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Keystone XL Builder Has Explosive Problems

5:25 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

TransCanada ExplosionTransCanada, the company that would build and own the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada’s tar sand fields to the U.S. Gulf Coast, has dialed up its lobbying in Congress after a U.S. State Department report that favored the pipeline. The giant oil pipeline is perfectly clean and safe, say the lobbyists. TransCanada will be using the best, newest technology, monitoring and materials. The citizens of Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska and points south need not worry their little heads.

Then, BOOM! A TransCanada natural gas pipeline in Manitoba, Canada blew up in a spectacular fireball on January 25, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. It burned for 12 hours and only its rural location prevented a human catastrophe. (A nearly identical gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California killed eight people and burned a neighborhood in 2010). A TransCanada pipeline in Ontario exploded in a nearly identical manner in 2011. Another TransCanada pipe in Ontario blew up in 2009 as well.

A week after the Manitoba blast, TransCanada still didn’t know what caused it, or wouldn’t say.

Oil pipelines may fail without fireballs, but are no less dangerous to neighbors and the environment. No matter what a pipeline carries, maintenance and vigilance matter. But keeping a pipeline from exploding—or gushing a lake of flammable, toxic crude oil into local water supplies—isn’t a profit center. (What would pour out of Keystone XL is actually a slurry of corrosive tar and chemical-laced, highly flammable thinners.) To a corporation, safety spending is a dead loss. Only the lip service is free.

Ronald Reagan famously said of negotiating with the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.” The same goes for the promises of TransCanada, yet U.S. pipeline regulators are too strapped for staff and money to verify even existing pipeline safety, according to a New York Times story.

Another TransCanada pipeline explosion in 2009, in Ontario’s northern wilderness, was blamed on “95% corrosion” of the pipe. A Canadian government report said TransCanada’s inspection tools “failed to accurately assess” the level of corrosion.

The real question about the Keystone XL pipeline is why the United States should bear all of these risks, for no reward. A Consumer Watchdog study last year found that the pipeline, by sending Canadian oil overseas from the Gulf Coast, would actually raise gasoline prices in the U.S. The number of permanent jobs created would be paltry. Domestic oil production is rising and U.S. consumption is falling, so there is no economic rationale for more tar sands oil.

The XL pipeline, with all its attendant risks of spills, pollution–even deliberate vandalism or terrorism–is being built through America but not for America.

Canadians who understand the danger are turning down proposals for oil pipelines to their own Pacific coast.

Oh, and the U.S.State Department report that TransCanada’s lobbyists are waving so proudly? It was drafted by a subcontractor with financial ties to TransCanada. Chalk up one more reason why the U.S. should decline to be TransCanada’s beast of burden.

Posted by Judy Dugan, Research Director Emeritus of Consumer Watchdog.

Lessons (Not) Learned From the Chevron Fire

2:55 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Chevron Refinery Fire

On Friday, federal accident investigators told California legislators that the state’s patchwork of oil industry regulations needs a serious overhaul. The Chevron fire that produced a toxic cloud and sent 15,000 people to the hospital could have been prevented, but the system was reactive and not designed to foresee and forestall problems, said the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Duh. The board didn’t need 18 months to come to that conclusion. But Don Holstrom, lead investigator for the board, did put his finger on one problem: the need to bump up the number, skills, and authority of refinery inspectors.

Something smells when an agency purposefully cripples its own enforcement abilities. One good example is the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). The DTSC exists to protect communities like Richmond from toxic harm. And for years, it’s done a very poor job of it.

The DTSC has broad statutory authority to sanction these giant chemical plants for toxic releases like the one that Chevron caused in its fire, but it consistently refuses. Better yet, the DTSC should play a pro-active role in preventing harm as the department is supposed to do. So, you’d think the DTSC would view having refinery inspectors on staff as a high priority—inspectors that could be given broad latitude to inspect the guts of a refinery where hazardous substances slosh around and not just its excrement. Evidently, the DTSC thinks the fewer refinery inspectors the better.

The DTSC has only two refinery inspectors for the entire state and one of them is green and in training. The DTSC used to have more. But when other inspectors from its refinery unit retired or left, the DTSC didn’t bother to replace them. Nine vacancies in the unit handing refinery inspections were the result. Two scientist positions were approved for the refinery inspection unit and then inexplicably redirected to other positions and regions.

Refinery inspections are the most complex kind and the scientists that do them sometimes take a week to complete them. These scientists know the ins and outs of dealing with refineries. The DTSC maintains that any scientist can conduct a refinery inspection, but that just isn’t true. “Anyone who says that all DTSC scientists can conduct them and are trained to do them is either lying or out of their mind,” says one DTSC career investigator.

Under the direction of Chief Deputy Director Odette Madriago positions can be cut or simply re-directed, the investigator said. On top of that, “Odette has put in place the strictest travel requirements of all CAL EPA.” The inspectors and investigators that have to travel have to fill out a lengthy document and have to get approval from their supervisor before they can go do an inspection or investigation. “These travel restrictions have allowed polluters to go unchecked and unregulated,” the investigator said.

One explanation is budgets are tight. Another is that it isn’t in the interest of someone like Ms. Madriago to regulate an industry in which she invests. She’s invested up to $100,000 in Chevron and in BP Amoco. Why regulate these refineries and sanction them millions of dollars that could affect their stock price?

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Sacramento Responds To Golden Wasteland Report/NBC Expose

4:53 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Somebody’s listening. We issued Golden Wasteland this morning, a harsh look at the Department of Toxic Substances Control and how it’s falling down on its job of protecting Californians and the environment from toxic harm. NBC took a deep look at the Department last night as well — and its director refused to answer direct questions. Well now Sacramento has some of its own.

Senator DeLeon (D-Los Angeles) just wrote DTSC Director Debbie Raphael asking for some answers about its lack of enforcement and its mismanagement of hazard waste regulation. He’s calling for a Senate investigation.

Dirty Dancing at the DTSC: Toxic Lead Coming to a Landfill Near You

2:37 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Remember those old, clunky TVs and computer monitors? The ones with Cathode Ray Tubes (CRTs) people threw out in favor of flat screens? Well, now electronics makers don’t want to recycle them.

Up until this week, California State law directed certified waste recyclers to sell leaded Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) glass from the old clunkers back to CRT makers or smelters.
But now we’re down to just one CRT maker and it’s in India. Neuro-toxic leaded glass started piling up in warehouses or got illegally dumped. So, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) just issued an “emergency rule. Recyclers can go ahead and just take CRT glass to hazardous waste landfills located in some of the poorest, largely Latino, communities in the state.

Consumers buying TVs pay between six and ten dollars at the point of sale to fund a state program that pays recyclers to recycle. Now, we’ll be paying recyclers to dump more toxins into poor neighborhoods already suffering from high rates of pollution.

Granted, the DTSC had to do something. But this was not the right something. Exceptions to rules tend to become permanent. And can be abused. This rule should be immediately reversed. Recyclers are already paid to recycle. They can use some of that money to pay a little more for CRT processing. Eventually, the technology will take off and the price will come down. That’s how markets work.

Under California law, regulators are supposed to encourage new hazardous waste treatment technologies that reduce or eliminate the hazards to human health and the environment, where they can be practically utilized, to improve California’s economic and environmental well-being.

What the DTSC just did was the reverse. “This is knocking the legs out from under the industry that is developing the recycling technologies and making the capital investment,” said Jim Taggart, head of ECS Refining, the second-largest recycler in the country based in Stockton. The state should simply have kept its rules in place, he said. “It’s done by just not encouraging landfill. You require recycling and the system takes care of it.”

ECS Refining is separating high concentrations of lead from CRT glass and selling it back to smelters. Lead can be re-used in batteries. It’s selling glass to new customers from insulation to cement makers in other states. And the new technology can be adapted later to other materials as electronics advance.

The impetus for the emergency rule had to come from somewhere, said Taggart. “Possibly the waste industry or recyclers that stand to benefit from landfilling the glass.” Taggart says that unscrupulous recyclers could end up putting leaded glass in ordinary municipal landfills that charge much less to take waste. And waste management companies that own landfills stand to profit from the boom in business.

“We invested $10 million dollars into this technology,” he said. “What’s a hammer cost?” He said unscrupulous recyclers will just break up CRTs by hand, and throw what they think is harmless glass into cheap municipal landfills. But he says that glass will still contain toxic levels of lead. “The state won’t have any way to control that. It doesn’t have people at every landfill.”

Instead, regulators should be huddling with California lawmakers to see what can be done to use a chunk of that steady stream of money from consumers for electronics recycling to encourage the new technology. And it doesn’t have to stop there. Sheila Davis, executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition says we need a paradigm shift. “We think the HPs, Apples, and Dells should be paying to make sure this stuff is not dumped on poor people but taken back and recycled responsibly.”

California might just want to join the 21st century and pass, like 23 other states have done, an Extended Producer Responsibility Law that makes electronics manufacturers that design, produce or sell a product minimize its environmental impact throughout its life cycle.

We’d shift away from charging consumers a recycling fee and have the manufacturer build the cost into product for its dismantling and recycling. That would be quite an incentive to figure out how to make products that are less toxic and easier to dispose of in the first place.

Instead, this DTSC is helping to sully the present and landfill the future.

Did ‘Don’t Shut It Down’ Mentality Cause Chevron Refinery Disaster?

4:04 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

More than two hours passed at Chevron’s Richmond, CA, refinery between the discovery of a leak and the ignition of a blaze that threatened the health of thousands of nearby residents and sent hundreds to hospital emergency rooms Monday night. At any point during those hours, shutting down the big crude-oil processing unit in which a pipe was leaking could have prevented or greatly limited the disaster.

A massive plume of smoke over Richmond, CA.

The Chevron Refinery Fire in Richmond, CA (Photo: Daniel Parks / Flickr)

The San Francisco Chronicle reported details of that excruciating delay Wednesday morning, along with very different accounts of why it happened. The plant’s emergency response managers vaguely said they saw the leak as too minor–just “20 drops a minute” at first, to trigger an emergency or notify anyone. Until, of course, it suddenly got bigger and exploded into a blaze. But workers on the ground saw it differently and told their story to their union’s safety experts:

 

“From the time they did see the leak, they debated what to do,” said Kim Nibarger, who has investigated refinery accidents nationwide. “It was not so much whether to fix the leak, it was about what could they do to keep the line running and get it fixed.”
Nibarger based his opinion on Monday’s incident after discussions with union representatives at the refinery. The choice, he said, should have been clear.

“When you have hydrocarbons outside the pipe, you are no longer running at a normal condition. It’s time to shut the thing off and fix it, not to try to figure out a way around it.”

The last big fire at the Chevron Richmond refinery, in 2007, started the same way: a leak in the same refining unit, No. 4. Two employees were injured and the refinery was shut for months.

What one local resident said in 2007 sounds like it was today:

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Evergreen Is Never Clean: Time For Hazardous Waste Regulators to Act

1:57 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Evergreen Oil Refinery

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If a hazardous vapor spews out of an industrial plant, but no regulator reacts, was there ever a leak?

Well, on July 6, Evergreen Oil workers decided not to stick around to find out. Some 70 workers walked off the job the minute they heard there was a leak at the hazardous waste and used motor oil recycling plant. It was a “self-evacuation,” according to the Alameda County Fire Department. One worker did go to a medical facility, was evaluated for exposure, and later released. Everybody else came back sometime after the leak was contained in the mid-morning.

But no worries, said the Alameda Fire Department. The leak was harmless to people’s health. And Newark City officials patted Evergreen’s plant manager on the back for, get this, reporting the leak properly and quickly. Sadly, that could be a first.

Here’s what we know about Evergreen Oil up in Newark, California in the East Bay area: It handles hazardous waste materials like anti-freeze and other toxic waste. And it’s the only oil refinery recycling used motor oil here in the West. It employs a couple of hundred workers, generates about $36 million in sales each year, and has been operating since the mid 1980s.

Now, recycling used motor oil is a great idea. We want to live sustainably. And we need to do something about the underbelly of toxic waste in California from chemicals used to make computers to the engine oil you left behind at your last oil change.

The problem is that Evergreen Oil’s operations aren’t safe. It’s a serial toxic polluter with a very long record. The point isn’t just this particular leak on July 6, which was quickly contained. The point is this leak is part of a much bigger problem involving Evergreen’s record of operations, and its ability to negotiate its way out any real accountability.

Since opening in 1986, nearly every agency with the ability to fine Evergreen has done so. Evergreen’s been cited for dangerous levels of cyanide, arsenic, and other harmful chemicals in its wastewater, for violating public health standards, for the toxic gases it has allowed to emanate from the site and that have, on occasion, reached the nostrils of school children, for poisonous fumes and odors at the site, for an explosion, and for illegally handling, treating and disposing of hazardous waste.
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Contradictory Information on Hazardous NorCal Waste Plant Accident Means It’s Time to Close It Down

6:06 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Timidity and Fragmented Oversight of Evergreen Oil Plant Hamper Enforcement, Endanger Community, Says Group

Shut the Refinery Down

New information obtained from emergency responders shows that a July 6th high-temperature leak at the Evergreen Oil re-refining plant in Newark, California involved a hazardous industrial chemical, not just recycled motor oil, as initially reported. Consumer Watchdog called on the chief regulator of the facility to shut the plant down. In a letter sent Tuesday to Debbie Raphael, Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the consumer organization asked her to convene fragmented regulatory agencies and respond strongly to the latest in a long series of safety violations and accidents at the plant in Newark, CA.

According to Consumer Watchdog, regulators are unclear about who is the lead regulator overseeing the facility, with DTSC’s own enforcers acknowledging they are uncertain of the department’s authority over the whole plant, which processes used motor oil. They were also not aware of what actions other agencies might be taking.

“The DTSC, which should be the leader in any event involving this serial safety violator, seems almost to be looking for reasons not to get involved,” said Consumer Watchdog advocate Liza Tucker. “This is an opportunity for the new director to show strong leadership and creativity in a department that appears to have faltered for years.”

The letter sent Tuesday said in part:

“Such holes in oversight must be filled for the safety of all Californians. Rather than parsing its ability to regulate this portion and not that portion of a toxic waste plant, the DTSC should put itself at the forefront of saying that this is one dangerous accident too many.…. “

“On its face, the idea that the DTSC would have authority to regulate one part of a hazardous waste plant but not another is absurd, particularly when the release on July 6 was hazardous enough to warrant an evacuation, whether the dangerous leak was in the re-refinery area of the plant or not. “

Download the entire letter here with a timeline of events

On July 6, a pipe leak spewed a hazardous vapor filled with “heat transfer” chemicals used in re-refining. That triggered an emergency evacuation of the facility. The company and Newark police warned the surrounding community, including a nearby elementary school, to expect a wave of “strong chemical odors” from the leak.

See link to CAL-EMA public record of initial report here.

The DTSC said that the leak on July 6 took place in a portion of Evergreen’s facility where recycled oil is processed. A DTSC official stated that the department’s hands are tied because the permit issued to Evergreen does not cover the part of the facility where the leak occurred. According to DTSC, once the waste oil has been partially treated, it is no longer considered a “hazard.” But the heat transfer liquid used to control refining temperatures is hazardous, according to the Alameda County Health and Environmental Agency.

“Evergreen’s long history of repeated and serious safety violations has to come to an end,” said Tucker. “The department has to take control of the situation, including coordination with other regulators, for the sake of the community surrounding the Evergreen plant, and to set an example for all Californians.”

The July 6 accident markeds the latest in a string of problems at the plant that includes a burst pipe and major fire in March 2011 and repeated citations by the DTSC for safety violations and carelessness. Yet the DTSC has let the company off the hook with consent decrees and hand-slap fines for at least a dozen years, said Consumer Watchdog. The group said now is the opportune time for new leadership at the DTSC to rethink its approach to regulating hazardous waste and recycling facilities.

Click here for more.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s July 16 letter to DTSC Director Debbie Raphael here.

Also read Consumer Watchdog’s April 9 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Urging Regulators to Shut Down Refiner After Leak That Endangered Northern California Community

2:38 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

State Department of toxic Substances Control Must Send “Strong Message” to Evergreen Oil Re-Refiner Over Repeated Safety Lapses, Accidents

Refineries

Consumer Watchdog called on the Director of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Debbie Raphael, to indefinitely close the Evergreen Oil waste-oil re-refinery in Newark, Ca. in a letter sent today. On July 6, a pipe leak spewed “superheated oil” and triggered an emergency evacuation of the facility. The company and Newark police warned the surrounding community, including a nearby elementary school, to expect a wave of “strong odors” from the leak.

Read today’s letter to Raphael here

Consumer Watchdog cited repeated problems at the facility as an example of DTSC’s failure to take tough action against toxic industries that continue to operate after repeated safety violations near homes and schools in testimony and a letter presented at Debbie Raphael’s State Senate confirmation hearings in April.

The confirmation letter said several companies, including Evergreen, “appear to have manipulated or ignored the DTSC and other agencies to the detriment of concerned and frustrated local residents.”

The accident marks the latest in a string of problems at the plant that re-refines used motor oil, including a burst pipe and major fire in March 2011 and repeated citations by the DTSC for safety violations and carelessness.

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Senator, Energy Investigators Slam Refinery Price Manipulation

7:22 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Refineries

The energy investigators who nailed Enron for energy price manipulation that nearly bankrupted California just took aim at oil refining giants including Chevron and BP. May the refiners’ gasoline-price schemes now come crashing down in an Enron-style heap.

We’ve known for years that California and West Coast refiners find endless ways to shut down some of their gasoline production, cutting supplies and jacking up pump prices. They actually make more money from making and selling less gasoline. It explains why West Coast drivers are stuck paying $4-plus a gallon while pump prices take a dive in the rest of the country. Now a credible study and a U.S. Senator have reached the same conclusion–and trying to put some muscle on the oil industry.

Washington State Sen. Maria Cantwell is probably the best-informed on the petroleum industry of all federal legislators, at least among those not joined at the hip with Exxon. She is calling on the the Federal Trade Commission to investigate six major refiners–Alon, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Tesoro and BP. It’s a smart move, because the oil lobby has a stranglehold on Congress and most state legislatures. President Obama has tried at least twice to reduce the industry’s billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies, and gotten nowhere.

Here’s the gist of the story by McClatchy news service’s Kevin Hall:

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Natural Gas Drillers: ‘We Don’t Need Your Stinking Air Rules’

4:22 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

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Whenever regulators try to clean up our air or water, industry issues its standard “job killer” press release. Let your children keep their asthma and we won’t shut down our (oil, gas, coal) (refinery, drilling facility, surface mine), is the general theme. No surprise, then, that a coalition of deep-well natural gas drillers responded sternly to proposed national clean-air regulations on their almost entirely unregulated industry:  ”This sweeping set of potentially unworkable regulations represents an overreach that could, ironically, undercut the production of American natural gas,” said the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Yet the real shock in the story is that we allow energy companies take vast quantities of fresh water, add largely unregulated chemicals and force it under high pressure into deep shale beds to fracture rock and release natural gas. The gas rises back up like soda water and releases the gases it collected underground (methane) and the chemicals added by drillers, sometimes morphed by heat and pressure into something more dangerous (cancer-causing benzene).

It turns out that in 2005, the Bush Administration got Congress to exempt this “fracking” technique from federal clean air and water rules.

Here’s the result, described by a Texan living in the middle of it, as told to Propublica.com:

I live and work in south central Texas. The nations new hotspot for fracking. The enviromental destruction Fracking has caused in the last 5 years is unbelievable. The air quality in this rural area is worse than in most large cities. The wholesale destruction of the ecosystem is unimaginable. The amount of water used in fracking is irresponsible in a water scarce region.

The Environmental Protection Agency is acting to curb the smog-causing methane and other air pollutants because of a federal lawsuit by environmental groups. Its selling point for the regulation is that the drillers could actually make money by capturing and selling the methane. Conspicuously absent is any mention that methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide–though of course it’s now so unfashionable to believe in global warming, much less talk about it.

Federal regulators are still prohibited by the 2005 law from controlling the ruination of vast amounts of clean water in drought-ridden states and the contamination of drinking water. So it’s left to the states. Expectably, Pennsylvania and New York are acting. But Texas, the free-market state, will take the asthma, please, and its drillers, from Exxon down, will no doubt do all they can to cripple the federal regulations before they’re final.

See ProPublica’s pioneering series on fracking, and the damage the industry has inflicted from New York to the Southwest, here.
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Posted by Judy Dugan, research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.