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March 03, 2011

Marcellus Shale, Radioactive PA Roads, and the Role of Government

In this season of government crisis, John Galt-ish calls for individuality and Reaganesque assertions about government is the problem, and prompted by an article about radioactive roads in Pennsylvania, I want to write about government failures and government learning.

A basic function of government is improving the odds of survival in favor of the citizens. I'm comfortable saying, Government shouldn't be killing its citizens. As a fan of the precautionary principle, I'm very comfortable saying: When in doubt, the government should emphasize not killing its citizens.

Sometimes democratic governments do end up killing their citizens, usually because something has changed. There's a new need, a new problem, a new business or technology, and initially government acts on the (outdated, invalid) information available. That's when the learning starts; what happens when the government touches the new thing?

In the middle time frame, the government can end up unintentionally killing some citizens. Eventually the government gets better information, learns something, and takes action to protect the citizens. My conclusion is, it's bad to be in the way, at risk, in the time latency between the initial change and when democratic government really learns the issue and takes action. The transition is dangerous. And, as you'll read below, apparently we're getting radioactive roads in western Pennsylvania.

Contrails, Distrails, ChemTrails

It's a beautifully clear, blue-skies day, with the sort of clarity that seems to come more in cold weather than in the summer time. In the distance an aircraft at high altitudes crosses the sky, trailing thin white lines of temporary clouds. We call those clouds ConTrails, a portmanteau meaning condensation trail, artificial clouds caused by condensed water vapour in the engine exhaust.

In addition to contrails, there are DisTrails, or dissipation trails created where the passage of the aircraft pokes a hole in a cloud, appearing like a tunnel.

And that's all fine.

Some people believe that beyond contrails and distrails, there are also ChemTrails. From Wikipedia, "The ChemTrail conspiracy theory holds that some trails left by aircraft are actually chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed at high altitudes for a purpose undisclosed to the general public in clandestine programs directed by government officials... The purpose of the chemical release may be for solar radiation management, population control, weather control, or biological warfare/chemical warfare." There are ChemTrailers here, here, here, here, and here.

I would go so far as to state that ChemTrailers are a bit on the fringe, if not nuts. Why would government do that?

Hindsight is Seductive

There are things that seem quite clever at the moment that experience teaches were completely disastrous, quite stupid, and given the perspective of hindsight, seem grossly negligent. Cigarette smoking, for instance was legalized and presented as sophisticated and sexy until we learned it's addictive and kills people, and we stopped selling (nevermind)

Hindisght is easy. The truth is that we never know which endeavors are poison at the moment. Until Lindberg and Corrigan made their famous flights, the notion that people could fly was insane, and a person who believed in it was a flake. Thalidomide was a blessing, a solution to a problem, until we found out it causes human birth defects. It was a government employee, Frances Oldham Kelsey, who refused to authorize Thalidomide in the US because she had concerns (but no evidence) about its safety.

Do Governments kill their people?

Cities are one of humanity's greatest inventions. The proximity of people, the density and diversity, drive an economy that wouldn't work outside of cities. Cities can fund projects and developments that an agrarian society couldn't. Cities are awesome. Even Richard   Florida says so.

Cities have inherent design problems including transportation, removing waste, and preventing disease. In general, the population density of cities encourages the use of government to address these problems.

Government and the Pump Handle, 1854

Sometimes cities are not safe places to be.
from Wikipedia: In the mid-19th century, the London's Soho district had a serious problem due to the large influx of people and a lack of proper sanitation. Many basements had cesspools of nightsoil underneath their floorboards. Since the cesspools were overrunning, the London government dumped the waste into the River Thames. This contaminated the water supply and lead to several cholera outbreaks.

In 1854 a major outbreak of cholera struck Soho. Physician John Snow later called it "the most terrible outbreak of cholera which ever occurred in the United Kingdom."

Over the next three days 127 people near Broad Street died. In the next week, three quarters of the residents had fled the area and 500 people had died. By the end of the outbreak 616 people had died.

By talking to local residents, Dr. Snow identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street. Although Snow's chemical and microscope examination of the Broad Street pump water was not able to conclusively prove the danger, his argument was supported by the pattern of the disease. When nothing else worked, the local council disabled the well pump by removing its handle and the problem was solved.

It was later discovered that the public well had been dug only three feet from an old cesspit that had begun to leak fecal bacteria. The diapers of a baby with cholera had been washed into this cesspit, which leaked the cholera into the water supply.
When Dr. Snow announced that the public well was poisoning people, nobody believed him. They rejected him and his message. Fortunately, they gave his insight a try and it worked, and tremendous advances in public health, epidemiology, statistics, and information design flowed.
The Board of Guardians met to consult as to what ought to be done (about the cholera outbreak). Of that meeting, Dr. John Snow demanded an audience. He was admitted and gave it as his opinion that the pump in Broad Street, and that pump alone, was the cause of all the pestilence. He was not believed -- not a member of his own profession, not an individual in the parish believed that Snow was right. But the pump was closed nevertheless and the plague was stayed.

Was the government poisoning its people? In hindsight, the answer is: Yes, but... Government built the water supply system, government did negligent work, people relied on it, when the government pump was disabled the disease went away. It was not intentional, but government clearly had a role in poisoning and killing those people. And then it learned and did better, and eventually government became the force that guarantees and delivers safe drinking water.

How did the Government come to poison its people? With the best of intentions, and with the best information available at the time. There was no reliable water supply, so Government stepped in to meet the need. The oral-fecal vector of cholera was not known; the disease was thought to be caused by miasma. What the government did made sense at the time. The government did, in fact, kill a lot of people.

Government and Road Oiling, 1910-1992

From 1910 to 1992, it was common practice to spray used motor oil on dirt roads to control dust, usually in poorer towns that couldn't afford to pave the roads. The oil would bond with the dirt/gravel and become lightly polymerized by sunlight, and act as a cheap sealant. It was lucrative because companies would pay to have their waste oil taken away. An unknown amount of the oil contained waste PCB oil.

In 1971, the government of Times Beach, Missouri was plagued with dust on its 23 miles of dirt roads. The city hired waste hauler Russell Bliss to spray oil on the roads at a cost of six cents per gallon used.

The problem began when Bliss contracted with a local company called ICP to dispose of toxic waste. ICP was being paid $3,000 per load to haul away toxic waste from NEPACCO, which was making Agent Orange for the VietNam war. ICP paid Bliss $125 to take it away. Bliss claimed he was unaware that the waste contained dioxin, and he even sprayed it around his own home to control dust.

In March 1971, road spraying caused the death of 62 horses at a nearby stables, and the owners suspected Bliss. Bliss assured them it was just used engine oil, but he had mixed the NEPACCO waste with waste oil. The stable owners followed Bliss's activities, and after other stables experienced similar problems, the CDC began investigating. In 1979 a NEPACCO employee confessed the company's practice of disposing of dioxin.

The area was flooded in 1982, washing the NEPACCO waste residue into the soil throughout the community. The EPA announced it had identified dangerous levels of dioxin in Times Beach's soil. Panic spread through the town, with many illnesses, miscarriages, and animal deaths attributed to the dioxin. At the time dioxin was hailed as "the most toxic chemical synthesized by man". In 1983, the EPA announced the town's buyout for $32 million.

In 1983, an estimated 50 to 80 million gallons of waste oil were used on dirt roads in the United States. In September 1992, the EPA prohibited the use of any used oil as a dust suppressant.

In the road oiling cases, local governments poured oil on local roads to achieve reasonable benefits at an economically justified cost. It was a reasonable action at the time. Subsequently, we've learned this is an environmental and public health disaster. Again, government was trying to do the right thing, using the best information available, and perversely ended up poisoning people and land. In this instance, government (CDC, EPA) was also part of the resolution.

Gov't and Radioactive Pennsylvania Roads, 2011

And so, we turn to Marcellus Shale, and the wisdom, economics, and politics of extracting fuel from it. Is it a good thing, is it a bad thing? We'll see. I believe it's an ecological disaster with long term costs exceeding short term benefits, but (alas) decision makers all live in the short term and die before the long term arrives. Our species really doesn't have a handle on long term.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) involves pumping millions of gallons of fluid - mostly water, but the mix is held secret by industry - down into the ground, where it mixes with many things, and then pumping the fluid/slurry out. From Wednesday's NY Times:
As drilling for natural gas started to climb sharply 10 years ago, energy companies faced mounting criticism over an extraction process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water into the ground for each well and can leave significant amounts of hazardous contaminants in the water that comes back to the surface.

So, in a move hailed by industry as a major turning point, drilling companies started reusing and recycling the wastewater. “Water recycling is a win-win,” one drilling company, Range Resources, says on its Web site. “It reduces fresh water demand and eliminates the need to dispose of the water.”

Recycling has not eliminated environmental and health risks. Some methods can leave behind salts or sludge highly concentrated with radioactive material and other contaminants that can be dangerous to people and aquatic life if they get into waterways.

Some well operators sell their waste. Because it is so salty, they have found ready buyers in communities that spread it on roads for winter de-icing and for summer dust suppression.
When ice melts or rain falls, the waste runs off the roads and ends up in the drinking supply.

Yet in Pennsylvania, where the number of drilling permits for gas wells has jumped markedly in the last several years because the state sits on a large underground gas formation known as the Marcellus Shale, such waste remains exempt from federal and state oversight, even when turned into salts and spread on roads.

I'd like to say two things. First: if you're still here, thanks for persisting. Second: What are they doing? What, what, what are they doing?

I think we're much better off with government than without it. In general, government does a good job, it just doesn't react swiftly to new situations, especially when there's money in those situations. Eventually we get it right.

I'd like government to hurry up and figure out this Marcellus Shale Radioactive Road thing. When in doubt, they should emphasize not killing us.

I don't think government is protecting me and the world from the Marcellus money makers and from the damaging fracking industry; at least, not yet. I do think I'm better off with government protecting me than trusting industry to protect me.

The ChemTrailers who believe government is spraying chemicals into the air are nuts.
Today local Government is spraying PA roads with radioactive salt water.
The Government did spray dioxins and PCB on the roads for a long time.
The Government did deliver cholera to people in London.

Everybody thought Dr. John Snow was wrong. He was right.
Everybod though the stable owners were wrong. They were right.
I really hope the ChemTrailers are wrong.

I would like them to stop spraying roads with radioactive salts, please.


Anonymous said...

I was at a blow out site in PA and talked to a guy from Lazer Pipeline, as I tested the water he said that what they spray on the road might show up in my sample. I said why is that? He said they spray a salt mixture on the roads to keep the dust down. My test showed nothing in the water at that time but there are miles of dirt roads and lots of fracking fluids to get rid of. Plus they are drilling all over this area. So I think the odds are that they will get rid of the fracking fluids on the dirt roads rather than buy salty water.

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