Michael Dourson left the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 20 years ago to start a nonprofit consulting firm that—unlike the federal government—would move swiftly to evaluate chemical hazards.
Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, or TERA, would be a sort of one-stop science shop, Dourson decided: It would estimate the risks of cancer and other diseases associated with exposures to certain chemicals. It would peer-review research and publish those findings in a database. It would organize conferences to educate government and industry officials.
Dourson's organization filled a gap left by the EPA, which has evaluated the safety of only 558 of 84,000 chemicals on the market today. The EPA's sluggishness has created major business opportunities for firms like TERA because few state agencies have the resources to conduct their own risk-assessment studies, which are time-consuming and complex.
Dourson, a toxicologist who spent 15 years with the EPA, describes TERA as an independent firm that aims to protect public health by bringing together scientists from government, academia and industry. Through TERA, he has created a self-sustaining network of supporters in which clients, regulators and peer-reviewers often overlap. The firm's reach has helped make Dourson an influential figure in the field of risk assessment—a niche discipline that is used to determine how much of a particular chemical is acceptable in the environment. The results of these studies shape thousands of public health decisions around the country, including the setting of drinking water standards and air pollution guidelines.
AUSTIN—In 2007, Texas regulators quietly relaxed the state's long-term air pollution guideline for benzene, one of the world's most toxic and thoroughly studied chemicals. The number they came up with, still in effect today, was 40 percent weaker, or less health-protective, than the old one.
The decision by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) was a boon for oil refineries, petrochemical plants and other benzene-emitting facilities, because it allowed them to release more benzene into the air without triggering regulatory scrutiny. But it defied the trend of scientific research, which shows that even small amounts of benzene can cause leukemia. The American Petroleum Institute, lobbyist for some of the nation's largest benzene producers, privately acknowledged as early as 1948 that the only "absolutely safe" dose was zero.
It's "the most irresponsible action I've heard of in my life," said Jim Tarr, an air-quality consultant who worked for the TCEQ's predecessor agency in the 1970s. "I certainly can't find another regulatory agency in the U.S. that's done that."
The benzene decision was part of Texas' sweeping overhaul of its air pollution guidelines. An analysis by InsideClimate News shows that the TCEQ has loosened two-thirds of the protections for the 45 chemicals it has re-assessed since 2007, even though the state's guidelines at the time were already among the nation's weakest.
The changes are being supervised by TCEQ toxicologist Michael Honeycutt, who began updating the way Texas develops its guidelines in 2003, when he was promoted to division chief. A genial, bespectacled man who takes great pride in his work, Honeycutt is a trusted advisor to top TCEQ officials and often acts as the agency's scientific spokesman. He is also a frequent critic of federal efforts to reduce air pollution.
Honeycutt's actions reflect Texas's pro-industry approach to air quality, which InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity have been examining for the past year and a half. Most of the air-quality guidelines the state's oil and gas producers are supposed to meet are not legally enforceable regulations. That means violators are rarely punished, and residents who complain about foul air near drilling sites have few places to turn for help.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo surprised environmentalists Monday when his administration banned hydraulic fracturing in the state, citing public health concerns. The move puts an end to years of heated debate between activists and the oil and gas industry—and could help buoy the case against fracking in hundreds of similar fights happening across the United States.
"This is an overwhelming victory," Sandra Steingraber, an environmental health expert and fracking activist in New York, told InsideClimate News. "Fracking is able to roll over so many communities because people are told it is inevitable. This decision emboldens us all. It shows this fight is winnable."
Steingraber talked about the decision from the parking lot of a sheriff's office where she was bailing out 28 musicians arrested in an ongoing protest against a fracked gas storage facility in the Seneca Lakes region of New York. She said that when she told the activists the news, they picked up their instruments and there was "singing and dancing in the streets."
This project is part of a joint investigation by InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel and The Investigative Fund.
U.S. regulators knew they had to act fast. A train hauling 2 million gallons of crude oil from North Dakota had exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. Now they had to assure Americans a similar disaster wouldn’t happen south of the border, where the U.S. oil boom is sending highly volatile crude oil every day over aging, often defective rails in vulnerable railcars.
On the surface, the response from Washington following the July, 6, 2013 explosion seemed promising. Over the next several months, the U.S. Department of Transportation, issued two emergency orders, two safety alerts and a safety advisory. It began drafting sweeping new oil train regulations to safeguard the sudden surge of oil being shipped on U.S. rails. The railroad industry heeded the call, too, agreeing to slow down trains, increase safety inspections and reroute oil trains away from populous areas.
But almost a year and a half later—and after three railcar explosions in the United States—those headline-grabbing measures have turned out to be less than they appeared. Idling oil trains are still left unattended in highly populated areas. The effort to draft new safety regulations has been bogged down in disputes between the railroads and the oil industry over who will bear the brunt of the costs. The oil industry is balking at some of the tanker upgrades, and the railroads are lobbying against further speed restrictions.
And rerouting trains away from big cities and small towns? That, too, has been of limited value, because refineries, ports and other offloading facilities tend to be in big cities.
InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel, and The Investigative Fund have monitored the regulatory response to oil train explosions this year, focusing on whether the agency that oversees the railroads—the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)—is able to ensure that the nation's aging railroad infrastructure can safely handle its latest task: serving as a massive, rickety network of pipelines on wheels.
On July 6, 2013, a train carrying volatile crude oil from North Dakota exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people and incinerating the downtown. Since then, three oil trains have exploded on the U.S. side of the border, where the surge in domestic oil production now sends millions of trainloads of crude through cities and small towns.
This story is part of a joint investigation by InsideClimate News, The Weather Channel and The Investigative Fund. Read the main story Boom: North America's Explosive Oil-by-Rail Problem.
The first public action U.S. rail regulators took after a fiery oil train explosion killed 47 people in Canada in July 2013 seemed clear, impactful and firm: Trains carrying hazardous materials could no longer be left unattended with their engines running unless the railroad first got approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.
Leaving a freight train unattended overnight with the engines running had been a major factor in the Lac-Megantic, Canada, disaster, and the August 2, 2013 news release announcing the U.S. action had a no-more-business-as-usual tone. The emergency order was "a mandatory directive to the railroad industry, and failure to comply will result in enforcement actions," the press release said, adding no train shall be left unattended on the tracks with its engines running "unless specifically authorized."
But it turns out that the emergency order had a loophole big enough to drive a locomotive through.
One of the indisputable facts of climate change is the rapid melting of the Arctic. Since 1979, satellites have captured images that show the sea ice disappearing right before our eyes.
Every decade since 1979, between 173,000 and 196,000 square miles of ice have disappeared—a loss larger than the state of California. In the southern parts of the Arctic, it’s disappearing even faster—between 280,000 square miles (California plus Arizona) and 410,000 square miles (California, Arizona and Colorado) per decade.
A record number of anti-fracking measures are on the midterm ballots—but gas drilling isn't the only climate and environmental issue that will be put to voters on Tuesday.
Americans across the country will decide on everything from climate resiliency and drought relief to oil and gas taxes and wildlife protection.
Here's InsideClimate News' pick of the top five ballot measures to watch November 4:
Fracking has become a prominent issue in this year's Pennsylvania gubernatorial election, energizing ads, debates and campaign appearances.
The argument isn't about whether to frack the state's abundant natural gas reserves or even how to do it safely—but how to make money doing it.
At the heart of the debate is whether to tax energy companies for extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation rich in fossil fuels that runs underneath the western half of the state. Incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett argues that a drilling tax would drive energy companies to abandon Pennsylvania's natural gas fields. Businessman Tom Wolf, Corbett's Democratic challenger, says a 5 percent "severance tax" on the value of natural gas produced within its borders would provide desperately needed revenue—up to $1 billion annually—for the state's budget, and more specifically, its education fund.
Political opinion polls show the Democratic candidate winning the Nov. 4 election by approximately 20 points. If Wolf wins, it will mark the first time that an incumbent Pennsylvania governor has lost a re-election bid since the state began allowing second gubernatorial terms in the 1960s.
This story was updated on Oct. 30 at 2:15 AM EST to include comment from the environmental group Earthworks.
In a reflection of growing national concern about the disposal of oil and gas waste, a Pennsylvania congressman launched an investigation Wednesday into the way his state regulates the discarding of the unwanted, often toxic material.
Rep. Matthew Cartwright, a first-term Democrat from eastern Pennsylvania, wants to know more about how the contaminated leftovers from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are regulated.
In an email exchange with InsideClimate News, Cartwright said "preliminary reports indicate there are big gaps in protections and oversight that the federal government might have to fill."
Fracking, the process of blasting a cocktail of water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open shale bedrock to extract fossil fuel reserves, has transformed Pennsylvania into the third-largest state producer of natural gas behind Texas and Louisiana. In those two states and others, questions are increasingly being raised about waste disposal's threat to human health.
For the past 18 months, InsideClimate News and The Center for Public Integrity have been reporting on air pollution from oil and gas production in Texas, including at waste disposal facilities.