Tag Archives: Pollution

Back to Fracking

I wrote about fracking before, but it seems to be the time to revisit the controversy.  The oil and gas business is paying for a media blitz saying fracking is a good thing: lower energy prices.

The opposition seems to believe fracking has concentrated all the evil in the world into a bunch of holes in the ground.  What is the reality here?  Both sides have strong arguments, but they are operating from separate assumptions.

Pro fracking advocates use the arguments that lower energy prices and tax revenue benefit us all.  Anti fracking advocates point to many accidents at drilling sites and groundwater contamination, along with drilling steadily encroaching on urban ares as a dangerous activity.

What about the benefits of fracking?  It’s true fracking has lowered energy costs and the conversion of coal fired power plants to has has lowered air pollution.  True on both counts.  But, fossil fuel is still being burned and greenhouse gasses are still going into the atmosphere.  It’s very possible fracking and increased low cost gas production is impeding the process of converting to alternative energy sources.

What about fracking itself?  It is not new technology.  My Fruita paper route doubled during the 1950’s energy boom in Western Colorado and Eastern Utah.  Fracking was part of the story then.  The real change is to horizontal drilling combined with fracking.

A deep vertical hole is drilled and then the bore hole is turned ninety degrees over the distance of a quarter mile.  The long horizontal bore is is perforated, explosive charges are detonated, fracturing rock usually fairly impervious to oil and gas flow.  The openings are then injected with water and sand, cracking more rock with the cracks held open by the sand.  Oil and gas can then flow into the bore hole and to the surface, then to your furnace and gas tank.

The fracking process uses a lot of water, from one to five million gallons.  About half or less of the water returns to the surface and is most often injected into another well (cheaper than treatment).  The water use can have a significant impact in arid regions.  Return water can be treated, but is expensive.

Probably the biggest objection to fracking is groundwater contamination.  Near Parachute CO, it was possible to light tap water on fire, there was so much gas in the water.  Most often the contamination comes from leaks in the vertical bore hole.  Proper casing and concrete injection readily prevents leaks, but as the work is done deep underground, it is easy to cheat, causing leaks.

My take on the issue?  Increased production from fracking lowers oil and gas prices and decreases our reliance on imported oil.  Coal fired power plants are being converted to gas, resulting in less greenhouse gas pollution from them.  Done properly, the technology is safe, but cheating seems to be the norm in the oil and gas business.  If we want to use fossil fuel, well regulated fracking is the way to go.  i think some of the opposition is because of the word fracking.  It seems to have an obscene connotation.

The big downside stems from the fact reduced fossil fuel costs are delaying the transition to alternative energy sources.  One estimate points out that cheap natural gas makes gas fired power plant power cheaper than wind or solar power.  The transition to alternative power may be slowed by twenty years or more.  In the short run, cheap gas is good.  In the long run, cheap gas may do more harm than good.  The planet can’t sequester enough carbon and the planet gets warmer.  Of course in the long run, we’re all dead.

The debate becomes political, and the oil business has the dollars to influence the decision.  Result, more gas gets burned and the long run comes earlier.  We will probably render our species extinct.

They Really Don’t Know

The weather.  It is always with us, and it often affects what we do any given day. Radio, television, the paper,  The Weather Channel, and AccuWeather all have lots to say about what is going to happen.  Why in the hell can’t they do better?  Dammit, we need to know.  The meteorologists have a tremendous amount of information gathered from all over the globe.  The planet spins at a constant rate in its orbit around the sun.  So do better, already.

As long as our weather here along the Colorado Front Range is coming from the west I can look at the national radar map and do about as well as all those people with advanced degrees who understand what adabiatic means.  If the weather is coming up from the gulf, they do better than me, but that’s about it.  By the way, it is probably going to rain in Seattle.

The weather tomorrow is probably going to be like today.  Except when it isn’t.  There is enough rain for stuff to grow in the Midwest.  Not so much in Hanksville, Utah.  Oops, I have digressed from weather to climate.  Lots of people do that.  They point to the latest big storm or dry spell to deny climate change.  Apples and oranges, folks.  They both grow on trees, but that’s as far as it goes.  We may be growing oranges in Paonia if this current trend continues.

Climate scientists can document the effects of big climate events like meteors hitting off Yucatán  or when big volcanoes send ash all around the planet, but have more trouble explaining long term trends.  One thing they can say for sure, the more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the warmer the climate.  There is a long term carbon cycle of sequestering and release of the stuff that is well documented.  Plants trap carbon.  The ocean traps carbon.  It gets stored, then something happens so more is released than stored.  These days, much arctic permafrost is thawing and releasing sequestered carbon.

That excess release is happening these days.  Methane is part of the cycle as well.  In the U.S., the highest atmospheric levels of methane are in the Four Corners region, home to thousands of oil and gas wells.  With lax or no regulation, many of those wells leak.  In addition,  in huge quantities are stored on the sea floor. If the global sea temperatures are raised by two degrees Celsius,  methane in those hydrates could be released into the atmosphere, accelerating the warming trend.

So, what is the tipping point where the warming trend is irreversible?  Nobody knows for sure.  We do know, however, that greenhouse gas in the atmosphere is increasing and left unchecked, reaching the tipping point is inevitable. We just don’t know when.  Our earth has been through this warming – cooling trend many times.  The planet will seek equilibrium at some point.  This takes thousands to millions of years.  Humans don’t work in that time scale.

Don’t panic.  As John Maynard Keynes said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.”

Water

Colorado River Basin

I spent thirty years in the water business.  I was one of the troops, not a manager or staff person.  I did, however, do what I could to keep up with developments in the water and wastewater business.  With the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, rivers no longer catch fire, and our fresh water. Supply is in much better shape than, say, the 1950’s. 

I worked at the Greeley, Colorado wastewater plant for three years.  The water we sent to the river met EPA standards until the Cache La Poudre flooded and washed out the pipe carrying water from one side of the river to the other for final treatment.  Lots of raw sewage went into the river for about a week until an emergency pipeline was laid on the highway bridge next to the plant.   

An old adage in the wastewater business goes, “The solution to pollution is dilution”.  That saying is mostly obsolete, but during that flood there was plenty of water for dilution.  We had to wear hip waders to get around the north side of the plant, flooded with almost three feet of water.   

The Denver Water System

Here is a big part of the water story in the American West.  There is either too much water or not enough.  Here on the Colorado Front Range a water crisis is slowly developing.  The available water is starting to run out.  Half of Denver Water’s water supply comes under the Continental Divide from the Colorado River.  There is little more water available from the river for the Denver Metro population except from spring runoff, when there is more water than can be stored.  Most years.   

Other years, the snowpack is down, spring runoff is low, reservoirs drop, and worry starts.  Water supply fluctuates, but demand only increases.  Oh, wait, during a big drought recently,  the Denver Water Board shifted its priority from dam building and water diversion to conservation.  It worked, and continues to work, not just with Denver.  Another water source is also coming into use.   

Water law says if you use water from your nearby stream, you must return what you didn’t use to the stream.  Water users downstream get lots of their water from return flows from irrigation or wastewater plant outflows.  Water law also states that water you divert from another basin does not have to be returned.  You can use it to extinction.  So what once went downstream is being captured in new reservoirs downstream made from old gravel pits and used for water exchanges, where downstream users trade their upstream water rights for return flow water from Denver.  The potato and corn fields don’t seem to mind.   

The other thing happening is taking that foreign water, treating it, and pumping it upstream for reuse.  At this point it is mostly for irrigation of parks, golf courses, and the like, but it is also being treated to drinking water standards.  Yes, you might be drinking water that once was sewage.  Not to worry, think about Omaha, St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans.  What are they drinking? 

Eventually this will all end.  The water will run out.  At some point, tap fees for new housing or industry will soar and development will go elsewhere.  The growth cannot continue indefinitely.  The same thing will occur in the entire Colorado River Basin.  Despite every effort to conserve or store more water, it is going to run out.  The new growth will then go to Cincinnati and Birmingham, all those wet places back East..  They have lots of water.

Leadville

Leadville

Leadville

As part of our week in Breckenridge, we did a day trip to Leadville over Fremont Pass.  This country figures in my life.  My father grew up in Leadville, and I worked at the Climax Molybdenum mine one summer when in college.  Breckenridge is low country, around 9600 feet.  Leadville is over 10,000 feet in elevation, the highest incorporated city in the U.S. Climax is at the summit of Fremont Pass, 11,360 feet in elevation.  Some years, it doesn’t snow in July.   

Climax, Elevation 11,300 Feet

Climax, Elevation 11,300 Feet

Climax is at the foot of Bartlett Mountain, once one of the largest bodies of Molybdenum in the world.  Moly is used in alloying steel and as a lubricant.  Moly alloyed in steel makes it tougher, useful in high stress applications.  It’s first big use was in gun barrels during WWI.  Much of Bartlett Mountain is gone, hollowed out, crushed, had the metals removed, and the tailings dumped into a once beautiful glaciated valley.  Common with most mining operations, Climax has gone through several boom-bust cycles, and is currently just limping along.  Leadville is limping as well, still dependent on mining. 

I worked at the Storke level, 300 feet down the mountain from the original portal and mill.  I lived in a company hotel there. There was once a company town, but it went away as the milling operation took the land.  The store and the beer joint were still there in the mid-1960’s.    

I worked as a miner.  Drill, shoot, and muck.  That’s mining.  The drill was a jack leg, a pneumatic rock drill with a leg attached to be extended as the drill hole got deeper.  It was powered by compressed air, and had a water feed to keep dust down.  Drill holes in the face, load them with explosive, shoot, then remove the broken rock (muck).  I plan to go into the whole operation some time.  I did it for the money, and I can now say I was a miner. 

Leadville is down the pass.  What a place.  First gold, then a lot of silver, then bust as the silver market collapsed.  Mining has always gone on, from small independent operations to massive developments supporting a fairly large town.  My grandfather lived there for about twenty years as a railroader, a good Union job.  Born in 1903, my dad grew up there until 1918 when the railroad went broke and the family moved to Grand Junction.  Growing up, I heard lots of Leadville stories.  I will tell some more sometime.  If you go down the hill from the hotel on Harrison Avenue, the house at the bottom on the right is where my father grew up. 

Mining Hall of Fame

Mining Hall of Fame

When we visited, we drove around and I bored everyone with Leadville stories.  We ate at the Golden Burro, where I ate in the 1960’s, and went to the mining museum.  If you have any interest in mining, that’s the place.  Mostly, mining is taking metals and fuel from the earth and leaving a mess.  Leadville has lots of messes.  The worst ongoing mess is the water.  As it comes out of the mines it is highly acidic and loaded with toxic metals in solution.  It will have to be treated forever, at least in human terms.  Mining built Colorado, and we will always deal with the legacy.  Oh, what a mess we made.

Rocky Flats

Rocky Flats

Rocky Flats

 What is now is the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge once was the Rocky Flats Plant where triggers for nuclear weapons were manufactured.  The main raw ingredient for the triggers was plutonium, one of the most toxic and radioactive substances known, with a half-life of over 4000 years.  During the forty years the plant operated, there were two major fires in glove boxes where plutonium discs were handled.  In this and other incidents, many pounds of plutonium were released.  The Wikipedia article has an excellent summary and bibliography.   

I was talking to a woman recently about Rocky Flats.  Her father worked there for several years when the plant was in full operation.  He had to deal with a glove box where the plutonium had started to burn.  The gloves were so hot he had to wear other gloves before he could put his hands into the glove box gloves to stop the reaction.  He probably saved some lives.  He died of cancer. 

I became more interested in Rocky Flats after reading Full Body Burden, by Kristin Iverson, an English Professor who grew up in the area.  The book is controversial, disagreeing with the environmental assessments by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  Given all I have read, I am skeptical of the official lint that the area is safe, and exposure to the public was and is minimal.  Decide for yourself. 

Iverson writes that a large area of contaminated topsoil was covered with more topsoil and pronounced safe.  Rocky Flats is aptly named, as millions of tons of glacial erosion products have covered the area with gravel.  The surface is called ground armor, mostly rock, as the high winds in the area have blown much of the finer material away.  That continues, and rodents burrowing bring buried soil to the surface where it blows into the Denver Metro area..  

The nearby Standley Lake, a large irrigation reservoir that provides water to Westminster and Broomfield, allows boating and water skiing but bans swimming because the lake bottom is contaminated with plutonium.  Many experts have advocated banning development in the area, but houses are going up. 

I got interested again recently because the NOAA National Weather Radar website is my go-to means of weather monitoring.  The TV weather people are either warning the apocalypse is imminent or it is fine, no rain, just before a major hailstorm.  Over a period of months I noticed a nearly constant radar image indicating precipitation over the NWR.  Day or night, weekends or weekdays, the image is there.  If it really is rain, the refuge would be a major swamp at the base of the Rocky Mountains.   

Many years ago I was a radar repairman in the Army.  One of the radars we maintained put out so much radio frequency energy it would kill birds flying in front.  We had quite a bit of training about ionizing radiation.  Radars emit radiation, so does decaying plutonium.  I could not come up with any explanation for the radar image other than radioactive decay.  This would be  disastrous, as much of the Denver metro area is downwind of Rocky Flats.   

I sent a number of emails to the NWS, TV stations, and the CDPHE.  I guess I stirred things up a bit, because I got a long, thoughtful letter from CDPHE outlining the investigation I generated.  The conclusion reached is that the radar image is from dust coming from a gravel mining and crushing operation just adjacent to the refuge.   Here is the letter:

Begin forwarded message:

From: “Spreng, Carl” <carl.spreng@state.co.us>
Date: July 13, 2016 at 3:56:58 PM MDT
To: levanks@me.com
Cc: Phillip Peterson – CDPHE <phillip.peterson@state.co.us>, Surovchak Scott <Scott.Surovchak@lm.doe.gov>, “Moritz, Vera” <Moritz.Vera@epa.gov>, Lindsay Masters – CDPHE <lindsay.masters@state.co.us>, Darr Bob <Bob.Darr@lm.doe.gov>, Rob Beierle – CDPHE <robert.beierle@state.co.us>, Smith Warren <warren.smith@state.co.us>
Subject: Rocky Flats

William Shanks

Mr. Shanks,

Your message sent to Phill Peterson in our Radiation Control Program was forwarded to me for response. I discussed your observations with a representative of NOAA. NOAA scientists apparently notice a fairly consistent dust cloud in the Rocky Flats area. This is consistent with the adjacent gravel operations — current and historic. You can observe the dust that rises off these operations as you drive by the site.
During remediation, the source areas of radiological risk in the Central Operable Unit (managed by the US Dept. of Energy) were excavated and shipped out of state. The human health risks inside the Central Operable Unit and the remainder of the site (managed as a refuge by the US Fish and Wildlife Service) were assessed following remediation and risks were found to be very low. A final decision for the site declared that any conceivable use would be appropriate in the Refuge area. That decision was based on an enormous amount of data (surface soil, subsurface soil, groundwater, surface water, air). After the remediation was completed, an aerial survey was conducted using a low-flying helicopter with detectors.
Offsite areas in the vicinity of Rocky Flats are also safe for any use. Numerous offsite surveys confirm the conclusion that only a few samples just east of Rocky Flats detected plutonium concentrations above background levels. You can read more information about the sampling on and around Rocky Flats on the Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment’s (CDPHE) web page at:  http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/hm/rf/index.htm.
 
Please contact us again if you have more questions.

 

Carl Spreng
P 303.692.3358  |  F 303.759.5355  |  C 303-328-7289
4300 Cherry Creek Drive S, Denver, CO  80246-1530
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Carol Leavenworth <levanks@me.com>
Date: Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 12:39 PM
Subject: Rocky Flats
To: phillip.peterson@state.co.us

 

Sir,
I notice there is a consistent radar image over the Rocky Flats NWR when viewing the NOAA national weather radar website.  I am no physicist, but ionizing radiation is detectable by radar.  Is this the case at Rocky Flats?  Is there a radiation hazard outside the closed zone?  Is there a public health risk for the nearby residential areas?I was a radar repairman in the Army in the 1960’s and remain interested in the field.  There weren’t many RF energy safeguards back then and there were nuclear weapons stored where I was stationed in Germany.
Thanks.
William Shanks
2032 S. Logan St.
Denver CO 80210
303-830-0599

After Cleanup

After Cleanup

I was skeptical, so I drove out there.  I made a couple of circuits around the area, passing through new subdivisions where grading was going on and decided that was not the source.  I then turned off SH 93, the road from Golden to Boulder into what used to be the west gate to the bomb plant.  I went past lots of no trespassing signs to a big gravel mining and crushing operation.  The crusher was producing a significant dust cloud.  There were lots of big gravel trucks, indicating a major operation.    

I left without getting stopped for trespassing and made another lap around the refuge.  The gravel operation is to the southwest of the refuge, and I could see the dust cloud from north of the refuge.  Mystery solved.  it is not ionizing radiation creating the radar image, it is dust.  

There is no radioactive cloud coming off Rocky Flats.  There is, however, still a lot of radioactive and chemical pollution out there.  I suggest you not buy one of the nice new houses being built in the area..  

King Coal’s Crown is Slipping

Idle Coal Car

Idle Coal Car

Recently I have done a couple of road trips where I paralleled abandoned or seldom used railroads.  On one trip I came down the Arkansas from Salida to Pueblo, years ago the main line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.  The other route was from Alamosa to Walsenburg, the route of the Rio Grande to the San Luis Valley and on to Gunnison over Marshall Pass.   

On both trips the lower portion of the railroad grade had literally miles of parked gondolas, or coal cars.  The gondolas on the Arkansas were the old-fashioned steel cars.  Those cars are replaced by mostly aluminum cars which are significantly lighter.  The railroads make more money hauling coal instead of heavy steel cars.  Dropping down to Walsenburg were miles of the more modern aluminum cars holding air rather than coal. 

The railroads have lost a huge amount of coal hauling business.  All over the country, coal mines are shutting down, the coal replaced by cheaper natural gas.  Not all the coal trains are gone, I saw one yesterday on its way south through Denver.   

Colorado Springs Power Plant With Idle Coal Cars

Colorado Springs Power Plant With Idle Coal Cars

Colorado Springs has a socialist Utilities Department, generating power and delivering natural gas along with the traditional water and wastewater systems. The big power plant south of the city used to burn so much coal the city bought its own coal train.  All those cars are idle, sitting at the power plant.  Now, it is natural gas powering the generators. 

Colorado has a colorful coal mining history.  The Colorado Fuel and Iron steel mill in Pueblo got its coal from mines just west of Trinidad.  That region had lots of mines accompanied by lots of labor trouble around the turn of the twentieth century.  There were mines in Colorado Springs, west of Denver, a big industry around Louisville and Lafayette.  The mines at Somerset, just north of Paonia are in the process of shutting down.  Craig and Hayden are in trouble, and the mines in the Grand Junction region are long gone. 

“Clean Coal”, a big lie if there ever was one, is on its way out.  Peabody Energy is bankrupt, along with many other mine operators.  We will have coal’s legacy for a long time.  Climate change, fouled rivers and air, areas mutilated by strip mining, and huge piles of mine waste are our children’s inheritance.   

wind_energyAlternative energy, including solar power and wind generation are part of the equation, but cheap and more clean burning natural gas is the main reason for the change.  Gas is cleaner than coal, but it still puts huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.  It is just another fossil fuel.  The fossil fuels sequestered huge amounts of carbon that otherwise would contribute to global warming.  Now we are burning all that carbon and heating up the planet. 

Gas is better, but still bad.  All that cheap cleaner burning gas may even slow the transition to renewable energy sources.  On balance, however, we are better off with gas than coal. 

Where is all that cheap gas coming from?  There has been a major technological advance in the oil and gas industry.  The advance is horizontal drilling.  In past years, one hole went into the ground and the oil and gas was extracted froze around that single hole.  The amount recovered was highly dependent on the porosity of the rock formation holding the oil and gas.   

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking), developed in the 1950’s expanded the amount removed from less porous strata, but not on a huge scale.  To get more out of any field with tight rock required lots of expensive drill holes.

The big change was the development of horizontal drilling.  The process took years of development, but now slant drilling is cost effective and allows hydraulic fracturing over a much wider area compared to down hole drilling.  Fracking the slanted holes allows gas and oil to be extracted from oil and gas bearing shales formerly not economically feasible. 

There is much opposition to fracking because the technology allows drilling in new areas where the population is not used to a dirty industry in their back yards.  Traditionally, the industry did not pay much attention to leaking wells.  There was little regulation, and all that stuff went into the atmosphere.  The oil fields in the Four Corners region are the source of the highest atmospheric methane readings in the country.  

Leaks are common because it costs money to prevent them, lowering profits.  The leaks can be prevented, it just takes more work and money.  The big blowout in the Gulf shows that oil companies tend to cheat when the dangerous practices are taking place where no one can see them.  On-site regulation can stop the cheating and oil and gas production from horizontal drilling and fracking can continue safely. 

The downside is the clear need to eliminate our dependency on fossil fuels.  We need to remove carbon from the atmosphere, not increase the amount.  Until more alternative sources come on line, natural gas is preferable to coal, and King Coal can be deposed.  The current difficulty in making the transition is political, with the extractive industries resisting the change at every step.  They are spending money to delay the changes that could be used to make change, not enrich politicians and the advertising industry. 

Residential Solar Power

Residential Solar Power

We have solar panels on our house and garage.  Out utility bill this month will be less than twenty dollars.  Xcel Energy is attempting to eliminate the incentives for home solar power so they can continue to produce power using natural gas.  It’s political, folks.

Flint Water

Flint Water

Flint Water

After 30 years in the water industry, I thought I should give my take on the Flint, Michigan water crisis.  There is a misconception that the water from the Flint River the state emergency manager switched to is poisonous.  Not true.  Properly treated, the Flint River water is fine, and would meet all safe drinking water standards.   

The problem is that the water was not properly treated.  As it comes from the river, the water is corrosive and attacks metals in the distribution system pipes.  To be safe, it must be treated to make it less corrosive.  There are chemical additives (phosphates) that coat the pipes and prevent lead and copper from leaching into the water.  Here in Denver, lime or soda ash are added to raise the pH  of the water, making it less corrosive.  In addition, over time a thin film of calcium carbonate forms on the inside of the pipes, effectively sequestering the toxic metals. The phosphate chemicals do the same thing. 

How can you tell if your water is safe?  The corrosive water also attacks the rust that forms in an old system, such as in Denver or Flint.  If your water is red, it has rust, but also lead and copper.  The lead and copper come from the pipes, not the river.  The rust won’t hurt you, just stain your fixtures.  The lead comes from lead solder (now outlawed) used to join copper pipes and from lead pipes once used to bring water from the main into the house.  The lead service lines are slowly going away, but many houses have galvanized steel pipes into the house.  These are safe, but that steel pipe won’t bend to attach to the tap on the main, which is high on the pipe to keep sediment out of the service line.  The solution, a flexible lead loop bending from the tap to the service line.   

Corroded Pipe

Corroded Pipe

In Denver some older houses have lead service lines, but the lead loops are more common.  My entire neighborhood in South Denver with houses dating from the Victorian era to the 1940’s has lead loops.  Most of them are replaced when the old galvanized pipes rust out and there is a leak.  Our house has a copper service line now.  Several houses on the block have had their old service lines replaced since we have lived there.  Look where the water line comes into your house.  If it is copper, you are OK.  Flint has the same situation. 

Aggressive water leaches lead and copper out of the pipes and renders the water toxic.  Lead is the most dangerous, as it is a neurotoxin especially dangerous for developing fetuses and young children.  Copper is also toxic, but copper pipes are more resistant to corrosion than lead. 

If you have red water in your house, it is possibly dangerous and needs to be tested.  The Flint water is not just red, it’s red mud.   Before the Safe Drinking Water Act, many small water systems had aggressive water.  As a kid, I watched red water flow into our bathtub, especially in the spring, when the water was mostly runoff.  Maybe that is why I am nuts, as well as the rest of us from Fruita.

How did this happen in Flint?  Flint has a treatment plant, but was using water from Detroit which has good corrosion control.  Flint has plans to switch from the Flint River to Lake Huron  as their water source.  Lake Huron water is higher quality than river water, making it less expensive to treat.  Detroit water is from Lake Huron.  The Michigan emergency manager for Flint ordered the switch to river water to save money.   

Flint is broke.  The demise of much of the U.S. Auto industry hit Flint hard, a General Motors town.  The result, white flight, leaving a population mostly poor and black.  The city couldn’t pay its bills and the state took over with a team appointed by the Governor.  Here is the root of the problem.  The federal Safe Drinking Water Act establishes standards for drinking water.  The law gives the states the option to administer the law, usually by the Health Department or the Environmental Quality Department.   

So, the State government is running the Flint government and water treatment process and is also charged with insuring the water is safe, a clear conflict of interest.  A wild card?  Racism.  Those poor black people did not have much political clout and were essentially ignored and belittled when they complained about their water.  It took a brave pediatrician seeing high lead levels in her patients to finally get action. 

Four governmental entities are involved.  The Flint city government was rendered superfluous when the state assumed control.  The federal EPA was passing the buck to the Michigan Environmental Quality Department and not doing due diligence in making sure the department was doing its job (the EPA administrator lost his job).  The state environmental quality regulators knew there was a problem, but were influenced by the Governor’s emergency management.  The result, a perfect bureaucratic storm, with the people of Flint as victims. 

The cost?  A public health crisis that will cost millions to fix.  It takes a long time for the calcium carbonate or phosphate coating to form in the pipes.  In the meantime the water is unsafe.  The people of Flint will have to be provided with bottled water for some time.  Lots of bureaucratic fingers are being pointed.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Will anyone go to jail?  Probably not, even though there is now a special prosecutor.  If the local Flint city government had been simply subsidized by the state until it got its house in order, the whole thing could probably been avoided.  Instead the emergency managers put money ahead of the public health.     

Many conservatives want to reduce the size of government, and return to the nineteenth century, before there was water treatment and people died of waterborne disease.  Government built a system to protect public health.  If government does not have the money do do its job, the public health will suffer.  Do you want safe water?  Don’t move to Flint.

 

 

Nuking Western Colorado

Gas-rigcolorado

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Project Plowshare, a U.S. government program was created to develop peaceful uses for nuclear detonations. The program led to three trials in rural Western Colorado designed to release natural gas from tight geologic formations that contained large amounts of natural gas.  The gas was there, but was difficult to recover because it would not readily flow to wells.  Nuclear fracking, in other words.

The idea was to fracture large amounts of rock releasing the gas for use. Fracking was in use in that era, but the area fractured around a well hole was fairly small, limiting the amount of gas freed.  This would remain the case until horizontal well drilling was developed, resulting in a boom in natural gas production.

The use of atomic explosions somewhat larger than the one that destroyed Hiroshima would fracture a large amount of rock, liberating huge amounts of gas.  There were three experiments.  All three were somewhat successful, yielding gas in recoverable amounts.  Big surprise, the gas was radioactive and remains so.  A study indicated that the level of radioactivity released in a California home, when blended with gas from other sources, would be well below the dose we receive from background radiation. People would have none of it.  No one wanted radioactive natural gas coming into their home at any level.

Western Colorado, source of much of the uranium used in nuclear bombs, had three detonations in a doomed experiment.  The most casual of examinations of the proposal to liberate gas from tight strata would raise the radioactivity question.  It took millions of dollars to prove the obvious: radioactive natural gas.

Some shots were done at the Nevada test site to explore using bombs to excavate.  Huge amounts of radionuclides were released, affecting generations of downwinders, especially in St. George, Utah.  Our nuclear tragedy started in New Mexico with the first Trinity detonation that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It continues today, with all the radioactive spots around the planet and the people sickened and killed by fallout.

Most historians assert that President Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately saved lives.  What they did do was trigger the nuclear arms race with its terrible consequences.  Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have shown that nuclear power is risky as well.

My first literary effort was a story I wrote while a student at Mesa College in Grand Junction, Colorado in 1966.  Project Rulison was in the works, and my story depicted an even greater failure.  The blast sent radioactive oil into a previously unknown aquifer that opened into the irrigation canals that provide water to Grand Valley farms.  Radioactive oil in Palisade, Grand Junction, Fruita, and the rest of the valley, rendering it uninhabitable.  Pure fiction, but a fun story.

FrackingSite_1415936638313_9585695_ver1_0_640_480Come up to today, and fracking is still controversial. I think the legacy of Project Rulison is stalking the oil and gas industry to this day.  Somehow the industry did not get it that bad practices will catch up with them, despite the API’s slick commercials.

Part Three, the Keystone XL Pipeline

Pipeline Construction

Pipeline Construction

When I was growing up in Fruita, Colorado in the 1950’s, the El Paso Natural Gas Company built a 26″ natural gas pipeline from north to south through Western Colorado. In flat country, laying a pipe is fairly straightforward.  To lay a pipeline, dig, lay pipe, weld, wrap, and backfill.  In the Colorado Plateau, the pipeline not only goes from point to point, it goes up and down.

North of Fruita, The line had to go over Douglas Pass. As Colorado passes go, it is no big deal.   Not that high, but near the top there is steep and unstable ground famous for landslides.  The trenchers, welding machines, side-boom tractors handling pipe, and bulldozers; all had to be winched up and down the mountainside.  That is a slow, expensive process. To us in Fruita, it meant that our little town had lots of pipeliners for several weeks.

I mostly saw the pipeliners in Hill’s Cafe, where we often had dinner. The stereotype is that pipeliners are a wild bunch, but we didn’t see it in the cafe.  They were quiet, well-behaved, some prayed before eating, and I liked them.  After all, if you are from Bald Knob, Arkansas, how wild can you be?

That pipeline brings gas from Wyoming, Western Colorado, and Eastern Utah to markets in Texas and the southwest, including California. To my knowledge, it has few problems and quietly does its job.  I think that pipeline has shaped my thinking about pipelines in general.

Today there is much oil and gas development in North Dakota and Alberta. A pipeline network exists to deliver crude oil from there to the refinery complex on the Gulf Coast.  It can’t deliver all that is being produced.  Proposed is a new line, the Keystone XL Pipeline that would run west of the existing line, picking up crude from the Williston Basin in North Dakota as well as the synthetic crude from the Alberta tar sands.

There is a lot of opposition for several reasons. One reason is fear of leaks.  Big spills, contamination, fire, ground water contamination, and all the risks that go with moving lots of nasty stuff that burns.  That Alberta synthetic crude is even nastier than regular crude.  Its carbon footprint is much higher than oil from traditional sources.  It is thick and has to be heated to separate it from the sand.  Most of the crude oil refined here in Denver is tar sand oil.

Oil Car Train

Oil Car Train

The fact is that as long as demand for petroleum products stays high, that Alberta crude will go south, but in rail cars if the pipeline isn’t built.  Here in Denver, there are many tank car trains headed south, competing with coal trains for right of way.   In the upper Midwest there is so much oil traffic that farmers are having difficulty shipping their grain.  Pipelines are safer than rail cars for shipping petroleum.

Some of the opposition is for environmental reasons. Tar sand crude is bad.  Pipelines are bad.  Fossil fuel is bad.  All true.  The solution is not stopping pipelines, but reducing demand.  How to reduce demand?  Make fossil fuels more expensive with higher taxes.  Use the tax money to develop alternative energy and transportation.  Build rails not freeways.  Tell that to Republican legislators.

In the meantime, I think the pipeline is the best alternative until our energy policies change.

Three Unjustified Political Causes

Gas Rig in Western Colorado

Gas Rig in Western Colorado

There are three causes, fracking, GMO’s, and the XL pipeline that to me are spurious. There is a lot of hysteria around the issues with little critical examination taking place.  People seem to be taken in by bad science, bad reporting, and demagoguery.

Fracking is an old technology that expanded when horizontal drilling along with fracking opened up huge amounts of territory to oil and gas extraction. The oil and gas was there all along, geologists knew about it, but it was trapped in what the industry calls tight strata, mostly shale.

Traditionally, oil and gas has come from fairly porous rock that allows the oil and gas to migrate to the wells. Tight strata is not porous, and the oil and gas tends to stay in place.  hydraulic fracturing breaks the rock, allowing the oil and gas to move to the well. Fracking is not new technology.  It was being used around my home town in the 1950’s.  The big change came with horizontal drilling, hugely expanding the amount of rock that can be fractured from one drill hole.

If there is impervious rock above the area being fractured, the only route for the oil and gas to escape is up the drill hole. Done right, the oil and gas go into a pipeline or a tank with no surface contamination.  The problem is that it is often not done right.

BP Spill

BP Spill

It’s been clear for a long time, reinforced by the big BP spill in the gulf, that drilling so often not done right. Oil companies are infamous for lying, cheating, and stealing.  They get away with it in part because nobody knows what they are doing.  Meters are bypassed, mineral rights owners, including the Government, are underpaid, horizontal wells go outside their boundaries, and proper drilling methods are bypassed.

The big BP spill in the gulf happened because a defective blowout preventer was put in service. No one is going to know, right?  It is a mile under water.  We all know and BP is going to owe billions.

The problems we are seeing with fracking, groundwater contamination, flaming water faucets, polluted water dumped into streams, all come from cheating. With fracking, drillers cheat by not properly lining the drill holes.  The correct method is to pump concrete between the side of the hole and the smaller steel casing that carries the oil and gas to the surface.  It requires high pressure pumps and a lot of concrete.  Done right, it works just fine.  But, it is a long way down that hole and you cannot stand beside the wellhead and tell what was done.  What can be done is to sample ground water and air.  If there is contamination, it was not done right.  Incidentally, our old friend Halliburton is the big oil well service company that does much of the well lining.

Until alternate energy is much bigger than it now is, we need oil and gas, and domestic production is preferable to foreign imports. Otherwise, turn off your air conditioning, junk the furnace, and sell the car.  So, let’s regulate.   We need monitoring for contaminants and on-site inspectors.  All that is done in construction, but the oil and gas industry has avoided most oversight.

Fear is the reason for the opposition to fracking. People don’t understand the technology, big oil rigs along subdivisions and water trucks on the highway are imposing.  They see news reports that show flaming faucets

Flaming Faucet

Flaming Faucet

without explaining the cause other than blaming fracking.  Flaming railroad oil train wrecks.  Pipeline leaks in California.  The oil and gas industry has a public relations problem.

The biggest fracking failure was 45 years ago in Western Colorado. The government detonated a 40 kiloton nuclear bomb down a drill hole near Parachute, Colorado.  Lots of natural gas was liberated, but it is radioactive.  People just will not accept radioactive gas coming into their homes.  I think this long ago event is what started fracking fear.

Unless you get around on horseback or bicycle, stay off the power grid and light, heat, and cool your house with renewable energy, you need oil and gas.  With regulation, it can be safe.  We can then put more time and energy into developing clean energy.

Parts two and three will examine GMO food and the XL Pipeline.  Stay tuned.

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