CVIndependent

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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

On Sept. 27, the Environmental Working Group—a self-described nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, based in Washington, D.C.—released a report titled, “Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ Detected in Drinking Water Supplies Across California.”

The lead paragraph in that report states, “Drinking water sources for 74 community water systems serving 7.5 million Californians are contaminated with the highly toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, according to an Environmental Working Group review of the latest state data.” We reviewed the report, which found that the water supplies managed by both the Desert Water Agency (serving most of the western end of the Coachella Valley) and the Coachella Valley Water District (serving a large portion of the central and eastern valley) tested positive for some levels of PFAS chemical compounds. In the case of the DWA, the test results referenced a maximum PFAS test result of 70.2 ppt (parts per trillion), but in one well only. One CVWD well returned a reading of 5.2 ppt.

The report, with the alarmist headline, gained a fair amount of media coverage.

However, reading beyond the headline, we found this: “The water systems conducted the tests between 2013, when the EPA ordered one-time nationwide sampling for PFAS, and this year, as the state moves toward establishing its own health advisory levels for the two PFAS compounds covered by the EPA’s advisory. EWG’s list shows not the current level of contamination in customers’ tap water, but rather the extent of contamination in drinking water sources identified since 2013. Maximum detection levels reported to the California State Water Resources Control Board and the EPA are a snapshot of what was in the water when it was tested, not necessarily what is coming out of taps now.”

That’s a relief. Or is it? Why the alarmist headline?

“We heard about the EWG report … but they do this every year,” said Ashley Metzger, outreach and conservation manager at the DWA, in a phone interview. “Some of the standards that they include on their site are actual real federal and state standards (for allowable contaminant levels in drinking water). Other standards that they include are ones that they make up. So we’re always kind of leery and looking out for it to make sure that (their reports are) appropriate and fact-based, and if they used their own standard, they’re clear about it. It can be pretty misleading to folks.”

What did Metzger have to say about that DWA well reading cited in the report?

“I know that we had an issue with one of our samples at Well 26, where it was registering a read,” Metzger said. “In two following tests, we were ‘non-detect.’ There’s a provision in the sampling guidance from the (California State Water Resources Control Board) Division of Drinking Water that indicates if you take two additional samples that don’t show the presence of the chemical, then they’ll disregard the original sample.”

Metzger added: “When you’re talking parts per trillion, that’s very, very, very minute traces—and you’re talking about a very ubiquitous substance. You know, those (chemicals) are present in a lot of different materials that we come into contact with on a daily basis, (like) food wrap, the insides of paper cups sometimes, Teflon pans, Scotchgard repellents, clothing, cosmetics, sunscreen and all sorts of stuff. So samples can sometimes be contaminated. … We don’t know exactly what went wrong (in this case), if it was a false positive or what. We do feel secure that the follow-up results are helpful. We not only did those two follow-ups on that well, but also we did a second … sampling that showed ‘non-detect’ at that well.”

Katie Evans, the director of communications and conservation for the CVWD, pointed out that the EWG is an advocacy group. “When you’re advocating for a cause, what you want to do is bring attention to that cause—and so that’s what they have done … and very well, it seems.”

Evans said the CVWD’s water supplies are safe—and that testing proves it.

“We’re testing for all those PFOS and PFOA chemicals according to our state regulatory requirements,” Evans said. “The state has come out recently with new testing requirements for those specific issues, and so we’ve been testing against those—but we haven’t had a problem. We haven’t exceeded, and so we haven’t had to treat for anything. But if there was, in the event that we exceeded any contaminant level, then we would look at treating the water to bring it into drinking-water standards.”

DWA said the state’s testing requirements have forced water agencies to be proactive.

“We’re not waiting for anything,” she said. “Basically, we have orders from the state of California to conduct this testing, because of the fact that we are close to the airport—and we’ve done the testing. We’re doing testing. We have written documentation from them.”

Evans said the CVWD is constantly testing its water supplies.

“I want to assure people that the drinking water is safe. In our view, the definition of the word ‘safe’ is that it meets all the drinking water standards, both state and federal. CVWD collects water samples every day, 365 days a year.

“It seems that the discussion the EWG wants to have is whether the levels need to be changed, and that’s fine. They’re advocating for that. But CVWD provides drinking water that meets all federal and state standards, and the drinking water is safe. Water quality is a huge, huge priority over here. It’s what we do. We provide drinking water, and it’s not lost on us that the public counts on us to provide them with a safe supply.”

Published in Environment

When Sonoma State University professor Carl Jensen started looking into the new media’s practice of self-censorship in 1976, the Internet was only a dream, and most computers were still big mainframes with whirling tape reels and vacuum tubes.

Back then, the vast majority of Americans got all of the news from one daily newspaper and one of the three big TV networks. If a story wasn’t on ABC, NBC or CBS, it might as well not have happened.

Forty years later, the media world is a radically different place. Americans are now more likely to get their news from several different sources through Facebook than they would from CBS Evening News. Daily newspapers all over the country are struggling and, in some cases, dying. A story that appears on one obscure outlet can suddenly become a viral sensation, reaching millions of readers at the speed of light.

And yet, as Jensen’s Project Censored continues to find, there are still numerous big, important news stories that receive very little exposure.

As Project Censored staffers Mickey Huff and Andy Lee Roth note, 90 percent of U.S. news media—traditional outlets that employ full-time reporters—are controlled by six corporations. “The corporate media hardly represent the mainstream,” the staffers wrote in the current edition’s introduction.

“By contrast, the independent journalists that Project Censored has celebrated since its inception are now understood as vital components of what experts have identified as the newly developing ‘networked fourth estate.’”

Jensen set out to frame a new definition of censorship. He put out an annual list of the 10 biggest stories that the mainstream media ignored, arguing that it was a failure of the corporate press to pursue and promote these stories that represented censorship—not by the government, but by the media itself.

“My definition starts with the other end, with the failure of information to reach people,” he wrote. “For the purposes of this project, censorship is defined as the suppression of information, whether purposeful or not, by any method—including bias, omission, underreporting or self-censorship, which prevents the public from fully knowing what is happening in the world.”

Jensen died in April 2015, but his project was inherited and carried on by Sonoma State sociology professor Peter Phillips and Huff.

Huff teaches social science and history at Diablo Valley College. Under their leadership, the Project has, at times, veered off into the loony world of conspiracies and Sept. 11 “truther” territory. A handful of stories included in the annual publication—to be kind—were difficult to verify. That’s caused a lot of us in the alternative press to question the validity of the annual list.

But Huff, who is now project director, and Roth, the associate director, have expanded and tightened up the process of selecting stories. Project staffers and volunteers first fact-check nominations that come in to make sure they are “valid” news reports. Then a panel of 28 judges—mostly academics with a few journalists and media critics—finalize the Top 10 and the 15 runners-up.

The results are published in a book that was released Oct. 6 by Seven Stories Press.

I’ve been writing about Project Censored for 25 years, and I think it’s safe to say that the stories on this year’s list are credible, valid—and critically important. Even in an era when most of us are drunk with information, overloaded by buzzing social media telling us things we didn’t think we needed to know, these stories haven’t gotten anywhere near the attention they deserve.

1. Half of global wealth owned by the 1 percent

We hear plenty of talk about the wealth and power of the top 1 percent of people in the United States, but the global wealth gap is, if anything, even worse. And it has profound human consequences.

Oxfam International, which has been working for decades to fight global poverty, released a January 2015 report showing that, if current trends continue, the wealthiest 1 percent, by the end of this year, will control more wealth than everyone else in the world put together.

As reported in Project Censored, “The Oxfam report provided evidence that extreme inequality is not inevitable, but is, in fact, the result of political choices and economic policies established and maintained by the power elite, wealthy individuals whose strong influence keeps the status quo rigged in their own favor.”

Another stunning fact: The wealth of 85 of the richest people in the world combined is equal to the wealth of half the world’s poor combined.

The mainstream news media coverage of the report and the associated issues was spotty, at best, Project Censored notes: A few corporate television networks, including CNN, CBS, MSNBC, ABC, FOX and C-SPAN covered Oxfam’s January report, according to the TV News Archive. CNN had the most coverage with about seven broadcast segments from Jan. 19 to 25, 2015. However, these stories aired between 2 and 3 a.m.—far from primetime.

Sources: Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington, “New Oxfam Report Says Half of Global Wealth Held by the 1%,” Guardian, Jan.19, 2015

Sarah Dransfield, “Number of Billionaires Doubled Since Financial Crisis as Inequality Spirals Out of Control–Oxfam,” Oxfam, Oct. 29, 2014

Samantha Cowan, “Every Kid on Earth Could Go to School If the World’s 1,646 Richest People Gave 1.5 Percent,” TakePart, Nov. 3, 2014

2. Oil Industry Illegally Dumps Fracking Wastewater

Fracking, which involves pumping high-pressure water and chemicals into rock formations to free up oil and natural gas, has been a huge issue nationwide. But there’s been little discussion of one of the side effects: The contamination of aquifers.

The Center for Biological Diversity reported in 2014 that oil companies had dumped almost 3 billion gallons of fracking wastewater into California’s underground water supply. Since the companies refuse to say what chemicals they use in the process, nobody knows exactly what the level of contamination is. But wells that supply drinking water near where the fracking waste was dumped tested high in arsenic, thallium and nitrates.

According to Project Censored, “Although corporate media have covered debate over fracking regulations, the Center for Biological Diversity study regarding the dumping of wastewater into California’s aquifers went all but ignored at first. There appears to have been a lag of more than three months between the initial independent news coverage of the Center for Biological Diversity revelations and corporate coverage.

In May 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page feature on Central Valley crops irrigated with treated oil field water; however, the Los Angeles Times report made no mention of the Center for Biological Diversity’s findings regarding fracking wastewater contamination.”

Sources: Dan Bacher, “Massive Dumping of Wastewater into Aquifers Shows Big Oil’s Power in California,” IndyBay, Oct. 11, 2014

“California Aquifers Contaminated with Billions of Gallons of Fracking Wastewater,” Russia Today Oct. 11, 2014

Donny Shaw, “CA Senators Voting NO on Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More from Oil & Gas Industry,” MapLight, June 3, 2014

Dan Bacher, “Senators Opposing Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More Money from Big Oil,” IndyBay, June 7, 2014

3. 89 percent of Pakistani drone victims not identifiable as militants

The United States sends drone aircraft into combat on a regular basis, particularly in Pakistan. The Obama administration says the drones fire missiles only when there is clear evidence that the targets are al-Qaida bases. Secretary of State John Kerry insists that “the only people we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest levels.”

But the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which keeps track of all the strikes, reported that only 4 percent of those killed by drones were al-Qaida members, and only 11 percent were confirmed militants of any sort.

That means 89 percent of the 2,464 people killed by U.S. drones could not be identified as terrorists. In fact, 30 percent of the dead could not be identified at all.

The New York Times has covered the fact that, as one story noted, “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.” But overall, the mainstream news media ignored the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting.

Sources: Jack Serle, “Almost 2,500 Now Killed by Covert US Drone Strikes Since Obama Inauguration Six Years Ago,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Feb. 2, 2015

Jack Serle, “Get the Data: A List of US Air and Drone Strikes, Afghanistan 2015,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Feb. 12, 2015

Steve Coll, “The Unblinking Stare: The Drone War in Pakistan,” New Yorker, Nov. 24, 2014

Abigail Fielding-Smith, “John Kerry Says All those Fired at by Drones in Pakistan are ‘Confirmed Terrorist Targets’—But with 1,675 Unnamed Dead How Do We Know?” Bureau of Investigative Journalism,Oct. 23, 2014

Jack Serle, “Only 4% of Drone Victims in Pakistan Named as al Qaeda Members,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Oct. 16, 2014

Jeremy Scahill, “Germany is the Tell-Tale Heart of America’s Drone War,” Intercept, April 17, 2015

4. Popular resistance to corporate water-grabbing

For decades, private companies have been trying to take over and control water supplies, particularly in the developing world. Now, as journalist Ellen Brown reported in March 2015, corporate water barons, including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, the Carlyle Group and other investment firms, “are purchasing water rights from around the world at an unprecedented pace.”

However, over the past 15 years, more than 180 communities have fought back and re-municipalized their water systems. “From Spain to Buenos Aires, Cochabamba to Kazakhstan, Berlin to Malaysia, water privatization is being aggressively rejected,” Victoria Collier reported in Counterpunch.

Meanwhile, in the United States, some cities—in what may be a move toward privatization—are radically raising water rates and cutting off service to low-income communities.

The mainstream media response to the privatization of water has been largely silence.

Sources: Ellen Brown, “California Water Wars: Another Form of Asset Stripping?,” Nation of Change, March 25, 2015

Victoria Collier, “Citizens Mobilize Against Corporate Water Grabs,” CounterPunch, Feb. 11, 2015

Larry Gabriel, “When the City Turned Off Their Water, Detroit Residents and Groups Delivered Help,” YES! Magazine, Nov. 24, 2014

Madeline Ostrander, “LA Imports Nearly 85 Percent of Its Water—Can It Change That by Gathering Rain?,” YES! Magazine, Jan. 5, 2015

5. Fukushima nuclear disaster deepens

Nearly five years after a tsunami destroyed Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant and causing one of the worst nuclear accidents in human history, radiation from the plant continues to leak into the ocean.

But the story has largely disappeared from the news.

As Project Censored notes: “The continued dumping of extremely radioactive cooling water into the Pacific Ocean from the destroyed nuclear plant, already being detected along the Japanese coastline, has the potential to impact entire portions of the Pacific Ocean and North America’s western shoreline. Aside from the potential release of plutonium into the Pacific Ocean, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) recently admitted that the facility is releasing large quantities of water contaminated with tritium, cesium and strontium into the ocean every day.”

We’re talking large amounts of highly contaminated water getting dumped into the ocean. The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, “admitted that the facility is releasing a whopping 150 billion becquerels of tritium and seven billion becquerels of cesium- and strontium-contaminated water into the ocean every day.” The potential for long-term problems all over the world is huge—and the situation hasn’t been contained.

Sources: “TEPCO Drops Bombshell About Sea Releases; 8 Billion Bq Per Day,” Simply Info: The Fukushima Project, Aug. 26, 2014

Sarah Lazare, “Fukushima Meltdown Worse Than Previous Estimates: TEPCO,” Common Dreams, Aug. 7, 2014

Michel Chossudovsky, “The Fukushima Endgame: The Radioactive Contamination of the Pacific Ocean,” Global Research, Dec. 17, 2014

6. The global impacts of methane and arctic warming

We all know that carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are a huge threat to climate stability. But there’s another giant threat out there that hasn’t made much news.

The arctic ice sheets, which are rapidly melting in some areas, contain massive amounts of methane—a greenhouse gas that’s way worse than carbon dioxide. And, as the ice recedes, that methane is getting released into the atmosphere.

Dahr Jamail, writing in Truthout, notes that all of our predictions about the pace of global warming and its impacts might have to be re-evaluated in the wake of revelations about methane releases:

“A 2013 study, published in Nature, reported that a 50-gigaton ‘burp’ of methane is ‘highly possible at any time.’ As Jamail clarified, ‘That would be the equivalent of at least 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide,’ noting that, since 1850, humans have released a total of about 1,475 gigatons in carbon dioxide. A massive, sudden change in methane levels could, in turn, lead to temperature increases of four to six degrees Celsius in just one or two decades—a rapid rate of climate change to which human agriculture, and ecosystems more generally, could not readily adapt.”

Jamail quoted Paul Beckwith, a professor of climatology and meteorology at the University of Ottawa: “Our climate system is in early stages of abrupt climate change that, unchecked, will lead to a temperature rise of 5 to 6 degrees Celsius within a decade or two.” Such changes would have “unprecedented effects” for life on Earth.

A huge story? Apparently not. The major news media have written at length about the geopolitics of the arctic region, but there’s been very little mention of the methane monster.

Source: Dahr Jamail, “The Methane Monster Roars,” Truthout, Jan. 13, 2015

7. Fear of government spying is chilling writers’ freedom of expression

Writers in Western liberal democracies may not face the type of censorship seen in some parts of the world, but their fear of government surveillance is causing many to think twice about what they can say.

Lauren McCauley, writing in Common Dreams, quoted one of the conclusions from a report by the writers’ group PEN America: “If writers avoid exploring topics for fear of possible retribution, the material available to readers—particularly those seeking to understand the most controversial and challenging issues facing the world today—may be greatly impoverished.”

According to Project Censored, a PEN America survey showed that “34 percent of writers in liberal democracies reported some degree of self-censorship (compared with 61 percent of writers living in authoritarian countries, and 44 percent in semi-democratic countries). Almost 60 percent of the writers from Western Europe, the United States … indicated that U.S. credibility ‘has been significantly damaged for the long term’ by revelations of the U.S. government surveillance programs.’”

Other than Common Dreams’ coverage, the PEN report attracted almost no major media attention.

Sources: Lauren McCauley, “Fear of Government Spying ‘Chilling’ Writers’ Speech Worldwide,” Common Dreams, Jan. 5, 2015

Lauren McCauley, “Government Surveillance Threatens Journalism, Law and Thus Democracy: Report,” Common Dreams, July 28, 2014

8. Who dies at the hands of police—and how often?

High-profile police killings, particularly of African-American men, have made big news over the past few years. But there’s been much less attention paid to the overall numbers—and to the difference between how many people are shot by cops in the United States and in other countries.

In the January 2015 edition of Liberation, Richard Becker, relying on public records, concluded that the rate of U.S. police killing was 100 times that of England, 40 times that of Germany, and 20 times the rate in Canada.

In June 2015, a team of reporters from the Guardian concluded that 102 unarmed people were killed by U.S. police in the first five months of that year—twice the rate reported by the government.

Furthermore, the Guardian wrote, “black Americans are more than twice as likely to be unarmed when killed during encounters with police as white people.” The paper concluded that, “Thirty-two percent of black people killed by police in 2015 were unarmed, as were 25 percent of Hispanic and Latino people, compared with 15 percent of white people killed.”

And as far as accountability goes, the Washington Post noted that in 385 cases of police killings, only three officers faced charges.

Sources: Richard Becker, “U.S. Cops Kill at 100 Times Rate of Other Capitalist Countries,” Liberation, Jan. 4, 2015

Jon Swaine, Oliver Laughland, and Jamiles Lartey, “Black Americans Killed by Police Twice as Likely to be Unarmed as White People,” Guardian, June 1, 2015

9. Millions in poverty get less media coverage than billionaires do

The news media in the United States doesn’t like to talk about poverty, but they love to report on the lives and glory of the super-rich.

The advocacy group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting analyzed the three major television news networks and found that 482 billionaires got more attention than the 50 million people who live in poverty.

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows the mainstream media, or pays much attention to the world of social media and the blogosphere. The top rung of society gets vast amounts of attention, for good and for ill—but the huge numbers of people who are homeless, hungry and often lacking in hope just aren’t news.

“The notion that the wealthiest nation on Earth has one in every six of its citizens living at or below the poverty threshold reflects not a lack of resources, but a lack of policy focus and attention—and this is due to a lack of public awareness to the issue,” Frederick Reese of MintPress News wrote.

From Project Censored: “The FAIR study showed that between January 2013 and February 2014, an average of only 2.7 seconds per every 22-minute episode discussed poverty in some format. During the 14-month study, FAIR found just 23 news segments that addressed poverty.”

Sources: Steve Rendall, Emily Kaufmann, and Sara Qureshi, “Even GOP Attention Can’t Make Media Care about Poor,” Extra!, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, June 1, 2014

“Millions in Poverty Get Less Coverage Than 482 Billionaires,” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, June 26, 2014

Frederick Reese, “Billionaires Get More Media Attention Than The Poor,” MintPress News, June 30, 2014

Tavis Smiley, “Poverty Less Than .02 Percent of Lead Media Coverage,” Huffington Post, March 7, 2014

10. Costa Rica is setting the standard on renewable energy

Is it possible to meet a modern nation’s energy needs without any fossil-fuel consumption? Yes. Costa Rica has been doing it.

To be fair, that country’s main industries—tourism and agriculture—are not energy-intensive, and heavy rainfall in the first part of the year made it possible for the country to rely heavily on its hydropower resources. But even in normal years, Costa Rica generates 90 percent of its energy without burning any fossil fuels.

Iceland also produces the vast majority of its energy from renewable sources.

The transition to 100 percent renewables will be harder for larger countries—but as the limited reporting on Costa Rica notes, it’s possible to take large steps in that direction.

Sources: Myles Gough, “Costa Rica Powered with 100% Renewable Energy for 75 Straight Days,” Science Alert, March 20, 2015

Adam Epstein, “Costa Rica is Now Running Completely on Renewable Energy,” Quartz, March 23, 2015

Tim Redmond, a longtime editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is the founding member of the San Francisco Progressive Media Center and editor of that nonprofit organization’s publication 48 Hills.

Published in Features

The oil and gas industry has long claimed that there is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water. But a new, major Environmental Protection Agency assessment has determined that fracking and another widely used drilling technique called horizontal drilling have the potential to contaminate drinking water.

The study also identified the greatest risks to drinking water, including spills, water withdrawals, wastewater releases and migration of gas and oil underground.

The nearly 1,000-page EPA study—a draft awaiting public comment and scientific review—found no evidence that “widespread” pollution of drinking water has occurred from these drilling techniques, which have driven a renaissance of the U.S. oil and gas industries over recent years. The number of known cases of well contamination and other impacts to drinking water sources was small compared to the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 new wells that were drilled and hydraulically fractured between 2011 and 2014, and the many more older wells that also were fracked, the study states.

Industry groups say this conclusion confirms the safety of their operations. But the EPA study concedes that a lack of sufficient scientific research may explain why the agency failed to find widespread impacts.

“That means they don’t know how often these things occur,” said Rob Jackson, a Stanford University environmental science professor.

Even after several years of work, the federal EPA failed to answer questions about the impacts of new drilling techniques that caused panic in communities across the country.

When the EPA launched its study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water in 2011, scientists and environmental advocates expected it would fill in the knowledge gaps.

“This was supposed to be their job,” said Jackson, who is a leading researcher on the issue. “My frustration with the report is they left the difficult stuff out. They didn’t sink their teeth into the meat of this issue, into the controversial parts of this issue. That’s what we hoped EPA would do. Who else has the resource to do it?”

The study is less conclusive than originally envisioned, in part because the EPA failed to reach agreement with industry to do the kinds of studies scientists and the federal government believe are necessary. These studies would test drinking water sources before and after companies hydraulically fracture wells nearby. The EPA’s new assessment repeatedly cites the need for such studies.

Along the way, other significant efforts by the EPA to seek answers got derailed. The EPA investigated a possible case of well contamination in Pavillion, Wyo. But as reported, after EPA’s original findings linked hydraulic fracturing to water contamination, industry interests challenged agency scientists’ methodology and, in 2013, the agency abruptly dropped its research. The EPA backed out of investigations in Texas and Pennsylvania as well.

Still, the EPA’s new assessment, which draws from hundreds of reports and data sources, does have merit in pinpointing the riskiest steps for drinking water in modern drilling and production processes:

When companies withdraw large quantities of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing during times or in areas with low water availability.

When companies spill hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water. (In Colorado, the state with the second-most wells hydraulically fractured over the period the EPA studied, the spill rate was one every 100 wells.)

When companies fracture directly into underground drinking water resources.

When liquids and gases migrate below ground. (This can be caused by intense pressures used in hydraulic fracturing, poorly constructed wells, or when the casing or cement used in wells degrade.)

When companies fail to adequately treat or properly discharge of wastewater, including when, as reported, they release that wastewater directly onto the land or into streams.

These weaknesses were illuminated by retrospective studies the EPA conducted that examined suspected contamination of drinking water from hydraulic fracturing in five locations including the Colorado’s Raton Basin and North Dakota’s Bakken Shale.

In Killdeer, North Dakota, a blowout during the hydraulic fracturing of an oil well in 2010 caused the release of fracking fluids. Drinking water wells did not show signs of contamination, but two monitoring wells found both brine and tert-butyl alcohol in the Killdeer aquifer. An EPA analysis determined the only possible source of this contamination was the 2010 blowout.

The EPA failed to definitively link contamination to hydraulic fracturing in other cases. For instance, people in Colorado’s Las Animas and Huerfano counties had complained about a change of appearance, odor and taste of water from their wells. The EPA study showed levels of dissolved methane in domestic wells that were consistent with natural background levels in the area. However, in one sampling area, two years after hydraulic fracturing, gas migrated into a shallow aquifer used for drinking water. The EPA and other researchers have been unable to prove definitively that the gas migrated because of the hydraulic fracturing and not because of natural causes.

The new assessment repeatedly stressed how holes in research and data often make it difficult to make definitive conclusions. For example, the EPA analyzed 151 spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid in 11 states and found that the most common cause was equipment failure, particularly the failure of valves and blowout preventers, devices intended to prevent uncontrolled releases of oil and gas. However, EPA stressed data was lacking to analyze spills. For instance, only two states, Colorado and Pennsylvania, provided statistics on spill frequency.

Other gaps noted in the EPA report included the dearth of science on the fate of the vast quantities of fracking fluids that don’t flow back to the surface, and the lack of data on how much fracking takes place in formations that also contain drinking water.

Congress requested the assessment in response to communities’ concerns and questions about the safety of the industry. The EPA estimates that public drinking-water systems that serve more than 8.6 million people were located within a mile of at least one well hydraulically fractured in 2013 alone. That doesn’t include the many private wells located near such well sites.

Congressional Republicans said the study affirms that the industry needs no additional federal regulation.

“We all want clean water, and we all want affordable energy, and today, the administration confirmed we can have both,” said Fred Upton, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The (Obama) administration should now reconsider the burdensome regulations it intends to place on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, and should certainly refrain from any notion of broader federal involvement in an issue that states and communities are safely managing.”

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, took away another message: “Irresponsible oil and gas development puts water quality at risk for millions of Americans, and no amount of spin can change that.”

Environmental groups and scientists stressed that the report underscores how many questions remain. “We look at this report as very much the beginning of a process to understand what the impacts of unconventional oil and gas are to the water cycle,” said Mark Brownstein, of the Environmental Defense Fund.

EPA’s assessment is open for public comment while the document undergoes review by the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, which plans public teleconferences and meetings in September and October.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

Fish-farming—also known as aquaculture—was the fastest growing segment of agriculture in the United States back in 1998, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

At that time, the Imperial and Coachella valleys generated roughly 70 percent of the farm-raised fish coming out of California, according to the same Times story. In 2012, the production of farmed fish worldwide surpassed the production of beef for the first time in modern history, according to an article from environmental think-tank Earth Policy Institute. That same piece notes that this year, the worldwide consumption of farmed fish may surpass the consumption of fish caught in the wild.

But here in the Coachella Valley, the aquaculture industry has suffered setbacks as the demand has grown.

"The whole fish farm industry in the U.S. has been hit by high feed costs and energy costs," said Riggs Eckelberry, CEO and inventor with OriginOil, a Los Angeles-based company that develops water-cleanup technology. According to him, the problem got so bad that some California fish farms closed as the Great Recession set in back in 2007 and 2008—including some here in our valley. But Riggs Eckelberry and his brother Nicholas, OriginOil’s co-founder and chief inventor, believe that their new technology can bring about a resurgence of aquaculture in Coachella Valley.

On Wednesday, Dec. 18, the pair were present at Thermal’s Aqua Farming Technology fish farm, which farms tilapia and catfish, as OriginOil unveiled its relatively new Electro Water Separation (EWS) Algae screen S60 process, which couples with the Aqua Q60 water-purifying process to form the foundation of a relatively inexpensive solution to sustainable organic fish farming here and around the world. Aqua Farming Technology has partnered with OriginOil to become their permanent showcase facility.

“This farm is owned by a company that is trying—with the combination of solar panels to provide cheaper energy—our algae feed for nutrition and our inexpensive water cleanup solution, to create a package that will enable the restart of all the fish farms in Coachella Valley,” explained Riggs Eckelberry. “They want to make us part of their secret sauce. Hopefully, it won’t be so secret soon.”

The media event was attended by State Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez and Coachella Mayor Eduardo Garcia.

“Today’s a good day,” Mayor Garcia (right) said. “Anytime we can introduce a technology that is clean and green, and can address a wide range of issues here in our region, such as job creation and environmental matters ... it’s a good day.”

Of course, the other big-picture environmental matter that was discussed most frequently on this day was the threat to the survival of the Salton Sea.

“Working with partners like OriginOil,” said Pérez, “we can integrate and bring in academicians, engineers, inventors, entrepreneurs and those who believe in sustainable communities to advance efforts to restore the Salton Sea.”

In fact, Nicholas Eckelberry said he already has at least a partial solution to the Salton Sea problem. The lake’s future is being threatened by a decreasing water supply, and increasing salinity and pollution.

“I’ve designed a system for ocean cleanup which could effectively clean up the Salton Sea—at least all the suspended solvents,” said Eckelberry. “The technology we’re showcasing today is applied to algae-harvesting. Then we apply this same technology in a different format to ammonia-reduction. And we apply it in another format to frack-water-cleaning in the oil industry. And in another format, we can apply it to waste water treatment as well.”

One immediate positive local impact resulting from the OriginOil presence is a newly established alliance with the Green Academy of the Desert Mirage High School in Thermal. Lead teacher Tony Korwin brought nine of his pupils (below) with him to gain some first-hand knowledge of this new technology in their neighborhood.

“The Green Academy is a school within a school,” said Korwin. “ These students study green energy—solar, wind, geothermal. We were invited to come down here today, and they want to partner with us for continued education and potential scholarships for my students.”

Riggs Eckelberry said he sees real value for all participating partners.

“The Coachella Valley can be a source of organic fish-farming, which is not only invaluable to this community, but will set an example for the rest of the world and change perceptions of farmed fish. We’re super excited.”

Published in Environment