Wed, 2014-07-23 09:08Sharon Kelly
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Pennsylvania Environmental Regulators Flunk State's Own Shale Gas Audit

In January 2013, Pennsylvania's auditor general announced that he would conduct an investigation into whether state regulators were effectively overseeing the impacts from the shale gas drilling rush.

A year and a half later, the results are in: the state's environmental regulators are failing badly in at least eight major areas, at times declining to cite drillers who broke the law. In a damning 158-page report, the state's auditor general highlighted the agency's wide-ranging failures. The report detailed the Department of Environmental Protection's (DEP) use of a legal “loop hole” to avoid inspecting wells and described the agnecy's failure to fulfill its duty to track the industry's toxic waste. The report also faulted the agency for a reliance on voluntary measures in policing the industry.

The federal government has largely taken a hands-off approach to policing the drilling boom. What federal rules do exist have various broad exemptions exemptions for the oil and gas industry. Pennsylvania, which features a large swath of the Marcellus shale, is widely viewed as ground zero for the current fracking boom. In the unusually candid report released this week, state auditors have concluded that the state is overwhelmed by the industry and is providing insufficient oversight.

“It is DEP’s responsibility to protect the environment from these environmental risks and to ensure that laws and regulations which govern potential impacts to water quality are enforced,” Pennsylvania's auditors wrote. “Unfortunately, DEP was unprepared to meet these challenges because the rapid expansion of shale gas development has strained DEP, and the agency has failed to keep up with the workload demands placed upon it.”

Auditors described state environmental regulators as woefully outgunned and unprepared for the sudden arrival of the shale gas drilling frenzy.

Tue, 2014-07-22 10:55Guest
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BNSF Nears Shift To One-Member Crews, Possibly Even on Dangerous Oil Trains

This is a guest post by Cole Stangler.

For decades, the U.S. railroad industry has successfully shed labor costs by shifting to smaller and smaller operating crews. Now, it’s on the verge of what was once an unthinkable victory: single-member crews, even on dangerous oil trains.

A tentative agreement reached by BNSF Railway and the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) union would allow a single engineer to operate most of the company’s routes. It would mark a dramatic change to a labor contract that covers about 3,000 workers, or 60 percent of the BNSF system.  

It’s not just bad news for workers. The contract has major safety implications—especially amid North America’s dangerous, and sometimes deadly, crude-by-rail boom. Last year’s Bakken shale oil train derailment and explosion in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, brought increased scrutiny to oil trains. 

In response, Canadian regulators outlawed one-person crews on trains carrying hazardous materials. (A single engineer was in charge of the ill-fated train, although it was unmanned when it rolled into the town center.) 

BNSF spokesperson Roxanne Butler told DeSmogBlog the new contract would not apply to so-called “key trains” — loads of crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials.

As it stands, she says, the company mandates two-member crews for such shipments , and those are the terms of BNSF’s existing labor agreement.

But there is no federal law on the books that requires two-person rail crews for shipments of dangerous goods. The Federal Railway Administration (FRA) is expected to issue a proposed rule on the subject by the end of the year.

Workers worry that without contract guarantees, and no federal protections in place, BNSF will make the cost-cutting shift to one-person crews.

If you look at the contract, there’s nothing that shows they will exempt oil trains,” says Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, a labor group that opposes single-employee freight trains.

[BNSF] will do whatever they want to do,” says Robert Hill, a BNSF engineer based in Hauser, Idaho, roughly twenty miles east of Spokane, a major rail hub for the Northwest. “At some point, you eventually will see a one-man crew on these oil [trains]. There’s nothing specific in their company policy that says they have to have two-man crews on oil trains.”

Mon, 2014-07-21 14:26Justin Mikulka
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Maine Residents Fight American Petroleum Institute Lobbyists Over Ban on Tar Sands Shipments

Portland, Maine, has become the latest battleground in the fight against tar sands oil, with local residents facing off against energy industry forces in an attempt to ban tar sands oil from the city’s port.

The South Portland Clear Skies Ordinance, would ban tar sands oil from being loaded on to ships at the local port. City council will take a final vote on the measure today.

Three weeks ago, about 200 people attended a presentation on the proposed ordinance, many wearing blue “clear skies” t-shirts to show their support. Only three people spoke against the ordinance at that meeting.

But on July 7, when many of the same 200 people in blue t-shirts showed up at the meeting when the city council was set to vote on the ordinance, they were met with a surprise. The meeting room was packed with people in red shirts that read “American Energy” on the front and “SoPo Jobs” on the back.

Mon, 2014-07-21 14:07Mike G
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California Orders Emergency Shutdown Of Fracking Wastewater Injection Sites Over Fears of Contaminated Aquifers

California officials ordered an emergency shutdown of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites in Kern County earlier this month, fearing they may be contaminating sources of drinking water that are sorely needed in the drought-stricken state.

No contamination has actually been found in any drinking or irrigation water, but, according to The Bakersfield Californian, “Pollution has not been ruled out… as regulators conduct site inspections and await test results and other information from the companies” that were operating the injection sites.

State officials are reviewing not just the 11 wells that were ordered to be shut down but as many as 100 more in northeast and east Bakersfield, CA over fears that fracking fluids and “produced waters” (the toxic and potentially radioactive fluids that come up with oil) may be leeching into potential sources of potable water.


As ProPublica reported, California's Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources issued the shutdown orders on July 7 to seven different energy companies, saying that they may have injected wastewater into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, which “poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources.”

A review of wastewater injections sites is long overdue in California. The state had exempted as many as 100 aquifers from environmental protection after they were found to contain water unfit for consumption or to be too deep to make their use feasible. But a 2011 report released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found significant shortcomings with how the state was managing its wastewater injection program:

Mon, 2014-07-21 08:13Justin Mikulka
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Exclusive: E-mails Reveal Feds and Rail Companies Pressured States to Keep Oil-by-Rail Information Secret

Documents released to DeSmogBlog by the Washington State Military Department reveal that both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and rail companies attempted to pressure states including Washington to keep information about Bakken crude oil trains from the public.

As previously reported on DeSmogBlog, while rail companies have been asserting that information about the frequency and routes of Bakken oil trains was “security sensitive,” the Federal Railroad Administration and the Transportation Security Administration were saying the opposite.

However, that didn’t stop the Department of Transportation from pressuring states like Washington only to release information on a “need to know” basis. A document provided to the states by the department argues against the public’s right to know:

This data is intended for those persons with a need-to-know; that is, first responders at the state and local level, as well other appropriate emergency response planners. DOT expects the SERCs to treat this data as confidential, providing it only to those with a need-to-know, and with the understanding that recipients of the data will continue to treat it as confidential.

The Department of Transportation went on to explain why it thought it was “appropriate” to keep the oil train information from the public.

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