Category Archives: Toxins

Hydrofracking in West Virginia

West Virginians upset about fracking on their farms

Image Courtesy: National Geographic, "Looking at Lives Affected by 'Fracking'"

In a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) video, titled “Battle for Wetzel County,” two West Virginians explain why their believe it is unfair for large gas companies (such as Shell, Exxon, and Chesapeake Energy) to have mineral rights on their land. The only compensation these farm owners have is that gas companies must pay them for “damages.” These farm owners are outraged because not only are they losing valuable land, but they also claim they are exposed to dangerous chemicals that have contaminated their water supply. Furthermore, one farm owner believes that toxic waste was buried on his property. Even though hydrofracking is an impressive technology, it interrupts farmers not only during the extraction process,  but also with the equipment that remain on the “pad” (the site where the natural gas is extracted).

There is currently legislation in West Virginia to address the problems associated with hydrofracking, yet according to several sources, the legislation insufficiently addresses the problems associated with drilling. Last Wednesday, Nov. 16, a special House-Senate committee endorsed proposed drilling rules in the Marcellus Shale, but a top aide to West Virginia’s Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s office says the bill isn’t ready for special session. Chief of Staff Rob Alsop told Business Week that his staff will work over the next few weeks with legislative leaders and stakeholders “to see what they’re comfortable with, and see what we’re comfortable work.” According to Alsop there are some issues that need to be worked out before the bill is presented during a special session.

Some of these issues include, the amount of leeway that is granted to the Department of Environmental Protection, the overseer of gas drilling. Advocating greater flexibility for DEP, industry groups have similar concerns. Surface owner and environmental groups, believe that there needs to be strong and detailed regulatory language in the books.

From Dec. 12-14 there will be a series of study meetings on the subject, during which time Governor Tomblin believes is a good time to convene a special session, if prior meetings can create a bill that could pass.

The draft of the bill includes many subjects which emerged from efforts to develop the natural gas reserve through hydrofracking, a controversial process which can potentially contaminate water supplies. Included in the bill are increased permit fees, which will fund more field inspectors and office staff; agreements between operators and surface property owners of drilling sites; lastly, buffer zones that would separate shale wells  from homes, livestock and drinking water. The bill would also allow the Department of Environmental Protection to hire their own inspectors.

For more information here is a report directly from the West Virginia Legislature.

Colony Collapse Disorder: A New Perspective on the Phenomenon

Bees have been disappearing for centuries.  To some, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as a discrete phenomenon does not exist.  In an effort to study the cause of this decline, a researcher questions whether the methods of inquiry are scientific.

Bee hives abandoned by worker bees-- Courtesy of mdjdfan/ Flickr Clreative Commons

In a BBC World Service Report from March 2009, “‘No Proof’ of bee killer theory,”  science reporter Matt McGrath stresses that honey bees are “of crucial importance to the local economy.”  It is undeniable that the honey bee is fundamental to the continued agricultural productivity and economic health of America and the world.  In 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper, sounded the alarm: he had found his bee boxes empty of bees, no dead bees in the neighborhood, no bodies to be found.   The mysterious disappearance of the bees was to be called “Colony Collapse Disorder.”  But is this decline of the bees really such a new phenomenon?

While scientists are researching the potential causes of this sudden and drastic collapse of bee colonies, and pointing to discrete culprits such as pesticides, fungicides, stress, monoculture food, and mites, it remains unclear whether what Dave Hackenberg and other bee keepers, noted beginning in 2006 was an unprecedented event.  The question then is: is this decline a new disorder, what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder,”  or is it just a phenomenon that has been happening for hundreds of years but that, given this 2006 publicity, has come to be seen as a new phenomenon?

In my previous blog posts, I have focused on the possible causes of CCD – pesticides, and in particular neonicotinoids, fungicides, and viruses – without questioning the basic hypothesis underlying the debate–that Colony Collapse Disorder exists as a discrete phenomenon.    Scientists, according to Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the congressional research service, do not argue about whether the bee colonies are declining.  The colonies are.  There is consensus, furthermore, that this decline is not brought on by a single factor but rather by a multiplicity of factors acting synergistically.

The question remains: why has the decline of bees that has always been integral to bee life been named in 2006 CCD?

Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, states in a November 8, 2011 interview, that the death of bees is part of a natural process:  “Colonies die off.  They always have.  Every bee keeper knows that.  There have been major declines in bee keeping before, even before major chemicals came into use.  It has been historically shown.  It is not a new phenomenon.”  So why is it being treated as a new phenomenon?

Steinkraus points first to the flaw in identifying CCD as a discrete disorder.  Beyond that he also underscores the flawed approach of identifying a potential cause for CCD based on the analyses of dead bees.   Upon analyses of dead bees, Steinkraus points out that scientists have found  certain viruses present among all the dead bees.   It is tempting to conclude, as he says,  that the viruses found among all the dead bees are the viruses responsible for killing them:  “They all died of this virus because they all had this virus present.  However, the presence of microorganisms is not proof of disease.  People are analyzing the bees genetically to see what microbes are present and they are finding zillions of microbes.  Finding zillions of species of microbes present in the bees even if they are known pathogens is no proof of disease.   If someone looks in your mouth, for instance,  […] they find that your mouth houses something like 200 different species of bacteria at all times. […] but these bacteria are not causing disease.  The presence of these microorganisms is not proof of disease.”

Steinkraus underscores the absurdity of such reasoning:

These speculations or opinions, in Steinkraus’ view, about the potential causes of CCD are getting a lot of media attention.  Instead of presenting opinion or speculation as scientific evidence, he claims one should perform scientific experiments on the dead bees in order to find a cause for a decline that has existed among bee colonies for centuries.  People, as Steinkraus points out, are finding ”all these microorganisms and [saying] ‘this is the cause.’ But instead of doing experiments to prove the cause, everybody is just writing these papers left and right and getting all kinds of press.”

Steinkraus points to flaws in reasoning and in scientific method: 1) the assumption that the decline in bee colonies is a new phenomenon  and 2) that the studies of this decline are not conducted in a scientifically sound manner but rather driven by opinion and speculation.  According to Steinkraus CCD, per se, may not be a discrete phenomenon and the methods used to identify the causes of the decline in bee colonies may be questionable.

Pointing Out the Nonpoint Source: The Impact of Runoff on Coral Reefs

Non-Pointsource Pollution flowing into Florida Waters. Photo Courtesy of NOAA/Flickr.

An estimated 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based sources. Dirt, oil, nutrients, and chemicals enter the oceans as runoff; polluted liquid that flows from land to sea.  The sources of runoff are numerous, and its impacts on coral reefs, especially those in costal areas, are profound.

In elementary school, one of my teachers presented the class with a model of our costal city.  She handed a few students bottles of different colored water, and asked them to ‘water their lawns,’ ‘wash their cars,’ and ‘make it rain’ on the city.  They proceeded to drench the model.  Then she told us to watch where the water went.  It rolled down into a small pool of clear water at the bottom of the model.  We watched the pool turn to a brownish-grey hue.

Nonpoint Source Pollution. Photo Courtesy of EPA/ water.epa.gov

The point of the model was to show us how pollutants, in the form of runoff, flow from land to sea.  We couldn’t really see the ocean turn greyish-brown in real-life, so the model let us visualize where a lot of the pollution was coming from, and what it was doing to the sea water. As kids who grew up on the shore, the lesson hit home.  Most of us weren’t strangers to summer time beach closures due to high levels of pollution.

Watershed Model. Photo Courtesy of AISBWETWMS/Picasa.

Runoff poses a significant threat to coral reefs.  Pollutants such as oil, fertilizers, inorganic materials, sewage, sediments, and heavy metals are washed into oceans daily. As a nonpoint source pollutant, runoff is hard to control, precisely because it enters the water in many places and because the pollutants originate from so many different sources.  Both urban and rural environments contribute to the runoff problem.

Agricultural runoff poses a serious threat to coral reefs.  Over-irrigation and rainstorms cause nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers to flow into the sea. Ordinary levels of nitrogen and phosphorous are essential for life on reefs, but increased levels of nutrients result in algal blooms.  Algae thrive off of these nutrients, and grow at alarming rates on reefs when the water becomes over-saturated with nutrients.  Eventually the algae take over, and the coral cannot compete for resources, so they die.

As the EPA points out, “When nutrient levels increase, the delicate balance that exists between corals and algae is destroyed and the algae can overgrow the corals. When this situation is prolonged, the corals are smothered and die beneath the algal carpet. This, in turn, affects the fish and other aquatic organisms using the area, leading to a decrease in animal and plant diversity and affecting use of the water for fishing and swimming.”

Algal Bloom. Photo Courtesy of chesbayprogram/Flickr.

Katharina E. Fabricius of The Australian Institute of Marine Science has noted the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorous-rich terrestrial run-off on reefs in her paper,“Effects of terrestrial runoff on the ecology of corals and coral reefs: review and synthesis”.  She writes that “considerable effort has gone into experiments studying the direct effects of elevated dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN, as nitrate or ammonium) and phosphate (DIP) on coral calcification, tissue growth and zooxanthellae.”  She goes on to conclude that “chronically increased levels of dissolved inorganic nutrients may alter reef metabolism and reef calcification sufficiently to cause noticeable changes in coral communities.”

Australia’s  Great Barrier Reef is at risk due to agricultural runoff.  According to a report by students at the University of Michigan, “80% of the land adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef is farmland that supports agricultural production, intensive cropping of sugar cane, and major beef cattle grazing (GBR, 2007). These types of agriculture and cattle production pose large threats to the Great Barrier Reef close by.”  Nutrients from these farm areas reach the reef, and cause damage.

Excess nutrients also reach the sea when human or animal waste is discharged as untreated wastewater into the sea or when sewer systems overflow before treatment.  According to UNEP “around 60% of the wastewater discharged into the Caspian Sea is untreated, in Latin America and the Caribbean the figure is close to 80%, and in large parts of Africa and the Indo-Pacific the proportion is as high as 80-90%.” As the EPA describes, aside from adding excess nutrients to the water, this untreated sewage can bring bacteria and other pathogens to reefs that can cause coral disease and death.

Sewage outfall. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr.

Other toxic materials also impact coral reefs. Heavy metals, chemicals, and oils runoff into the ocean from urban areas and poison corals.  The upset the chemical balance of water that is necessary for coral to live. Most of the oil in the world’s oceans does not come from large-scale oil spills, but rather from smaller sources such as runoff.  The World Wildlife Fund states that only around 12% of the oil that enters the sea each year comes from oil spills. The US National Resources Council estimates that 36% of oil that enters the sea comes “as waste and runoff from cities and industry.”

Cyanobaterial Bloom on a Coral Reef. Photo Courtesy of eutrophication&hypoxia/Flickr

The question that begs to be asked is what can be done to prevent damage to coral reefs by runoff?  For one, the US government has enacted the “The Coastal Nonpoint Source Pollution Control Program.” The program was passed by Congress in order to achieve “coordination between state coastal zone managers and water quality experts to reduce polluted runoff in the coastal zone.”

The program, which focuses on runoff-pollution prevention and is jointly administered by NOAA and the EPA, “establishes a set of management measures for states to use in controlling polluted runoff. The measures are designed to control runoff from six main sources: forestry, agriculture, urban areas, marinas, hydromodification (shoreline and stream channel modification), and wetlands and vegetated shorelines, or riparian areas. These measures are backed by enforceable state policies and actions—state authorities that will ensure implementation of the program.”  Thus the goal of the program is to give governments the tools and the power to regulate and prevent runoff.  Though these laws are significant achievements, the challenge to lessen runoff is still steep, and threats to coral reefs as a result of runoff are ever-present.

What goes in to the fracking fluid?

Image Courtesy Halliburton

Halliburton executive becomes the first person to drink fracking fluid.

According to many news sources, in Aug. a Halliburton executive drank fracking fluid at a keynote speech at conference presented by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Halliburton’s CEO Dave Lesar, raised a glass of fracking fluid, made from materials from the food industry, he then asked a fellow executive to show how safe the fluid was by drinking it. What this executive apparently drank is a fluid called CleanStim, which was created by Halliburton this past year.

According to Halliburton’s website, CleanStim includes an enzyme, exthoxylated sugar-based fatty acid ester, inorganic acid, inorganic salt, maltodextrin, organic acid, organic ester, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, polysaccharide polymer, and sulfonated alochol… yes these are big words. The table below better explains what each of these chemicals are, and puts them in terms we can all understand.

Image Courtesy Halliburton

In keeping with their mission to make fracking fluid more environmentally friendly, Halliburton did in fact choose common household ingredients, which seem fairly harmless. The catch is that this is not in fact the case. As a Scientific American article titled “What’s in This Fracking Water?”, points out “the CleanStim fluid system should not be considered edible.”

While Halliburton has given a general list of what’s included in fracking fluid, a study on the Department of Energy’s (DOE) website has a more comprehensive list of chemicals included in fracking fluid. These chemicals include: a friction reducer (KCl or petroleum distillate), a biocide (glutaraldehyde), an oxygen scavenger (ammonium bisulfide) or stabilizer (N,n-dimethyl formamide), to prevent corrosion of metal pipes, a surfactant, a scale inhibitor (ethylene glycol), HCl acid to remove drilling-mud damage near the borehole, a breaker (sodium chloride, a little salt never hurts), a gel (guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose), and an iron controller (2-hydroxy 1, 2, 3-propanetricaboxylic acid). These chemicals are harmful to humans, so it is good that gas companies are trying to make fracking fluid with better chemicals.

The most comprehensive list though, is in a report issue in April by the Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The report describes 750 chemicals that are used by 14 leading oil and gas service companies. According to the committee though, the report is incomplete because: “in many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to provide the Committee with a complete chemical makeup of the hydraulic fracturing fluids they used … [in] 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret.”

While it has been a practice to keep the contents of the fracking fluid a secret, things are slowly changing. Wyoming, Michigan, Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas have fracking-fluid disclosure rule. Other states, as well as Congress have proposed rules that are waiting for legislative action. More companies are also disclosing information about their fracking fluid. This website, created by the industry allows users to search for a particular well in a given country or state. While things are moving in the right direction, until the industry can do away with dangerous chemicals, hydrofracking will continue to present serious environmental problems.

Is it a Virus? Navigating the theories behind Colony Collapse Disorder

To some, it is not pesticides or fungicides, but rather viruses, and in particular the Israeli Acute Paralytic Virus, that play an important role in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). How is one to plot a course around all these differing opinions?

In this age where an abundance of information is at our fingertips, it is easy to give in to a natural desire to jump to conclusions when it comes to suggesting the causes of  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  CCD  is a complex synergistic phenomenon where a number of factors have been identified as contributing to the decline of the bee colonies.  On this point everyone in the scientific community agrees, says Renee Johnson, specialist in agricultural policy for the Congressional Research Service.   As part of my research to date, I have focused on pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, that, lacing the pollen, end up being stored in the hive, and on fungicides that wreak their havoc in the heart of the hive,  destroying the bee’s intestinal flora.   Among the other factors identified as playing a role in CCD are viruses.

Viruses behave in a similar manner whether they infect bees or humans.  According to Beeologics, an international firm that focuses on protecting bees from viruses, viruses will infect the host in a variety of manners: through varroa mite bites, through the alimentary track during feeding, or through trauma on the body.  They will spread throughout the colony either horizontally — from bee to bee, from fecal matter or infested food –, or vertically — from the queen to her eggs.  Just as in humans, viruses will strike a colony more effectively when it is weakened by stressors such as overcrowding, lack of forage diversity, pesticide-laden pollen, or the reduced genetic pool of the queen bees.  Furthermore, bad flying conditions that relegate the bees to their hive and lead them to defecate in the hive also have an effect on the spread of disease.

Honeybee with deformed wings-- Courtesy of Klaas de Gelder/ Flickr Creative Commons

Among the many viruses that affect honey bees, the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) has been given particular attention across scientific disciplines.  Given how bees and humans transmit viruses in similar ways, there has been, according to  Science News article, ” Virus Implicated in Colony Collapse Disorder in Bees,” a  “profound synergy within the [research] group bringing together entomology, microbiology, and bio-informatics.”  Closely related to the Acute Bee Paralysis Virus, IAPV, transmitted by varroa mites, is, as Beeologics points out on its website, “the most consistent  indicator of Colony Collapse Disorder.”  First identified in Israel in 2004, IAPV, as science reporter Roxanne Khamsi points out in a News scientist article, causes “bees to develop shivering wings and eventually become paralyzed, leading to death just outside the hive.”   The U.S. strain of IAPV is distinct from the Israeli one and seems to be rapidly changing and spreading throughout the U.S.

Beeologics is very involved in researching this virus.   In a phone interview on November 8, 2011, Eyal Ben-Chanoch, CEO of Beeologics, discussed the experiment his researchers had conducted  on hives to ascertain the role of IAPV in CCD:  “we were able to show in controlled trial that when we inoculate healthy hives with the virus, we get similar symptoms to CCD.  It’s not necessarily a one to one [cause and effect] because other things can do it too, but we showed that when you inoculate the virus into a healthy bee hive after very short period you get CCD-like symptoms.”

Even though the results of this scientific experiment point to the very important  role of IAPV in the decline of honey bee colonies, Ben-Chanoch stressed that this is only one small step in understanding the nuances of the issue.   In discussing the spread of the virus among bees, he underscored the complexities involved in studying infectious diseases: “[The spread of infectious diseases] is not well understood in any infectious disease.  Again, it is science in progress, but if somebody will tell you that they know, they just make statements that are irresponsible.”

Jeff Pettis, Research leader for the United States Department of Agriculture speaks about IAPV and underscores the fact that the findings concerning the correlation between IAPV and CCD are not conclusive:

In my October 27 post, I highlighted the conviction of some people in the industry that pesticides, in particular neonicotinoids, played, without a doubt, a crucial role in CCD.  Today, my research led me to viruses and in particular to IAPV which, in the view of researchers at Beeologics, for instance, play a salient role in CCD.

How are we to navigate amidst so many firm convictions?

Professor Donald Steinkraus, entomologist at the University of Arkansas, stresses the need to distinguish between speculation and science when reporting on potential causes of CCD. He hearkens back, in a phone interview with me on November 8, 2011, to the basic experimentation principles of Louis Pasteur, and in particular to the importance of testing hypotheses on randomized samples.  As a scientist he does not like to speculate:

As we continue to explore the factors possibly contributing to CCD, Donald Steinkraus reminds us that science is not a discipline of rapid solutions driven solely by passion but rather a field driven by hypotheses, data, and patient analysis.

Powerful Poisons Interact to Attack the Industrious Honey Bee

In and of themselves pesticides may not be the sole culprits of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Could understanding the synergisms between these chemicals help solve the mystery of CCD?

Beeswax Candles--Courtesy of Roberrific/Flickr Creative Commons

The snowstorm is looming. Tom Theobald, Boulder Colorado bee keeper, will retire to his honey house to watch the early winter flakes dance in the cold air.  There, he will be “doing a run of hand-dipped beeswax candles.”  After all, when the power goes out he always reverts to the work of small and industrious insects, the honey bees, whose burning wax will shed light in his cabin.  Theobald can enjoy the process of making beeswax candles and can survive the exit of the bees from his life were his colonies to continue to wane because of CCD. Commercial bee keepers, as he says, cannot–as they are the most affected economically by the decline of the bees.   While one may be able to pinpoint the role of one specific pesticide in CCD,  the mystery of CCD is intensified as the interactions between the many chemical ingredients used in 21st century American agriculture become apparent.

Theobald takes my call on November 1, 2011, just before the storm.   This time we don’t focus merely on the systemic pesticide chlothianidin, but rather discuss the complexity of synergisms, the interactions of various pesticides on the health of the hive and the bee.  Theobald confides that fungicides “only entered his consciousness just recently,”  as part of a larger investigation into neonicotinoids, nicotine-derived pesticides.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, fungi are crucial to the health of the hive.  They break down the pollen inside the hive.  As Theobald points out, fungicides disrupt the bee’s intestinal flora.  Bee bread is only a partly digested product that needs intestinal flora to be metabolized.  Fungicides, instead, “decrease the microbial diversity of the bee’s food source” according to David Doll, Farm Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension.  However, since fungicides, like pesticides, are required for a profitable crop, they become an integral element of the pollination process and therefore pose health risks to honey bees.

According to David Doll, fungicides are generally applied around or at bloom when they will adhere to the pollen. Their application during bloom should, therefore, be regulated.    Unlike Europe that errs on the side of caution, banning pesticides until they are proven not to be harmful, in the US there is, as reporter for the GMO journal Deniza Gertzberg points out, “no accurate and complete picture of what pesticides are used, where and in what amounts, or the accurate measures of just what the maximum exposure is in agricultural or urban settings on blooming plants.”

Jan Knodel, Extension Entomologist for North Dakota State University presents guidelines for reducing pesticide poisoning to bees:

As bees work the hardest during bloom, they will thus inevitably bring back the fungicide-laced pollen to the hive where they will store it to be eaten later or where it is eaten immediately, its nutritional value having been altered by the fungicides.

Theobald focuses on the fungicide boscalid in particular.  Introduced in the USA in 2003, boscalid, the active ingredient in the fungicide emerald, is a respiration inhibitor within the fungal cell.  It is highly successful in fighting fungal diseases in fruits, vegetables and grapes that are used for wine.

In the non-committal language of the EPA boscalid is “practically nontoxic to terrestrial animals and is moderately toxic to aquatic animals on an acute exposure basis.”  However, according to the PAN pesticides database,  “population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. […] certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honey bee colonies.”

A recent study by James Frazier, professor of entomology at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences highlights the magnitude of the problem of pesticides like boscalid making their way into the bee’s hives and lacing their food with poison: “on average six different pesticides, and in some cases, as many as 39 pesticides were found in hives across the United States.”   This  study focuses not on one specific pesticide but rather on the presence of multiple pesticides, in fact “98 pesticides and metabolites detected in […] bee pollen alone,” suggesting  the need for research on the synergisms between pesticides that might underlie the demise of the bees.

Theobald echoes the need for research on the potentially lethal synergisms of various pesticides on bees, as he refers to a 2010 report by the Cornell University Cooperative Extension stating the need for such studies, as “some fungicides may affect a bee’s ability to tolerate other pesticides.”

It is not only about chlothianidin.  It is not merely about boscalid.  According to Gertzberg, over 1,200 active ingredients are distributed among 18,000 products nationwide and are now integral to the honey bees’ landscape.  The complexity of the demise of the bees lies in the synergisms between these chemicals.

Polls on Hydrofracking in New York Released

New York State residents express their opinions on this controversial issue

Image courtesy: http://freethegreenmonster.com/environment/sign-stop-fracking-karoo-petition

New York State residents are divided on whether they approve of hydrofracking in the Catskills region.  According to a Sept. 21, Quinnipiac University Poll, “New York State voters support by a thin 45 – 41 percent margin drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale because they think economic benefits outweigh the environmental concerns.” Voters in upstate New York City, however, are divided on the issue with 47 percent opposed because they are more worried about the environment and 43 percent support hydrofracking.

While this poll was conducted by an independent organization, some polls are more biased.  In areas where hydrofracking is most likely to occur, there is an opposition of about two-thirds or more to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, due to the injection of chemicals and massive amounts of water into shale to extract natural gas. An Oct. 20, Pulse Opinion Research poll, shows that 72% of Delaware County residents and 69% of Sullivan County residents are against hydrofracking in their town.

In a New York Times blog post, “The Fracking Divide: Who Will Prevail in N.Y.?,” Ken Jaffe of Slope Farms Beef of Meredith, NY, commented on the Pulse Opinion Research poll saying, “The story is the overwhelming local opposition, and the plan of the governor to ally with the gas companies to act against local voters and their governments, and attempt to eviscerate local land use regulation that is guaranteed by the N.Y. State Constitution.”

By looking at more Pulse Opinion Research Data, Jaffe’s comment certainly holds true. When asked “Would you support your town enacting zoning ordinances to restrict natural gas extraction by means of hydraulic fracturing,” 69% of both Delaware and Sullivan counties said yes.

Some New Yorkers are so fed up with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s stance on fracking that they’ve signed petitions which state, “I pledge that I will never vote for Andrew Cuomo for any public office, ever, if he tries to force us to exist with hydrofracking in New York.” While this may seem harsh, many New Yorkers fully support this point of view. One Change.org petition, titled “Cuomo Pledge” takes on this position with 473 out of their goal of 10,000 signatures. On this website, those who sign the petition can explain their reasoning. One particularly troubled New Yorker, Mary Sweeney, stated her very strong opinion:

Gov. Cuomo says he wants to base the fracking decision on science, not emotion or politics. But there has been no study of the cumulative environmental and economic effects of drilling and fracking the tens of thousands of shale gas wells that are projected to be constructed in NY. Even more shocking, despite reports of numerous health problems at drilling and fracking sites around the country, there has been no comprehensive study of the health effects of shale gas extraction. So if Gov. Cuomo allows hydrofracking in NY, he will be making guinea pigs of everyone who lives in a fracking area or downwind of a fracking area or who drinks water from a fracking area. Is this the sort of leadership we want? Please, Gov. Cuomo–stay true to your word and base this decision on science, not politics.

With these opinions in mind, it is no wonder that this is hotly debated issue in New York State.

Accounting for his Losses in Colorado: A Honey Farmer Looks to Neonicotinoids

According to Tom Theobald, a Boulder Colorado bee keeper, chlothianidin is causing the decline of bee colonies. How and when did the bees get poisoned?

“These neonicotinoids are huge.  This is the insecticidal equivalent of plutonium,” said Tom Theobald, in a phone interview on October 26, 2011.  In my last blog post, I asked whether chlothianidin was responsible for CCD.  To some, to Tom Theobald, there is no doubt.

Long before CCD became a national story in 2006, Tom Theobald had been experiencing unusual losses among his honey bee colonies.  As early as the winter of 1995, with the appearance of the varroa mites, the Colorado bee keeper’s colonies had suffered serious declines, their hives being abandoned, teeming with honey that other bees failed to forage.  The varroa mite was considered the culprit at the time.  As its impact diminished, the winter losses, however, continued to escalate.  This escalation coincided, in Theobald’s view, with the introduction of the pesticide Imidachloprid.

Imidacloprid, first registered for use in the US by the EPA in 1994 and banned in France  since 2004, in Germany and Italy since 2008 , is a neonicotinoid that systematically penetrates the plant and is used to control sucking and chewing insects.  It penetrates the insect’s nervous system, blocking its neural pathway that, in insects, is more abundant than in warm-blooded animals.  The insect that sucks on the treated crop will become paralysed and die.  Imidacloprid is in fact known to be highly toxic to bees.   In 2003, when its patent ran out, it was replaced by another neonicotinoid, chlothianidin.

On his Colorado honey farm, Tom Theobald set out like Sherlock Holmes to try to explore the mystery of his disappearing bees.   His colonies had ended the summer strong: “the brood nest was the size of a basketball.”  Yet somehow, by October, the brood nest had suffered a precipitous decline in size – “it had become the size of a softball.”  The colony of 30,000 bees had declined to 3,000.  Puzzled by this decline and given the absence of varroa mites, he figured that the queen must have either stopped laying, stopped laying viable brood, or that the larvae were dying.  This period in the fall, when the colony is producing the winter brood, is a crucial one: there must be a critical mass of bees to protect the colony, to serve as the outer layer, the “sacrificial blanket” as it were of the hive that keeps the dormant bees warm throughout the cold winter months.  With the break in the brood cycle, there was no winter layer and the colonies simply collapsed.

Bee colonies--Courtesy of Avalanche Looms/Flickr Creative Commons

Why this sudden arrest in procreative activity?  Theobald looked over to the surrounding corn fields.  The corn pollen contained the neonicotinoid chlothianidin known to compromise the fertility of the queen and the viability of the brood, as explained in the PAN pesticides Database: “Population-level effects on honeybees may occur even if a pesticide has low acute toxicity. For example, certain pesticides interfere with honeybee reproduction, ability to navigate, or temperature regulation, any of which can have an effect on long-term survival of honeybee colonies. The neonicotinoids, pyrethroids and keto-enol pesticides are some types of pesticides causing one or more of these effects.”

The bees, Theobald explained in his interview, will store pollen and not use it as long as there is fresh pollen available.  Thus the pesticide-laden corn pollen culled in the summer got “stored in the pantry” until the supply of fresh pollen ran out.  At that point, around October, the neonicotinoid of the stored pollen attacked the queen’s reproductive system. 

When the summer bees die, having worked themselves to death, winter bees normally replace them.  Now Theobald’s summer bees had died and there were no winter bees to take over and repopulate the colony.

Chlothianidin will enter its tenth year on the market and it has yet to meet the requirements of registration.  When chlothianidin was approved in 2003, there was no pressing insect scourge, Theobald points out, that required immediate approval of the pesticide.  What was running out was Bayer‘s, the manufacturing company’s, patent for Imidacloprid.  So today, as he says, “we are subjected to all this damage not to protect the world against an insect but to protect Bayer’s market share.”

"We want bees, not toxic chemicals"--Courtesy of Avaazorg/Flickr Creative Commons

Given the risks and the damages, is there then any advantage to the use of these neonicotinoids? No.   Not only is it killing the bees, according to Theobald, but it is poisoning the soil: “If you are a farmer and you get on this boat, what does your soil look like in five years?  You don’t have soil.  You have real estate.”  As chlothianidin has a half life of nineteen years, it takes over 100 years for the soil to purge itself of the chemical.  While the effect on the bees’ neural receptors is cumulative and irreversible, Theobald admonishes “it goes way beyond the bees.”

Water contamination due to hydrofracking in Pennsylvania

According to Environmental Protection Agency study, dangers to environmental and public health caused by hydrofracking wastewater are greater than previously expected

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling Tower: Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

While hydrofracking using the horizontal drilling method, is currently banned in New York, other states, including Pennsylvania, currently use this method to drill for natural gas. Hydrofracking can create major environmental and health problems. These known risks provide a justification to the fears of environmentalists in New York.

Scientists believe that natural gas is better for the environment than burning coal and oil, yet they fear that this new technique for natural gas drilling will harm public health and the environment.  During the process of of hydrofracking, millions of gallons of water laced with dangerous chemicals are injected into rock formations. This creates chemically infused wastewater, which environmentalists believe will eventually contaminate drinking water.

The New York Times uncovered confidential Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents, which show that the wastewater being brought to plants has a higher radioactivity than federal regulators believe is safe for these plants to treat effectively. These same documents also show that treatment plants, discharge tainted wastewater into rivers that supply drinking water.

Studies were also found by The New York Times that show that the radioactivity in waste discharged by treatment plants, will never fully dilute in waterways. This water is radioactive because many plants fail to test for radioactivity before discharging the wastewater. The EPA knows this is happening, but hasn’t done anything to fix this problem. With about 71,000 active gas wells, wastewater contamination is a major problem in Pennsylvania. Tests have shown, that the radioactivity in the discharged wastewater can be between hundreds or thousands of times the maximum allowed federal standard for drinking water.

Gas Wells in Colorado Photo Courtesy The New York Times article, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers"

In 2008 and 2009, about half of the waste created by hydrofracking was taken to sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania. Additionally, some of the untreated wastewater has been sent to other states including New York and West Virginia to be treated. Due to the treatment plants’ inability to remove radioactive substances in wastewater before the water is discharged into rivers, which eventually flow to other states and can cause their water to become contaminated.

While the EPA has certainly been concerned about the water quality, they aren’t the only environmental group that’s worried. Experts in Pennsylvania believe that natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, but would like to see it harvested in a more environmentally friendly and healthier way. In a New York Times article titled, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers,” John H. Quigley, former Secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conversation and Natural Resources, stated, “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

Oil is the Color or my Skin

Oil and Cultural genocide

“We grew maize beans, rice. We built our homes communally. We built a health center, a room for meetings, a little school, two houses to train health promoters, and a communal kitchen for gatherings. We had three launches, two with motors; and an electric plant that functioned from 6 to 9 PM and for two hours during the day it provided refrigeration in the communal store…the little we had we had achieved with many years of work and sacrifice. The work in the jungle is very hard. Now we had to abandon all that was our life…because of the persecution and killings that the soldiers carry out; they attack us as if we were at war” Reginaldo Aguilar

Why must you take everything for oil?

This week I am going to take you to Consuelo and El Arbolito Peten, Guatemala. A place that was once highly populated with indigenous populations now remains a ghost town with little communities left. Entire populations were ravished of their lands after the discovery of nickel and oil in the area in 1976. Before this no one paid much attention to these communities. They were referred to as the “selva” or in English “the jungle”. The selva was a place where the uncivilized Garifuna and Maya indigenous communities lived, now it is dominated by oil reserves.

Guatemala is located on an old geological belt where 75% of the world’s oil reserves can be found. In 1981 President Lucas Garcia announced that the government had granted permission to allow the extraction of 8,000 barrels per day. A 10-inch pipeline was built eastward to the Atlantic coast, which transports the oil. In the first six months Guatemala oil exports totaled 390,000 barrels. Oil reserves in Guatemala have been compared to those of Alaska.

According to Oil watch Mesoamerica, Guatemala is a place where there are a poorly hidden black markets for buying and selling oil. The oil companies that established themselves in Guatemala include Guatemala Limited, Compañía General de Combustibles, Petro Latina Guatemala Corp. (Peten) and Petro Energy S.A, all work under complimentary conditions. These oil companies have very little environmental or governmental regulation. Perenco, is an independent Anglo-French oil and gas company with a headquarters in London. This company has greatly distinguishes itself from the rest of the group, with policies that upholds an environmental friendly business that focuses on sustainable development. As quoted directly from Perenco website “wherever we operate, every effort is made to improve the quality of life while preserving traditional cultures and values”. However, what they forgot to include is the fact that they support their own monopoly by owning 98% of the concessions in Guatemala, they have widespread political power, and have participated in oil and cultural genocide in the western part of Petén. Induced by a plan to start oil development and in the process wipe out indigenous populations in the way. Does this seem environmental friendly to you?

To date there has been more that 70,000 Guatemalans who seek asylum in Mexico and other part of Central America. This was the after the Guatemalan government’s plan to develop the country in 1976, involved indigenous people being kicked off of their of their land. After oil was discovered in their areas, land values significantly increased. Not only because of the oil, but because an infrastructure of roads (most importantly the main east/west road), communication networks, and hydroelectric power plants have connected this one-time impenetrable area to the rest of the country. In addition a $30 million airport, all became apart of the governments plan.

However, many places like the indigenous in Peten stood in the way by refusing to give up their land to oil companies. Instead they were handled with force by the Guatemalan military, which were backed by oil companies and recieved $85 million dollars of militant support from the United States. The objective was to use fear tactics or do whatever necessary to occupy the territory. Many indigenous people were tortured and even killed by the military. Over 1,901 people from 19 communities had sought refuge in Mexico after battling the dense jungle and crossing the Usumacinta River, which separates the countries. They left their homes and life behind them. The government got what they wanted and as the people fled oil production began.

Today the indigenous communities continue to battle with oil companies. Recently, in September 2010. Perenco condemned the lack of consultation with the 37 settlements located in Laguna del Tigre about Perenco’s extension, a procedure that is called for by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Perenco’s plans consist of extending oil refines and having their own protected pieces of land. Most of the land Perenco wants is called Laguna del Tigre, which is the home to many indigenous and peasant populations. The oil company has already paid off the government officials to evict the people from their homes.

Perenco argument is that they have a right to evict these communities, which are in protected areas that they own. The indigenous communities refuse to go and claim that “the government established the Protected Areas law—without informing nor consulting us.” “Now we are not even allowed to participate as a population, or even just communities, in the administration and development of these protected areas, something, which the same law is supposed to allow for. The only option it gives us is to abandon our land.” This is proof of Pereco’s political abilities to sway the government in getting what they want.

The Guatemalans in Laguna del Tigre are aware that standing their ground comes with a price. Countless of the bloody deeds have already been carried out by “Perenco’s hit men”—as Robert Arias called them in 2006 in his La Hora column, after the murder of Mayco Jonatán García—against those who have denounced the company. The oil companies always wins and still many indigenous people remain displaced from the land that their people have owned for centuries. For Guatemala cultural genocide is a reality of the past and it continues to haunt them in the future. In Guatemala there is a saying “el petróleo es como sangre”. This mean is oil is the same as blood.