Living on Earth: Beyond the Headlines

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Release date: Week of February 25, 2022


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The Trans Mountain pipeline in the western Canadian province of Alberta. (Photo: David Stanley, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

This week, Environmental Health News editor Peter Dykstra and host Steve Curwood discuss the Canadian government’s decision to stop spending taxpayer dollars on the expansion of Trans Mountain Oil. In addition, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will now consider carbon emissions and environmental justice in its decisions on pipelines. And according to the history books, in 1972 the story of over 130 million gallons of coal-tainted sewage that ruptured a retaining wall in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, killing 150 people and destroying 4,000 homes.

Transcription

CURWOOD: With me now on the line from Atlanta, Georgia is Peter Dykstra. Peter is an editor at Environmental Health News i.e. EHN.org and DailyClimate.org. And he usually tells us about what’s going on beyond the headlines. How about, Peter, what are you seeing this week?

DYKSTRA: Well, I bring you some fossil fuel-laden stories. The first is something that clean energy advocates will consider a pretty strong win. Canada has decided to stop funding one of the pipelines dedicated to the success of its oil sands project. According to the company, the expansion of the Trans Mountain oil line will now cost 70% more. This money comes from the Canadian government, they have decided that their funding, for now, is over. This could be bad news for the oil sands.

CURWOOD: But wait, Peter, I mean, right now with the conflict in Eastern Europe, the price of oil is around $100 a barrel. Maybe all that tar sands oil is actually trying to get to market.

DYKSTRA: Yes, another gift from the fossil fuel economy. But it could still be a deathblow to any viability of the oil sands in Alberta, hotly criticized for not just adding to our carbon dependency, but simply painting a really, really dirty way of generating energy. The pipeline would have run from Alberta to Vancouver on Canada’s west coast, to serve as an export point to send oil to China, India, Japan and other Pacific nations still planning to depend on fossil fuels. .

CURWOOD: And Peter, do you have more for us on the pipelines?

DYKSTRA: Yes, a bureaucratic breakthrough in the United States involving FERC. It is the acronym for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. They are responsible for regulating pipelines, other things like dams and dam removal. But FERC said it would consider emissions and environmental justice in all decisions about whether to permit an energy facility. No US federal agency goes that far.

A joint meeting between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to discuss power grid reliability, cybersecurity and nuclear plant malfunctions at FERC headquarters in Washington, DC on June 7, 2018. (Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Yeah, the lawyers won’t like that, because fighting every pipeline on a case-by-case basis has kept the lawyers, you know, pretty well supported financially even now. If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission can say wait, this pipeline will not help us with environmental justice and/or greenhouse gas emissions. Hey, there won’t be the litigation the lawyers saw before.

DYKSTRA: I think lawyers will always find a way to keep busy.

CURWOOD: Hey, let’s take a peek into the story, tell me what you see.

DYKSTRA: February 26, 1972. We’re talking about the 50th anniversary of a disaster in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia. There were heavy rains for most of February, and an estimated 132 million gallons of coal-tainted sewage flowed through a retaining wall on its way down to several small towns. Remember that storing your toxic waste upstream of small towns is not a good idea. Several small towns were destroyed. 125 people died and 4,000 were left homeless. This tragedy brought to light abusive surface mining practices in the coal industry. It’s a little different today, but probably just as dangerous.

This photo shows the Appalachians of Kentucky and extensive mining on top of a mountain. (Photo: Doc Seals, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: Well, yeah, and coal-tainted sewage might not be that important these days. But on the other hand once the coal is burnt a lot of these companies are going to take the coal ash and put it in impoundments and those have come through and polluted streams and towns right not Peter?

DYKSTRA: Yes, coal contains trace elements of several toxic heavy metals. When you burn coal, much of the toxicity stays in the coal ash. Many coal-fired power plants, including closed coal-fired power plants, have coal ash ponds and lagoons on their property. Inspections have revealed that many of these facilities are poorly regulated and unsafe, and that the dams and retaining walls that are there to hold them back are not necessarily in good condition.

CURWOOD: Thank you, Peter. Peter Dykstra is an editor at Environmental Health News i.e. EHN.org and DailyClimate.org. We will speak to you very soon.

DYKSTRA: You bet, Steve. Thank you very much and we will talk to you soon.

CURWOOD: And there’s more about those stories on the Living on Earth webpage, that’s LOE.org.

Connections

Reuters | “Government of Canada to Cut Funding for Trans Mountain Oil Line Project as Costs Skyrocket 70%”

Grist | “Federal licensing agency will consider emissions and environmental justice”

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