Category Archives: pollution

Karst Topography and the Buffalo National River

In August 2012 a hog factory with as many as 6500 hogs was permitted by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The permitting process employed what is called a Regulation 6 General Permit. In itself this is somewhat unusual as Reg 6 is usually applied to things like wastewater treatment facilities, or construction sites with concerns for managing storm water run-off. There are two types of Reg 6, individual and general. The permit used in this case was the general permit – it has no location or site specific considerations. Along with the general permit is a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) that allows for the dispersal of agricultural wastes,in this case liquid pig manure, in a fashion which shouldn’t burden the soils with nutrients in excess of what can be absorbed on designated fields.

The problem is that this particular factory is sited on a Mount Judea, AR location on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo National River. If hog manure is spread on the land in excess of the amount that the grasses can absorb, there may be nutrient pollution of Big Creek and and the Buffalo.

In August of 2013 Governor Beebe allocated several hundred thousand dollars to fund a research effort to examine the risk of pollution to the Buffalo. Professor Andrew Sharpley University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture is leading what is called the Big Creek Research and Extension Team (BCRET)

In April 2014 the Pollution Control and Ecology (PC&E) Commission began a moratorium on any new medium to large hog operations (Confined Animal feeding Operations – CAFO.) The data is mixed as to whether pollutants are running off the hay fields where the manure is spread and into Big Creek, then down to the Buffalo.

An important and confounding feature of this hog factory is that the local topography appears to be underlain by karst, a particularly porous limestone that is prone to sink holes, caves and springs. Water and anything in it will move rather rapidly through the subsurface terrain and contaminate locales distant from the site.

Two types of studies have been conducted that confirm the karst. Dr Van Brahana, emeritus Professor of Hydrogeology University of Arkansas, has done dye tracing in the area. He and his coworkers bore a hole in the ground, add a specific dye solution and then monitor the surrounding aquifers for presence of the dye. Dye added in close proximity to the farm spray fields resulted in detection of the dye in 44 remote sites, 14 of which were in caves and springs near the river and 3 in the Buffalo itself.

Professor Todd Halihan, Professor of Hydrogeology Oklahoma State University, utilized another technique to test for the presence of karst. He employed Electrical Resistivity Imaging (ERI) across several transects very close to the ponds holding millions of gallons of liquid hog wastes. He found not just porosity but what he believes to be a major fault which is allowing movement of wastes into the subterranian aquifers, confirming Brhana’s dye studies.

Sadly neither of these studies were conducted by the BCRET, and hence have been ignored by the ADEQ and the PC&E commission which oversees the ADEQ.

EPA Rules and Regulations

The 1960s saw much turmoil, but one positive feature was the growing awareness of the need to protect the environment. Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, was published in 1962 and brought an awareness of the damaging effects of the use of persistent pesticides. Other dramatic events during previous decades such as fogs comprised of sulfuric acid killed people. This occurred when an inversion layer trapped the stagnant air.

In 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland OH caught on fire, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to a couple of bridges. The fire was a result of pollution from oil and other flammable factory wastes – and this wasn’t the first time.

The growing concern of the public, youth activism, and the first Earth Day forced the hand of President Nixon. Previously protection of the environment was spread over several agencies, but mainly the Health, Education, and Welfare Department’s National Air Pollution Control Administration and the Interior Department’s Federal Water Quality Administration. The programs were combined with the creation of a new cabinet department, the Environmental Protection Agency.

Existing laws concerning water were amended and strengthened and became the Clean Water Act of 1972. The act established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States. And it is not static but rather dynamic, being amended as sound science influenced policy. Changes have met with controversy.

Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 had left unclear just what the “waters of the United States” mean, so the EPA and Corps of Engineers collaborated on the Clean Water Rule which more clearly defines just what waters will be subject to regulation. The ultimate goal is to protect drinking water. Agricultural, and industrial concerns have called the rule overreach and in fact Attorney General Leslie Rutledge has sued to block the implementation here in Arkansas.

Similarly the Clean Air Act has existed since 1963 but has been amended several times as needed to protect the air we all depend on. Toxic emissions that resulted in acid rain, and levels of heavy metals that can cause nerve damage and especially brain damage (Mercury, Cadmium, Lead) have been lowered in the environment.

The EPA has been studying haze (smog) in National Parks and Wilderness Areas since 1988. In 1999 they began an ambitious program to work with states to clear the air. The haze is due mainly to power plant emissions of fine particulates. The Regional Haze Rule however has been delayed to the point that recently The Sierra Club has sued the EPA for failing to implement a plan in conjunction with the state of Arkansas. [disclosure: I am an officer in the Arkansas Chapter of the Sierra Club]

Another contentious feature of clean air results from Bush’s EPA declaring Carbon Dioxide a pollutant in 2006. Much litigation later, President Obama has sought the Clean Power Plan, meant to reduce CO2 emissions by 32% by 2030. Both the Regional Haze Rule and the Clean Power Plan are being vigorously opposed by our Attorney General as being too costly.

As the population continues to grow, our regulatory structure must meet the demand of more pressure on clean air and clean water. We are the problem, and we have to be the solution.

Animas River Spill

Colorado has an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines, going back to the time of the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1850. The history of mining in Colorado is written in the names of some towns: Anaconda named after a Copper mining company, Bonanza, Gold Hill, Silver Plume, Eureka, Telluride after a salt of the element Tellerium, Silverton, Leadville, and Placerville.

The majority of the abandoned mines present little problem but several hundred around Colorado are filled with water and a mix of various metals that are frequently found in association with more valuable precious metals. Some are not so serious such as Iron and Copper, but others are a danger to human health and the biosphere in general. They include Mercury, Cadmium, Lead, and Arsenic. These exist in the main as relatively insoluble salts. In bodies of water they are found in the silt at the bottom, slowly moving from there into the bodies of the benthic organisms and up the food chain. In rivers they can be mobilized during high flow events and moved down steam.

Given their numbers, it’s not surprising that there are occasional “spills” of these wastes. The most recent case is the 3 million gallon spill that occurred when a contractor working for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally breached a dike that held back waste and allowed it flow into the Animas River.

It is sad that a remediation effort results in a spill, but it is the price the tax payer must assume now for not acting sooner to prevent the abandonment of the mines. The problem dates back to an 1872 law governing mining on public land. It allows essentially unfettered access to mine for metals without any payment of royalties or environmental standards.

The government has the authority to require bonds to insure cleanup, but the rate is so low as to be ineffective. Currently the EPA spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year to clean up the toxic wastes left behind from previous mining operations. The government accountability office estimates that upwards of 70 billion dollars would be required to clean up the abandoned mines in the western states.

Legislation has been proposed to address the issue over the last few years, most recently Representative Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. has introduced legislation which would modernize the mining law by requiring a 7 cent per ton fee on rock mined. The proceeds from this would be used in the reclamation of mined land. This proposal is called The Hardrock Mining Reform and Reclamation Act of 2015 (HR963).

This and similar recent legislation has gone nowhere as the mining companies have lobbied long and hard to avoid any responsibility for cleaning up after themselves. Will the current attention to the pollution of the Animas, and downstream San Juan and Colorado rivers get the attention of the public? Just what will it take for us to recognize that we have look over the shoulders of industry and hold them accountable for their actions?

A mine is a hole in the ground, owned by a liar. Mark Twain

gyres

Our Planet – Our Toilet

Out in the North Pacific Ocean is a region of doldrums. To the north the prevailing winds blow from east to west, below this region from west to east. The winds drive currents and the result is the North Pacific Gyre. This is essentially a slow motion whirlpool that traps the flotsam and jetsam of the planet. There are other ocean gyres.

The northern gyre, two or three times the size of Texas, contains over a 100 million tonnes of trash, almost entirely non-degradable plastic. There are regions of compact “islands” of trash and other areas where the trash is more dispersed.

ocean gyre "island"

ocean gyre “island”

This just not the wastes from ships in the region but rather the accumulated wastes that wash into the oceans from around the world. A plastic bag that blows out of the back of a pick-up in Montana can make its way through the Columbia river watershed to the coast. There the currents deliver the trash to the gyre.

The rafts of plastic in the gyre have created a whole new toxic environment in the middle of the ocean. Millions of seabird die annually from consumption of indigestible plastic. Hundreds of thousands of sea mammals and turtles die just from being entrapped in the waste.

death by plastic

death by plastic

A unique and troublesome type of plastic waste making its way to the seas are called microbeads. These are tiny tiny beads of plastic that are used in a number of cosmetic products and soaps as scrubbing agents or exfoliants. They are small enough to be taken up in diatoms, and then up the food chain.

microbead exfoliant

microbead exfoliant

Because of certain chemical properties they act like magnets to absorb toxic materials such as pesticides. When ocean fish or crabs, clams, etc. accumulate the beads via the food chain they have the potential of returning these toxins to our dinner table!

The very properties that make plastic attractive in modern society, lightweight, durable and inexpensive is coming back to haunt us. We are drowning in a sea of plastic wastes. What are we to do? We have trash collection and recycling across the country but obviously we are not doing enough.

Strengthening litter laws or recycling rules will help but what is really needed is a completely different way of doing things. Some communities are beginning to take small steps. Cities have enacted laws to charge a small fee for the use of disposable bags at checkout, say a nickel a bag. This is not an onerous fee but it is enough to make people think. California just passed an outright ban on disposable checkout bags.

We have to change the we we do business. The ubiquitous blister packing has to go. All plastic involved in packing has to go. Microbeads, out! This list goes on and on. There will have to be a new business ethic to clean up the planet or laws to the same effect.

We have a chance of surviving our own wastes without “murdering “ the rest of the planet but we have to change our ways. We have to stop filling the atmosphere with waste gases that are dangerously warming the earth, and we have to stop filling the oceans with our non-degradable solid waste.

Buffalo National River and a hog factory

A coalition of four environmental groups have joined together to try to stop pollution of the Nation’s first federally protected river. Although the Buffalo National River park boundary is only a narrow strip of land a scant mile or less on either side of the river, the watershed that drains into the Buffalo is several thousand miles.

A Hog factory was permitted by a previously unused process that allowed for scant public notification. The park service and several other agencies were unaware of the plan to house 6,300 hogs in the watershed. Although the park service can’t control the watershed, they should certainly have some input. They didn’t.

C & H Hog Farm is in the watershed on Big Creek about six miles upstream from the Buffalo, but outside the park boundary. The farm is described by an ecologist for the National Park as the largest hog operation in the state. Disposal of the hog feces and urine is by land application to several hundred acres of hay fields bordering Big Creek and very near the Mount Judea Public Schools. The total volume of waste is on the order of 2 to 4 million gallons per year.

It is not a question of if but when these pollutants make their way to the river. It is not a matter of if but the amount of nutrients such as Nitrogen and Phosphorous which will pollute the Buffalo. The nutrients will cause algal blooms that can kill fish and other aquatic organisms.

algal bloom

algal bloom

It is only a matter of time until bacteria from the pigs contaminates the Buffalo and possibly causes it to be closed to human contact.

Cargill, in direct meetings with representatives of the coalition, essentially admitted that it was a mistake to locate the factory farm there. It currently has a multi-year contract to buy the hogs produced at the factory. Cargill assured the coalition that it would take several steps in mitigation but would not close nor relocate the operation.

Currently the holding lagoons are only lined with clay which is prone to crack and leak.

hog waste lagoon

hog waste lagoon

The problem is exacerbated by the porous limestone topography. Cargill has promised to line the lagoons with a synthetic liner. It also promised to cover one of the lagoons which is a source of toxic gasses such as Ammonia and Hydrogen Sulfide. The collected gasses would be flared off, creating a whole new set of gaseous pollutants.

Cargill has also promised to examine the use of Plasma Arc Pyrolysis to deal with the feces and urine, rather than land apply the waste. This will require running close to a 100,000 lbs per day of liquid wastes between two arcing electrodes in an inert atmosphere like Argon. All water would be vaporized and all solid wastes converted to a type of char similar to charcoal. If the process is run as described, the electric bill alone will run to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year.

This process has been used previously on dry medical wastes, but never on liquid wastes nor on this scale. It could be a dangerous process which would best be tested outside the watershed and away from the public school.

Nutrient Pollution is Number One

One generally needn’t go to a dictionary to understand the meaning of the word pollutant, it’s something that doesn’t belong in the air or the water or wherever and may have harmful effects.

A first thought of a water pollutant is usually an industrial chemical spill. A good example of this was the leak from Freedom Industries chemical storage facility in West Virginia. The spill polluted the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people. Ironically the chemical, methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), was used to “clean” coal.

Fossil fuels or there byproducts are also a major water pollutant. Duke Energy in North Carolina burns a lot of coal. The waste coal ash is stored in ponds. A breach of two ponds allowed a toxic brew of heavy metals to coat over 70 miles of the Dan River.

Right here in Arkansas an ExxonMobil oil pipeline flooded a quarter of a million gallons of a substance called diluted bitumen (dilbit.) This is a particularly toxic mixture of a solvent and tar.

The granddaddy of all spills, at least is recent history, was the blowout of a British Petroleum well in the Gulf. There, close to a quarter of a billion gallons of crude oil was released and fouled wetlands and beaches for hundreds of miles from Louisiana to Florida.

Another type of water pollutant is a set of chemical compounds which are referred to as Endocrine Disruptors. The substances can cause bizarre effects in fish and have the possibility to affect humans. Many male black bass in the Potomac River were found to actually be feminized males which were developing immature eggs. The source of the pollutant in this case was the metabolites of human pharmaceutical drugs coming from sewage treatment plants.

algae

algae

The total amount of these pollutants – fossil fuels, industrial chemicals, and wastes of all kinds – pale in comparison to the most common pollutant, nutrients. Nitrogen and Phosphorous, in the forms of their salts Nitrate and Phosphate are polluting fresh water around the globe. Even ocean estuaries are negatively impacted.

Nitrogen and phosphorous are referred to as limiting nutrients, plants don’t grow without them. Excessive amounts in both fresh and salt water cause excessive growth called algal blooms. After time the algae die off. As they decompose they consume oxygen in the water which can smother fish and other aquatic species.

A region near the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico is hypoxic, meaning extremely low in dissolved Oxygen. The size of this dead zone varies from year to year but has been as large as 10,000 square miles.

Gulf dead zone

Gulf dead zone

The Buffalo National River is now threatened with its own dead zone. Cargill, America’s largest privately held corporation supplies swine to an industrial hog farm in the watershed of the Buffalo. Up to 6,300 hogs are confined in two buildings just a stone’s throw from Big Creek which flows a scant 6 miles to the Buffalo.

Over 2 million gallons a year of hog feces, laden with Nitrogen and Phosphorous, are spread over a few hundred acres of hay fields. It is not a matter of if but when these nutrients begin to pollute America’s first national river.

Pollutant Emissions and Efficiency

The answer to the question in the real estate business about property is always “location location location.” Similarly, the answer to the energy utilization question is always “efficiency, efficiency, efficiency.”

Dr. Amory Lovins, a physicist and energy guru coined a term for it called the “negawatt.” A negawatt as opposed to a kilowatt is the energy you don’t use by being more efficient. Negawatts save rather than cost money, yet still provide the same service to a homeowner.

So why all this talk about negawatts and efficiency? The Public Service Commission (PSC) here in Arkansas will soon have to address new regulations, promulgated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) intended to reduce the harmful effects of power plant emissions.

These rules will impact coal fired power plants most directly, and rightfully so. Burning coal for electricity generation releases the largest share of pollutants from any of the possible fossil fuels. For a given amount of energy produced, burning coal produces more Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur and Nitrogen Oxides, heavy metals, fine particulates, etc – all serious pollutants.

You might ask that if we throttle back the burning of coal and coal is cheap, then our cost for electricity production is going to go up. Not necessarily for two important reasons. First, the cost you see on your electric bill is only part of total cost.

The cost of impaired health due to exposure to the aforementioned pollutants is real but not accounted for. Likewise, the cost of environmental degradation from global warming is real. The cost of political instability due to global warming induced climate change is real. The Less coal we burn, the lower are these external costs born by society.

So how do we contain the directs costs? The second step is demand side management. Now we’re back to negawatts. The new EPA regulations call for lowering carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. We need to achieve about a 2% reduction per year to meet the standard. It shouldn’t be difficult to achieve this goal through efficiency improvements alone.

Nobody really cares how many kilowatt-hours they use, what they care about is having a warm in the winter, cool in the summer, well lit home. The less energy you need to achieve that goal, the lower will be the electric bill. A very cheap step is to check that ALL incandescent lights have been replaced by compact fluorescent bulbs, or even better now, Light Emitting Diodes.

philips-led-light-bulb

philips-led-light-bulb

Consider adding some solar panels to produce energy and lower the electric bill. The cost of PV systems has decreased drastically, 60% in just the last two years!

Check the attic to see if more insulation is in order. How old is your HVAC system? Newer equipment is much more efficient. If you have an older Heat Pump, newer is better, i.e. more efficient. Or consider a ground source heat pump which is much, much more efficient.

ground-source-heat-pump

ground-source-heat-pump

Some of these these efficiency upgrades can be expensive, but recent legislation can help. Most notable is the PACE law. The Property Assessed Clean Energy bill allows cities and/or counties to form Energy Improvement Districts which have the authority to assist homeowners to make improvements, the cost of which is then added to the property taxes at such a rate that the increase in property taxes is matched by a corresponding decrease is energy costs.

Efficiency, Efficiency, EFFICIENCY.

tesla

Electric Cars’ Carbon Footprint

It seems inevitable that we will learn that burning stuff is not the best way to create the energy, the motive force, the warmth and the light we need for modern existence. Ultimately we will. Until then just what havoc we will wreak on the environment and our personal health is anybody’s question.

Combustion of fossil fuels produces numerous atmospheric pollutants directly harmful to health including respirable particulates, Carbon Monoxide, and Ozone. There are certainly more but just these three contribute mightily to lung and heart disease. The amounts of the various pollutants vary by source. Natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel followed by oil derived products such as gasoline and diesel. Coal is the dirtiest fuel. Burning coal releases not only the products of carbon combustion but also a slew of impurities. Toxic heavy metals top the list- Mercury, Cadmium, and Lead. To complete the picture sulfuric acid and nitric acid are released which cause acid rain.

100  year old electric car

100 year old electric car

Burning fossil fuels also produces Carbon Dioxide, the major global pollutant. The US supreme court ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority and in fact duty to regulate it as a pollutant.

An obvious step to get away from fossil fuels is the use of electric cars powered by batteries charged from wind and solar power sources. But which comes first, the cars or the wind turbines? Actually some cars are already in production, including the Chevy Volt and Nissan leaf. The batteries in these cars can be charged by plugging a connector into an electrical outlet.

Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt

Many have questioned the use of an electric car if the electricity used to charge the batteries comes from the electrical grid which is powered mainly by fossil fuels. The grid is powered by 37 per cent coal, 30 percent natural gas, a scant 1% oil and the remainder from nuclear and renewables. Part of the energy used in an electric car does come from burning stuff, which is not good. But so does the car with the internal combustion engine.

The question then is which has the greater Carbon footprint? Internal combustion engines have been in use and incrementally improved for close to a century, yet only 20 percent of the energy in the fuel goes to move the car down the road. The rest goes to waste heat.

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

Electric motors have been around for quite a while too, but are much more efficient, around 90 percent efficient at converting the energy stored in a battery into moving the car down the road. A complete analysis shows that the carbon footprint of an electric car is lower than a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle, mainly do to the relative efficiencies.

Battery technology is major factor holding back the real penetration of electric cars in the market. The issue is one of energy density and cost. The amount of energy that can be stored in a battery of a given weight has been a problem. Tesla, an electric car company, is developing a battery manufacturing facility that should both lower costs and extend the range of Lithium Ion batteries for electric cars.

Waste to Fuel

Most transportation be it personal or commercial depends on liquid fuels. The availability of liquid fossil fuels is decreasing and the cost is rising, Our dependence on these transportation fuels will continue until batteries and the electrical grid are greatly improved.

The only current alternative to fossil fuel is biofuel, ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soy beans. Ethanol makes up a scant two percent of our liquid fuel needs, biodiesel less than that. The figure is even lower than that when you account for the fossil fuel energy inputs to the production of biofuels. We won’t see row crop biofuels making up a larger share of our fuel needs because of the negative environmental impacts and the fact that biofuels production drives up food prices.

fueling up

fueling up

Another source of biofuel could be to waste to fuel plants. There are already plants which burn garbage (solid waste) for the generation of electricity, consuming about fifteen percent of all solid waste. Although this does produce energy and reduce the need for landfills, it doesn’t help with transportation needs. There are also concerns about the environmental and health impacts of the combustion products.

Liquid fuels such as methanol and ethanol can be produced from solid waste but currently the process is less efficient and more costly. Solid waste consists mainly of cellulose from various plant products and fossil fuel derived items like tires and plastic. Other unexploited sources of feedstocks are agricultural wastes from farming and timber harvesting. Even grass clippings and leaves could be utilized.

These materials when heated to high temperatures produce a mixture of gasses. The gasses can be chemically manipulated with catalysts and turned into methanol. Another methodology utilizes just the cellulose component. The materials are treated with sulfuric acid to release the sugar which is then fermented by traditional methods to produce ethanol. Japan is currently using this technology to produce ethanol for blending with gasoline.

A model system for waste to fuel would look something like a plant sited near a current landfill. Municipal solid waste, agricultural wastes, and suburban wastes would all be brought to the processing plant where the materials would be separated . Materials which are unusable wold still be land filled. Process heat for the plant would be provided to a degree by burning methane captured from the landfill.

So how much fuel can we expect to get? Estimates vary wildly. How much useful waste can be collected, how much energy will be consumed in the process, and the efficiency of the conversion process are just some of the confounding variables. Estimates range from a few percent up to as much as thirty percent of our liquid fuel needs.

waste fry-o-lator oil to biodiesel processing equipment

waste fry-o-lator oil to biodiesel processing equipment

The biggest problem with waste to fuel strategies is the resource base. The best way to contain the rising cost of any and all fuels is to become more efficient. The easiest way to be more efficient is to reduce waste. That means a diminishing resource base. This may not be a business model that many will wish to pursue.

The only long term solution to our energy needs, regardless source or form is to use a lot less and produce what we need sustainably. We have to learn to live within our means.

exxon valdez oil

Oil Spill Du Jour

This week connects several events. The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the first anniversary of the Pegasus pipeline rupture in Mayflower Arkansas, and a brand spanking new oil spill in the Houston Shipping Channel of coastal Texas.

On March 24th, just after midnight the Exxon Valdez, loaded with over 50 million gallons of crude oil steamed out of Prince William Sound. Before the supertanker cleared the sound however, the ship collided with a reef which tore open the single walled hull releasing about 20 million gallons of crude oil. Twenty five years later oil can be found under rocks around the beach of the sound.

Exxon Valdez attempted cleanup

Exxon Valdez attempted cleanup


In a very short time hundreds of thousands of seabirds, thousands of sea otters, hundreds of sea lions and whales, and even 47 bald eagles were killed. A robust herring fishery has yet to recover. Damage to the local economy was devastating. Bankruptcies of both businesses and individuals shot up, and many families had to leave their ancestral communities for lack of jobs.

On March 29th an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured and began spewing crude oil into the yards and streets of Mayflower Arkansas. The estimated quarter of a million gallons of crude, actually a substance known as dilbit, came from the Tar Sands of Alberta Canada. It is a mixture of tarry crude oil known as bitumen and and a diluent of lighter hydrocarbons, hence the name dilbit. Over a score of homes were evacuated. The dibit ran down the streets and intimately into Lake Conway. The pipeline has been closed and my not be reopened due to it’s passage through sensitive areas such as the Lake Maumelle Watershed.

Mayflower, AR

Mayflower, AR

On March 22nd a barge tow was struck by another vessel, releasing just under a quarter million gallons of a material know as bunker fuel – essentially heavy crude oil. The material is so viscous that it requires heating to flow threw fuel lines to burn in ship’s engines. Because of the spill, one of the busiest shipping lanes in north America was closed. This shut down oil refineries that produce over ten per cent of the oil refined in the United States.

Oil covered Shore Bird

Oil covered Shore Bird

So what connects the events besides late March? Human error. Every one of these events were due to multiple errors. Double walled hulls on the Exxon Valdez, and better navigation could have prevented the disaster in Alaska. The closure of the Houston shipping channel could have been avoided by better management of shippers involved. The ship which collided with the barge was already under probation for other problems. Replacement of aging pipelines and more frequent inspections could have prevented the Mayflower spill.

There are over 20,000 oil spills reported annually to the EPA. Some are minor and some not so minor, but they point out just how common the events are. In aggregate the economic and personal losses are large and generally unaccounted for when we look at the price of fossil fuels. The level of collateral damage we are willing to accept to avoid changing our lifestyle is staggering.