Progressive News Network
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Matt Schwartz 8:35 - 8:55 PM
1. Toxic radiation in groundwater at Fukushima: operator
Cancer-causing radioactive substances have been found in groundwater at the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant, its Japanese operator said on Wednesday, as it pledged to prevent it getting into the sea.
Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) said tests showed the highly toxic strontium, a chemical that can cause bone cancer if ingested, was present at levels 30 times the permitted rate.
The firm said it had also detected tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen used in glow-in-the-dark watches, at around eight times the allowed level.
"From groundwater samples we collected, we detected 500,000 becquerels per litre of tritium, that is very high," a TEPCO official told a press conference.
The substances, which were released by the meltdowns of reactors at the plant in the aftermath of the huge tsunami of March 2011, were not absorbed by soil and have made their way into underground water.
Subsoil water usually flows out to sea, meaning these two substances could normally make their way into the ocean, possibly affecting marine life and ultimately impacting humans who eat sea creatures.
However, a TEPCO official said seawater data showed no abnormal rise in the levels of either substance.
He added the company believed the groundwater was largely contained by concrete foundations and steel sheets, and any gaps were being plugged with a material known as "liquid glass" that would solidify, forming a physical barrier.
The revelations are the latest in a growing catalogue of mishaps at the crippled plant, more than two years after the worst nuclear disaster the world has seen in a generation.
Workers used tonnes of water to cool the melted cores of the reactors and TEPCO is having to store this radioactive water onsite. However, reports continue to emerge of leaks in storage pools, tanks and pipes.
Critics say improvised fixes put in place at Fukushima since the disaster leave it vulnerable to mishaps and at the mercy of nature, with no immediate end in sight.
Although the natural disaster that sparked the meltdowns claimed more than 18,000 lives, no one is officially recorded as having died as a direct result of the nuclear catastrophe.
However, tens of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and businesses in the area around the site. Many remain displaced, with scientists warning some places may have to be abandoned forever.
2. Justice Department prosecutors secured new indictments Wednesday against a former BP engineer and a former BP executive charged separately with obstructing probes of the company's 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The new indictment of former BP executive David Rainey adds language alleging that he knew of the pending congressional investigation he is charged with obstructing. A federal judge had dismissed the obstruction of Congress charge from Rainey's original indictment, in part because it didn't contain that allegation.
U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt also ruled last month that the obstruction count must be dismissed because it wasn't clear that it applied to subcommittee investigations like the one at the center of Rainey's case.
The new indictment specifically accuses Rainey of trying to obstruct an investigation by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
A grand jury in New Orleans also issued a new indictment Wednesday against former BP engineer Kurt Mix, who is charged with deleting text messages about the company's spill response efforts to stymie a grand jury probe.
Mix's new indictment doesn't add any counts and makes few substantive changes. However, it contains a new allegation that he admitted to BP attorneys that he had deleted some texts and voicemails from his iPhone, including texts related to the company's blown-out Macondo well.
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• Judge refuses to block BP settlement payouts
• Oil may be seeping from Deepwater Horizon site
Mix's previous indictment claimed he received roughly 350 voicemails, including about 40 from a supervisor and approximately 15 from a contractor, and deleted all of them.
The new indictment merely accuses him of deleting one voicemail from the supervisor, one voicemail from the contractor and one from a call that went through BP's general switchboard.
Mix, a resident of Katy, Texas, pleaded not guilty last year to two counts of obstruction of justice. His trial is scheduled to start Dec. 2.
Mix and Rainey are both scheduled to be arraigned on June 25 on the charges in their new indictments.
3. Tell the SFWMD to Protect Everglades Conservation Land
Make your voice heard, attend a public hearing on June 26 and send comments by July 8.
A Limpkin family.
Everglades advocates are needed to stand up for public conservation land. Over 434,000 acres are included in the latest group of South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) lands that are being assessed for retention, disposal, or alternate uses.
Some of the lands include the most vital wildlife habitats in the Everglades, including wading bird rookeries and feeding areas, habitat for the Florida panther, Everglade Snail Kite, Wood Stork, and other endangered species. The assessment includes lands in the Water Conservation Areas, Stormwater Treatment Areas, tracts along Biscayne Bay, and parcels adjacent to the Arthur Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.
Out of the areas of land listed in this evaluation, we believe that parcels in the East Coast Buffer area (Everglades Land Assessment Region: 06) East Coast Buffer), and the South Miami-Dade Wetlands area (Everglades Land Assessment Region: 07) South Miami-Dade Wetlands) are the most vulnerable to being proposed for surplus. Tracts associated with the “Strazulla Wetlands” and others near the Loxahatchee Refuge and Biscayne Bay also appear to be at risk.
Some lands actually rank high in GIS science-based ecological evaluations are described in the evaluation by district staff with an over-emphasis on invasive exotic plants. While exotics do exist on many if not most tracts in South Florida, and are a nearly universal management problem, it is clear that some areas with a mixture of exotic plants and native habitat are nonetheless important sites for species such as the Florida Panther, Wood Storks, and other wading birds. Radio tracking studies have shown panther using some of these areas in South Miami-Dade County.
We urge all who are concerned about the Everglades to weigh in in this important evaluation. Please understand that conservation lands which receive little public attention in this evaluation process may be rendered more vulnerable to being declared surplus and sold, or perhaps leased to agriculture and lime rock mine companies for commercial exploitation. All of the Everglades properties are up for review on the SFWMD website, please click here.
4. Research from the University of Sheffield has shown that unusual changes in atmospheric jet stream circulation caused the exceptional surface melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet (GrIS) in summer 2012.
An international team led by Professor Edward Hanna from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Geography used a computer model simulation (called SnowModel) and satellite data to confirm a record surface melting of the GrIS for at least the last 50 years - when on 11 July 2012, more than 90 percent of the ice-sheet surface melted. This far exceeded the previous surface melt extent record of 52 percent in 2010.
The team also analysed weather station data from on top of and around the GrIS, largely collected by the Danish Meteorological Institute but also by US programmes, which showed that several new high Greenland temperature records were set in summer 2012.
The research, published today in the International Journal of Climatology, clearly demonstrates that the record surface melting of the GrIS was mainly caused by highly unusual atmospheric circulation and jet stream changes, which were also responsible for last summer's unusually wet weather in England.
The analysis shows that ocean temperatures and Arctic sea-ice cover were relatively unimportant factors in causing the extra Greenland melt.
Professor Hanna said: “The GrIS is a highly sensitive indicator of regional and global climate change, and has been undergoing rapid warming and mass loss during the last 5-20 years. Much attention has been given to the NASA announcement of record surface melting of the GrIS in mid-July 2012. This event was unprecedented in the satellite record of observations dating back to the 1970s and probably unlikely to have occurred previously for well over a century.
“Our research found that a ‘heat dome’ of warm southerly winds over the ice sheet led to widespread surface melting. These jet stream changes over Greenland do not seem to be well captured in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) computer model predictions of climate change, and this may indicate a deficiency in these models. According to our current understanding, the unusual atmospheric circulation and consequent warm conditions of summer 2012 do not appear to be climatically representative of future ‘average’ summers predicted later this century.
“Taken together, our present results strongly suggest that the main forcing of the extreme GrIS surface melt in July 2012 was atmospheric, linked with changes in the summer North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), Greenland Blocking Index (GBI, a high pressure system centred over Greenland) and polar jet stream which favoured southerly warm air advection along the western coast.
“The next five-10 years will reveal whether or not 2012 was a rare event resulting from the natural variability of the NAO or part of an emerging pattern of new extreme high melt years. Because such atmospheric, and resulting GrIS surface climate, changes are not well projected by the current generation of global climate models, it is currently very hard to predict future changes in Greenland climate. Yet it is crucial to understand such changes much better if we are to have any hope of reliably predicting future changes in GrIS mass balance, which is likely to be a dominant contributor to global sea-level change over the next 100-1000 years.”
The melt in Greenland and the high temperatures in Alaska may be more signs—like we needed more—of the reality of climate change. Even scarier is the fact that the climate models used before didn’t predict this sort of thing. The climate is very complex, and it’s hard to model it accurately. This is well-known and is why it’s so hard to make long-term predictions.
But before the deniers crow that climatologists don’t know what they’re doing, note this well: The predictions made using these models almost always seem to underestimate the effects of climate change. That’s true in this case, too. So it’s not that the models are wrong and therefore climate change doesn’t exist. It’s that the models aren’t perfect, and it’s looking like things are worse than we thought.
5. The bee keepers
How a Harvard scientist, a sixth-generation bee whisperer, and a retired entrepreneur joined forces to rescue an embattled insect and save the American food supply.
CHENSHENG LU hardly cuts the profile of a provocateur. He dresses business casual and wears silver-rimmed glasses. He lives in Wellesley. He gardens. He has two children, one in high school, another in college. He occupies a tidy office in the Landmark Center, as an associate professor in the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health. And yet the mention of Lu’s name in certain quarters elicits palpable discomfort: Oh, him.
Lu, who is 49 and goes by Alex, grew up a city kid in Taipei, the youngest of three siblings. He rode his bike to the baseball field, sometimes to the comic-book store. He knew little about agriculture, little about nature. Then he came to the United States for graduate school, first to Rutgers University and then to the University of Washington, where he got his PhD in environmental health. In the Pacific Northwest, Lu found his calling: tracking pesticide exposure in food, homes, and workplaces. The prevalence of these chemicals, he grew convinced, was a critical and understudied aspect of public health.
For nearly all this time, Ken Warchol was in Northbridge, teaching social studies to middle school and high school students, playing a 19th-century industrialist in historical reenactments, and coaching track and cross-country. On the side, Warchol, who is 63, tended to his lifelong passion of beekeeping, operating his own hives, helping other bee enthusiasts around Worcester County, and examining apiaries as a state inspector. “My whole life,” he says, “I’ve been with bees.”
25,000 bumble bees killed in Oregon parking lot
A sixth-generation beekeeper, Warchol traces the family tradition to Poland in the 1840s. His father brought the practice and tools with him to the United States after World War II. Several years later, Warchol, as a young boy, got his first hive from his father, who made him a wager: Whoever had more honey at collection time won dinner at the Bungalow, a restaurant down the road. Warchol can still remember the particulars of his victory. He had 84 pounds of honey to his dad’s 76, and he got steak at the Bungalow. Only recently, as his mother was dying, did she spill the secret. His father had given him the strongest hive so he could win.
Dick Callahan grew up nearby in Worcester and earned a PhD in entomology from the University of Massachusetts, inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which chronicled the damage wrought by pesticides and sparked the modern environmental movement. After four years in the Air Force, he embarked on a career as a scientist and entrepreneur, running environmental surveys in the ocean, cofounding and taking public a pharmaceutical firm, and then helping others start their own companies. “I’m a real capitalist,” the retired 72-year-old says.
Alex Lu, Dick Callahan, and Ken Warchol open a hive in Northbridge, where they are studying the effects of pesticide exposure on honeybees.
Alex Lu, Dick Callahan, and Ken Warchol open a hive in Northbridge, where they are studying the effects of pesticide exposure on honeybees.
About 15 years ago, Callahan was wandering around a Worcester flower show at what is now the DCU Center. He came upon a beekeeping exhibit and thought, I’ve always been interested in that. Soon after, he enrolled in a school run by the Worcester County Beekeepers Association. One of the instructors was Ken Warchol. They became friends and worked together on a government study of an eradication program for Asian long-horned beetles. Callahan went on to start several beehives of his own at his home in Holden and on a nearby farm.
The tale of how Lu, Warchol, and Callahan began collaborating is one chapter of a much larger story, a story of billions of vanishing honeybees and what their plight means for our dinner tables and health. It’s a story of science and mystery, of politics and big business, of California almonds and Maine blueberries, of threatened livelihoods and jeopardized crops. It’s a story about the high stakes and strong passions of environmental research. It’s a story about chemicals, and what we know and don’t know about their imprint.
This part of the story begins simply enough. In the fall of 2009, Lu and his son drove out to Keown Orchards in Sutton to watch Warchol give a presentation to beekeepers on preparing hives for the winter. Afterward, he introduced himself to Warchol as a Harvard scientist, asking Warchol to consider partnering with him on a research project.
Warchol’s first reaction was, the Harvard University? “I got a 1,300 on my college boards,” Warchol recalls telling him in an early conversation. “I wasn’t even close to getting into Harvard.” Lu reassured the beekeeper. He wasn’t looking for a student. What he needed was a teacher.
IN LATE 2006, beekeepers across the United States began reporting an ominous discovery: their honeybees were disappearing at unprecedented rates. Beekeepers, many of whom tended thousands of hives, were accustomed to losing 10 percent to 20 percent of their colonies each year. Normally, in diseased hives, piles of dead bees pooled at the bottom. This was different.
David Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, sounded the alarm on 60 Minutes in 2007, explaining that he had lost a staggering two-thirds of his bees. Other beekeepers fared worse, losing up to 90 percent of their hives. Researchers termed the phenomenon “colony collapse disorder.” In affected apiaries, bees were inexplicably abandoning their colonies, often leaving behind food and young. The bees weren’t just lying there dead. They were gone. “It was like a ghost town,” Hackenberg told 60 Minutes.
The phenomenon became an epidemic, wrecking colonies of small independent beekeepers and large commercial operations alike. Beekeepers who responded to an annual US Department of Agriculture-funded survey reported losing, on average, more than a third of their hives every year from 2006 to 2013, though not all losses have been attributed to colony collapse. Beekeepers in the Northeast have been among those hardest hit.
As the toll mounted, beekeepers, scientists, federal regulators, the media, and environmentalists groped for answers, blaming, at various points, climate change, poor nutrition, fungus, cell-tower radiation, mites, viruses, and even a purported scheme hatched by Russian spooks. The latest consensus among regulators and some scientists is that a combination of factors, including parasites, pesticide use, and increasingly homogenized American agriculture, is what’s decimating the honeybee population. A US government report published in May concluded that “a complex set of stressors and pathogens is associated with CCD, and researchers are increasingly using multi-factorial approaches to studying causes of colony losses.”
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Lu, Warchol, and Callahan’s bees.
The urgency of solving the puzzle is undeniable. Honeybees are critical to the food supply. About one-third of what we put in our mouths benefits directly or indirectly from honeybee pollination, according to the USDA. Without bees, harvests dwindle and food prices rise.
Every year, commercial beekeepers truck hundreds of thousands of hives from state to state to pollinate a multitude of crops, from tree nuts in California to cranberries in Massachusetts. Many make a good part of their living through pollination contracts with growers. In recent years, the US honeybee supply has diminished to the point where growers have had to import pollinators.
In his previous research, Alex Lu had focused on human exposure to pesticides, making his name with a study in the Seattle area, first published in 2005, showing that switching children to a largely organic diet could quickly and dramatically reduce the amounts of pesticide residues in their bodies. He knew no more about honeybees than the average consumer.
What he did know, however, was pesticides — their complexity, their ubiquity, and their potency. Seeing David Hackenberg’s story on 60 Minutes aroused his suspicions. Like Hackenberg himself, Lu had a hunch that pesticides, above all, were to blame for the vanishing bees. He wasn’t the first to see a connection, but he was determined to prove one.
THERE’S A CERTAIN GENIUS to pesticides known as systemics. Unlike traditional pest-killing chemicals, which are usually sprayed on crops, lawns, and trees, systemic pesticides render a plant toxic to bugs from the inside out. Seeds are treated with pesticide before they’re sowed (or sometimes the soil is pre-treated). When the plant grows, the poison essentially grows with it, spreading to all parts of the tissue and killing any snacking corn borers, rootworms, aphids, or stink bugs.
The big systemic pesticides these days are called neonicotinoids, which are derived from nicotine and target insects’ nervous systems. They have exploded in popularity over the past decade, thanks to a perception that they are both safer and more effective than the pesticides they replaced. The vast majority of corn planted in the United States today is pre-treated with neonicotinoids, the seeds colored like candy. So are other major crops such as soybeans and canola.
The wind, not bees, pollinates corn, but bees can collect corn pollen. And neonicotinoid-laced pollen blows onto nearby flowers and crops, exposing honeybees to the poison. Neonicotinoids are also used on plants that bees do pollinate, including cucumbers and watermelons. Unlike older pesticides, neonicotinoids can linger in the soil for months or even years.
The more Lu learned about colony collapse, the more convinced he became that the epidemic’s timing was no coincidence, coming as neonicotinoid use surged in American agriculture. With a $25,000 grant from Harvard, he began designing an experiment to test his hypothesis, aiming to replicate the honeybee disappearances that beekeepers were experiencing. It was clear neonicotinoids were acutely toxic to bees, just as they were to crop-eating insects, but what about at lower levels, over a prolonged period of time?
Lu, Warchol, and Callahan sketched out a plan. In the spring of 2010, they would set up 20 hives at four locations, two in Uxbridge and two in Northbridge. They would feed all the hives high fructose corn syrup, mimicking a common commercial beekeeping practice. (Beekeepers typically supplement their colonies’ food supply with syrup or sugar.) In four of the five hives at each site, the syrup would contain imidacloprid, a commonly used neonicotinoid. The fifth hive, the control in the experiment, would be fed syrup not dosed with pesticide.
They began with a population of roughly 220,000 bees that grew into 1.4 million or so. On July 1, 2010, they started the pesticide regimen, beginning with very low doses, to make sure they didn’t kill the bees right away. They upped the amounts after four weeks to levels that Lu says were on the conservative end of what bees encounter in the real world — through syrup made from corn treated with neonicotinoids or nectar and pollen collected from contaminated flowers and crops. The four pesticide-laced hives at every site were given different concentrations of imidacloprid.
Part of the hive in Northbridge.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Part of the hive in Northbridge.
Winter came, and they saw nothing. The hives seemed fine. “We were starting to get discouraged,” Warchol says. “Dick and I were talking, saying, ‘Wow, there’s really nothing going on.’ ” Lu had the same reaction. “At that time,” he says, “I thought my hypothesis was wrong.”
Then everything started to change. Around the beginning of 2011, a beekeeper whose yard they were using as a testing site reported seeing a mass of bees suddenly fleeing one of the hives. It was suicide — to endure the winter, honeybees typically cluster together inside their hive for warmth, surviving on food that a beekeeper has provided to sustain them. Some of the bees had dropped dead on the surrounding snow. The rest had disappeared.
Over the next several weeks, Lu, Warchol, and Callahan lost 15 of the 16 hives they had fed imidacloprid. It resembled colony collapse disorder, with abandoned hives bearing plenty of food. “It was an exciting moment in a sense, even though the bees were dying,” Warchol says. For Lu, it all clicked. “It’s not Mother Nature,” he says. “It’s us.” They lost one of their control hives to disease, but it looked very different from the hives the bees had fled, with dead bees littering the colony.
When Lu, Warchol, and Callahan sought to publish their results, they encountered resistance. Some journals wouldn’t take the manuscript. Peer reviewers raised objections. They finally published in 2012 in an Italian journal called the Bulletin of Insectology. They also wrote a letter alerting the US Environmental Protection Agency to their work, just as two European research teams announced similar findings.
Critics challenged their science, the design of their experiment, and their conclusions. One California beekeeper was especially strident, going to great lengths to try to discredit their study. A leading bee researcher called it “an embarrassment.”
Others, like May Berenbaum, head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, offer more measured criticism. Berenbaum questions Lu’s sample size, saying sweeping conclusions are impossible from 20 hives. She also cites a separate study that found no evidence of neonicotinoids in commercially available high fructose corn syrup, which she says undermines the premise of bees being exposed to pesticides through the food provided by beekeepers. (Lu dismisses these objections, saying 20 hives was plenty, statistically speaking, and that no historical record exists on neonicotinoid levels in corn syrup.)
A self-described “tree-hugger,” Berenbaum is highly critical of systemic pesticides. She just hasn’t seen enough evidence to support banning them. If and when it reaches that point, she says, “I’d be the first one in line” pushing to restrict their use. “It’s a seductively easy fix,” she says, noting that many other chemical residues have been found in dead bees. “But like many seductively easy fixes, it is, I think, not likely to fix everything, or maybe even fix enough.”
For Lu, the push-back to their study — and the fact that no one, to his knowledge, sought to replicate it — emboldened him to go back into the field. “He’s a very passionate guy,” Callahan says. “There’s no question about it.”
So Lu, Warchol, and Callahan established new testing hives at three sites in 2012. They varied their methods somewhat, in part by testing bees’ exposure to both imidacloprid and another neonicotinoid called clothianidin. The results, they say, only reinforced their conclusion that pesticides are likely a major culprit behind colony collapse.
As last winter approached, the number of bees in all their test hives steadily dropped, which is normal for that time of year. But while the control hives started to rebound in January, the pesticide-treated hives did not. Lu is now finalizing the study in hopes of publishing the results in a journal soon. One factor he is investigating is whether neonicotinoids do more harm to honeybees in colder temperatures.
YOU COULD SPEND A LIFETIME reading studies and counter-studies on pesticides and their effects on plant, insect, and animal life. Suffice it to say that debate rages over the chemicals we rely on and their true costs and benefits. But Europe, where honeybees have also suffered, has seen enough to act.
In May, despite opposition from the United Kingdom and some other member countries, the European Commission adopted a ban on the use of three neonicotinoids on crops that attract bees and other pollinators. The ban, based on a risk assessment by European scientists, takes effect December 1 and will be reevaluated after two years at the latest. (A few European Union countries had already imposed their own such restrictions, and there’s some evidence bee health has improved.) It’s a step Lu and other critics of neonicotinoids say the United States should be taking. “The EU’s ban is a slap in our face,” he says.
Europe and the United States, though, have different approaches to environmental regulation. Where Europe is willing to take products off the shelf until they can be proved safe, the United States often allows industry to sell products until they’ve been proved harmful, a process that can take years.
Bees in Northbridge.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
The EPA, in particular, has come under heavy criticism for allowing pesticide manufacturers to start selling new products after limited safety testing and then leaving it up to the companies themselves to provide further data down the road. “It’s a formula that is designed to fail, and it’s doing just that,” says Steve Ellis, a longtime commercial beekeeper in Barrett, Minnesota, who says he lost 65 percent of his hives in the 2012-2013 winter. “And the bee industry is failing because of it.” Ellis belongs to a group of beekeepers and environmental organizations that filed a lawsuit against the EPA in March alleging the agency has been negligent in pesticide regulation.
Chas Mraz, a third-generation beekeeper in Middlebury, Vermont, also thinks systemic pesticides might be to blame for bee losses, which he has experienced himself, but he’s pessimistic anything will be done about it. “It’s just like nobody gives a damn about the beekeepers or a lot of other small enterprises in this country,” he says.
The USDA and the EPA have been working jointly on honeybee health, trying to balance the importance of pest control to agriculture with the risks to pollinators. Kim Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says pesticides are critical to food production and that crop yields would be substantially lower without them. “We have a lot of people to feed,” she says. “So who goes without?”
The government, Kaplan says, can’t hastily take neonicotinoids off the shelf unless the science is clear, an argument echoed by EPA officials. Kaplan insists the government is looking hard at pesticides, including the scenario that chronic exposure is a catalyst that makes bees more susceptible to other problems.
What does the government make of Lu’s work on pesticides and honeybees? When I ask Kaplan about it, one of the first things she says is “Have you read some of the critiques of his studies?” In 2012, after he released the results of his first study, Lu says, he was disinvited from a meeting of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Panel. It was the kind of gathering he had participated in many times, and his research was certainly germane — much of the meeting, the agenda suggests, dwelled on bees’ exposure to pesticides. But Lu says he was told his work was too controversial. (The EPA denies that Lu was disinvited, saying there were simply more candidates than available slots at the meeting.)
The pesticide industry, meanwhile, downplays any risks posed by neonicotinoids, seeking to shift attention to other potential causes of dwindling bee colonies. Industry representatives make their case in detailed responses to news articles, through millions of dollars of lobbying in Washington, D.C., at government conferences, and on social media. Bayer, one of the biggest manufacturers, maintains a golden-hued Web page and Twitter account under the name Bayer Bee Care, where it promotes alternative explanations for why honeybees are disappearing.
Ray McAllister, senior director for regulatory policy for CropLife America, a pesticide industry association with more than 90 member companies, says his organization is committed to improving honeybee health. Like other industry representatives, he questions the pesticide levels Lu used in his study, saying they were significantly higher than those bees would find in the natural environment. “It’s just difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions from the study,” he says.
But what of the European ban? McAllister calls the decision politically motivated and the product of faulty science. What if, I ask him, honeybees in Europe bounce back after the two-year hiatus? “I will be very surprised,” he says.
Lu has come to expect this kind of response, seeing parallels to how Big Tobacco tried for years to deflect growing evidence of the health risks posed by smoking. The more pesticide companies can muddy the picture of what’s happening to honeybees, Lu says, the better their business does. “This is just like a gold mine.”
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
MORE THAN ANYTHING, HE REMEMBERS THE QUIET. It was the spring of 2011. Lu had driven out to Worcester County to see one of the apiary sites. Other hives were buzzing. But not the ones exposed to pesticide. “Those four hives were dead silent,” he says. The take-away, to him, was clear: “This,” he thought, “is the replication of Silent Spring.” It was, as Rachel Carson had written about the absence of birds decades before, a “spring without voices.”
Lu has studied pesticide exposure in Seattle-area children, in migrant farm workers in Washington state, and in Boston Housing Authority tenants. He and his family try to buy organic food. They also grow fruits and vegetables themselves in eight raised beds. He describes honeybees as “a wonderful gift that God gave to us.” But he is hardly the radical anti-pesticide activist his critics may assume.
He calls pesticides “a tool that we cannot afford to lose,” given their importance to food production. He believes there’s a responsible way to use pesticides, but that we’re nowhere near that. “I think it can be done,” he says.
Callahan thinks farmers should approach pesticides the way sensible people approach antibiotics: “You take it when you need it. You want to take it carefully. You want to know what you’re doing. And you sure as hell would like to know the side effects.”
I heard a few people raise the idea of the honeybee as canary. Bees aside, what do we know about the consequences of our own chronic exposure to chemicals like neonicotinoids? “Very little,” Lu says. He sees promise in an emerging research field called metabolomics, which seeks to connect the dots between the body’s short-term responses and reactions to things like chemical exposures and the subsequent development of disease.
Even if Lu turns out to be right about neonicotinoids, still outstanding is the question of what chronic exposure actually does to bees physiologically. Does it impair their navigational and orientation capabilities, as some research suggests, prompting them to fly away? Does it indeed make them more susceptible to cold temperatures? Does the buildup of pesticide residues enhance bees’ vulnerability to mites and pathogens? All of the above?
In a sense, Lu and the scientists, regulators, and companies skeptical of his work don’t seem all that far apart. It may well be that several accomplices share responsibility for colony collapse. It’s just that Lu is ready to pick neonicotinoids out of the lineup, and not everyone is.
If there’s any upside to this crisis, it’s widespread sympathy for honeybees, sparking new interest in beekeeping in urban areas such as Boston and New York, in the suburbs, and beyond. Some 320 beginners signed up for the Worcester County Beekeepers Association’s Bee School in March, which Warchol says is the largest such class ever seen anywhere in Massachusetts. Chas Mraz says the same thing’s happening in Vermont.
For veterans like Warchol, the allure of beekeeping has never worn off — of tending to a flourishing hive, of harvesting its honey, of bearing witness to the intricate age-old ecosystem, with all the individuals working for the good of the whole. “I still love it,” Warchol says over a handsome breakfast at an Uxbridge diner. “I go out there on a sunny afternoon. It’s such a glorifying feeling to see this little micro-world — how they work together — and you learn so much from it. They all know their jobs. They do it well. They just know what to do to make a successful beehive.”
Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer.
E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter
6. TOBY's News
Toby Marshall: Hi Rick--not much news on Fukushima per se.
What are you looking for? The latest is reports saying that health effects will be minimal--which is questionable--but which are being seized upon by the industry.
Breaking--high levels of Strontium 90 and Tritium have been found in Fukushima groundwater.
This was consistently denied by Tepco until now.
The gov't has also ordered Tepco to build an underground wall around the plant to limit groundwater flow.
7. Are Fracking Wastewater Wells Poisoning the Ground beneath Our Feet?
Leaking injection wells may pose a risk--and the science has not kept pace with the growing glut of wastewater
By Abrahm Lustgarten and ProPublica
Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground.
No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.
There are growing signs they were mistaken.
Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation's drinking water.
In 2010, contaminants from such a well bubbled up in a west Los Angeles dog park. Within the past three years, similar fountains of oil and gas drilling waste have appeared in Oklahoma and Louisiana. In South Florida, 20 of the nation's most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami's drinking water.
There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.
Federal officials and many geologists insist that the risks posed by all this dumping are minimal. Accidents are uncommon, they say, and groundwater reserves — from which most Americans get their drinking water — remain safe and far exceed any plausible threat posed by injecting toxic chemicals into the ground.
But in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn't always work.
"In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA's underground injection program in Washington. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die."
The boom in oil and natural gas drilling is deepening the uncertainties, geologists acknowledge. Drilling produces copious amounts of waste, burdening regulators and demanding hundreds of additional disposal wells. Those wells — more holes punched in the ground — are changing the earth's geology, adding man-made fractures that allow water and waste to flow more freely.
"There is no certainty at all in any of this, and whoever tells you the opposite is not telling you the truth,' said Stefan Finsterle, a leading hydrogeologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in understanding the properties of rock layers and modeling how fluid flows through them. "You have changed the system with pressure and temperature and fracturing, so you don't know how it will behave."
A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.
Structurally, a disposal well is the same as an oil or gas well. Tubes of concrete and steel extend anywhere from a few hundred feet to two miles into the earth. At the bottom, the well opens into a natural rock formation. There is no container. Waste simply seeps out, filling tiny spaces left between the grains in the rock like the gaps between stacked marbles.
Many scientists and regulators say the alternatives to the injection process — burning waste, treating wastewater, recycling, or disposing of waste on the surface — are far more expensive or bring additional environmental risks.
Subterranean waste disposal, they point out, is a cornerstone of the nation's economy, relied on by the pharmaceutical, agricultural and chemical industries. It's also critical to a future less dependent on foreign oil: Hydraulic fracturing, "clean coal" technologies, nuclear fuel production, and carbon storage (the keystone of the strategy to address climate change) all count on pushing waste into rock formations below the earth's surface.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary regulatory authority over the nation's injection wells, would not discuss specific well failures identified by ProPublica or make staffers available for interviews. The agency also declined to answer many questions in writing, though it sent responses to several. Its director for the Drinking Water Protection Division, Ann Codrington, sent a statement to ProPublica defending the injection program's effectiveness.
"Underground injection has been and continues to be a viable technique for subsurface storage and disposal of fluids when properly done," the statement said. "EPA recognizes that more can be done to enhance drinking water safeguards and, along with states and tribes, will work to improve the efficiency of the underground injection control program."
Still, some experts see the well failures and leaks discovered so far as signs of broader problems, raising concerns about how much pollution may be leaking out undetected. By the time the damage is discovered, they say, it could be irreversible.
"Are we heading down a path we might regret in the future?" said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor who has been an outspoken critic of claims that wells don't leak. "Yes."
In September 2003, Ed Cowley got a call to check out a pool of briny water in a bucolic farm field outside Chico, Texas. Nearby, he said, a stand of trees had begun to wither, their leaves turning crispy brown and falling to the ground.
Chico, a town of about 1,000 people 50 miles northwest of Fort Worth, lies in the heart of Texas' Barnett Shale. Gas wells dot the landscape like mailboxes in suburbia. A short distance away from the murky pond, an oil services company had begun pumping millions of gallons of drilling waste into an injection well.
Regulators refer to such waste as salt water or brine, but it often includes less benign contaminants, including fracking chemicals, benzene and other substances known to cause cancer.
The well had been authorized by the Railroad Commission of Texas, which once regulated railways but now oversees 260,000 oil and gas wells and 52,000 injection wells. (Another agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, regulates injection wells for waste from other industries.)
Before issuing the permit, commission officials studied mathematical models showing that waste could be safely injected into a sandstone layer about one-third of a mile beneath the farm. They specified how much waste could go into the well, under how much pressure, and calculated how far it would dissipate underground. As federal law requires, they also reviewed a quarter-mile radius around the site to make sure waste would not seep back toward the surface through abandoned wells or other holes in the area.
Yet the precautions failed. "Salt water" brine migrated from the injection site and shot back to the surface through three old well holes nearby.
"Have you ever seen an artesian well?" recalled Cowley, Chico's director of public works. "It was just water flowing up out of the ground."
Despite residents' fears that the injected waste could be making its way towards their drinking water, commission officials did not sample soil or water near the leak.
If the injection well waste "had threatened harm to the ground water in the area, an in-depth RRC investigation would have been initiated," Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for Texas' Railroad Commission, wrote in an email.
The agency disputes Cowley's description of a pool of brine or of dead trees, saying that the waste barely spilled beyond the overflowing wells, though officials could not identify any documents or staffers who contradicted Cowley's recollections. Accounts similar to Cowley's appeared in an article about the leak in the Wise County Messenger, a local newspaper. The agency has destroyed its records about the incident, saying it is required to keep them for only two years.
After the breach, the commission ordered two of the old wells to be plugged with cement and restricted the rate at which waste could be injected into the well. It did not issue any violations against the disposal company, which had followed Texas' rules, regulators said. The commission allowed the well operator to continue injecting thousands of barrels of brine into the well each day. A few months later, brine began spurting out of three more old wells nearby.
"It's kind of like Whac-a-Mole, where one thing pops up and by the time you go to hit it, another thing comes up," Cowley said. "It was frustrating. ... If your water goes, what does that do to the value of your land?"
Deep well injection takes place in 32 states, from Pennsylvania to Michigan to California. Most wells are around the Great Lakes and in areas where oil and gas is produced: along the Appalachian crest and the Gulf Coast, in California and in Texas, which has more wells for hazardous industrial waste and oil and gas waste than any other state.
Federal rules divide wells into six classes based on the material they hold and the industry that produced it. Class 1 wells handle the most hazardous materials, including fertilizers, acids and deadly compounds such as asbestos, PCBs and cyanide. The energy industry has its own category, Class 2, which includes disposal wells and wells in which fluids are injected to force out trapped oil and gas. The most common wells, called Class 5, are a sort of catch-all for everything left over from the other categories, including storm-water runoff from gas stations.
The EPA requires that Class 1 and 2 injection wells be drilled the deepest to assure that the most toxic waste is pushed far below drinking water aquifers. Both types of wells are supposed to be walled with multiple layers of steel tubing and cement and regularly monitored for cracks.
Officials' confidence in this manner of disposal stems not only from safety precautions, but from an understanding of how rock formations trap fluid.
Underground waste, officials say, is contained by layer after layer of impermeable rock. If one layer leaks, the next blocks the waste from spreading before it reaches groundwater. The laws of physics and fluid dynamics should ensure that the waste can't spread far and is diluted as it goes.
The layering "is a very strong phenomenon and it's on our side," said Susan Hovorka, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin's Bureau of Economic Geology.
According to risk analyses cited in EPA documents, a significant well leak that leads to water contamination is highly unlikely — on the order of one in a million.
Once waste is underground, though, there are few ways to track how far it goes, how quickly or where it winds up. There is plenty of theory, but little data to prove the system works.
"I do think the risks are low, but it has never been adequately demonstrated," said John Apps, a leading geoscientist who advises the Department of Energy for Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. "Every statement is based on a collection of experts that offer you their opinions. Then you do a scientific analysis of their opinions and get some probability out of it. This is a wonderful way to go when you don't have any evidence one way or another... But it really doesn't mean anything scientifically."
The hard data that does exist comes from well inspections conducted by federal and state regulators, who can issue citations to operators for injecting illegally, for not maintaining wells, or for operating wells at unsafe pressures. This information is the EPA's primary means of tracking the system's health on a national scale.
Yet, in response to questions from ProPublica, the EPA acknowledged it has done very little with the data it collects. The agency could not provide ProPublica with a tally of how frequently wells fail or of how often disposal regulations are violated. It has not counted the number of cases of waste migration or contamination in more than 20 years. The agency often accepts reports from state injection regulators that are partly blank, contain conflicting figures or are missing key details, ProPublica found.
In 2007, the EPA launched a national data system to centralize reports on injection wells. As of September 2011 — the last time the EPA issued a public update — less than half of the state and local regulatory agencies overseeing injection were contributing to the database. It contained complete information from only a handful of states, accounting for a small fraction of the deep wells in the country.
The EPA did not respond to questions seeking more detail about how it handles its data, or about how the agency judges whether its oversight is working.
In a 2008 interview with ProPublica, one EPA scientist acknowledged shortcomings in the way the agency oversees the injection program.
"It's assumed that the monitoring rules and requirements are in place and are protective — that's assumed," said Gregory Oberley, an EPA groundwater specialist who studies injection and water issues in the Rocky Mountain region. "You're not going to know what's going on until someone's well is contaminated and they are complaining about it."
ProPublica's analysis of case histories and EPA data from October 2007 to October 2010 showed that when an injection well fails, it is most often because of holes or cracks in the well structure itself.
Operators are required to do so-called "mechanical integrity" tests at regular intervals, yearly for Class 1 wells and at least once every five years for Class 2 wells. In 2010, the tests led to more than 7,500 violations nationally, with more than 2,300 wells failing. In Texas, one violation was issued for every three Class 2 wells examined in 2010.
Such breakdowns can have serious consequences. Damage to the cement or steel casing can allow fluids to seep into the earth, where they could migrate into water supplies.
Regulators say redundant layers of protection usually prevent waste from getting that far, but EPA data shows that in the three years analyzed by ProPublica, more than 7,500 well test failures involved what federal water protection regulations describe as "fluid migration" and "significant leaks."
In September 2009, workers for Unit Petroleum Company discovered oil and gas waste in a roadside ditch in southern Louisiana. After tracing the fluid to a crack in the casing of a nearby injection well, operators tested the rest of the well. Only then did they find another hole — 600 feet down, and just a few hundred feet away from an aquifer that is a source of drinking water for that part of the state.
Most well failures are patched within six months of being discovered, EPA data shows, but with as much as five years passing between integrity tests, it can take a while for leaks to be discovered. And not every well can be repaired. Kansas shut down at least 47 injection wells in 2010, filling them with cement and burying them, because their mechanical integrity could not be restored. Louisiana shut down 82. Wyoming shut down 144.
Another way wells can leak is if waste is injected with such force that it accidentally shatters the rock meant to contain it. A report published by scientists at the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the University of Texas said that high pressure is "the driving force" that can help connect deep geologic layers with shallower ones, allowing fluid to seep through the earth.
Most injection well permits strictly limit the maximum pressure allowed, but well operators — rushing to dispose of more waste in less time — sometimes break the rules, state regulatory inspections show. According to data provided by states to the EPA, deep well operators have been caught exceeding injection pressure limits more than 1,100 times since 2008.
Excessive pressure factored into a 1989 well failure that yielded new clues about the risks of injection.
While drilling a disposal well in southern Ohio, workers for the Aristech Chemical Corp. (since bought by Sunoco, and sold again, in 2011, to Haverhill Chemicals) were overwhelmed by the smell of phenol, a deadly chemical the company had injected into two Class 1 wells nearby. Somehow, perhaps over decades, the pollution had risen 1,400 feet through solid rock and was progressing toward surface aquifers.
Ohio environmental officials – aided by the EPA – investigated for some 15 years. They concluded that the wells were mechanically sound, but Aristech had injected waste into them faster and under higher pressure than the geologic formation could bear.
Though scientists maintain that the Aristech leak was a rarity, they acknowledge that such problems are more likely in places where industrial activity has changed the underground environment.
There are upwards of 2 million abandoned and plugged oil and gas wells in the U.S., more than 100,000 of which may not appear in regulators' records. Sometimes they are just broken off tubes of steel, buried or sticking out of the ground. Many are supposed to be sealed shut with cement, but studies show that cement breaks down over time, allowing seepage up the well structure.
Also, if injected waste reaches the bottom of old wells, it can quickly be driven back towards aquifers, as it was in Chico.
"The United States looks like a pin cushion," said Bruce Kobelski, a geologist who has been with the agency's underground injection program since 1986. Kobelski spoke to ProPublica in May, 2011, before the EPA declined additional interview requests for this story. "Unfortunately there are cases where someone missed a well or a well wasn't indicated. It could have been a well from the turn of the [20th] century."
Clefts left after the earth is cracked open to frack for oil and gas also can connect abandoned wells and waste injection zones. How far these man-made fissures go is still the subject of research and debate, but in some cases they have reached as much as a half-mile, even intersecting fractures from neighboring wells.
When injection wells intersect with fracked wells and abandoned wells, the combined effect is that many of the natural protections assumed to be provided by deep underground geology no longer exist.
"It's a natural system and if you go in and start punching holes through it and changing pressure systems around, it's no longer natural," said Nathan Wiser, an underground injection expert working for the EPA in its Rocky Mountain region, in a 2010 interview. "It's difficult to know how it would behave in those circumstances."
EPA data provides a window into some injection well problems, but not all. There is no way to know how many wells have undetected leaks or to measure the amount of waste escaping from them.
In at least some cases, records obtained by ProPublica show, well failures may have contaminated sources of drinking water. Between 2008 and 2011, state regulators reported 150 instances of what the EPA calls "cases of alleged contamination," in which waste from injection wells purportedly reached aquifers. In 25 instances, the waste came from Class 2 wells. The EPA did not respond to requests for the results of investigations into those incidents or to clarify the standard for reporting a case.
The data probably understates the true extent of such incidents, however.
Leaking wells can simply go undetected. One Texas study looking for the cause of high salinity in soil found that at least 29 brine injection wells in its study area were likely sending a plume of salt water up into the ground unnoticed. Even when a problem is reported, as in Chico, regulators don't always do the expensive and time-consuming work necessary to investigate its cause.
"The absence of episodes of pollution can mean that there are none, or that no one is looking," said Salazar, the EPA's former injection expert. "I would tend to believe it is the latter."
The practice of injecting waste underground arose as a solution to an environmental crisis.
In the first half of the 20th century, toxic waste collected in cesspools, or was dumped in rivers or poured onto fields. As the consequences of unbridled pollution became unacceptable, the country turned to an out-of-sight alternative. Drawing on techniques developed by the oil and gas industry, companies started pumping waste back into wells drilled for resources. Toxic waste became all but invisible. Air and water began to get cleaner.
Then a host of unanticipated problems began to arise.
In April, 1967 pesticide waste injected by a chemical plant at Denver's Rocky Mountain Arsenal destabilized a seismic fault, causing a magnitude 5.0 earthquake -- strong enough to shatter windows and close schools -- and jolting scientists with newfound risks of injection, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
A year later, a corroded hazardous waste well for pulping liquor at the Hammermill Paper Co., in Erie, Pa., ruptured. Five miles away, according to an EPA report, "a noxious black liquid seeped from an abandoned gas well" in Presque Isle State Park.
In 1975 in Beaumont, Texas, dioxin and a highly acidic herbicide injected underground by the Velsicol Chemical Corp. burned a hole through its well casing, sending as much as five million gallons of the waste into a nearby drinking water aquifer.
Then in August 1984 in Oak Ridge, Tenn., radioactive waste was turned up by water monitoring near a deep injection well at a government nuclear facility.
Regulators raced to catch up. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, establishing a framework for regulating injection. Then, in 1980, the EPA set up the tiered classes of wells and began to establish basic construction standards and inspection schedules. The EPA licensed some state agencies to monitor wells within their borders and handled oversight jointly with others, but all had to meet the baseline requirements of the federal Underground Injection Control program.
Even with stricter regulations in place, 17 states – including Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Wisconsin -- banned Class 1 hazardous deep well injection.
"We just felt like based on the knowledge that we had at that time that it was not something that was really in the best interest of the environment or the state," said James Warr, who headed Alabama's Department of Environmental Management at the time.
Injection accidents kept cropping up.
A 1987 General Accountability Office review put the total number of cases in which waste had migrated from Class 1 hazardous waste wells into underground aquifers at 10 -- including the Texas and Pennsylvania sites. Two of those aquifers were considered potential drinking water sources.
In 1989, the GAO reported 23 more cases in seven states where oil and gas injection wells had failed and polluted aquifers. New regulations had done little to prevent the problems, the report said, largely because most of the wells involved had been grandfathered in and had not had to comply with key aspects of the rules.
Noting four more suspected cases, the report also suggested there could be more well failures, and more widespread pollution, beyond the cases identified. "The full extent to which injected brines have contaminated underground sources of drinking water is unknown," it stated.
The GAO concluded that most of the contaminated aquifers could not be reclaimed because fixing the damage was "too costly" or "technically infeasible."
Faced with such findings, the federal government drafted more rules aimed at strengthening the injection program. The government outlawed certain types of wells above or near drinking water aquifers, mandating that most industrial waste be injected deeper.
The agency also began to hold companies that disposed of hazardous industrial waste to far stiffer standards. To get permits to dispose of hazardous waster after 1988, companies had to prove – using complex models and geological studies -- that the stuff they injected wouldn't migrate anywhere near water supplies for 10,000 years. They were already required to test for fault zones and to conduct reviews to ensure there were no conduits for leakage, such as abandoned wells, within a quarter-mile radius. Later, that became a two-mile minimum radius for some wells.
The added regulations would have prevented the vast majority of the accidents that occurred before the late 1980s, EPA officials contend.
"The requirements weren't as rigorous, the testing wasn't as rigorous and in some cases the shallow aquifers were contaminated," Kobelski said. "The program is not the same as it was when we first started."
Today's injection program, however, faces a new set of problems.
As federal regulators toughened rules for injecting hazardous waste, oil and gas companies argued that the new standards could drive them out of business. State oil and gas regulators pushed back against the regulations, too, saying that enforcing the rules for Class 2 wells – which handle the vast majority of injected waste by volume -- would be expensive and difficult.
Ultimately, the energy industry won a critical change in the federal government's legal definition of waste: Since 1988, all material resulting from the oil and gas drilling process is considered non-hazardous, regardless of its content or toxicity.
"It took a lot of talking to sell the EPA on that and there are still a lot of people that don't like it," said Bill Bryson, a geologist and former head of the Kansas Corporation Commission's Conservation Division, who lobbied for and helped draft the federal rules. "But it seemed the best way to protect the environment and to stop everybody from just having to test everything all the time."
The new approach removed many of the constraints on the oil and gas industry. They were no longer required to conduct seismic tests (a stricture that remained in place for Class 1 wells). Operators were allowed to test their wells less frequently for mechanical integrity and the area they had to check for abandoned wells was kept to a minimum – one reason drilling waste kept bubbling to the surface near Chico.
Soon after the first Chico incident, Texas expanded the area regulators were required to check for abandoned waste wells (a rule that applied only to certain parts of the state). Doubling the radius they reviewed in Chico to a half mile, they found 13 other injection or oil and gas wells. When they studied the land within a mile – the radius required for review of many Class 1 wells – officials discovered another 35 wells, many dating to the 1950s.
The Railroad Commission concluded that the Chico injection well had overflowed: The target rock zone could no longer handle the volume being pushed into it. Trying to cram in more waste at the same speed could cause further leaks, regulators feared. The commission set new limits on how fast the waste could be injected, but did not forbid further disposal. The well remains in use to this day.
In late 2008, samples of Chico's municipal drinking water were found to contain radium, a radioactive derivative of uranium and a common attribute of drilling waste. The water well was a few miles away from the leaking injection well site, but environmental officials said the contaminants discovered in the water well were unrelated, mostly because they didn't include the level of sodium typical of brine.
Since then, Ed Cowley, the public works director, said commission officials have continued to assure him that brine won't reach Chico's drinking water. But since the agency keeps allowing more injection and doesn't track the cumulative volume of waste going into wells in the area, he's skeptical that they can keep their promise.
"I was kind of like, ‘You all need to get together and look at the total amount you are trying to fit through the eye of the needle,'" he said.
When sewage flowed from 20 Class 1 wells near Miami into the Upper Floridan aquifer, it challenged some of scientists' fundamental assumptions about the injection system.
The wells – which had helped fuel the growth of South Florida by eliminating the need for expensive water treatment plants -- had passed rigorous EPA and state evaluation throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Inspections showed they were structurally sound. As Class 1 wells, they were subject to some of the most frequent tests and closest scrutiny. Yet they failed.
The wells' designers would have calculated what is typically called the "zone of influence" — the space that waste injected into the wells was expected to fill. This was based on estimates of how much fluid would be injected and under what pressure.
In drawings, the zone of influence typically looks like a Hershey's kiss, an evenly dispersed plume spreading in a predictable circular fashion away from the bottom of the well. Above the zone, most drawings depict uniform formations of rock not unlike a layer cake.
Based on modeling and analysis by some of the most sophisticated engineering consultants in the country, Florida officials, with the EPA's assent, concluded that waste injected into the Miami-area wells would be forever trapped far below the South Florida peninsula.
"All of the modeling indicated that the injectate would be confined in the injection zone," an EPA spokesperson wrote to ProPublica in a statement.
But as Miami poured nearly half a billion gallons of partly treated sewage into the ground each day from the late 1980s through the mid 1990s, hydrogeologists learned that the earth – and the flow of fluids through it – wasn't as uniform as the models depicted. Florida's injection wells, for example, had been drilled into rock that was far more porous and fractured than scientists previously understood.
"Geology is never what you think it is," said Ronald Reese, a geologist with the United States Geological Survey in Florida who has studied the well failures there. "There are always surprises."
Other gaps have emerged between theories of how underground injection should work and how it actually does. Rock layers aren't always neatly stacked as they appear in engineers' sketches. They often fold and twist over on themselves. Waste injected into such formations is more likely to spread in lopsided, unpredictable ways than in a uniform cone. It is also likely to channel through spaces in the rock as pressure forces it along the weakest lines.
Petroleum engineers in Texas have found that when they pump fluid into one end of an oil reservoir to push oil out the other, the injected fluid sometimes flows around the reservoir, completely missing the targeted zone.
"People are still surprised at the route that the injectate is taking or the bypassing that can happen," said Jean-Philippe Nicot, a research scientist at the University of Texas' Bureau of Economic Geology.
Conventional wisdom says fluids injected underground should spread at a rate of several inches or less each year, and go only as far as they are pushed by the pressure inside the well. In some instances, however, fluids have travelled faster and farther than researchers thought possible.
In a 2000 case that wasn't caused by injection but brought important lessons about how fluids could move underground, hydrogeologists concluded that bacteria-polluted water migrated horizontally underground for several thousand feet in just 26 hours, contaminating a drinking water well in Walkerton, Ontario, and sickening thousands of residents. The fluids travelled 80 times as fast as the standard software model predicted was possible.
According to the model, vertical movement of underground fluids shouldn't be possible at all, or should happen over what scientists call "geologic time": thousands of years or longer. Yet a 2011 study in Wisconsin found that human viruses had managed to infiltrate deep aquifers, probably moving downward through layers believed to be a permanent seal.
According to a study published in April in the journal Ground Water, it's not a matter of if fluid will move through rock layers, but when.
Tom Myers, a hydrologist, drew on research showing that natural faults and fractures are more prevalent than commonly understood to create a model that predicts how chemicals might move in the Marcellus Shale, a dense layer of rock that has been called impermeable. The Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York to Tennessee, is the focus of intense debate because of concerns that chemicals injected in drilling for natural gas will pollute water.
Myers' new model said that chemicals could leak through natural cracks into aquifers tapped for drinking water in about 100 years, far more quickly than had been thought. In areas where there is hydraulic fracturing or drilling, Myers' model shows, man-made faults and natural ones could intersect and chemicals could migrate to the surface in as little as "a few years, or less."
"It's out of sight, out of mind now. But 50 years from now?" Myers said, referring to injected waste and the rock layers trusted to entrap it. "Simply put, they are not impermeable."
Myers' work is among the few studies done over the past few decades to compare theories of hydrogeology to what actually happens. But even his research is based on models.
"A lot of the concepts and a lot of the regulations that govern this whole practice of subsurface injection is kind of dated at this point," said one senior EPA hydrologist who was not authorized to speak to ProPublica, and declined to be quoted by name.
"It's a problem," he said. "There needs to be a hard look at this in a new way."
From ProPublica.org (find the original story here); reprinted with permission [http://www.propublica.org/article/injection-wells-the-poison-beneath-us/single#republish]
8. Biologists race to solve mysterious mass animal deaths in Florida lagoon
Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/06/19/biologists-race-to-solve-mysterious-mass-animal-deaths-in-florida-lagoon/?intcmp=trending#ixzz2X4IiYLCN
At least 111 manatees, 300 pelicans, and 46 dolphins — emaciated to the point of skin and bones — were all found dead in America’s most biologically diverse estuary.
Something is seriously wrong. The northern stretches of the Indian River Lagoon of Florida has a mass murder mystery that biologists are racing to figure out. The lagoon contains more species than anywhere else in the U.S. It is a barrier island complex stretching across 40 percent of Florida’s coast, around Cape Canaveral, and consisting of the Mosquito Lagoon, the Banana River and the Indian River Lagoon.
The lagoon has always been polluted by nutrients and fertilizers running off lawns and farms, but in recent years it appears to have reached some sort of tipping point, says Marty Baum of the Indian Riverkeeper.
“The lagoon is in a full collapse, it is ongoing,” he said.
Ghost Town Becomes Bird Beach Resort: Photos
In 2011, an algae superbloom covered 130,000 acres that killed off an unprecedented 60 percent of sea grass. A sea grass meadow serves as a shelter and spawning grounds for fish, and in terms of diversity, rates up there with tropical rainforests and reefs. It is also an important food source for manatees.
Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/science/2013/06/19/biologists-race-to-solve-mysterious-mass-animal-deaths-in-florida-lagoon/?intcmp=trending#ixzz2X4IVaoex