Lawmakers Criticize BP for Oil Pipeline Problems
WASHINGTON, DC, September 7, 2006 (ENS) - Federal lawmakers at a House hearing on Thursday blasted British Petroleum executives for operational problems at an Alaskan oil field that caused a large oil spill in March and forced a partial shutdown of operations at the company's Prudhoe Bay facility last month.
"If a company - one of the world's most successful oil companies - can't do the basic maintenance needed to keep Prudhoe Bay's oil field operating safely and without interruption, maybe it shouldn't be operating the pipeline," said Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican and chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Years of neglecting to inspect two of the most vital oil pipelines in this country is simply unacceptable." Representative Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said "BP stands for a company with bloated profits that failed to fix broken pipelines."
The hearing is the culmination of several major problems at American BP facilities. In March, an oil spill from one of BP's pipelines dumped some 270,000 gallons of oil onto the Alaskan tundra in March. Subsequent inspections unearthed another leak and significant corrosion, forcing BP last month to halve its daily output from the Prudhoe Bay field to about 200,000 barrels. Furthermore, BP faces a slew of litigation over a 2005 explosion at a Texas refinery that killed 15 people and injured hundreds more.
"We have fallen short of the high standards we hold for ourselves, and the expectations that others have for us," said Robert Malone, head of BP's U.S. operations.
Malone told lawmakers the company plans to spend $195 million on maintenance of the Prudhoe Bay facility in 2007, including some $150 million to replace 16 miles of the corroded pipeline.
The company also expressed support for new rules to set up cleaning and inspection requirements for oil pipelines as well as some remorse for the situation.
But at least one BP official was unwilling to discuss the company's failings - Richard Woollam, the company's former chief of monitoring pipeline corrosion.
When asked when he knew of corrosion problems at the Alaskan pipelines, Woollam refused to answer, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to decline to answer questions that could form incriminating evidence.
Today's hearing is likely to be the first of several investigating BP's actions - the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on the effects of the BP pipeline failure next week.
EPA Unveils Plan to Implement Ethanol MandateWASHINGTON, DC, September 7, 2006 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday proposed a plan to implement provisions in last year's energy bill to double the use of domestically-produced ethanol and biodiesel.
The new regulation, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), proposes that 3.71 percent of all the gasoline sold or dispensed to U.S. motorists in 2007 be renewable fuel.
In 2006, there will be about 4.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel consumed as motor vehicle fuel in the United States.
The RFS program requires that this volume increase to at least 7.5 billion gallons by 2012.
"For years, our nation's rolling farm fields have filled America's breadbaskets, " said EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson. "Now, by helping meet President Bush's renewable energy goals, these same fields are filling America's gas tanks."
Various renewable fuels can be used to meet the requirements of RFS program, including ethanol and biodiesel. While the RFS program provides the certainty that a minimum amount of renewable fuel will be used in the United States, more can be used if fuel producers and blenders choose to do so.
Last December, EPA issued a rule implementing the Energy Policy Act's default standard of 2.78 percent for 2006 - that rate will continue through year's end.
The proposal calls for a complex credit-trading system for refiners, producers and importers to enable renewable fuels be used where they are most economical.
EPA said the program would cut the nation's oil consumption by 3.9 billion gallons per year, with 14 million tons in greenhouse gas emissions reduced annually.
Environmentalists caution that ethanol produces more smog-forming emissions that regular gasoline and are concerned EPA's proposal does not consider this problem.
Industry groups are also not convinced of the merits of EPA's rule or the new ethanol mandate. Bob Slaughter, president of the National Petrochemicals and Refiners Association, said the industry "continues to have serious concerns about the wisdom of policies than mandate a prescribed ethanol or biodiesel content in the nation's transportation fuel supply."
"Although EPA was open to all stakeholders' input and was committed to development of a cost-effective, fair standard, NPRA, however, does not subscribe to the EPA's statements regarding potential greenhouse gas reductions obtained by use of renewable fuels," Slaughter said. "Experts who have studied the impact of renewables' use on greenhouse gas emissions strongly disagree on whether any reduction occurs if all factors, including crop production, are considered. The consensus on this point would appear to be that there is only a marginal reduction, if any."
Increased Burning of Peatlands Boosts Mercury EmissionsWASHINGTON, DC, September 7, 2006 (ENS) - The boggy and cold peatlands of Alaska and northern Canada have long acted as atmospheric sponges, absorbing carbon and mercury from the atmosphere. But peatlands are becoming drier and burning more often, a new study finds, and toxic mercury is spewing back into the atmosphere, making its way to the land and waters of the northern hemisphere.
The study´s authors estimated global mercury emissions as 15-fold greater than previous studies that did not account for the vast amount of mercury stored in northern peat soils.
"With pervasive drying of peatlands, probably due to climate change, much of the carbon and mercury that took thousands of years to accumulate may simply go up in smoke," said Jennifer Harden, a U.S. Geological Survey researcher and co-author of the study. "It is important that researchers account for this increased mercury being unleashed into the atmosphere as we assess the possible effects of global warming."
The researchers reconstructed 20 years of mercury emissions and concluded that drought, water table, and fire severity governed as much as a 15-fold increase in mercury and carbon emissions across boreal forests in North America.
"Over a 20-year period from 1980 to 1999, fire-caused mercury emissions across the northern region averaged about 23 metric tons a year; during drought years, however, emissions approached industrial emissions of mercury in North America - about 210 tons of mercury per year," the study's authors said.
The research was published this week by American and Canadian scientists in the "Geophysical Research Letters."
They note that ongoing and projected increases in boreal wildfire activity due to climate change will increase atmospheric mercury emissions.
"While we´re being pretty careful to account for carbon emissions and energy-carbon feedbacks to global warming, perhaps our other eye should be on mercury, the toxic twin," Harden said.
Monarch Butterfly Population Bolstered by Favorable ConditionsLAWRENCE, Kansas, September 7, 2006 (ENS) - A fortunate chain of events have caused an unexpected boost in the population of monarch butterflies, scientists reported Thursday. The population is probably the biggest in a decade, said University of Kansas researcher Orley Taylor, and is the result of nearly ideal conditions during their spring trip out of Mexico.
"The temperatures were perfect, the moisture conditions were perfect," said Taylor, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Monarch Watch program at Kansas University. "It was neither too hot, nor too dry, nor too rainy or too windy."
The returning butterflies produced a large number of offspring, who reproduced even more as they traveled north.
"So every step of the way this year has been favorable for the butterflies," Taylor said, "and that doesn't happen often."
Taylor said he is already receiving reports from long-time monarch observers who say they have never seen so many.
But the butterflies face a long and difficult journey back to their winter habitat in Mexico from as far away as Canada.
This summer's extreme temperatures and lack of rain have left dry conditions in Texas and some of southern Oklahoma and may diminish the population the farther south the butterflies go.
"It means there aren't going to be any flowers," Taylor said. "It means there isn't going to be any water, and there isn't going to be any nectar."
The butterflies use nectar to acquire carbohydrates and water to fuel the long flight to Mexico. They convert carbohydrates into lipids, or fats, to store for the rest of their trip and the winter in Mexico.
"They're going to be going through what looks like about 1,000 miles of really dry habitat," Taylor said. "So unless there is rainfall in this region between now and October, the death toll for these butterflies going through Texas is going to be pretty severe."
Prison Safety Manager Named Whistleblower of the YearWASHINGTON, DC, September 7, 2006 (ENS) - A federal prison safety manager who alerted authorities to toxic exposure from a prison computer recycling operation was today named "Public Servant of the Year" by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), the federal agency charged with whistleblower protection.
Leroy Smith was honored for coming forward with documents showing that computer terminal disassembly plants were showering particles of heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium, over both inmates and civilian prison staff at Atwater Federal Prison, a maximum-security institution located just outside of Merced, California.
But Smith says conditions have not changed at Atwater or the six other federal prisons with similar computer recycling plants since he reported the concerns two years ago.
The federal Bureau of Prisons and its parent agency, the Department of Justice, continue to cover-up toxic exposure of both staff and inmates working in computer recycling operations, Smith said.
"The dangers that I identified go un-remedied to the continuing detriment of my colleagues who work in the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the inmates working in those prison industry factories," Smith said. "Daily, I receive calls from my colleagues working in computer recycling operations at other correctional institutions who describe coming home coated in dust. They had been assured that there was no danger. Now, many have health problems and others are scared about what lies in store for them."
Smith's allegations were reviewed and upheld by the OSC which found the explanations offered by the Bureau of Prisons to be "unreasonable," "inconsistent with documentary evidence," and relying on "strained interpretations" of safety requirements.
In May, the Justice Department Inspector General's Office promised to investigate but none of the witnesses named by Smith have yet been contacted.
"It is supremely frustrating for conscientious employees to risk their careers bringing dangers to light only to see business continue as usual," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a national association of employees in natural resources agencies. "The accountability mechanisms in the federal government, while never strong, have now ceased to function altogether."
Ruch noted that Smith is being honored even though OSC has rejected similar complaints and disclosures from his colleagues at other prisons and has dismissed Smith's complaint that he faced retaliation for his warnings.
"Things have gotten so pathetic at the Office of Special Counsel that they could only find one case in the whole year where the whistleblower did not have an utterly miserable experience," Ruch said.
Pennsylvania Tape Manufacturer Fined for Air Violations
NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania, September 7, 2006 (ENS) - A tape manufacturer located in Pennsylvania's Bucks County has been fined nearly $100,000 by state environmental regulators for air quality permit violations.
The company, RJM Manufacturing, was cited for violations at its Fairless Hills facility.
"RJM Manufacturing had violations associated with faulty air pollution control equipment," said Joseph Feola, director of the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Southeast Region. "The company not only failed to correct the problem, it failed to report the matter to our agency." Agency inspectors discovered the problem during a January 2005 site visit.
They found third-party test results from January 2004 showing problems with a catalytic oxidizer used to control emissions from the facility. Those tests showed the catalyst was not effectively controlling emissions from the unit.
Conditions of RJM's facility-wide permit require immediate notification of such matters to DEP, and the problem must be noted on a compliance certificate submitted to the department on an annual basis. None of these actions were taken. The company continued to operate the faulty equipment until replacing the catalyst in February 2005.
Under terms of today's agreement, the company will pay the $99,921 penalty in three installments over a six-month period. The penalty money will go to the commonwealth's Clean Air Fund, which is used to pay for air quality improvements statewide.
This is not the first time RJM has run afoul of state and federal environmental laws.
In 1998, the company paid $206,000 in penalties for installing and operating a surface coating line without obtaining the needed permits, and for excess emissions created by this equipment.