Tag Archives: Lisa Jackson

No end in sight for Gulf oil-spill problems

As the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, emotions are boiling over along the Gulf Coast.

An oil-covered pelican flaps its wings on an island in Barataria Bay off the coast of Louisiana on Sunday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican and other birds, is being hit by oil washing ashore.
AP photo by Patrick Semansky

Sitting here in the Pacific Northwest, I am still dazed by the realization that an oil well, nearly a mile under water, has gone out of control, spewing millions of gallons of crude and creating an underwater mess bigger than what we see on the surface.

I cannot fathom that we are experiencing a disaster likely to be many times worse than Alaska’s Exxon Valdez. Until somebody figures out how to turn off the flow of oil, we can’t begin to estimate the size of this catastrophe or imagine that things will get better.

BP is hoping that a process, never used underwater, will stop the flow of oil. The technique, called a “top kill” and performed on above-ground wells in the Middle East, involves shooting heavy mud and cement into the well. The first shot could come tomorrow. Chances of success are estimated at 60-70 percent by BP, but the company’s track record for estimates has not been good so far.

Oily dead birds and other sea life, predicted weeks ago, are washing up on shore. Sensitive marsh lands, impossible to clean without destroying them, have been touched. Longtime fishermen and fishing communities are shut down.

“Once it gets in the marsh, it’s impossible to get out,” Charles Collins, 68, a veteran crew boat captain told reporters for the Los Angeles Times. “All your shrimp are born in the marsh. All your plankton. The marsh is like the beginning of life in the sea. And it’s in the marshes. Bad.”

Yesterday, I joined a telephone press conference with Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. She was doing her best to calmly cope with the enormity of the disaster. She had just come off a boat after witnessing oil piling up on shore. Joining her was Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry, who is in charge of the National Response Team.

Jackson said the federal government has ordered BP to cut back on the use of dispersants, which break up the oil but may have some toxic effects. No formal studies have ever been conducted on the effects of applying huge quantities of dispersants underwater, but limited studies in recent days suggest that this approach may be the least harmful method to keep the oil from coming ashore.

Without such treatment, the oil itself is highly toxic and a much greater concern, she said. BP has been ordered to look for less toxic alternatives than the dispersant currently being used, but safer alternatives may not be available in the quantities needed. Meanwhile, Jackson said her staff believes the treatment can be equally effective by using half or less the amount of chemical applied until now.

Keeping as much oil off the shorelines as possible seems to be the top priority. That starts by keeping some of the oil immersed as tiny droplets underwater. Oil that reaches the surface is attacked by skimmers and burned if necessary. Fighting the oil with absorbent booms and pads along the shore is the last step.

I hope this strategy is not one of “out of sight, out of mind,” because the oil immersed in the water becomes a problem of its own. It’s been compared to a bottle of oil-and-vinegar salad dressing that you shake up, breaking the oil into tiny globules that float around. Smaller globules are believed to degrade faster in the environment.

Still, with this oil starting 5,000 feet below the surface, it could take months or years to coalesce, rise to the surface and come ashore, where cleanup crews could be facing oil damage for an undetermined amount of time.

“I’m afraid we’re just seeing the beginning of what is going to be a long, ugly summer,” Ed Overton, who has consulted on oil spills for three decades, told Bob Marshall, a reporter with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I hope and pray I’m wrong, but I think what we’re in for is seeing a little bit come in each day at different places for a long, long time — months and months. That’s not what I said in the beginning of this. But events have made me amend my thoughts.”

Some constituents of the oil will never come ashore but will drop to the bottom of the Gulf in various locations. As specialized bacteria move in to break down the oily compounds, they will consume oxygen, potentially adding to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

If this were an earthquake, I would be reporting on damage assessments and offering hope for a renewed community. If this were an oil spill from a ship, I would be talking about worse-case scenarios and long-term effects. But, frankly, it is hard to know what to say when the spill goes on and on with no certainty at all.

To view a live video feed of the oil spill, go to BP’s web cam mounted on a remotely operated vehicle.

Official sources of information:

Deepwater Horizon Unified Command

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

NOAA Fishery Closure Information

EPA Response to BP Oil Spill

Other valuable links can be found on a website for Gulf of Mexico Sea Grant Programs

Last, but not least, I am learning a good deal from bloggers who are part of the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network. They are working in the Gulf and providing an insider’s view about their work with affected wildlife.

Pelicans fly past a nest of eggs on an island off the the coast of Louisiana on Saturday. The island, home to hundreds of brown pelican nests, is being impacted by oil coming ashore.
AP Photo by Gerald Herbert

Political battles are swirling over Clean Water Act

Changes are in the wind for the powerful Clean Water Act, as officials with the Environmental Protection Agency prepare to step up enforcement to protect the nation’s water supplies.

Regulatory and even legislative changes are in the works, and the law could become a tool in dealing with greenhouse gases related to climate change.

Coming Together

The latest signal that something is afoot is the launch of a new blog this week by the EPA. It is called “Coming Together for Clean Water.”

The EPA is “seeking public input on how the agency can better protect and improve the health of our waters…” according to a news release. “The feedback received on the online forum will help shape the discussion at EPA’s upcoming conference in April, ‘Coming Together for Clean Water,’ where we will engage approximately 100 executive and local level water leads on the agency’s clean water agenda.”

Three topics are mentioned: “The Watershed Approach,” “Managing Pollutants from Nutrients,” and “Stormwater Pollution.”

It is interesting to see how people in various parts of the country are responding to these topics and how local issues play into the national overview. Some folks seem fairly alarmed and are demanding that the EPA take firm actions. Others have responded by spelling out technical solutions or offering case studies about how the EPA has failed in the past.

Enforcement plan

In October, the EPA released what is now called the Clean Water Act Action Plan. It calls for greater and more consistent enforcement nationwide of the clean water law under three strategies:
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Dennis McLerran to head EPA’s Northwest region

It was not much of a surprise yesterday, when Dennis McLerran was named the regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. That was the call I made last July in Water Ways.

<em> Dennis McLerran</em>
Dennis McLerran

I’m not sure why it took so long, but I understand there was considerable discussion about the position within the Northwest congressional delegation. McLerran, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, appeared to be the choice of both Washington senators. Still, it was not as long as President Clinton took to name Chuck Clark to the post, as I reported in that July blog post.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson made this statement in a news release:

“I look forward to working closely with Dennis on the range of urgent environmental issues we face, in region 10 and across the nation. At this moment of great challenge and even greater opportunity, I’m thrilled that Dennis will be part of our leadership team at EPA. He will certainly play an instrumental role in our Agency’s mission to protect our health and the environment.”

Here’s McLarren’s bio from Seattle’s Green Ribbon Commission, of which he is (was?) a member:

Dennis McLerran is the Executive Director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, the regional air quality agency for King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Mr. McLerran is an attorney and former Chair of the Land Use and Environmental Law Section of the Washington State Bar Association. He has also served as the Director of the City of Seattle’s environmental and permitting agency, as the City Attorney for the City of Port Townsend and has been engaged in the practice of environmental and land use law in both the public and private sectors.

He joined the air quality agency in June 1994. In May 1998, the Municipal League of King County named him Public Employee of the Year. He has been President of the Association of Local Air Pollution Control Officials, the national association of local air agencies in the US.

He has led the Agency in developing a number of national award winning programs, resulting in EPA Clean Air Act Advisory Committee awards in two of the last five years. These innovative programs include Diesel Solutions, a broad-based voluntary diesel retrofit and clean fuels program; the Puget Sound voluntary summer clean gasoline program; and the Washington State Clean School Bus program, making $5 million per year available to clean up 9,000 school buses.

EPA brandishes power on chemical and climate fronts

Over the past two days, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has made rather historic decisions on two fronts: a new process for reviewing potentially toxic chemicals and a precision attack on greenhouse gases.

FIRST ISSUE: On Tuesday, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced a regulatory change for dealing with chemical safety. View her remarks made at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, where she said:

“A child born in America today will grow up exposed to more chemicals than a child from any other generation in our history… Our kids are getting steady infusions of industrial chemicals before we even give them solid food.

“Now, some chemicals may be risk-free at the levels we are seeing. I repeat: some chemical may be risk-free. But as more and more chemicals are found in our bodies and the environment, the public is understandably anxious and confused. Many are turning to government for assurance that chemicals have been assessed using the best available science, and that unacceptable risks haven’t been ignored.

“Right now, we are failing to get this job done. Our oversight of the 21st century chemical industry is based on the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. It was an important step forward at the time… But over the years, not only has TSCA fallen behind the industry it’s supposed to regulate – it’s been proven an inadequate tool for providing the protection against chemical risks that the public rightfully expects.”

Some of the proposed changes will require legislation, others will not. But here’s an outline of the “Essential Principles for Reform of Chemicals Management Legislation”:

  • Chemicals should be reviewed against risk-based safety standards based on sound science and protective of human health and the environment.
  • Manufacturers should provide EPA with the necessary information to conclude that new and existing chemicals are safe and do not endanger public health or the environment.
  • EPA should have clear authority to take risk management actions when chemicals do not meet the safety standard…
  • Manufacturers and EPA should assess and act on priority chemicals, both existing and new, in a timely manner.
  • Green Chemistry should be encouraged and provisions assuring transparency and public access to Information should be strengthened.
  • EPA should be given a sustained source of funding for implementation.

As we have discussed, EPA has never before tried to regulate greenhouse gases.

To read more:

EPA news release: “EPA Administrator Jackson Unveils New Administration Framework for Chemical Management Reform in the United States”
OMB Watch: “Transparency Provisions Wanting in New Chemical Management ‘Principles'”
San Francisco Chronicle: “EPA wants more oversight on chemicals”
Environmental Health News: “EPA unveils plan to review 6 controversial chemicals, reform US toxics policy”

SECOND ISSUE: Yesterday, at the California Governor’s Global Climate Summit, Jackson announced that large industrial facilities emitting more than 25,000 tons of green house gases a year would need permits to ensure that best available control technologies are being used.

Among her comments at the summit was this statement:

“This rule allows us to do what the Clean Air Act does best – reduce emissions for better health, drive technology innovation for a better economy, and protect the environment for a better future – all without placing an undue burden on the businesses that make up the better part of our economy.”

Jackson’s comments came only hours after U.S. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., rolled out a new climate bill. Kerry, quoted in the Los Angeles Times: “We’re geared to move this and hopefully get it to the floor before (the Copenhagen summit.) I think we’re going to make it.”


The New York Times: “EPA Moves to Curtail Greenhouse Gas Emissions”
Dallas Morning News: “EPA moves to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from major polluters”
National Petrochemical & Refiners Association: “NPRA Believes EPA Lacks Legal Authority to Raise GHG Permitting Threshold”