air pollution

China’s Disastrous Pollution Problem Is A Lesson For All

V.T. Polywoda via Flickr CC

This is a guest post by David Suzuki.

Beijing’s 21 million residents live in a toxic fog of particulate matter, ozone, sulphur dioxide, mercury, cadmium, lead and other contaminants, mainly caused by factories and coal burning. Schools and workplaces regularly shut down when pollution exceeds hazardous levels. People have exchanged paper and cotton masks for more elaborate, filtered respirators. Cancer has become the leading cause of death in the city and throughout the country.

Chinese authorities, often reluctant to admit to the extent of any problem, can no longer deny the catastrophic consequences of rampant industrial activity and inadequate regulations. According to Bloomberg News, Beijing’s Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says that, although life expectancy doubled from 1949 to 2011, “the average 18-year-old Beijinger today should prepare to spend as much as 40 percent of those remaining, long years in less than full health, suffering from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis, among other ailments.”

China’s government also estimates that air pollution prematurely kills from 350,000 to 500,000 residents every year.* Water and soil pollution are also severe throughout China.

The documentary film Under the Dome, by Chinese journalist Chai Jing, shows the extent of the air problem. The film was viewed by more than 150 million Chinese in its first few days, apparently with government approval. Later it was censored, showing how conflicted authorities are over the problem and its possible solutions. The pollution problem also demonstrates the ongoing global conflict between economic priorities and human and environmental health.

Rather than seeing China’s situation as a warning, many people in Canada and the U.S. — including in government — refuse to believe we could end up in a similar situation here. And so U.S. politicians fight to block pollution-control regulations and even to remove the power of the Environmental Protection Agency, or shut it down altogether! In Canada, politicians and pundits argue that environmental protection is too costly and that the economy takes precedence.

EU Allowing Coal Lobbyists to ‘Set Their Own Air Pollution Standards’

The UK is one of several European governments allowing energy industry representatives to help draw up the European Union’s (EU) new air pollution standards, a Greenpeace investigation has found.

The EU is currently in the process of drafting new standards to limit pollution from coal-fired power stations. However, this “once-in-a-decade opportunity” has been captured by the coal industry Greenpeace claims and could result in “extremely lax” emission limits.

Not only would most of the existing plants be allowed to pollute several times more than could be achieved by adopting the best clean technologies available,” the environmental NGO said, “but EU standards would also be significantly weaker than those imposed in other parts of the world, including China.”

Junk Science? Report Finds Shale Industry Cited 'Retracted and Discredited' Studies

Since the beginning of the shale gas rush, the drilling industry has insisted that the process is relatively benign, arguing that its critics are simply fear-mongering and that a sober scientific review of the data fails to prove, for instance, that fracking has ever contaminated water supplies.

In the wake of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's decision to disallow fracking in that state, for example, one of the most active boosters of the shale drilling rush, the industry-funded Energy in Depth, issued a statement labeling the ban “'Junk Science' and 'Political Theater.”

In the wake of news reports, academic publications, or policy decisions that it opposes, Energy in Depth often circulates lists of sources that it describes as debunking “junk science.” But how reliable is the science that EID cites?

A report issued today by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) reviews a list of over 130 studies cited by Energy in Depth (EID), testing its sources for markers of credibility.

How often was the research cited peer-reviewed? Was it accurately labeled? Was the research funded by the oil and gas industry, and if so, was that funding properly disclosed or was it concealed? Were any of the papers cited revoked or rescinded?

The answers, found in the report titled “Frackademia in Depth,” are striking.

“Of the 137 unique studies on EID's list that could be located, only 19 were peer-reviewed,” the PAI writes. “This suggests that there is a significant shortage of serious scholarly research supporting the case for fracking.”

New Report Spotlights Toxic Air Pollution from Oil and Gas Sites in California

A new report from Earthworks shines a light on air pollution, including methane leaks, from oil and gas wells in California, the nation's third largest oil producing state in 2013 – highlighting the ways that potentially toxic gases from the sites raise red flags for the health of those living nearby.

Published Thursday, the report is the first analysis of California's oil and gas air pollution based on infrared video footage combined with air sample testing and revealed toxic gases in the air surrounding oil and gas wells in Kern County and Ventura County. Many of the sites tested were at existing oil and gas wells, including one sample drawn while a well was abandoned. People living near the sites were also surveyed.

“Air sampling revealed the presence of 15 compounds known to have negative effects on human health, as well as 11 compounds for which no health data is available,” the researchers reported.

EPA Sued Over Disclosure Rules for Toxic Pollution from Drilling and Fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been sued over toxic chemicals released into the air, water and land by the oil and gas industry, a coalition of nine environmental and open government groups announced today.

The extraction of oil and gas releases more toxic pollution than any other industry except for power plants, according to the EPA's own estimates, the coalition, which filed the lawsuit this morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, noted.

But the industry has thus far escaped federal rules that, for over the past two decades, have required other major polluters to disclose the type and amount of toxic chemicals they release or dispose. The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) is a federal pollution database, established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and can be used by first-responders in the event of a crisis as well as members of the general public.

People deserve to know what toxic chemicals are being used near their homes, schools and hospitals,” said Matthew McFeeley, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

For too long, the oil and gas industry has been exempt from rules that require other industries to disclose the chemicals they are using, so communities and workers can better understand the risks. It’s high time for EPA to stop giving the oil and gas industry special treatment.”

Roughly one in four Americans live within a mile of an oil or gas well, making the air emissions from the industry a matter of local concern to a fast-growing number of families.

DeSmogBlog’s Top 10 Stories of 2014

It was a year of highs and lows as far as climate change and energy issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lows got a lot of the attention, which is why the top 10 posts on DeSmog this year are mostly of the outrageous, infuriating or depressing variety.

We’ve already collected the top clean energy revolution stories of the year, so if this post gets too heavy for you, you can always pop over there and have some of your hope for the future restored.

But for those of you who can't look away, here are the top ten stories we posted on DeSmog this year, as measured by the amount of traffic each received:

New EPA Coal Ash Regulations Are Not Enough To Stop The Next Coal Ash Spill

The Environmental Protection Agency released long-awaited coal ash regulations today, the first rules ever to be imposed on the storage and disposal of the toxic waste left over after burning coal for electricity—the second largest industrial waste stream in the U.S.

But according to Earthjustice and the 10 environmental and public interest groups it represented in suing to force the release of the regulations in the first place, the EPA’s new rules are not nearly stringent enough to stop the next coal ash spill before it happens.

The new rules will not phase out the practice of storing massive quantities of coal ash—which contains highly toxic substances like arsenic, mercury, lead and radioactive uranium—in unlined ponds shored up by earthen dams that are often unstable and likely to fail. This is exactly what happened in the case of the Dan River coal ash spill in North Carolina this past February and the spill in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 that released 1.1 billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry, covering up to 300 acres of surrounding land.

The typical coal ash dam is built from soil and ash and is used to impound millions of tons of coal ash and wastewater. The majority are over 40 years old, according to Earthjustice, and most do not have monitoring systems in place for detecting leaks of the toxic coal ash slurry they contain.

What Americans Don’t Know About Climate Change Could Be Really Bad For Their Health

When it comes to the health impacts of global warming, Americans are woefully uninformed.

In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, only about one in four can even name a health problem associated with global warming that their fellow Americans might be suffering from.

Only 14% of Americans are aware of one of the most obvious health impacts of all the global warming pollution that has been dumped into our atmosphere: respiratory problems like asthma and other lung diseases. A mere 6% make the connection between illness, injury, and death resulting from extreme weather events and climate change.

Less than 5% of Americans could name any of the other consequences to human health from global warming.

Perhaps that’s no surprise, given that the survey also found 70% of Americans have given “little or no thought” to how global warming could affect human health in the first place.

Newspapers Complicit In Selling Phony “War On Coal”

U.S. newspapers are helping conservatives push their misleading “war on coal” narrative, according to a new report.

There are a number of reasons why the tide has turned against the coal industry around the globe. Mining and burning coal for energy poses huge risks for human health and the environment, for instance, mainly due to the vast amounts of air and water pollution created throughout coal’s lifecycle.

Then of course there’s the fact that coal is the single largest source of global warming pollution—while coal-fired power represents only 39% of all electricity generated in the U.S, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is responsible for 75% of carbon emissions.

And of course the health of coal miners and the safety of mining operations is a cause for concern, as well. The indictment of coal baron Don Blankenship is proof enough of that—a U.S. attorney recently pressed conspiracy charges against Blankenship for violating federal mine safety and health standards and impeding federal mine safety officials, among other offenses committed before and after the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010 that took the lives of 29 workers.

If you need more proof, there was a study conducted this year that found a severe form of black lung is affecting miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia at levels not seen in four decades.

But it’s not just the dangers of the job that are driving coal miners out of work: greater automation in coal mining operations and the rise of cheap, abundant natural gas thanks to fracking have also taken a heavy toll on the coal industry.

Yet a Media Matters analysis of the 233 articles published in major U.S. newspapers this year that mentioned the phrase “war on coal” found that more than half ignored all of these underlying causes of the coal industry’s decline.

Citizens Take Monitoring Into Own Hands as Eagle Ford Shale Boom Continues Undaunted

Flare stack

Hugh Fitzsimons lll, a buffalo rancher on the outskirts of Carrizo Springs, Texas, cautiously watches the fracking industry’s accelerating expansion. His 13,000-acre ranch is atop the southwestern part of the oil-rich Eagle Ford Shale, which stretches from Leon County in northeast Texas to Laredo, along the Mexican border.

During the last two years Fitzsimons has watched the fracking boom transform a rural locale into an industry hub. Desolate dirt roads are now packed with truck traffic, and commercial development to service the growing industry has sprung up along state highways, creating air and noise pollution.

Hugh A. Fitzsimons III

Hugh A. Fitzsimons lll on a dirt road near his ranch in the Eagle Ford Shale. ©2014 Julie Dermansky for Oceans 8 Films

Though Fitzsimons stands to profit from oil extraction, he has not turned a blind eye to the industry’s damaging effects on the environment. He wants to make sure the expanding industry acts responsibly and is doing his part to ensure that happens, a tall order since a state-sponsored report estimates the number of wells could grow from 8,000 to 32,000 by 2018 and industry polices itself for the most part.

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