Learning from Nature

Earth day image
Image Credit: Beautiful Earth Day 2018 logo from Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School, in Laupahoehoe, HI. 

Happy Earth Day everyone! For this week’s blog, let’s take a look at how resilient Mother Nature is. With every troubling toxin, corrosive chemical and petroleum product we pollute her with, she finds new ways to come back into balance. Here’s what we’ve learned from nature recently:

Oil-eating Bacteria – For decades, scientists have been looking for bacteria and other microorganisms to find the perfect strain which can metabolism hydrocarbons found in oil and petroleum wastes. Researchers at Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in France have found a marine bacterium that may be able to do just that. Early research shows that enzymes isolated from Alcanivorax borkumensis have been able to break down many chemicals found in petroleum contaminated soils, including harsh chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. Professor Satinder Kaur Brar at the Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory stated, “the degradation of hydrocarbons using the crude enzyme extract is really encouraging and reached over 80 percent for various compounds.”  The team intends to extend their work and see if this bacterium is capable of decontaminating waste sites.

Mutant Enzyme that Eats Plastic? – Researchers from the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have been able to “tweak” the structure of an enzyme in a recently discovered bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, to enhance its ability to digest PET (polyethylene terephthalate). PET is the same material used to manufacture plastic bottles that are clogging up landfills and oceans around the world. Researchers modified the enzyme, called PETase, with additional amino acids. The new enzyme is capable of breaking down PET in just a few days. The hope is the new enzyme may help reduce our world’s escalating plastic crisis.

Plants, Fungi and Bacteria Unite! – Can organisms of different species “talk” to each other?  That may be one way of explaining the “highly complex interactions among roots, fungi and bacteria” which enable some trees to clean polluted land. Bioinformatics and plant-biology experts from McGill University and Université de Montréal discovered new genetic evidence which suggests willow trees, fungi and bacteria symbiotically take care of each other’s physical needs in a petroleum polluted environment. Specifically, willow trees “may tolerate pollution by providing sugars to symbiotic fungi surrounding their roots; the fungi, in turn, provide nutrients to hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria.” Scientists are hoping this cross-disciplinary collaboration may lead to the discovery of other “incredibly intricate solutions (to problems) present in the natural world.”

The Highs and Lows of Growing Weed

Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have legalized forms of marijuana and more states are likely to follow. Marijuana sales have been on fire. In 2017, sales were expected to reach $9.7 billion, and analysts are predicting sales of $24.5 billion by 2021, as new states enter the market. Yet, behind the “green gold rush”, an insidious story is unfolding. One fostered by the green and the greed which comes with it. Ultimately one that kills.

MJ
Image Source: Getty Images

It’s well known that Mexican drug cartels are growing weed in remote locations of U.S. national forests. California has been hit the hardest by this illegal activity. As reported by Reuter’s, there are an estimated 50,000 grow sites in California which is believed to comprise about 90% of all illegal pot farming in the United States.  Even with the state’s recent legalization of marijuana, officials expect only about 16,000 of these growers to seek commercial cultivation licenses.

Lack of law enforcement in these vast, remote areas is exploited by growers. The illegal operators are emboldened by limited oversight and will defend their turf if they feel threatened. The Atlantic online article noting that “Growers have followed, detained, threatened, pursued, and shot at officers and civilians, including scientists and field techs. One Forest Service biologist who stumbled upon a grow site in Sequoia National Forest was chased for close to an hour by armed growers.”

Not only are these areas unsafe for any unsuspecting soul rambling about, they are often havens for extremely toxic chemicals used as pesticides or rodenticides. Reuter’s published an online article which details how growers are using “fertilizers and pesticides long restricted or banned in the United States, including carbofuran and zinc phosphide.”  These chemicals are so toxic that enforcement officials have been hospitalized after touching plants treated with these chemicals or handling equipment used in their application. Now imagine smoking or ingesting some of that.

Other lethal chemicals found on remote grow sites include aluminum phosphide, for killing rodents and insects; bromadiolone, a restricted-use neurotoxic rodenticide; brodifacoum, an anticoagulant rodenticide; and malathion, an organophosphate insecticide that’s been compared to a watered-down version of the nerve agent sarin.

There is concern that some of these toxin-laden plants are infiltrating legalized medicinal marijuana markets, potentially impacting people with serious health conditions like AIDS or cancer. The Atlantic article noted that “studies and investigations in Colorado and Oregon have found pesticides on marijuana in legal dispensaries, including in products that were supposedly certified pesticide-free.”

Unsuspecting wildlife has taken the greatest hit. In addition to the rodents targeted by growers, the toxic materials have worked their way up the food chain. Researchers at the University of California – Davis revealed that tissue samples from spotted owls and barred owls tested positive for rat poison.  This is a significant concern because the northern spotted owls are listed as a threatened species under federal and state Endangered Species acts.

Other animals found dead at grow sites include Pacific fishers, bears, vultures, foxes, and deer; presumably from ingesting one or more of these chemicals. There are even concerns about cattle being poisoned by marijuana farms. These illicit activities also impact and kill aquatic organisms; including fish.

Another pressing concern for California is the impact on local water supplies. California just came out of a 15-year drought. Conditions got so bad in 2015 that Governor Jerry Brown imposed mandatory water reductions of 25% on residents, businesses, and farms. The restrictions continued until March of 2017.

Marijuana is known to be a high-water crop. State officials suggest that growers are watering each plant with about 6 gallons of water per day. Multiply that by 50,000 grow sites and thousands of plants per site and you have monumental water use. As reported in The Atlantic, “the 1.1 million illegal pot plants removed in California in 2016 would have used somewhere around 1.3 billion gallons of water—as much as 10,000 average California households do in a year.” This water use figure becomes even more daunting when you consider enforcement officials consider that 50,000 grow sites state-wide is likely to be a low estimate.

To help regulate excessive water use for cannabis growers, the California State Water Board has established specific “Cannabis Cultivation Water Rights” to help protect stream flows, wetlands, aquatic habitats and even groundwater from negative impacts of cannabis cultivation. These regulations will be applied to legal cultivators of weed but it is extremely unlikely any illegal grower will even acknowledge such regulations.

Illegal growers are only interested in a successful harvest and not in helping the environment. Several reports have verified the intentional destruction of wetland areas, extensive diversion of stream flows, excessive pumping of groundwater as well as toxic chemicals leaching into soils and waterways, potentially impacting downstream users.

Unfortunately, these destructive practices are likely to continue as long as there is a demand for illegal marijuana. Some advocates suggest that legalization in all states will stop or greatly reduce illegal cultivation since the industry will become highly regulated. Until that happens, conditions are likely to remain the same.

Right now, the best thing that legal marijuana users can do for themselves and the environment is to find out where and how their pot is grown. Any legitimate dispensary should be willing to provide that information. If they can’t, shop somewhere else. This issue is too important to go up in smoke.

“One Word…Plastics”

You may remember this iconic line offered as career advice to young Benjamin Braddock in the 1967 movie The Graduate. Its delivery seemed to foreshadow a revolution in convenience which has clearly come to pass. Everywhere we look we see plastics – in ours homes, in our cars, in our businesses and certainly in the environment. Unfortunately, this innovation in convenience has come at a high price.

Plastic Waste
Man canoeing in a sea of plastics. Photo source: unknown.

The impact of plastics on our environment is shocking. In 1997, racing boat Captain Charles Moore was the first to discover the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of marine debris (mostly plastics) spanning from the west coast of America to Japan!

The size of the Garbage Patch is so large that Dianna Parker, of the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, stated NOAA “has estimated that it would take 67 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean.” It’s an international pollution problem that is too big for any one country to address by itself, so it repeatedly gets placed on the back burner.

Plastics don’t biodegrade, they just break down into tinier and tinier particles, called microplastics, which impact global food webs. They collect near the surface of the oceans, blocking sunlight from reaching plankton and algae, the primary producers of the ocean. This means there’s less food for primary consumers, like turtles and fish which results in less food for larger consumers or predators, like sharks and tuna. This ultimately could mean less food for humans.

It’s not just small pieces of plastic that are a problem. National Geographic website reveals “loggerhead sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellies, their favorite food. Albatrosses mistake plastic resin pellets for fish eggs and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs.” Larger marine life, like seals, get entangled in abandoned plastic fishing nets and drown.

Seal in plastic
Photo Credit: See Common Dreams. “A seal trapped in plastic pollution. Environmental advocates are concerned that a rise in plastics production will bring the world’s oceans to a state of “near-permanent” pollution.” (Photo: Nels Israelson/Flickr/cc)

Plastics are not just in the ocean. Research by Orb Media, with assistance from the State University of New York at Fredonia and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, has shown that every major water source in the world now has microplastics in it. They are also in our drinking water, including some of the top U.S. bottled water brands. Specifically, they found more than 80 percent of the samples they collected on five continents tested positive for the presence of plastic fibers. Notably, the “US had the highest levels of contamination at 94.4 percent”.

Orb Media - microparticles
Photo Credit: Orb Media. Dyed laboratory filter paper highlights plastic fibers.  See Orb Media online report.

Scarier still is some of these microparticles are small enough to move through our bodies and travel to our lymph nodes.  Forester Network reported some researchers acknowledge that “chemicals from plastics are a constant part of our daily diet.” Research professor, Scott Belcher, PhD, shared with Orb Media “…these plastics are breaking down and leaching chemicals, including endocrine-disrupting plasticizers like BPA or phthalates, flame retardants, and even toxic heavy metals that are all absorbed into our diets and bodies.”

Even more disconcerting is how pervasive plastic is. Chris Tyree, a journalist with Orb Media, contends “the shear amount (of plastic) we are consuming is mind boggling. We’ve practically created more plastic in the last decade than in the last century. If plastic were a country, it would have the world’s 20th largest economy.”

Regardless of all the issues with plastic, its market is growing at a rapid pace. Common Dreams recently reported that various fossil fuel companies, including Exxon and Shell, “have poured more than $180 billion into the creation of plastics facilities that are expected to create a 40 percent rise in production of the material over the next decade.”  That’s a massive increase in a very short amount of time.

The prognosis for our continued plastic dependence looks bleak. Yet, there’s always room for hope.  Major changes in the way society functions have resulted from a few brave souls stepping forward to become way-showers for others.  Could you be one of them?

Aquifer Exemptions – the Legal Way to Pollute Groundwater

There is a little known provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (SDWA) called an “Aquifer Exemption” that allows oil, gas and mining industries to legally impact groundwater – including some aquifers set aside for drinking water.  While these industries have purported to install wells and perform activities with no leakage and permanent protection, in truth, nothing is ever permanent. Seals and casings can and will fail over time and begin impacting some of the more pristine aquifers the wells may already penetrate. How did this risky loophole get placed into the SDWA?? A quick look at history may be our guide.

In 1974 America was going through an energy crisis. The OPEC oil nations sanctioned an oil embargo which stopped the US in her tracks. People “frequently faced around-the-block lines” at gas stations when filling-up.1 Gas guzzling V-8’s and V-6’s were the standard American-made cars.

During the same time period, the country was suffering from self-inflicted environmental degradation. Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring”, published in 1962, brought the dangers of prolific pesticide use to light and initiated a grass roots movement to save the environment. By the early 1970’s, several legislative Acts focusing on protecting the environment were created. One of these was the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) of 1974.

The goal of the SDWA was to “ensure the purity of the water we consume.”2 However in light of the energy crisis, “Congress added language to the Act mandating the EPA not “interfere with or impede” oil and gas production unless it is “absolutely essential” in order to protect underground sources of drinking water.”3

To accommodate the Congressional mandate, the EPA developed a set of regulations for Underground Injection Control (UIC) in 1980. The UIC regulations included provisions for an “Aquifer Exemption” program which “allows water that would otherwise be defined as a source of drinking water to be exempted from the prohibition on injection.”4 Aquifer Exemptions were deemed necessary for the oil and gas industry to continue exploration.5 For every barrel of oil produced, 15 barrels of oil wastewater is generated and the easiest way to dispose of it is by underground injection.6

The original goal of the Aquifer Exemption program was to identify aquifers or portions of aquifers that are exempt from the definition of an Underground Source of Drinking Water (USDW); develop rules for EPA review and approval and describe delineation procedures for exempted aquifers.7 However, what has resulted over the last 36 years is a mish-mash of state Aquifer Exemption programs with limited Federal oversight allowing the oil and gas industry as well as the uranium mining industry to freely pollute drinking water aquifers.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation found “Federal officials have given energy and mining companies’ permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation’s drinking water.”8 Their investigation cited worrisome examples in Wyoming, California, Texas and Denver.

The travesty behind some of these examples is that Aquifer Exemptions are being allowed in areas where underground aquifers are at a premium. For example, some drought-stricken communities in Texas are so desperate for water they are looking to treat brackish water to make it potable and the cities of San Antonio and El Paso are considering building desalinization plants to supply drinking water. At the same time, environmental officials have “have granted more than 50 exemptions for waste disposal and uranium mining” in Texas.9 A similar situation has played out in California. Areas with the greatest need for groundwater are the same ones where underground injections of oil wastewater have been allowed.10

The misuse of the Aquifer Exemption program has been repeatedly brought to light in recent years.  The issue became so controversial that the General Accounting Office (GAO) was tasked to do a report for Congress. The GAO report found 1) EPA “safeguards do not address emerging underground injection risks, such as seismic activity and overly high pressure in geologic formations leading to surface outbreaks of fluids” and therefore may not “fully protect underground drinking water”11; 2) “EPA is not consistently conducting two key oversight and enforcement activities”12; 3) “EPA does not consistently conduct annual on-site state program evaluations”; 4) the data EPA collects is “not reliable”, meaning complete or comparable on a national basis13 and probably most frightening  5) the EPA has not incorporated state requirements and changes into federal regulations and “may not be able to enforce all state program requirements”14 In other words the EPA would have a hard time preventing individual states from doing what they are currently doing.

Even more telling are the sheer numbers of class II underground injection wells in some states. As of 2012, Texas had 52,977 class II wells, California had 49,783, Kansas had 16,965, Oklahoma had 11,134 and there are thousands in many other states. While only a small number of these wells have Aquifer Exemptions, the primary concern for any injection well over the long term is leakage and cross contamination of aquifers. In spite of what well-drillers might say, no well cap, casing or seal is permanent. Time always gets its way and when it does, we better be ready.

 

References:

  1. Myre, Greg. “Gas Lines Evoke Memories of Oil Crises In The 1970s”, NPR 10 November 2012, Web. 13 December 2016.
  2. Agee, James L. “Protecting America’s Drinking Water: Our Responsibilities Under the Safe Drinking Water Act”, EPA Journal, March 1975, EPA Archives. Web. 12 December 2016.
  3. Thorp, Lynn W. and Noël, John. “Aquifer Exemptions: Program Overview and Emerging Concerns”, Journal American Water Works Association, 107:9, September 2015, p. 53.
  4. Ibid, p. 53.
  5. “Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program”, USEPA, No date. Web. 13 December 2016.
  6. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx Media. No date. Web. 14 November 2016.
  7. “Aquifer Exemptions in the Underground Injection Control Program”, USEPA, No date. Web. 13 December 2016.
  8. Lustgarten, Abrahm. “Poisoning the Well: How the Feds Let Industry Pollute the Nation’s Underground Water Supply”, ProPublica Inc. 12 December 2012. Web 12 December 2016.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. General Accounting Office. “Drinking Water – EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated With Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement” GAO-14-555. July 2014.
  12. Ibid, GAO Highlights.
  13. Ibid, GAO Highlights.
  14. Ibid, GAO Highlights.

What to do with Fracking Wastewater?

Wastewater from hydraulic fracking has been in the news quite a bit lately and not for good reason.  Concerns over wastewater injections creating or inducing earthquakes and contamination from chemicals in fracking wastewater are a growing concern.

In mid-November, Uproxx.com released a story about wastewater from oil production being sold to drought-stricken California farmers in Kern County at a discount for use on food crops.1 The main concern is the chemicals in the wastewater are considered “proprietary.” Therefore no one really knows what chemicals are being applied to our foods and whether or not they are making their way into the food chain.  Since California grows 40% of our nation’s food should we be concerned?

Andrew Grinberg, Special Project Manager at Clean Water Action, considers the application of oil wastewater on Kern County crops a “chemical experiment on our food supply.”2 Adam Scow, California Director of Food and Water Watch, believes “it’s a bad idea to use water contaminated with chemicals, such as benzene, on crops and to recharge groundwater.”3 This practice has apparently been going on for 20 years.

This isn’t the first time the oil and gas industry has been under scrutiny in California.  In 2015, the California’s Department of Conservation, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources came under fire because they “inadvertently allowed oil companies to inject wastewater — from fracking and other production operations — with high levels of benzene, a carcinogen, into hundreds of wells in protected aquifers, a violation of federal law.”4 The EPA found this oversight of the Safe Drinking Water Act “shocking”.5

In Oklahoma and southern Kansas underground wastewater injections from hydraulic fracking processes have been linked to earthquakes.  A Forbes.com article noted “some areas in north-central Oklahoma and southern Kansas now have hazards from fracking-related induced earthquakes that are similar to parts of California where earthquakes are caused by natural tectonic forces like plate collisions and volcanism.”6

Residents of those two states have responded to the tremors by purchasing earthquake insurance. Insurance purchases in Oklahoma are “up 500% from just five years ago in 2011.”7 Unfortunately coverage of man-made earthquakes is a grey-area for many insurance companies. So it’s best to do some digging and confirm any policy or endorsement covers earthquakes resulting from fracking activities.8

The oil and gas industry is the Titan of the American economy. For every barrel of oil produced, 15 barrels of wastewater are created.9 Given the immense volumes of oil, gas and the resulting wastewater produced, it is imperative we find better solutions for disposal. We can’t continue to pretend that current techniques aren’t impacting the environment. Clearly they are and its time for a change.

 

References

  1. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016. Web. 6 December 2016.
  2. Uproxx Reports. “Oil Wastewater”- video. Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016. Web. 6 December 2016.
  3. Uproxx, Ibid.
  4. Cart, Julie. “Lawmakers grill state oil regulators on oversight failures.” Los Angeles Times. 10 March 2015. Web. 6 December 2016.
  5. Cart, Ibid.
  6. Conca, James. “Thanks To Fracking, Earthquake Hazards in Parts of Oklahoma Now Comparable To California.” Forbes Media LLC. 7 September 2016, Web. 6 December 2016
  7. Conca, Ibid.
  8. Hickman, Bobby. “Fracked! Are you covered for man-made earthquakes?” com. Quinnstreet Inc. 10 May 2012. Web. 6 December 2016
  9. Bramucci, Steve. “Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?” Uproxx. Uproxx Media. 14 November 2016.

“Protein Gets Out Protein”

Do you remember the Era Plus detergent commercial from 1987 which touted the use of protein as an ingredient to help get out protein stains like grass and food? Essentially what they were saying is “like dissolves like.”  Even though water is known as the “universal solvent” because it has both a positive and negative charge, there are some things water simply won’t dissolve, like oils and grease.

So why am I mentioning it? Fracking is occurring at alarming rate around the country. The process uses a water-based concoction of chemicals to force oil and natural gas out of tight shale formations. If oil and water don’t mix then what are the chemicals they include to help extract the oil from the formation? Well most of the oil companies will tell you that’s “proprietary” information – meaning they it’s a trade secret and they don’t have to tell you.

Dr. Dave Healy of the University of Abedeen, U.K. noted in a July 2012 study that while there isn’t a lot of peer reviewed scientific research into the potential environmental impacts of fracking, he believes “there are potentially significant risks from the nature and fate of the fluids used in the drilling and fracturing processes as well as the effects of the natural gas released.”

The FracFocus online chemical disclosure registry states “although there are dozens to hundreds of chemicals which could be used as additives, there are a limited number which are routinely used in hydraulic fracturing.”  On their website they list 58 chemicals commonly used in hydraulic fracking.1 Some of these are petroleum distillates or oil derivatives that act as “carrier fluids” or lubricants to help transport materials into or out of the wellbore; essentially they are petroleum products which help get out petroleum products.

Petroleum distillates are a class of hydrocarbon solvents which include mineral spirits (paint thinners), kerosene, naphtha (used in moth balls), and Stoddard solvent (dry cleaning solvent). They are controversial among environmental and water advocates because of known or suspected health impacts. Naphtha, for example, may have chemical components which are carcinogenic or teratogenic such as benzene and toluene.

Do these chemicals sound like anything you’d like deliberately pumped into the ground under high pressure?

References:

  1. Healy, Dave. “Hydraulic Fracturing or ‘Fracking’: A Short Summary of Current Knowledge and Potential Environmental Impacts”. University of Aberdeen, UK. July 2012.
  2. “What Chemicals are Used?” FracFocus. No date. Web. 27 November 2016.