Corp. has balked at demands from the state Department of the Environment that it do more testing of soil and groundwater for toxic and potentially cancer-causing chemicals at its manufacturing facility, which sits beside an unnamed stream that ultimately flows to the Chesapeake Bay. The company, based in Rosemont, Ill., first submitted a plan last August for investigating contamination at its Kent County plant, which manufactures “plasticizers” – substances that make plastics flexible. But the state found the original plan riddled with “data and information gaps” and has insisted on more sampling to ascertain how far contaminants may have spread.

“We’ve reviewed the cleanup plan, and we don’t agree with it,” said Dawn Stoltzfus, state environment agency spokeswoman. “We have requested revisions, and the party does not agree with us.”

Stoltzfus said the problems at the plant pose no immediate threat to neighboring residents. But some environmental activists are not so sure, and they fault state regulators for not pressing harder to clean up a facility that has been the source of complaints for decades.

“I don’t know the reason why it’s taken so long,” said Tom Leigh, the Chester Riverkeeper, who noted that groundwater contamination was first detected at the plant 20 years ago. While the facility’s current and previous owners have taken some steps to remedy problems, he said, members of the community are frustrated by the apparent lack of progress since the consent decree was signed last July.

“They certainly deserve better from the state as well as the business owners that run the plant,” said Leigh, who monitors the condition of the river for the Chester River Association.

The consent decree had settled a lawsuit filed by the state in 2007 that accused the plant of discharging polluted wastewater and of contaminating soil and groundwater beneath its facility. Under the decree filed in Kent County Circuit Court, the company, previously known as Velsicol Chemical Co., agreed to a timetable for investigating and cleaning up the problems within two years. The company also agreed to pay a $200,000 fine in 18 monthly installments. The deal had been billed by officials as the final resolution of chronic pollution problems at the plant, which has been in operation since the 1950s.

Over the years, the Chestertown plant has used a series of unlined ponds to store and treat its wastewater, and state officials say pollutants have leached into the soil and groundwater, including the solvents benzene and toluene and bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, also known as BEHP. Benzene can cause cancer in humans, while toluene can damage the brain and nervous system, as well as other organs. BEHP has been classified as a probable carcinogen, and exposure to high levels has caused kidney damage and disrupted reproduction and sexual development in laboratory animals. Last year, Congress banned the sale of children’s toys containing some phthalates.

Marian Hwang, a lawyer for the corporation, declined to comment. But in a letter sent to the state this month, she contends that it is being required to do more testing than is needed, because the levels of toxic pollution monitored in the groundwater have declined and there is no evidence any has seeped beyond the fenceline.

The lawyer asked that the court-approved timetable for completing the study and cleanup be put on hold while the state mulls its appeal, but pledged to begin work on some of the cleanup.

Genovique submitted a plan for investigating the extent of contamination and pollution at the plant, but it has never been approved by the state.

“We’re not going to accept a substandard plan,” Stoltzfus said. “We’re taking our time to make sure the cleanup is done right.”

The Chester River Association agrees that more extensive soil and water testing is needed. But the group also is concerned that storm water washing off the plant site contains BEHP, while wastewater released by the facility into a holding pond that overflows into a nearby stream contains phosphorus. Phosphorus is one of the pollutants chiefly responsible for the algae blooms that create a fish-suffocating “dead zone” on the bay bottom in summer. The state has never officially limited the amount of phosphorus the chemical plant can discharge, and since the consent decree was signed last July there have been 18 times that the phosphorus levels in the plant’s wastewater exceeded the limit normally set on municipal sewage plants.

Meanwhile, Leigh said, ducks and geese frequent the pond collecting BEHP-tainted storm runoff. “Those birds move on and may wind up on somebody’s dinner plate one day,” he said.

Leigh said he is frustrated because state law prevents the citizens group he works for from suing the company if the state has taken action.

Michele Merkel, Chesapeake coordinator for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said the protracted Genovique cleanup is part of a pattern of flagging environmental enforcement in Maryland. State data show declines last year in both the number of sites inspected and actions taken, she noted.

“They either don’t have the resources or the political will to adequately address violations of environmental laws,” she said.

Stoltzfus said the state is dedicated to cleaning up the plant but acknowledged that “resources are limited.” She said the agency is overseeing about 100 consent decrees requiring pollution cleanups.

Stoltzfus said Genovique has begun treating its wastewater in recent months to remove phosphorus. And the contamination problems are limited for now to the plant site, she said.

“If there were public health risks, if drinking water were involved, it would be a different situation,” the state spokeswoman said. “But we have to set priorities when resources are tight.”


City Dwellers 22-45 percent More Likely to Develop Asthma

There may be a reason that children’s asthma rates are so high in urban areas. Youngsters with stressed-out parents and exposure to air pollution have a higher risk of asthma, according to a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Air pollutants can cause an inflammatory response in the airways, which is a primary feature of asthma.

Air pollutants can cause an inflammatory response in the airways, which is a primary feature of asthma.

“The new study raises some questions about why stress-plus-pollution leads to worse problems than either alone,” says Harold J. Farber, M.D., an associate professor of the pediatric pulmonary section at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children Hospital, in Houston, and the author of “Control Your Child’s Asthma.” “Why is it that this combination is somewhat more toxic than either alone?”

In the United States, about 22 million people — including 6 million children — have asthma. City-dwelling children have about a 22 to 45 percent higher risk of developing asthma than their peers living elsewhere.

In the new study, a research team led by Rob S. McConnell, M.D., a professor of preventive medicine at the Keck Institute of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, tracked 2,497 children from the region. The children were ages 5 to 9 and had no history of asthma or wheezing.

Children with stressed-out parents who lived around high levels of traffic-related pollution were at a higher risk of developing asthma during the three-year study period than children without stressed parents. Stressed parents tend to have children who report more stress too, but the researchers did not measure the children’s stress levels. Parents were considered stressed if they said their lives were unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overwhelming.

Air pollutants can cause an inflammatory response in the airways, which is a primary feature of asthma. Stress may increase a person’s susceptibility to air pollutants by lowering immune system function or affecting the autonomic nervous system, which helps regulate breathing, the authors say.

The study helps to pinpoint the children most at risk for the respiratory disorder, says Farber, who was not involved in the new research.

“It also reinforces basic things, like parental stress and traffic-related pollution are bad things for children and things that we need to decrease our children’s exposure to,” he says, noting that this is easier said than done. “Managing stress and pollution are important, and if two things occur together, it’s important to be on top of them.”

What’s more, parental stress also seemed to exacerbate the effect of maternal smoking during pregnancy, according to the study. Children who had stressed-out parents and were exposed to cigarette smoke during pregnancy were two to three times more likely to develop asthma than children exposed to cigarette smoke alone. Stress and low socioeconomic conditions (such as not finishing high school) on their own did not increase a child’s risk of developing asthma.

If your child develops any signs or symptoms of asthma — such as a chronic cough or wheezing — get it checked out as soon as possible, Farber advises. “If you think your child may be predisposed to asthma, don’t live near a freeway; if you do live near a freeway, get on top of your stress and look at stress management programs and/or moving.”

Neil Schachter, M.D., the director of respiratory care at Mount Sinai Medical Center, in New York City, and the author of “The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu,” agrees.

“Stress alone does not provoke or make asthma worse, unless it is in conjunction with other known risk factors such as traffic-related air pollution,” he says. “If a child lives in the country and is not exposed to air pollution, parental stress does not make it worse.” Change one thing, change your life: A primer for improving your mood

Dr. Schachter’s advice? “Go green where you can,” he says. “Use a home air cleaner to remove small particles that are in the air. You may not be able to control the outdoor air quality on your own, but you can try and control your indoor air quality by banning smoking inside the house and choosing green cleaning products, which do not contain harsh chemicals that can affect indoor air quality.”

From CNN


Murky past of company accused of shipping toxic waste emerges

Doubts about Britain’s recycling industry were growing last night as it emerged that a company suspected of shipping hazardous waste to Brazil was supplied with recyclable plastics by a business with previous convictions for pollution.

An investigation by The Times has discovered that Worldwide Biorecyclables, which allegedly shipped syringes, condoms and soiled nappies from Britain, received deliveries from a company that has broken environmental laws repeatedly.

Hills Waste Solutions has been convicted four times of pollution offences, two of them last year. The first two convictions were under the company’s previous name, Hills Mineral and Waste. The company pleaded guilty to failing to control at a landfill site the level of leachate — a liquid developed from decomposing waste that can contain heavy metals such as arsenic and cyanide — in its latest prosecution in December 2008.

Swindon Council struck a deal with Worldwide Biorecyclables, a small organisation newly created by local Brazilian immigrants, to sell materials for recycling, and Wiltshire Council uses Hills Waste Solutions to run recycling centres despite its convictions.

Three men linked to the Brazil shipment inquiry who were arrested on Thursday were released yesterday but their passports were confiscated.

There is no evidence that any of the 1,400 tonnes of waste sent to Brazil, which included hazardous items, came from Hills’ recycling centres where the public dumps recyclable waste.

Worldwide Biorecyclables benefited from a loophole in the Environment Protection Act 1990 which allows waste management companies to avoid Environment Agency scrutiny by registering their businesses as “low-risk” operations.

The company was granted a “simple exemption” from seeking an environmental work permit when treating waste for the purpose of recovery and storing waste in a secure place.

Multiplas UK, a company run by a Brazilian immigrant, Julio Da Costa, from Swindon, which is also being investigated over hazardous waste sent to Brazil, operated despite having neither permits nor exemptions.

Up to 7,000 sites, including supermarkets and department stores, handle low-risk waste, according to the Environment Agency. The watchdog admits it lacks the resources to ensure they are all adhering to the exemptions rules. It acts on tip-offs from the public and other sources.

The Times disclosed yesterday that the Environment Agency is reviewing recycling industry rules.

Hills Waste Solutions refused yesterday to disclose details about its eight-month trial contract with Worldwide Biorecyclables, saying it was “commercially sensitive information”. While Hills could not rule out that syringes may find their way into bins allocated for rigid plastics at the ten household recycling sites the company runs on behalf of Wiltshire Council, the company said it was “extremely unlikely”.

“You can’t say it could not, nothing is a 100 per cent . . . but it’s extremely unlikely to happen,” Hills’ company secretary Alex Henderson said. Two full-time workers on each site monitored disposals to help to ensure nothing “pollutes the waste stream”.

Wiltshire Council defended its contract with Hills to manage household recycling centres, which are separate from the landfill sites it was convicted of mismanaging.

“Despite these two recent convictions the company has [a] good record of environmental compliance,” a Wiltshire Council spokesman Allan Clarke said. “The prosecutions, while regrettable, did not amount to sufficient cause to terminate the current contract.”

The 20-year contract between the council and Hills is due to run until 2016. Wiltshire Council said it had alternative arrangements to collect syringes and medical waste.

Hills suspended its dealings with Worldwide Biorecyclables when the Brazilian immigrants’ company left its premises on an industrial estate in Swindon. It is understood that Worldwide was evicted after falling behind on rent. The Times visited the Worldwide site and found eviction notices stuck on doors by bailiffs, dated March 23, 2009. Nothing had been left apart from two portable toilets.

From Times Online


Nigerian Official says E-Waste Dumping is Crime Against Humanity

The Nigerian government says it is deeply concerned about the dumping of potentially toxic electronic waste and has promised to clamp down on illegal imports of e-waste.

Speakers at an international conference on the hazards of electronic waste in Abuja say Nigeria has become a giant dumping ground where hundreds of millions of tons of electronic waste ends up each year.

Nigerian Justice Minister Michael Aondoakaa says the growing trade in hazardous waste to Africa is a result of electronic companies’ failing to take responsibility for recycling their products and constitutes a crime against humanity.

“The effects of technology on countries that do not have the capacity to manage the harmful effects of technology must be controlled. And, the control must come from firms and organizations that manufacture this technology,” he said. “We have health challenges. We also have challenges in the provision of health care to our people. And, if we have the kind of injurious substances coming here, government will face unprecedented challenge. I consider this not just an environmental hazard, but also a crime against humanity.”

The Nigerian government says it has ordered its customs services, security and environmental agencies to clamp down on illegal imports of obsolete electronic products.

According to a 2007 report by the Basel Action Network, about 500 containers with 400,000 second-hand computers are delivered each month in Lagos – Nigeria’s most populous city, with 15 million people.

Waste from products such as televisions, computers, computer monitors, cell phones, keyboards and radios are known as electronic waste, or e-waste. It is a vast and growing market, estimated at 50 million tons a year. Much of it is dumped in Nigeria and other developing countries.

Used computers are very popular in Nigeria because they are much cheaper. The chairman of the Nigerian House of Representatives Committee on Environment, Dino Meneye, says electronic companies are exploiting the weakness of the Nigerian system.

“The influx of electronic waste in Nigeria is a function of many factors. These include unbridled tendencies of the developed nations to dump toxic waste and pollutants in developing nations, the porous nature of the nation’s borders, high level of poverty and, most especially, the dubious disposition of some importers and traders to import and sell toxic wastes to unsuspecting consumers,” said Meneye.

Analysts say e-waste dumping is a major health and environmental hazard because of the substances contained in most electronic products, such as lead, cadmium and mercury. If improperly disposed of, these toxic materials inside e-waste leak out and poison soil and groundwater.

From Voice of America


FEMA blamed for slow response to toxic trailer problem

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) – The troubles caused by toxic FEMA trailers took too long to respond to.  That’s the finding in a report just issued by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General.

The 79 page report chides FEMA for not displaying a degree of urgency in reacting to reported formaldehyde problems.  It determined that despite multiple health complaints from gulf coast hurricane victims, FEMA took too long to implement a formaldehyde testing program.

The OIG report acknowledged it was a story WLOX aired on March 16, 2006 which first alerted the public to a potential formaldehyde problem in FEMA trailers.  In that story, Paul Stewart and his wife believed they were getting sick because their temporary trailer was toxic.

“When we first moved in here we had significant symptoms,” Stewart told WLOX that day.  “We had burning eyes burning nose scratchy throats, nasal headaches that type of thing.”

The report said the first indications of possible formaldehyde in FEMA trailers actually surfaced in October, 2005 — less than two months after Katrina, and five months before the Stewarts made their health concerns public.

Right after the Stewarts complained, the Sierra Club issued its own warning about toxic trailers.  Yet, according to the report, FEMA didn’t take the matter seriously, waiting until the winter of 2007 before it finally tested occupied trailers.

In the report that was just released, Inspector General Richard Skinner found that delay to be unacceptable.  FEMA “did not take sufficiently prompt and effective action to determine the extent of the formaldehyde problem,” the inspector general wrote.

Skinner said initial testing of occupied trailers “took far longer than necessary.”

And he called the toxic trailers, “a problem that could pose a significant health risk to people who were relying on FEMA’s program.”

In FEMA’s defense, Skinner wrote that the agency and the CDC have undertaken significant efforts remedy the formaldehyde problem in future emergency housing.

FEMA responded to the report through spokesman Clark Stevens.  He said the agency agreed with the findings.  He also pointed out that FEMA had made great progress in ensuring that future trailers and mobile homes are safe.

Stevens e-mailed the following statement to WLOX News.

“FEMA’s highest priority is the health and safety of the disaster survivors we serve and the employees and contractors who fulfill FEMA’s housing mission.  FEMA agrees with the Inspector General’s findings and has already made great progress in developing policies and actions, such as air quality standards, to address concerns associated with formaldehyde emissions in FEMA housing. As a result, FEMA and our partners are far better positioned to respond to the temporary housing needs of disaster survivors than we were several years ago.

“FEMA has re-affirmed our commitment to limit formaldehyde in the National Disaster Housing Strategy and, most recently, in the 2009 Disaster Housing Plan. We recognize that there is still work to be done, and FEMA will take all appropriate and necessary steps as we continue to develop policies and guidance moving forward. ”


Analysis Finds Toxic Substances in Electronic Cigarettes

Electronic cigarettes contain traces of toxic substances and carcinogens, according to a preliminary analysis of the products by the Food and Drug Administration.

The findings, which were announced on Wednesday, contradict claims by electronic cigarette manufacturers that their products are safe alternatives to tobacco and contain little more than water vapor, nicotine and propylene glycol, which is used to create artificial smoke in theatrical productions. When heated, the liquid produces a vapor that users inhale through the battery-powered device.

“We’re concerned about them because of what we know is in them and what we don’t know about how they affect the human body,” said Joshua Sharfstein, the F.D.A.’s principal commissioner.

The agency analyzed 19 varieties of cartridges, which hold the liquid, and two cigarettes, one manufactured by NJoy and another by Smoking Everywhere.

The analysis found that several of the cartridges contained detectable levels of nitrosamines, tobacco-specific compounds known to cause cancer. One Smoking Everywhere cartridge was found to contain diethlyene glycol, a common ingredient in antifreeze that counterfeiters have substituted for glycerin in toothpaste, killing hundreds worldwide.

Dr. Sharfstein said the agency was “not sure” what type of effect the diethlyene glycol and other carcinogens have on the human body when inhaled through electronic cigarettes.

The Electronic Cigarette Association, an industry trade group, said in a statement that the F.D.A.’s testing was too “narrow to reach any valid and reliable conclusions” and that its members sell and market their products only to adults.

A statement from the chief executive officer of NJoy, Jack Ledbetter, said a third party had tested its products and found them to be “appropriate alternatives” for cigarettes, but he did not release the findings. The company said its experts would review its tests and the F.D.A.’s.

Electronic cigarettes, which are manufactured in China, are subject to little quality control, Dr. Sharfstein said. The study found the levels of nicotine to vary even in cartridges whose labels claim to have the same amount of nicotine. Some of the cartridges that claimed not to contain nicotine actually did, the analysis found.

The F.D.A. has called electronic cigarettes drug delivery devices and said they should not be allowed in the country. It has turned away about 50 shipments of the devices at the border, but they still continue to be sold in malls nationwide and online. The agency would not comment on whether it planned to ban or seize the devices. In April, Smoking Everywhere sued the F.D.A., claiming that it did not have jurisdiction to bar the electronic devices from entering the United States.

The agency and public health officials are especially worried that electronic cigarettes, which are offered in flavors including cherry and bubblegum, are enticing to children and may be easy for those under 18 to obtain online or in malls.
From the New York Times


Dry cleaners leave a toxic legacy
For decades, one of the nation’s most widely used dry cleaning solvents was billed as a marvel of modern chemistry that could safely remove dirt and stains from clothing.

Shops sprang up to take advantage of the chemical, perchloroethylene, also known as PCE or perc. People became familiar with the sharp odor of clothes freshly removed from plastic wrap, a sign that perc was used to clean them.

But over the years, with little if any notice to the public, the often sloppy use of perchloroethylene has poisoned hundreds of sites in Illinois. As scientists linked perc exposure to cancer, liver damage, neurological problems and other ailments, regulators found problems in virtually every town with a dry cleaner.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has signed off on cleanups of about 500 sites since the late 1990s. More than 400 polluted locations remain, though few neighbors may know it. Most are in Chicago and its suburbs.

At more than two dozen of these sites, state records show, the dry cleaning solvent threatens nearby water wells and residential areas. The most infamous example is in south suburban Crestwood, where village officials secretly drew water from a contaminated well for more than two decades.

Although none of the others appears to be as severe as Crestwood, the potential risks are great enough that the sites have been moved to the top of a state cleanup list.

To help clean up the contamination, the dry cleaning industry persuaded state lawmakers a decade ago to create an insurance fund financed by annual licenses and fees on the amount of perc used. The fund is expected to spend $2.75 million this year to help scour pollution from about 100 sites.

More money could have been earmarked, but last fall former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and legislative leaders took $2 million out of the fund to help balance the state budget.

Developed in the 19th Century, perc became the solvent of choice for most dry cleaners after World War I. For years it was used in massive quantities with few if any rules to protect workers from noxious vapors or neighbors from chemical spills.

“You have to remember that for years there weren’t any guidelines for how to dispose of PCE,” said H. Patrick Eriksen, administrator of the cleaners’ insurance fund. “People have told me they would use a little perc at the end of the day to clean the floors, or they’d hose it down the drain and it would leak out of sewer mains.”

The public can be exposed to perc by drinking or showering in contaminated water, playing in polluted dirt and breathing air in homes where vapors have seeped in from the soil. The amount of the chemical that lingers on clothes is not considered a significant threat.

At most contaminated sites, the problem was identified years ago, as it was in Crestwood. But cleaning up the pollution is a long, expensive process. Tons of soil may have to be dug out and shipped to hazardous-waste landfills. Or chemicals are injected into hot spots to break down the chemical into harmless substances.

Many dry cleaners are small-business owners waiting for help from the insurance fund to evaluate and clean up contamination, sometimes left by previous operators. Landlords are reluctant to tackle the problem unless they are looking to sell.

And the Illinois EPA, overwhelmed by the number of polluted sites, allows most owners to decide when and how to clean up the contamination, guided by state rules that determine how the property can be used in the future.

Neighbors, meanwhile, often are left in the dark.

Tonya Hagenbaumer found out the backyard of her Naperville home was contaminated five years ago, when an environmental consultant peeked over the fence and asked to test some soil as she and friends lay by the pool. A month later, a jargon-filled report arrived in the mail indicating that perc had leached into her yard from a dry cleaner next door.

The owners of Modaff Cleaners, 537 W. 87th St., and the strip mall that houses the business have known about the perc spill since at least 2002, records show. Levels of the chemical in soil around the site are as high as 400 parts per million, well above the state standard of 240 ppm.

Levels in Hagenbaumer’s yard are much lower. But she and her husband, Chris, still are wary of letting their three children play in the backyard. They blew through their savings hiring an environmental attorney to translate reports and pressure the dry cleaner to act, yet the site still isn’t cleaned up.

“Everybody is standing around pointing fingers at each other,” Hagenbaumer said. “It feels like we’re the only people who care.”

Records show the dry cleaner’s consultants have considered digging up the contaminated soil or injecting oxygen into the ground to speed up the degradation of perc. A woman who answered the phone at the dry cleaner said no one was available to comment.

At another site slated for a high-priority cleanup, in north suburban Fox Lake, residents were warned in May that their wells could be contaminated with perc.

The EPA and the Illinois Department of Public Health sent letters to dozens of homes because the solvent and related chemicals were found in groundwater beyond the property lines of two dry cleaners, one of which has been shuttered. One of the chemicals, dichloroethylene, also turned up in two Fox Lake community wells, though the water is treated before it is piped to residents.

Perc levels in groundwater near Bavaros Cleaners, 41 E. Grand Ave., and neighboring Lakeland Plaza are as high as 24.8 parts per million, nearly 5,000 times higher than federal drinking water standards, records show. Investigators also found vinyl chloride, a related chemical, at levels 1,500 times higher than allowed.

Nothing bad has turned up yet in private wells, according to state records. But several residents said they still are taking precautions.

“Just because of the scare we go with bottled water in case it starts coming this way,” said Melissa Jurik, who lives on Holly Avenue just a few blocks from the polluted sites.

Another neighbor, Craig Curtis, said he initially decided not to test his well because others came back clean. He’s reconsidering now that he discovered his well is only 45 feet deep and could be more easily contaminated, but cost is an issue. “Other than that letter saying there is a problem there really are no resources,” he said.

Bavaros could end up being one of the more expensive sites to clean up. If it turns out like some of the more troublesome spills that already have been addressed, the solution likely will involve carting away contaminated soil and injecting chemicals into the ground to break down the pollution.

One of the owners, Myoung Jin Yu, said he has turned the matter over to consultants being paid by the dry cleaners’ insurance fund. The contamination existed when he took over the business in 2004, he said.

In west suburban Oak Park, nearly eight years passed between the time perc contamination was identified at Zephyr Cleaners, 130 W. Chicago Ave., and when the EPA signed off on the cleanup, records show. The insurance fund paid nearly $290,000, making it one of the most expensive claims to date.

Crews broke up the concrete floor in the back of the shop and used a conveyor belt to move 44 cubic yards of contaminated soil into a dump truck, records show. Then a catalyst was injected twice into the ground to lower the amount of perc to a level acceptable under state standards.

After a fire damaged the World’s Largest Laundromat & Drycleaner, 6246 W. Cermak Rd. in Berwyn, the owner rebuilt the structure with a device that extracts old solvents from the ground and filters them into the air, records show. Such an elaborate system usually isn’t available to businesses seeking to continue operating in an existing building.

At United Cleaners in southwest suburban Lemont, crews trucked away 230 tons of contaminated soil and cooked it in a device that steamed out the chemicals, records show.

Efforts to reach owners of those cleaned-up sites were unsuccessful last week.

Dozens of other sites required far less work. The state approved about 200 after they installed “engineered barriers,” which in most of those cases meant the owners paved over the pollution with asphalt. The EPA has concluded that is acceptable as long as buildings are never constructed on the contaminated property.

As the health dangers from perc became more widely understood and federal regulations got tougher, dry cleaners have steadily reduced their use of the chemical. Cleaners in residential buildings must stop using it by 2020 — and some already have switched to perc-free methods — but the Obama administration is mulling whether to phase it out altogether.

“This is another example of a chemical used for years and years with hardly any attention paid to how toxic it is to people,” said Peter Orris, chief of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center. “Now we’re left with a big mess.”
From the Chicago Tribune


Atlantic Wire Co. Exec Found Guilty in Waster Pollution Case
HARTFORD, Conn. – A former executive of a Branford company has pleaded guilty to violating the federal Clean Water Act.

Fifty-five-year-old Robert Meyer pleaded guilty Tuesday to failing to report toxic discharges into the Branford River from the now-defunct Atlantic Wire Co.

Officials say Atlantic Wire’s repeated discharges of toxic wastewater between 2005 and early 2008 killed hundreds of crabs.

Earlier this year, Atlantic Wire agreed to pay $1.5 million, and to spend nearly $900,000 to clean up its site.

Meyer is to be sentenced in October.

From Hartford Courant

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining Stream Damage Could Take 1,000 Years to Fix
Laurel Branch Hollow was once a small West Virginia mountain valley, with steep, forested hillsides and a stream that, depending on the season and the rains, flowed or trickled down into the Mud River about 200 yards below. The stream teemed with microbes and insect life, and each spring it became a sumptuous buffet for the birds, fish, and amphibians in the valley.

But over the past decade, the Hobet 21 mountaintop removal coal mining operation has obliterated 25 square miles of surrounding highlands. From the air, the mine is a 10-mile-long, mottled gray blotch among the green, crisscrossed by trucks and earth movers, appended by black lakes of coal sludge.

The Caudill family has owned a house at the mouth of the hollow since the early 1900s. Many of their neighbors left, but the Caudills fought and blocked an attempt by Hobet to force them to sell their property. Unfazed, the mining operation simply steered around their land, and dumped a mountain’s worth of rocky debris into the Laurel Branch up to their property line.

When mountains are demolished with explosives to harvest their coal seams, the millions of tons of crushed shale, sandstone, and coal detritus have to go somewhere, and the most convenient spots are nearby valleys. Mining operations clear-cut the hillsides and literally “fill” mountain hollows to the brim — and sometimes higher — with rocky debris. At the mouth of the hollow, the outer edge of the fill is typically engineered into a towering wall resembling a dam.

As I visited Laurel Branch recently with family members Anita Miller and her mother, Lorene Caudill, two bulldozers crawled back and forth over the peak more than 200 feet above us, sculpting it into a steep, three-tiered sloping form. When it can reach no higher, the coal company will seed the slope with grass and move on. But the valley fill’s impact on the environment will last much, much longer.

Of all the environmental problems caused by mountaintop projects — decapitated peaks, deforestation, the significant carbon footprint — scientists have found that valley fills do the most damage because they destroy headwater streams and surrounding forests, which are crucial to the workings of mountain ecosystems.

“There used to be pine trees, and it was a very pretty shaded area. There was a nice trail that went up the hollow and I used to take my granddaughter up there and we’d go ginsenging [harvesting ginseng roots, an Appalachian custom] on up the hill,” says Miller, whose grandfather built the family homestead in 1920. “She really misses not being able to do that. She said, ‘Can’t we go someplace else? There’s no hills to climb there.’”

The remaining length of Laurel Branch, running past the house into the river, has become a sluice for contamination: As rainwater runs down Hobet 21’s dismantled mountainsides and fills, it picks up minerals and pollutants that damage delicate stream chemistry for miles downstream. Laurel Branch and multiple valley fills like it feed the Mud River, which is heavily contaminated with selenium, a heavy metal that works its way up through the food chain in ever-greater concentrations. One study has associated it with deformities — including curved spines and two eyes on one side of the head – found in fish larvae in a downstream reservoir.

When the Obama administration announced last month it would toughen its oversight of mountaintop removal rather than ban it or otherwise crack down, environmental groups that had hoped for decisive action were outraged. In West Virginia, local activists launched protests employing civil disobedience. Actress Darryl Hannah and NASA scientist James Hansen, an outspoken advocate of immediate action to address global warming, were among 31 people arrested at one anti-mountaintop protest in Sundial, W.Va.

But the scientific picture of mountaintop removal now emerging — from, among other things, the study of valley fills like the one in Laurel Branch —is, in its way, far more dramatic than any protest. The spread of mountaintop removal through central Appalachia in the past 15 years has given scientists the opportunity to study environmental destruction on a previously unthinkable scale: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that by 2013 a forested area the size of Delaware will have been destroyed and that more than 1,200 miles of streams have already been severely damaged. As that footprint has grown, so has the evidence, outlined in peer-reviewed scientific papers and ongoing investigations, showing that the damage is far more extensive than previously understood.

The Obama administration’s approach puts pressure on coal companies to compromise with regulators to limit some of the more egregious impacts of mountaintop removal. That may have some effect, but it will be limited by the government’s balkanized regulatory scheme for coal mining, which dates to the 1970s and never contemplated the vast damage that results when mountains are demolished.

In the case of valley fills, for example, only the EPA has ecosystem-wide responsibility through the Clean Water Act which governs what may be dumped in streams and waterways. But the agency’s power is circumscribed; it shares authority with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which actually grants the dumping permits and has taken a much more sympathetic view of the practice. The Interior Department, meanwhile, oversees mountaintop projects via another law, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Nevertheless, the White House is betting that mountaintop mining can be managed and the damage ultimately repaired. But the science indicates that such an incremental approach may never be effective. Mountaintop removal does damage on both vast and microscopic scales, from hydrological changes over hundreds of square miles to effects on the life cycles of the tiniest stream microbes. Overseeing the repair of such damage is beyond the capabilities of any government agency; the most serious impacts — to streams — may be all but impossible to fix.

Margaret Palmer, a biology professor at the University of Maryland, was part of a team of scientists that compiled a comprehensive database of 37,000 U.S. river and stream restoration projects. She found no record of any mining-related stream-building project that could be called ecologically successful.

“Can you create these streams de novo, from scratch? There’s no evidence,” says Palmer, who testified on behalf of West Virginia environmental groups in a suit faulting the Army Corps of Engineers’ stream management. “Over thousands of years, I think you could do it. You have to have erosion of the land, get the hydrology back. I’m a restoration ecologist — I hope it can be done. But given how much damage they’ve done, right now I don’t think so.”

Take a big step back for a moment. Mountain ecosystems developed over millions of years in tandem with evolving patterns of snow and rainfall. On an unspoiled mountain, some rain is immediately absorbed by the soil, while the remainder trickles into stream beds and eventually flows into larger waterways. Between rainfalls, mountain soil acts as a kind of sponge: Some of its water is taken up by trees and other plants, some gradually released into streams. This system creates a steady flow in the spring and summer that sustains entire watersheds and the surrounding ecosystems that depend on them.

Surface mining destroys those ancient interrelationships and disrupts them for many miles around. Keith Eshleman, a scientist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Studies Appalachian Laboratory, runs an ongoing study on the impact of strip mine sites on the mountains of western Maryland. Using satellite imagery and data collected in the field, Eshleman and other scientists have documented significant changes in hydrology and the ecosystem functioning on sites that have been reclaimed — i.e., restored to the satisfaction of government agencies, typically by bulldozing the mined land smooth and replanting it with grass.

Eshleman took me out to one of his Maryland study sites, a reclaimed mine on Big Savage Mountain he calls the “site from hell.” It’s not a mountaintop removal site but a former highwall mine: One slope had been vertically stripped away and the coal mined in the early part of the decade. Like many reclaimed sites, it’s now mostly pastureland. Eshleman and his colleagues monitor runoff from the site with a small catch basin near the bottom. It’s about 10 feet across, with an attached depth gauge and a flume emptying onto a small valley fill. Their observations show there is a lot more runoff and erosion from the mine than from an unspoiled mountainside or sites that are more carefully reclaimed.

This isn’t surprising, since there is little vegetation and no topsoil — instead, mining companies use crushed rock for reclamation, which doesn’t absorb much water. In mountain streams, there is a steady flow that swells during rains; in this system, there is barely any steady flow, but rather sudden, extreme pulses during storms. During a recent three-inch downpour, for instance, the catch basin filled up and briefly overflowed. Loose rocks, sand and other signs of recent erosion were still visible up and down the reclamation site. The gauge showed that of 90 millimeters of water that fell, 60 mm — or two thirds — ran off; on forested mountainsides, the figure is typically less than half.

This phenomenon is one source of the frequent flash floods near mine sites throughout Appalachia and is a serious safety risk for nearby communities. Eshleman and his colleagues recently expanded their study area to include mountaintop removal areas of West Virginia. They expect the findings will be similar to those from the Maryland sites.

The environmental impacts of massive alterations in water flow and the loss of soil and vegetation can be catastrophic for the carbon and nitrogen cycles and other basic functions that sustain life. A 2008 paper by Eshleman and several colleagues found many signs of impaired ecosystem health at reclaimed strip mines, including low levels of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous. “Currently the goal of mine reclamation is simply the establishment of permanent vegetative cover,” the authors wrote. “This approach is shortsighted and does not take into account the importance of ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling nor the potentially harmful conditions created, like high soil and stream temperatures. As a result, recovery of comparable ecosystem function will take decades to centuries.”

Some scientists say that those problems are, at least theoretically, manageable. “Reclamation does not fully restore the natural communities and processes that are lost when land is mined for coal; but, when done right, it can establish conditions that allow many of those communities and processes to return to the mined landscape over time,” Carl Zipper, a professor of environmental science at Virginia Tech, wrote in an email exchange with me. Zipper runs the Powell River Project, which researches and tests reclamation techniques (and is funded largely by coal interests).

The problem, however, is that “good” reclamation is expensive, and mining operations that prefer to do it on the cheap outnumber those willing to spend the necessary time and money. Federal law requires that a mined-out site be restored to the “approximate original contour” and planted with “a diverse, effective, and permanent vegetative cover.” But it’s virtually impossible to rebuild many mountain peaks, so “approximate” is interpreted quite liberally. Replanting is similarly erratic – complete reforestation is rare; many sites end up as grassy pastures. Those problems are straightforward compared to those that mining poses for streams. The “intermittent and ephemeral” valley streams appear and disappear with the seasons and rains. But they are the headwaters for steady-running “perennial” streams below, and the foundation for the broader forest ecosystem: most notably a breeding ground for insects that provide the biomass to sustain birds and other animal life. When those streams are destroyed, the effects are felt far beyond the immediate vicinity of the valley fill, and scientists say they are irreplaceable.

Below Eshleman’s basin, repeated torrents had cut a deepening rut into the small valley fill. The fill ended abruptly at the trees where the remaining natural stream bed sat, dry. “This is their ‘stream,’” Eshelman said. “This is meant to replace the native stream that was here. Does this look like a mountain stream to you?”

This is a typical problem on mountaintop removal sites. In most cases, Margaret Palmer says, mining drainage ditches are repurposed as streams to move water across reclaimed areas. “In fact, they have created a gutter or a ditch,” she says. “If you look at what organisms are in it, it’s not similar at all to natural streams.”

Moreover, when stream ecosystems are destroyed, trouble flows downstream with the runoff. Scientists at the EPA Freshwater Biology Lab in Wheeling, W.Va., began studying the downstream effects of valley fills in the early 2000s as part of a major, court-ordered environmental impact assessment of mountaintop mining. Their 2008 paper on the topic drew the attention of regulators, coal companies, and scientists because it demonstrated that streams outside of mine sites suffer from pollution, altered chemistry, and biological damage. “Our results indicate that [mountaintop mining] is strongly related to downstream biological impairment,” the study said.

The EPA scientists found that an unusually high concentration of ions from dissolved metals and sulfates from mine sites was killing off entire populations of mayflies, an important indicator of broader ecosystem health. “What was alarming to us is in some of these streams we were losing the whole group of mayflies,” says Greg Pond, the lead scientist on the study. “Of the eight to 10 species you’ll find in a small sample, often, we were getting only one or zero.” Other studies have shown that such chemical changes linger on for decades, meaning the mayflies and other affected species won’t come back without major intervention. The EPA study concluded that the ecological damage was bad enough to trigger a provision of the Clean Water Act requiring the state to take steps to monitor and reduce the pollution, though that may not be sufficient for the wildlife to recover.

At the Laurel Branch Hollow valley fill, a rectangular pond filters sediment and chemically treats the water running off before it pours into the remaining stream bed and then the Mud River. Studies have shown, however, that the ponds do an incomplete job of filtering chemicals, and the Mud River has been especially hard hit.

The most ubiquitous form of downstream contamination may be the heavy metal selenium, a common element associated with coal seams. Selenium is an essential nutrient in small amounts, but it bioaccumulates in tissue, and in high enough concentrations can cause health and reproductive problems in wildlife and humans. In 2003, the EPA’s environmental impact assessment found significant elevations of selenium downstream from valley fills.

The Mud River, which wends through the Hobet 21 site, has become notorious for its high selenium levels. A. Dennis Lemly, a biologist with the U.S. Forest Service who specializes in selenium contamination, found very high selenium levels in the Upper Mud River reservoir, about 10 miles downstream from the Caudill home, and documented the deformities among bluegill fish larvae. In 2007 the state issued an advisory telling people to limit their consumption of fish from the reservoir. After the state filed suit, Hobet agreed to pay $3.5 million to the state and to take steps to reduce selenium leaching from its operations.

Before mountaintop removal, cases of severe selenium contamination were mainly limited to coal-fired power plant discharges. Now they’re appearing across Appalachia near mountaintop mines, says Lemly, who recently wrote a report outlining his findings for an environmental group challenging mountaintop removal.

Lemly believes that without major changes, the Mud’s contaminated fish populations may simply collapse. “In case of the Mud River, those [fish populations] are quite a few miles downstream of the mining operations — 20 to 30 miles or more,” he says. “That’s a long way. Selenium just moves with the water.”

From Yale

This entry was posted in ecological crisis and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.