Tag Archives: report

Report: Operator error caused train derailment, ethanol spill

Federal investigators said crew fatigue may have contributed to the derailment of a BNSF freight train that spilled more than 20,000 gallons of ethanol last year in western Wisconsin.

The engineer and the conductor scored poorly on the Federal Railroad Administration’s fatigue analysis tool, even though they each had more than 13 hours of rest prior to beginning their shift at 1 a.m. on Nov. 17, 2015.

The derailment occurred nearly eight hours later.

Both employees passed alcohol and drug screenings.

A report released this week said the engineer violated railroad guidelines by applying the brakes too suddenly, causing 25 cars to jump the tracks near Alma, Wisconsin. Braking rapidly can cause momentum at the rear of a train, which can push cars off the track, the La Crosse Tribune  reported.

According to the report, the freight train was traveling at 26 mph when it derailed, and was previously slowed from 54 mph. The maximum speed limit on the track where the incident occurred is 60 mph and the train was restricted to 55 mph, according to the FRA report.

The administration also determined the layout of the more than 100-car train, which had heavily-loaded cars behind dozens of lighter and empty cars, contributed to the derailment.

The FRA characterized the incident as poor handling. Spokesman Marc Willis said the agency didn’t fine the railroad because the engineer did not violate any federal regulations.

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said as a result of the incident the engineer is no longer employed with the company.

No injuries were reported in the incident which caused about $2.1 million damage to rail equipment.

The derailment was one of several rail accidents last winter in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

 

Koch brothers spend $44 million to hijack Wisconsin

For the 2016 election cycle, Charles and David Koch have announced they are on track to spend nearly $900 million to elect politicians that would push their self-serving agenda.

In Wisconsin, the Koch brothers have spent more than $44 million since 2010, helping to foster the rise of Gov. Scott Walker, House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. Ron Johnson and to fund political astroturf groups to carry their water.

What the Kochs are doing in Wisconsin is emblematic of what they’re doing across the country, all their political efforts and PR shams boil down to self-interest and higher profit shares. — Eddie Vale, the vice president of the Bridge Project

In Wisconsin, the Koch brothers have helped create one of the worst governors who has allowed the hazardous pollution of our rivers and waterways, not to mention how they’ve been behind the attacks on working families in the state.

The Koch network has invested heavily in lobbying to directly assert their influence on the state’s policy agenda. Since 2010, the Kochs have spent $2.6 million lobbying on dozens of pieces of legislation to further their corporate agenda at the expense of Wisconsin’s workers, environment, students, and families.

In addition, the Koch astroturf network has been on the frontlines fighting for some of the most regressive political efforts in Wisconsin in recent years. They pushed for devastating anti-labor efforts including the silencing of workers, eliminating the prevailing wage, and preventing a raise of the minimum wage.

The Koch-backed ALEC created dozens of pieces of boilerplate legislation, many of which have been incorporated into Walker’s radical education agenda. They fought tooth and nail to turn the state against healthcare reform and block the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And finally, to protect the full profit-generating capacity of their Wisconsin operations, the Kochs have railed against the EPA and renewable energy development while simultaneously praising the Keystone pipeline and open pit iron mining. Absolutely nothing in Wisconsin could deter the Kochs from their selfish objectives.

Their agenda proves that they are willing to compromise the lives and livelihoods of Wisconsin families, and their record shows that they would even stoop so low as to malign Native Americans and target minority and student voters in fraudulent schemes to achieve their full objectives.

The Kochs are cementing their imprint in Wisconsin this year.

“Already, they have given more than $500,000 to Speaker Ryan’s leadership PAC and are providing cover for Sen. Ron Johnson, who has benefited from millions spent on ads and contributions from the Koch network for his hotly-contested reelection bid. Their investment this year will only help Scott Walker who has announced he will seek a third term as governor.” — — Eddie Vale, the vice president of the Bridge Project

Read the report.

Survey: only 50 vaquita porpoises remain on Earth

A new scientific report finds that vaquita porpoises declined by more than 40 percent in a single year and consequently only around 50 individuals of the species likely remain on Earth.

The vaquita is the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, found only in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California.

While the vaquita population has been declining for decades, based on data through 2013, an international team of scientists concluded a year ago that fewer than 100 animals remained. The new report documents a 42 percent decline from 2013 to 2014, with additional animals killed in late 2014 and early 2015 before a fishing ban was instituted in April 2015.

“It’s horrifying to witness, in real time, the extinction of an animal right in front of our eyes,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Without drastic help, vaquitas could vanish completely in just a few years. We need the world to wake up and help save these incredible porpoises.”

Fishing gear is the biggest threat to vaquitas. They often drown after becoming entangled in shrimp nets or in illegal gillnets set for totoaba, an endangered fish that is also only found only in the Gulf of California. The totoaba’s swim bladder is illegally exported to Asia to make soup and for unproven treatments in traditional medicine. Demand for totoaba bladders has spiked recently, and a single totoaba bladder can sell for $14,000 (U.S.).

“We’re truly at the brink of losing the vaquita forever,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “It’s inexcusable that vaquita are paying the price for Mexico’s history of ineffective and half-hearted efforts to ‘protect’ them. Now, only the most extreme measures will help, and that means a zero-tolerance enforcement of the gillnet ban in the Gulf of California.”

Recognizing the need for urgent action, in April Mexico announced a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California and promised to increase enforcement against the growing illegal totoaba fishery. While Mexico’s actions are commendable, today’s new scientific report emphasizes that its actions may be too little, too late, and a permanent ban on nets in the Gulf and rigorous enforcement of that ban are necessary to save the vaquita.

The report also finds that Mexico’s previous efforts to ban fishing in vaquita habitat were unsuccessful. In fact, the number of boats within the porpoise’s habitat actually increased during the Mexican government’s previous efforts to ban fishing. Unless Mexico’s newest conservation measures are aggressively enforced, the vaquita will not survive. 

Conservation groups have requested that the Obama administration impose trade sanctions against Mexico to stop the country’s illegal totoaba fishery. That could include a boycott of shrimp from Mexico. Groups have also sought “in danger” status for the Gulf of California World Heritage site that was designated, largely to protect the vaquita and the totoaba.

A new population survey for vaquita by U.S. and Mexican scientists is scheduled to start in September, around the time that fishing activity, and hence vaquita mortality, is at its highest.

Local anti-Semitic incidents reach 20-year high

Just days after the Milwaukee Jewish Federation reported a dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents in southeast Wisconsin last year, a massive spree of vandalism in Madison included the spray-painting of property with anti-Semitic, Ku Klux Klan and Confederate imagery.

Thirty-nine acts of vandalism on Madison’s west side were reported to police during the Jewish Sabbath beginning after dark on Friday, Feb. 13, and continuing into Saturday, Feb. 14. Most of the incidents involved property damage such as smashed windshields and mailboxes, as well as spray-painted obscenities. But five were anti-Semitic or racist in nature, according to Dina Weinbach, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Madison.

A car belonging to federation president Jim Stein was vandalized during the rampage and an anti-Jewish slur was spray-painted on a garage door across the street from his home.

There also were swastikas painted on a garage door and a driveway in different neighborhoods. The letters KKK were spray-painted on the side of a house.

Attending the federation’s board meeting on Feb. 17, Madison Police Chief Mike Koval described a handful of the incidents as “hateful,” but said they do not necessarily qualify for hate-crime enhancements under Wisconsin law, according to Greg Steinberger, who attended the meeting. Steinberger is executive director of Hillel at the UW-Madison, which serves a community of 5,000 Jewish students. 

In May 2014, UW-Madison students rejected a resolution calling for the university to divest from Israeli companies. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is a growing trend among far-left activists on campuses throughout the world, and it is becoming increasingly laced with anti-Semitism. Many proponents of the BDS movement perpetuate standard anti-Semitic myths, such as Jewish control of the media, banking and entertainment industries.

Steinberger was able to point to UW-Madison’s rejection of BDS to reassure concerned Jewish alumni and parents of Jewish students who called him after learning about the vandalism spree, he said. Many sought reassurance that Madison is a safe place for Jews. 

“I’ve been here for 15 years, and I’ve always felt Wisconsin is a particularly welcoming and hospitable campus,” Steinberger said.

Weinbach said she also received calls following the vandalism from people who were fearful, but added that she “received a lot of calls from people outside the Jewish community to show their support and their disappointment that this could happen.

“If one group is targeted, everyone is affected, and we all have to stand together to condemn acts of hatred,” she said.

“The Madison and Milwaukee Jewish communities are working closely with law enforcement officials, as they investigate these crimes,” the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation said in a statement. “We are thankful for their diligence and professionalism.”

But, the statement continued, “Problems of bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism cannot, however, be solved solely by law enforcement. Solutions must take place at all levels of a community, including elected officials, media professionals, co-workers and neighbors. Hateful speech is often the precursor to vandalism, harassment and violence.”

The Jewish community in southeastern Wisconsin, like Jewish communities across the globe, has been on edge following the recent surge in anti-Semitic attacks in Europe, especially in France. The Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s audit of anti-Semitic incidents in southeastern Wisconsin during 2014 shows that local fears are well-founded: There were twice as many verified incidents in 2014 than were reported in any single year in the last two decades. 

Experts say that such audits represent only the tip of the iceberg, as most incidents go unreported. The federation corroborates and reviews each incident before it’s officially recorded. The federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council works collaboratively with schools, law enforcement and national agencies to address the incidents as well as the underlying contributing conditions.

Among the most common expressions of anti-Semitism recorded in the report were a record number of swastikas on public and private property. One possible cause for the alarming increase is the exploitation of anger toward Israel over ongoing hostilities with Palestine.

“We must recognize that sometimes such criticism of the state of Israel — or activism against its legitimacy — is a cloak for age-old Jew hatred,” said JCRC director Elana Kahn-Oren in a statement.

In recent years, the JCRC has focused increasingly on anti-Semitic harassment and verbal expressions among middle and high school students, which often takes the form of jokes, pranks, teasing and bullying.

“Kids hear it form their parents and take it out on their classmates,” Kahn-Oren told WiG. “They don’t have the filter their parents do. We should educate Jewish teens to recognize anti-Semitism when they hear it, understand what it means, understand the role of speech in creating hateful environments and help (teens) develop a kind of a tool box of ways to respond to things in ways that don’t cost them all their social capital.”

After a recent anti-Semitic incident at a suburban Milwaukee school — an incident that wasn’t included in the audit — the JCRC brought in a young person from the Anti-Defense League to facilitate a program for teens. Kahn-Oren said her group sponsored a similar program last year.

“They talk about the pyramid of hate and that you start with speech and move up through vandalism and threats to discrimination,” she said. “It gets young people talking about what they hear and how they respond to it and how they could have responded to it. So much (anti-Semitism) comes in the form of jokes. So how can you sort of appropriately take things out of the conversation?”

Kahn-Oren says that peer pressure is often a very effective way of calling out a person who’s using hateful language. 

“Jews will always speak up about anti-Semitism, but what we really need is others to also denounce bigoted language — against anybody,” Kahn-Oren said. “To me that’s really the call to action from this audit. We need to create a culture where we have friends and allies who stand up for each other.”

Rights groups want special prosecutor to investigate torture

The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch on Dec. 22 asked U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the crimes detailed in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s torture program.

The organizations point to information detailed in the report that they say leaves no doubt that crimes were committed as part of the government’s rendition, detention and interrogation program and that the United States is obligated by both domestic and international law to prosecute such crimes.

“Even though our organizations have dedicated tens of thousands of staff hours to researching, litigating, and advocating on concerns related to torture and other ill-treatment in the RDI program, the depravity of the tactics and immensity of the enterprise still astound us,” the letter to Holder stated. “There is no need to repeat the details in this letter to you, but we believe it is fair to say that many of these crimes would be horrific even if committed by an individual acting alone; but when done as part of a deliberate, coordinated government program, the crimes are more shocking and far more corrosive to U.S. democracy.

The letter was sent to Holder the same day that The New York Times editorial board called for a full and independent criminal investigation.

Others seeking a criminal investigation include:

• Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture.

• Ben Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism.

• Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

• The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

Harold Koh, a former legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State said there is “more than enough to reopen investigations at the Justice Department to see whether prosecutions are warranted.”

Scalia joins torture debate: Hard to rule out extreme measures

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is joining the debate over the Senate’s torture report by saying it’s hard to rule out the use of extreme measures to extract information if millions of lives were threatened.

Scalia told a Swiss broadcast network that American and European liberals who say such tactics may never be used are being self-righteous.

The 78-year-old justice said he doesn’t “think it’s so clear at all,” especially if interrogators were trying to find a ticking nuclear bomb. Scalia has made similar comments in the past, but he renewed his remarks on Wednesday in an interview with Radio Television Suisse, a day after the release of the Senate report detailing the CIA’s harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists. RTS aired the interview on Friday.

“Listen, I think it’s very facile for people to say, `Oh, torture is terrible.’ You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people. You think it’s an easy question? You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?” Scalia said.

Scalia also said that while there are U.S. laws against torture, nothing in the Constitution appears to prohibit harsh treatment of suspected terrorists. “I don’t know what article of the Constitution that would contravene,” he said. Scalia spent a college semester in Switzerland at the University of Fribourg.

The 30-minute interview touched on a range of topics, including the financing of political campaigns, the death penalty and gay marriage, about which Scalia said he should not comment because it is likely the court soon will have the issue before it.

Asked about money and U.S. elections, Scalia scoffed that “women may pay more each year to buy cosmetics” than is spent on local, state and federal elections combined.

His comments about interrogation techniques echoed remarks he also has made to foreign audiences. In 2008, he used the example of the hidden bomb. “It seems to me you have to say, as unlikely as that is, it would be absurd to say you couldn’t, I don’t know, stick something under the fingernail, smack him in the face. It would be absurd to say you couldn’t do that,” he said.

A year earlier, Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper reported that Scalia invoked fictional TV counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer using torture to get terrorism suspects to reveal information that could help authorities foil an imminent attack.

“Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so,” he said. “So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.”

In January, Scalia seemed less concerned about the safety of residents of Los Angeles when the court heard arguments about whether anonymous tips could justify a traffic stop. Urging the lawyer for two suspects appealing their conviction to stand firm, Scalia suggested that not even information that a carload of terrorists heading to Los Angeles with an atomic bomb would be enough to justify police stopping the car, if the tip came from an anonymous source.

“I want you to say, `Let the car go. Bye-bye, LA,'” Scalia said.

Reaction to the Senate’s CIA torture report

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Dec. 9 released a report on the CIA’s harsh interrogation techniques at secret overseas facilities after the terror attack of Sept. 11, 2001.

A 600-page summary from the 6,000-page report has been declassified after months of disputes between the committee and the CIA over redactions. The summary concludes that the CIA repeatedly tortured detainees, including using the simulated drowning technique called “waterboarding.” The report also concludes that the information gathered using torture produced no security benefits and accuses the CIA of repeatedly lying to Congress, the White House and the American public.

The reaction:

“These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.” — President Barack Obama.

“This nation should never again engage in these tactics … The CIA program was far more brutal than people were led to believe.” — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

“This is a shocking report, and it is impossible to read it without feeling immense outrage that our government engaged in these terrible crimes. This report definitively drags into the light the horrific details of illegal torture, details that both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked hard to sweep under the rug. The government officials who authorized illegal activity need to be held accountable. The administration’s current position – doing absolutely nothing – is tantamount to issuing tacit pardons. Tacit pardons are worse than formal ones because they undermine the rule of law. The CIA’s wrongful acts violated basic human rights, served as a huge recruiting tool for our enemies, and alienated allies world-wide. Our response to the damning evidence in this report will define us as a nation.” — ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero.

“This disturbing report clearly demonstrates the need for those who approved of and carried out this campaign of torture to be held accountable for their actions. It also shows that strong legal and policy measures need to be enacted in order to prevent such illegal actions being taken during any future security crisis.” — the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization.

“A great nation must be prepared to acknowledge its errors. This report details an ugly chapter in American history during which our leaders and the intelligence community dishonored our nation’s proud traditions. Of course we must aggressively pursue international terrorists who would do us harm, but we must do so in a way that is consistent with the basic respect for human rights which makes us proud to be Americans.” — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

“This is a good start, but it is far from the whole picture. …We are still a long way from acknowledging the horrors of the CIA’s torture program, and achieving real accountability.” — Clare Algar, executive director at international human rights NGO Reprieve.

“When I was 12 years old, I was bundled onto a dark plane, separated from my parents, and told to keep my two younger brothers and younger sister quiet and calm. They were 11, nine and six years old. All we could hear was our mother crying, saying that we were being taken back to Libya to be executed by Colonel Gaddafi. When we landed, I was told to go and say goodbye to my father, who was bound up and had a needle in his arm. I fainted, because I was sure we were going to be killed. We now have the actual faxes and flight plans that prove that the CIA arranged the whole thing. That is what the rendition program involved, however hard the politicians try to black out the truth from their report.” — Khadija al Saadi, a victim of a CIA-MI6 rendition to Libya in 2004 when she was 12.


A stark warning in UN climate change report

Climate change is happening, it’s almost entirely man’s fault and limiting its impacts may require reducing greenhouse gas emissions to zero this century, the U.N.’s panel on climate science said Sunday.

The fourth and final volume of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s giant climate assessment offered no surprises, nor was it expected to since it combined the findings of three reports released in the past 13 months.

But it underlined the scope of the climate challenge in stark terms. Emissions, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, may need to drop to zero by the end of this century for the world to have a decent chance of keeping the temperature rise below a level that many consider dangerous.

The IPCC did not say exactly what such a world would look like but it would likely require a massive shift to renewable sources to power homes, cars and industries combined with new technologies to suck greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The report warned that failure to reduce emissions could lock the world on a trajectory with “irreversible” impacts on people and the environment. Some impacts already being observed included rising sea levels, a warmer and more acidic ocean, melting glaciers and Arctic sea ice and more frequent and intense heat waves.

“Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the report’s launch in Copenhagen.

Amid its grim projections, the report said the tools are there to set the world on a low-emissions path and break the addiction to burning oil, coal and gas which pollute the atmosphere with heat-trapping CO2, the chief greenhouse gas.

“All we need is the will to change, which we trust will be motivated by knowledge and an understanding of the science of climate change,” IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri said.

The IPCC was set up in 1988 to assess global warming and its impacts. The report released Sunday caps its latest assessment, a mega-review of 30,000 climate change studies that establishes with 95-percent certainty that most of the warming seen since the 1950s is man-made. The IPCC’s best estimate is that just about all of it is man-made, but it can’t say that with the same degree of certainty.

Today only a small minority of scientists challenge the mainstream conclusion that climate change is linked to human activity.

Global Climate Change, a NASA website, says 97 percent of climate scientists agree that warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.

The American public isn’t as convinced. A year-old survey by Pew Research showed 67 percent of Americans believed global warming is occurring and 44 percent said the earth is warming mostly because of human activity. More recently, a New York Times poll said 42 percent of Republicans say global warming won’t have a serious impact, a view held by 12 percent of Democrats and 22 percent of independents.

Sleep-deprived delegates approved the final documents Saturday after a weeklong line-by-line review that underscored that the IPCC process is not just about science. The reports must be approved both by scientists and governments, which means political issues from U.N. climate negotiations, which are nearing a 2015 deadline for a global agreement, inevitably affect the outcome.

The rift between developed and developing countries in the U.N. talks opened up in Copenhagen over a passage on what levels of warming could be considered dangerous. After a protracted battle, the text was dropped from a key summary for policy-makers – to the disappointment of some scientists.

“If the governments are going to expect the IPCC to do their job,” said Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, a lead author of the IPCC’s second report, they shouldn’t “get caught up in fights that have nothing to do with the IPCC.”

The omission meant the word “dangerous” disappeared from the summary altogether. It appeared only twice in a longer underlying report compared to seven times in a draft produced before the Copenhagen session. The less loaded word “risk” was mentioned 65 times in the final 40-page summary.

“Rising rates and magnitudes of warming and other changes in the climate system, accompanied by ocean acidification, increase the risk of severe, pervasive, and in some cases irreversible detrimental impacts,” the report said.

World governments in 2009 set a goal of keeping the temperature rise below 2 degrees C (3.6 F) compared to before the industrial revolution. Temperatures have gone up about 0.8 C (1.4 F) since the 19th century.

Emissions have risen so fast in recent years that the world has used up two-thirds of its carbon budget, the maximum amount of CO2 that can be emitted to have a likely chance of avoiding 2 degrees of warming, the IPCC report said.

“This report makes it clear that if you are serious about the 2-degree goal … there is nowhere to hide,” said Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. “You can’t wait several decades to address this issue.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the report demands “ambitious, decisive and immediate action.”

“Those who choose to ignore or dispute the science so clearly laid out in this report do so at great risk for all of us and for our kids and grandkids,” Kerry said in a statement.

The IPCC said the cost of actions such as shifting to solar and wind power and other renewable sources and improving energy efficiency would reduce economic growth only by 0.06 percent annually.

Pachauri said that should be measured against the implications of doing nothing, putting “all species that live on this planet” at peril.

The report is meant as a scientific roadmap for the U.N. climate negotiations, which continue next month in Lima, Peru. That’s the last major conference before a summit in Paris next year, where a global agreement on climate action is supposed to be adopted.

The biggest hurdle is deciding who should do what. Rich countries are calling on China and other major developing countries to set ambitious targets; developing countries saying the rich have a historical responsibility to lead the fight against warming and to help poorer nations cope with its impacts. The IPCC avoided taking sides, saying the risks of climate change “are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.”

Frac sand mining threatens health, welfare in Wisconsin

Victoria Trinko hasn’t opened the windows in her Wisconsin farmhouse in two years. And when she goes outdoors on the farm her family has operated in Chippewa County since 1936, she often wears a mask.

Trinko lives less than a mile from a frac sand mining operation — and that’s nothing like living less than a mile from a sandy beach.

There has been a lot of attention to the harms associated with the hydraulic fracturing method of gas and oil extraction, but much less focus on related industries. Fracking involves intensive use of chemicals, water and fuel at drilling sites, as well as extensive build-out of pipelines and the heavy use of transportation fuel for trucks, barges and train engines. It produces huge volumes of liquid waste. And fracking requires enormous volumes of fine-particle sand found in certain regions of the country, including Wisconsin and Minnesota.

A frac sand mining operation began in 2011 near Trinko’s farm. Throughout the summer and fall of that year, Trinko, a town clerk for Cooks Valley, raised concerns at local meetings. The “dust” from the mining clung to her clothes. Grit coated her teeth. Whatever she was breathing, it irritated her throat and damaged her respiratory system.

In a raspy voice, Trinko recently described life near a frac sand mine. She was participating in a Sept. 25 news conference call prompted by the release of a report on the proliferation of such operations in Wisconsin and Minnesota and the medical, environmental, economic consequences.

“The billowing of silica sand has not abated since the mine was constructed in 2011,” she said.

Trinko now suffers from asthma and lives with the daily use of an inhaler and nasal spray. People don’t like to visit the farmhouse, which her daughter said smells like someone “just swept the garage.” Trucks rumble past the farm every few minutes, five or six days a week.

Her home, Trinko said, “is not a healthy place to live.”

Her daughter “worries that my life expectancy is going to be shortened,” she added.

Communities at risk

A new report, Communities at Risk: Frac Sand Mining in the Upper Midwest, warns that thousands face threats from the 164 frac sand mining facilities concentrated in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They operate with little or no government oversight for the impacts on air and water.

Researchers examined permitting and monitoring, water and air quality, impacts of silica dust on human health, projected declines in property values and the expense of building and rebuilding infrastructure.

In fracking, the sand holds open the fractures created by the water, sand and chemicals pumped into the earth to allow for the extraction of natural gas and oil. The more frac sand used per well, the higher the yield. Frackers will use about 95 billion pounds of frac sand this year. 

Researchers have identified 164 active frac sand facilities and proposals for another 20 in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Their report said Wisconsin was “overrun by the industry prior to any understanding of the scale and impacts of the industry,” while Minnesota has been more cautious. The number of operations in Wisconsin increased from seven in 2010, the year Scott Walker was elected governor, to 145. 

Midwest mining

A frac sand operation involves:

• Removing the plants, soil or rock above a sand deposit.

• Excavating the sand, which includes blasting and crushing.

• Processing the sand, including rinsing it with water and chemicals.

• Piling and storing the sand.

• Transporting the sand.

Eventually the mined-out property is reclaimed, which may or may not include an effort to restore any vegetation. Opponents liken frac sand mining to mountaintop removal.

“Rural communities are becoming industrialized. … Eliminating the bluffs facilitates groundwater contamination. Runoff into streams, wetlands and lakes threatens habitats and fisheries,” the report stated.

Living downwind and on the route

The mining is concentrated in southwest Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota in what is known as the Driftless Area, 23,000 square miles famous for its sandstone bluffs. It’s an area with protected and unique species and scenery that draws many tourists.

Mapping by the Environmental Working Group found mining sites “in close proximity to schools, hospitals and clinics, where children and patients may be exposed to airborne silica,” said EWG executive director Heather White. Data indicated that in a 33-county area there are about 58,000 people living within a half mile of an existing or proposed frac sand mine or processing site. The number of people living within a mile is 162,000.

“None of the states at the center of the current frac sand mining boom have adopted air quality standards for silica that will adequately protect the tens of thousands of people living or working near the scores of recently opened or proposed mining sites,” said White.

“Citizens living near frac sand mining in Wisconsin are witnessing a massive destruction of their rural landscape,” said Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. “Elected officials and our states’ natural resources protection agency have largely dismissed local citizens’ concerns about their health, the health of their environment and their quality of life. Without a clearer view of the big picture of frac sand mining’s impact, laws that protect our communities’ air and water aren’t being developed or enforced.”

Less than 10 percent of Wisconsin’s frac sand facilities are required to monitor air emissions, prompting MEA to circulate a petition asking the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board to conduct a health and environmental study.

The report states that it was written “in an attempt to fill the vacuum of government leadership and regulatory authority” and the researchers are raising questions that “should have been posed long ago.”

Those involved in the report recommended “a step back” in the process and more review and regulation.

Report co-author Grant Smith said, “It is essential that local and state governments assess and take action based on the impacts of the full cycle of shale oil and gas drilling, including frac sand mining. Health, water and … economic concerns should be addressed comprehensively, rather than being ignored or dismissed. Protecting public health and safety is the first responsibility of government.”

White added, “We need strong state action to protect the public health from yet another troubling side effect of the unprecedented wave of shale gas development.”

The urgency is that frac sand mining grew 30 percent from 2013, 50 percent more than projected, and it could spread to other states with untapped or largely untapped frac sand deposits, including Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

Serious concerns

White and Trinko detailed the concerns for mining in the area, along with Wright; Dr. Peter W. Holm of Chippewa Falls; Civil Society Institute energy policy adviser Smith; and Crispin Pierce, of the Environmental Public Health Program at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

The issues:

• A mining operation daily withdraws up to 2 million gallons of water that is mixed with a compound called polyacrylamide flocculent to treat the sand. That compound itself is non-toxic. But its production method may leave minute traces of a neurotoxin. As piled sand dries, acrylamide-laden water can seep into groundwater. Also, there can be acid runoff from mines.

• The primary air pollutant is silica dust. The most dangerous type of  particle mentioned in the report is fine particulate matter, dust smaller than 2.5 micrometers, less than one-seventh the width of a human hair. These particles are associated with asthma, lung disease, cardiovascular disease, birth defects and premature death. Silica particles — they aren’t weatherworn like beach sand but instead have sharp, jagged edges — are produced in mining and dispersed in the processing and hauling of the sand.

• Crystalline silica, created when silica is crushed or exploded, occurs in the operations. The tiny particles can be ingested and become lodged in the lungs. Intense exposure can cause disease in a year, but it can take 10-15 years for symptoms to appear. Exposure has been linked to tuberculosis, emphysema, bronchitis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, chronic thyroiditis and kidney-related diseases.

• Before-and-after satellite images at mining sites show devastating impacts on the landscape.

• Frac sand mining can result in substantial declines in property value, local tax revenues, business revenue, decreased life span of roads, increased health care costs and negative impacts on school funding.

UN report: Global warming is here and dangerous

Global warming is here, human-caused and dangerous — and it’s increasingly likely that the heating trend could be irreversible, a draft of a new international science report says.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this week sent governments a final draft of its synthesis report, which combines three earlier, gigantic documents by the Nobel Prize-winning group. There is little in the report that wasn’t in the other more-detailed versions, but the language is more stark and the report attempts to connect the different scientific disciplines studying problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas.

The 127-page draft, obtained by The Associated Press, paints a harsh warning of what’s causing global warming and what it will do to humans and the environment. It also describes what can be done about it.

“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems,” the report says. The final report will be issued after governments and scientists go over the draft line by line in an October conference in Copenhagen.

Depending on circumstances and values, “currently observed impacts might already be considered dangerous,” the report says. It mentions extreme weather and rising sea levels, such as heat waves, flooding and droughts. It even raises, as an earlier report did, the idea that climate change will worsen violent conflicts and refugee problems and could hinder efforts to grow more food. And ocean acidification, which comes from the added carbon absorbed by oceans, will harm marine life, it says.

Without changes in greenhouse gas emissions, “climate change risks are likely to be high or very high by the end of the 21st century,” the report says.

In 2009, countries across the globe set a goal of limiting global warming to about another 2 degrees Fahrenheit above current levels. But the report says that it is looking more likely that the world will shoot past that point. Limiting warming to that much is possible but would require dramatic and immediate cuts in carbon dioxide pollution.

The report says if the world continues to spew greenhouse gases at its accelerating rate, it’s likely that by mid-century temperatures will increase by about another 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) compared to temperatures from 1986 to 2005. And by the end of the century, that scenario will bring temperatures that are about 6.7 degrees warmer (3.7 degrees Celsius).

“The report tells us once again what we know with a greater degree of certainty: that climate change is real, it is caused by us, and it is already causing substantial damage to us and our environment,” Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann wrote in an email. “If there is one take home point of this report it is this: We have to act now.”

John Christy of the University of Alabama, Huntsville, is in the tiny minority of scientists who are skeptical of mainstream science’s claim that global warming is a major problem. He says people will do OK: “Humans are clever. We shall adapt to whatever happens.”

While projections show that the world will warm and climate will change, there’s still a level of uncertainty about how much, and that makes the problem all about how much risk we accept, said MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel.

If it’s soon and only a little risk, he said, that’s not too bad, but when you look at the risk curve the other end of it is “very frightening.”

The report used the word “risk” 351 times in just 127 pages.

On the Web …

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:http://www.ipcc.ch/