Feb. 11, 2010 by Catherine O'Neill

EPA Chides Polluters for Downplaying Risk From Portland Harbor Superfund Site; Still, Must Honor Fishing Tribes' Rights

In a welcome move, EPA recently took polluters to task for their attempt to downplay the risks to human health and the environment from the Portland Harbor superfund site along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon (h/t Oregonian for noting the EPA action). As part of the cleanup effort for the site, the polluters, known as the Lower Willamette Group (LWG), had agreed to conduct an assessment of the risks posed by the contaminants there. This risk assessment will serve as the basis for determining vital questions about cleanup at the site, including the degree to which the contaminants will be remediated and the extent to which health risks will actually be reduced. Because the members of the LWG will likely have to foot much of the cleanup bill, it's unsurprising that they sought to lowball the risks to humans and the environment: the lower the risks at a site, the less expansive – and less expensive – a cleanup is likely to be. Any such tendencies are meant to be kept in check by the EPA however, which oversees LWG’s risk assessment and, in the end, sets the standards for the Portland Harbor site. To its credit, EPA …

Oct. 26, 2009 by Catherine O'Neill

Three recent developments in the saga of efforts to regulate mercury emissions from coal-fired utilities are significant. Early last week, Michigan became the twenty-third state to require coal-fired utilities within its jurisdiction to reduce their mercury emissions. Michigan’s regulation requires these sources to cut mercury emissions by 90% by 2015. Then, on Thursday, the EPA reached a settlement with environmental groups who had sued the agency for failing to act to regulate mercury emissions. In the agreement (see NYTimes also), the EPA pledged to set standards for mercury and a number of other toxics by late 2011.

The EPA and Michigan announcements come on the heels of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released early this month indicating that coal-fired power plants across the nation have achieved substantial reductions in emissions of this toxic air pollutant. The GAO report, Clean Air Act: Mercury Control Technologies at …

Oct. 16, 2009 by Catherine O'Neill

With some fanfare, the EPA announced last week that it has selected a cleanup strategy for the Palos Verdes Shelf (PVS) Superfund Site off the coast of southern California – an area that has been termed “ the world’s largest DDT dump.” The EPA touts its plan as “a major milestone” that puts the site “on the road to remediation.” Nowhere, however, does EPA mention that this road is longer and more tortuous than it could or should have been. As I elaborated in an earlier entry, EPA’s selected remedy (its “preferred alternative”) provides for capping a much smaller area of contaminated sediment than another alternative EPA considered but rejected. Its selected remedy also delays the dates by which cleanup levels for DDTs and PCBs will be attained relative to the alternative – putting off until further in the future the time by which fish from the waters …

Aug. 20, 2009 by Catherine O'Neill

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) issued a report today finding widespread mercury contamination in U.S. streams. The USGS found methylmercury in every fish that it sampled – an extraordinary indictment of the health of our nation’s waters. The USGS reported that the fish at 27% of the sites contain mercury at levels exceeding the criterion for the protection of humans who consume an average amount of fish, as established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But EPA’s criterion grossly understates the risk to those people whose fish consumption practices differ from those of the “average American,” particularly members of the various fishing tribes, Asian-Americans, and those hailing from the Pacific or Caribbean Islands. Whereas EPA’s criterion is based on the assumption that people eat 17.5 grams per day of fish – about one fish meal every two weeks, on average – people in …

July 2, 2009 by Catherine O'Neill

California has expanded its fish consumption advisory, warning people to curtail or eliminate entirely their consumption of nineteen species of fish caught off the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County.  Among the new advisory’s recommendations is that humans should avoid eating white croaker, topsmelt, or barred sand bass caught in an area extending more than 30 miles from the Santa Monica pier south to the Seal Beach pier, and that, additionally, women and children should avoid barracuda or black croaker from this area.  The advisory also includes less strict recommendations for a broader area of coastline, stretching more than 100 miles in total, including the entire coastlines of Los Angeles and Orange counties, and part of Ventura County. The primary contaminants of concern behind these advisories are DDT and PCBs (both human carcinogens) but mercury and a host of other substances also threaten the health …

May 26, 2009 by Catherine O'Neill

Here's some slippery regulatory logic: West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection says it is justified in setting less stringent levels for mercury in the state's waters than recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Why? Because, according to the WVDEP, a recent study shows that people in West Virginia eat less fish than the "average American" assumed by EPA. And if people consume less fish, they will be exposed to lower quantities of the toxic pollutants in those fish -- including methylmercury. But why might people in West Virginia eat less fish? One reason is likely the statewide fish consumption advisory warning people to limit their consumption of fish caught in all West Virginia waters, due to mercury contamination. But isn't the amount of mercury contamination permitted in the state's waters limited by the WVDEP? Well, yes. But any limitations on sources …

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