Congress Investigates Gulf Oil Spill

  • One area the investigation will focus on is whether the blowout prevention and emergency shutoff devices had been tested and properly maintained for use at the drilling facility.(Photo courtesy of the US Mineral Management Service)

Next week Congress will hold what’s likely to be the first of many hearings on the drilling rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Lester Graham reports this is just the latest Congressional investigation into BP’s operations.

Transcript

Next week Congress will hold what’s likely to be the first of many hearings on the drilling rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Lester Graham reports this is just the latest Congressional investigation into BP’s operations.

Congressman Bart Stupak chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. He says you can add this oil spill in the Gulf to several oil spills on Alaska’s North Slope and the refinery explosion that killed 15 people in Texas City in 2005. He says earlier this year he fired off a letter about billions of dollars in budget cuts BP just recently made.

“We wanted to make sure these cuts don’t negatively affect the safety of the workers or the environment. I mean, we put that in writing to them in January. And when I heard about the blow-out and the fire down there and the accident, they didn’t have to tell me the company that was bitten by this. I just figured it was BP.”

Stupak’s subcommittee will be questioning BP officials, the drilling rig operators, TransOcean, and Halliburton which did maintenance work on the rig.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Hospitals Go for a Greener Clean

  • Even in hospitals, the same clean can be achieved without the harsh and dangerous chemicals (Photo courtesy of the National Institutes of Health)

You might have noticed some
new choices for environmentally-friendly
cleaners on supermarket shelves. Most
people pass them over. They worry
natural cleaners won’t do the job as
well as the regular stuff. But, the
places that need to be the cleanest,
the most sterilized, are finding that
green cleaners are more effective.
Julie Grant reports that hospitals
have started replacing the old chemical
cleaners with natural products:

Transcript

You might have noticed some
new choices for environmentally-friendly
cleaners on supermarket shelves. Most
people pass them over. They worry
natural cleaners won’t do the job as
well as the regular stuff. But, the
places that need to be the cleanest,
the most sterilized, are finding that
green cleaners are more effective.
Julie Grant reports that hospitals
have started replacing the old chemical
cleaners with natural products:

It used to stink whenever the cleaning guys at the Cleveland
Clinic needed to strip the floors. The patients, doctors and
nurses would complain about the chemical vapors. So, they
started clearing areas of the hospital on floor cleaning days.

(sound of cleaning machine)

Today Dennis Casey says they drive around on a new
scrubbing machine.

“That’s an automatic stripper, it’s called an orbital scrubber.
And it strips the floors without the use of chemicals – only
water.”

The new-fangled machine looks kind of like a riding mower.
They run over the hospital floors spraying cold water and the
machine scrubs. Casey says it works just as well as the old
chemicals – but it doesn’t smell and takes a lot less time.

That’s music to Christina Ayers’s ears. She’s environmental
coordinator at the Cleveland Clinic. Ayers says the most
important part of picking cleaners and tools – is to make sure
they’re going to work.

Of course, water alone isn’t enough for every job. Hospitals
need disinfectants. Ayers says the Environmental Protection
Agency helps with that.

“EPA actually certifies disinfectants, and all products that are
used as a disinfectant have to go through the same rigorous
testing to ensure their efficacy. But what we’re buying when
we’re buying the products is the efficacy of the product, not
all the additional chemicals and perfumes and other
elements that are not necessary for the product to function
well.”

Ayers says lots of people are used to that ‘hospital smell.’
But that’s often just a cocktail of cleaning chemicals – and
doesn’t create the healthiest environment for patients and
staff.

They still use bleach at the Clinic – it’s a great disinfectant –
but only in specific places – door handles and other high
traffic areas. Ayers says other places, like windows and
bathrooms, can get just as clean without other harsh
chemicals.

At first, it was tough for some folks on the cleaning staff to
accept the new, fragrance free products. Those strong
smells signaled a clean room. Ayers says some would use
the natural cleaners – but then spray chemical air fresheners
just to make sure the rooms smelled clean.

“That’s a bridge we have to cross. We have to help people
understand that clean smells of nothing. And that when
you’re smelling all of those smells that are associated with
clean, that chemical smell, the smell of bleach, those
perfumes, all those volatile organic compounds that come
out of the cleaning products – you don’t want to be inhaling
all of that product. You really want it to be working, you want
to purchase the efficacy of the product and not all of that
extra stuff that goes into our air.”

Ayers says people with asthma and other breathing
problems understand that right away. And, often, others just
need a little explanation.

“And once you explain that to people – that you’re using a
product that’s safer for the indoor air quality of our hospital –
It’s an easy step, people understand it. And they quickly
grow accustomed to the new smell of clean, which is a much
more mild and fresh and less chemical smell than what you
might be familiar with – even in your own home.”

In fact, I talked with one woman on the cleaning staff who
says, since the hospital switched to more natural products,
she’s seen how well they work and has started using green
cleaners at home.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

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Bottling Restrictions Lifted for Katrina Victims

Officials are suspending a fight with water bottlers over diversions from
the Great Lakes basin – as long as the water is used for hurricane relief.
The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rick Pluta has more:

Transcript

Officials are suspending a fight with water bottlers over diversions from the Great Lakes basin – as long as the water is used for hurricaine relief. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rick Pluta has more:


Michigan’s in a legal fight with Nestle Waters over the company’s right to tap into springs, bottle the water, and then sell it outside the Great Lakes basin.


Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm says that amounts to a diversion of water from the Great Lakes, and it should be regulated, but she’s signed a directive saying that limits on water bottlers will be lifted to support hurricane relief.


“It’s going to allow for the relaxation of rules during the time of a national emergency to allow water to be pumped and distributed to areas of great need.”


The governor says her directive will expire once the immediate crisis is past, but the court fight is still pending over the right of Michigan – and other states in the Great Lakes region – to place limits on how water can be withdrawn from the basin and sold somewhere else.


For the GLRC, I’m Rick Pluta.

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Living on Top of a Fuel Pipeline

  • Shelley Miller stands by one of the markers in her backyard that shows where a pipeline is located. Miller has two pipelines in her backyard and two others just beyond her property line in the neighbor's yard. (Photo by Tom Weber)

There are thousands of miles of pipelines in the U.S. constantly shuttling gas, oil, and other fuels from state to state. And although you might not realize the pipes might be under your property, the companies that own them have to keep the land above the pipes clear in case of an emergency. And over the past year, residents in some communities have been told they need to dig up trees and remove sheds to keep the path clear. In some cases, it’s more than just an inconvenience. It’s costly. But the homeowners aren’t all mad at the pipeline companies. They’re mad at the people who built their houses. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber reports:

Transcript

There are thousands of miles of pipelines in the U.S., constantly shuttling gas, oil, and other fuels
from state to state. And although you might not realize the pipes might be under your property,
the companies that own them have to keep the land above the pipes clear in case of an
emergency. And over the past year, residents in some communities have been told they need to
dig up trees and remove sheds to keep the path clear. In some cases, it’s more than just an
inconvenience. It’s costly. But the homeowners aren’t all mad at the pipeline companies. They’re
mad at the people who built their houses. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber
reports:


Pipelines are a crucial link in the trip gasoline makes from the refinery to your car. They
crisscross the country, but most people don’t notice them.


Shelley Miller didn’t notice for years, even though she sleeps less than 30 feet from four of them
under her and her neighbors’ yard.


They carry gasoline, natural gas, heating oil and jet fuel.


In fact, more than 20-thousand gallons of fuel will race under Miller’s yard in St. Louis suburb of
St. Peters, Missouri by the time this story is over. She and her husband knew the pipes were there
when they bought the house… but they thought they were used for water or sewage.


The Millers didn’t realize they were wrong until last year… when Explorer Pipeline Company
came to make sure the land above its pipe was easily accessible.


For Miller, that meant two trees had to be removed, along with a shed that had become her
backyard’s equivalent of a kitchen junk drawer.


“We had planned to re-side our home. So we have siding we purchased one bit at a time to get to
that point. We don’t know where we’re going to put that. The lawn tractors, where we going to
put that? Where you going to move all this stuff?”


But that’s a small price to pay to make sure pipeline crews can get in fast if there’s an emergency.


Fred Low is a lawyer for Explorer Pipeline. He says companies like his have made an extra effort
in recent years to clear more urban or developed areas that have pipelines…


“In our industry, there have been some accidents in the past. There’s been national attention and
we want to do a better job. And to do a better job of running our pipeline we have to do a better
job maintaining our pipeline.”


And Miller understands that. She’s not mad at the companies because the pipelines were there
first. What upsets her is that 35 years ago, the city allowed the homes to be built so close to the
pipes.


More than 160 homes in St. Peters, Missouri have at least one pipeline in their backyard. But
Alderman Jerry Hollingsworth says it’s hard to blame the city.


“There were no guidelines for a city on how close to build a home next to a pipeline 35 years
ago. So somebody came in and said, ‘I’m going to build some houses in here’ and the city said
‘okay!'”


And many towns across the country did the same thing. Todd Swanstrom teaches Public Policy
at Saint Louis University. He says more and more suburbs might have to deal with pipelines as
they keep growing. Adding a subdivision or even a strip mall sounds nice if it adds to tax
revenue. But there’s also safety to think about…


“If there were an explosion and people lost their lives from a pipeline, I think it would be a very
different situation. As it is, it seems to be one of those issues that has largely gone under the
radar.”


But even if every growing suburb in the U.S. had rules for building on pipelines, there could still
be accidents… or deaths.


Ivel, Kentucky, San Jose, California and Whitehall, Pennsylvania are among communities where
pipelines have exploded in the past few years.


But Explorer Pipelines’ Fred Low says overall, pipeline companies have had an impressive safety
record.


“Being next to a pipeline isn’t necessarily that bad. There are literally millions of people who live
by pipelines. And we will not let structures be built on our easements, so that’s why we want to
keep them visible so we can find out if we’re being encroached upon.”


Since the St. Peters pipelines were laid in 1971, the city’s population has exploded and expanded
along the pipelines.


For Shelley Miller… her efforts now focus on raising awareness for others. She and her neighbors
have organized a group that pushes cities and towns to enact better rules for how land around the
pipes is developed, and how people are told of the lines before they buy a house.


St. Peters now has a law restricting development around pipelines. But that only does so much
for Miller as she goes to bed every night just a few feet from all that gasoline.


“When we hear a loud boom, yeah, we sit up in bed. We think about it. There’s a risk with
everything you do in life, but when you have to live with it on a 24/7 basis and you don’t know
what the next minute’s gonna bring, it stays on your mind.”


For the GLRC, I’m Tom Weber.

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Homeland Security to Remove Hazmat Placards?

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security are considering removing hazardous material placards from freight trains. They say doing so will help protect people from terrorists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:

Transcript

Officials at the Department of Homeland Security are considering removing
hazardous material placards from freight trains. They say doing so would help
protect people from terrorists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush has more:


Because of the September 11th terrorist attacks, officials see the potential for a
lot of things to be used as weapons. One of their latest fears is that shipments of
hazardous materials could be used by terrorists. In order to protect people from this
threat, the Department of Homeland Security says it might require the removal of the
diamond shaped placards from rail cars. Emergency workers use the placards to quickly
identify a hazard after an accident.


Richard Powell is the Executive Director of the Michigan Association of Fire Chiefs.
He says while the Department of Homeland Security is well-intentioned, removal of the
placards would put more people at risk:


“We need to protect our citizens. We need to keep that system in place. If we don’t know something is there, our people could not evacuate perhaps, as quick as we normally would.”


Homeland Security officials say they’ll consider other options that would help disguise the rail cars, but would still allow emergency workers to know what’s inside.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush.

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Not Quite Ready for Bioterrorist Attack

  • Mock evidence of radiological material to make a dirty bomb gives trainees an idea of the kind of materials they might find in a terrorist operation. (Photo by Lester Graham)

Since 9/11, emergency responders have been practicing for new kinds of emergencies. In addition to fires and hazardous materials spills, emergency personnel have been training to deal with terrorist attacks. Recently, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham was allowed behind the scenes in a terrorism attack training exercise:

Transcript

Since 9/11, emergency responders have been practicing for new kinds of emergencies. In
addition to fires and hazardous materials spills, emergency personnel have been training
to deal with terrorist attacks. Recently, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham was allowed behind the scenes in a terrorism attack training exercise:


(coughing)


These two men are the victims of some kind of biological toxin. They were investigating
an abandoned rental truck and now they’re writhing on the ground after a package
spewed some kind of liquid.


(chatter between mock victims) “You alright, man?” “What was that?” “I don’t know
what that was. It hurts.”


These guys are acting. They’re part of a huge training exercise put on by the
Environmental Protection Agency. Dozens of firefighters, emergency medical personnel,
EPA investigators, the FBI and people in t-shirts identifying themselves with acronyms
for agencies most of us have never heard of. They’re all working through a couple of
scenarios. So far today, they’ve discovered radioactive material to make dirty bombs and
some kind of lab set up to make a chemical like sarin nerve gas… and then there’s the
rental truck which is loaded with nasty chemicals.


Mark Durno is the U.S. EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator…


“We have some very distinct objectives with this exercise. One is to practice responding
to unusual situations that might involve weapons of mass destruction. In this particular
exercise, we’re practicing chemical agent and radiological agent response.”


There are lots of new things to learn. Coordination between agencies… and new
techniques. In this exercise, Detroit city departments are learning to work with federal
agencies. Melvin Green is with the Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services. He
says this exercise is good. He’d rather see his medical technicians make mistakes here
than during a real emergency… where his worst fears might be realized.


“I would have to say that, you know, them become casualties, that’s probably my biggest
fear. This is why we want to educate them on—and this is why the exercise is so
important. We want to educate them on the possibilities. Keeping our people safe
reduces casualties.”


That’s because if the emergency medical personnel are hurt… fewer people will be
treated.


The idea of a terrorist attack with radiological or biological agents is the kind of
nightmarish scenario that no one really wants to think about… but it’s something
emergency responders HAVE to think about.


During this day-long exercise… these trainees are upbeat, they’re confident in their
response. They feel they’ve come a long way in the nearly three years since 9/11.


But other emergency service experts are not quite as upbeat. Just 40 miles from this
training exercise… at the University of Michigan Hospital’s Department of Emergency
Medicine, Administrator Peter Forster says there are weaknesses in preparedness for
terrorist attacks.


“We’ve made a lot of progress from where we were, but we’ve got a long ways to go.”


Forster says when victims start showing up at the hospital emergency rooms…. there will
be bottle-necks…


“Most emergency preparedness activities have been geared toward local events with
relatively small numbers of victims. When we start talking about hundreds of people or
thousands of people injured or hurt, or exposed to some toxic or contagious substance,
then I think the health system would have a significantly difficult time expanding to meet
that requirement, regardless of how much, uh, how well we’re trained or how prepared
we are. We don’t really have the capacity on the health care side to manage a significant
influx of patients.”


Forster says plans to set up emergency medical facilities in auditoriums, school gyms,
and maybe even hotel rooms need to be completed… arrangements made… and supplies
stockpiled.


(sound up of training exercise, generators, etc.)


Meanwhile, back in Detroit… investigators are putting on bulky chemical protection
suits—the ones that look like big space suits…blue, yellow, olive, with teal-colored
gloves and orange boots… you’d think of circus colors if the subject matter weren’t so
serious. After examining the mock lab, spending about an hour in the sweltering suits,
they come out for decontamination before their air tanks run out. The local agencies help
with decontamination… spraying and scrubbing the suits down.


(sound: beeping, scrubbing)


The training site has all the sights and sounds of a real emergency. Lots of emergency
vehicles… the noise of generators and the smell of diesel. But it’s fairly relaxed. There’s
none of the tension, none of the urgency of a real emergency.


The U.S. EPA’s On-Scene Coordinator, Mark Durno, says there are some things you
can’t bring to a drill…


“You can never simulate the adrenaline and the potential panic that’s associated with a
real event, especially when you hear the words ‘chemical’ and ‘radiological’ agent.
However, we can practice those little tools that we’re going to need to be absolutely
proficient at to ensure that when the panic hits, we’re ready to roll without any
hesitation.”


The days’ training has turned up a few glitches. Communication between agencies is
still a problem. Emergency radio frequencies need to be sorted out and coordinated. And
there are still some major gaps in preparedness that are not part of this training… such as
the emergency room capacity problem. But one of the bigger issues is money. Federal
money has been promised to local governments… but it’s been very slow in coming.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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Governor Asks for Emergency Ash Borer Help

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is asking the Federal Emergency Management Administration for disaster funds to deal with the Emerald Ash Borer. She says the aid is necessary to prevent the tree-killing pest from spreading into more states. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rick Pluta reports:

Transcript

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm is asking the Federal Emergency
Management Administration for disaster funds to deal with the Emerald Ash
Borer. She says the aid is necessary to prevent the tree-killing pest from
spreading into more states. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rick Pluta reports:


The Governor’s request is for money to remove and destroy infested trees, and to come
up with ways to contain the pest. The ash borer has already killed an estimated six
million trees in Michigan, and it’s also been found in Ohio, Indiana, Maryland, and
Virginia.


Governor Granholm says it’s too big a problem for her state to handle
by itself.


“We need additional resources, and certainly I know the federal
government would be interested in making sure that it doesn’t spread to other
states or the entire country. We need help. This is an emergency.”


She says the state’s not assured it will get that help, and is getting
mixed signals from the federal government on its request.


Linda Sacia of the Federal Emergency Management Administration says a review of the
request is still underway, and there’s no word on when an answer might be coming.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Rick Pluta.

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