Blue Marble - May 2010

Which Household Cleaners Contain Secret Toxic Ingredients?

| Mon May 17, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

The label on my shower spray cleaner claims it's supposed to smell like ylang ylang. To me it smells like, well, chemicals. I was curious to see whether any real ylang ylang actually made its way into my cleaner, so I looked up the ingredients online. No ylang ylang (or any other plant for that matter) in sight. Near the end of a long list of ingredients were the words "fragrance oil." Mysterious. Is my shower spray hiding something?

The environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice thinks it might be. Turns out that despite a New York state law that requires manufacturers of cleaning products to disclose the ingredients in their products, very few manufacturers are willing to cough up the full list. Earthjustice contacted dozens of companies and asked them to comply with the law, but four major manufacturers refused. (Full list of companies and products below.) Earthjustice and a coalition of other environmental groups responded by suing them (PDF). Jamie Silberberger is the director of programs and policy at Women's Voices for the Earth, another group in the coalition. "We know that there are chemicals in cleaning products that are linked to reproductive harm, asthma, and a whole host of other problems," says Silberberger. "But if consumers don’t know what’s in these products, they can’t make an informed decision about what to buy. We have the right to know what we’re being exposed to."

What we do know: Many common ingredients pose risks both to humans and the environment. Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are used as "surfactants" to make cleaning solutions spread over a surface smoothly, are an endocrine disruptor and are banned in Europe. Ethanolamine, also a surfactant, can cause asthma attacks. Most troubling: Even chemicals that are relatively innocuous on their own can combine to create toxic substances. Ammonia and chlorine, for example, can form a toxic gas called chloramine, which can cause a whole host of respiratory symptoms. When all those chemicals end up in waterways, it's bad news for wildlife.

A few companies (including those being sued) have set up a voluntary ingredient disclosure agreement, but Silberberger says it is incomplete: manufacturers are allowed to simply use the words "dyes," "preservatives," and "fragrances" instead of actually listing the ingredients in the additives. Scary, considering fragrances often contain phthalates, among other potentially toxic chemicals. Another problem: Companies are only required to list "intentional ingredients," meaning substances created by combining two ingredients or added during the manufacturing process aren't listed. What's more, the website is controlled by the industry, meaning companies make their own rules. Points out Earthjustice's Kathleen Sutcliffe, "If they're listing their products on the website, then why are they still refusing to file them with New York state?"

There is some good news: S.C. Johnson has announced that it will list its product ingredients on a website. The California-based eco-cleaner manufacturer Simple Green reported its ingredients to Earthjustice (PDF). Or you could make your own. Earthjustice has a few recipes, and (contain yourselves) even instructions on how to host your own green cleaning party this week.

Are there mystery ingredients in your favorite cleaner? Here's a list of manufacturers being sued for noncompliance with New York state law, along with the cleaning products in question:

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MMS Review: Too Little, Too Late

| Fri May 14, 2010 2:25 PM EDT

In recent weeks, the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has shown light on the litany of failures at the Minerals Management Service, the government office that oversees oil and gas development. The service's seeming inability to follow through on basic environmental analysis has become glaringly obvious, as has the litany of failures at the agency that may have added to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Today the New York Times jumped on the story, adding that MMS has also ignored the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act in permitting drilling in the Gulf. Warnings from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration about the potential environmental impacts of offshore drilling have repeatedly been ignored as drilling operations got the rubber stamp from federal officials. All signs point to a continuing cozy relationship between the oil industry and MMS.

So on Friday, a few days late and, well, billions of dollars in damage to the Gulf and coastal states short, the Council on Environmental Quality and MMS announced that they would conduct a review of the agency's procedures for carrying out oblications under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). "Every agency in the executive branch of the Federal Government has a responsibility to implement NEPA," said CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley. CEQ's main job is making sure other federal agencies follow through on NEPA obligations, so MMS' failure to do so is very much the CEQ's problem, too. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar also announced this week that he intends to split the scandal-ridden MMS into two agencies to address some of the problems with oversight.

The Department of Interior maintains that much of the problem is still a holdover from the Bush administration. "Under the previous administration, there was a pattern of suppressing science in decisions, and we are working very hard to change the culture and empower scientists in the Department of the Interior," Kendra Barkoff, a department spokeswoman, told the Times.

Many problems do predate Salazar, but it's clear that some things have not changed in the past year and a half. Pretending otherwise is not a solution.

How Bad Could the BP Spill Get?

| Fri May 14, 2010 1:46 PM EDT

How much oil is gushing into the Gulf of Mexico? No one knows for sure, but the answer is likely far, far worse than what BP has admitted. One outside calculation estimates that the Gulf has already experienced the equivalent of six Exxon Valdez spills. And without an accurate number, there's increasing fear that the response may fail.

BP says approximately 210,000 gallons of oil are spilling into the Gulf per day. But John Amos, a geologist at the West Virginia-based nonprofit SkyTruth, says that at least 1.1 million gallons of oil is leaking out of the well every day. His calculation is based on early NASA images of the slick that showed it covering 2,200 square miles of the Gulf, and on the estimated thickness of oil needed for the slick to be visible from space. "If it really is just 210,000 and they can't handle that—you've got to be kidding me," says Amos, who has tracked the changing estimates of the spill on his blog. "One of the world's biggest oil companies plus the Coast Guard has been beaten by 210,000 gallons a day—do they really want us to think that?"

But even this figure may be on the low end. Under pressure, BP for the first time released video of the sea floor spill site this week. Steven Wereley, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, analyzed the tape and told NPR this week that the oil flow is likely closer to 3 million gallons a day. If that's the case, the situation in the Gulf would equal more than two Exxon Valdez spills every week. The Exxon Valdez incident was, until now, the worst oil spill disaster in US history. 

And the absolute worst-case-scenario? According to government data on daily production at another Gulf well, the BP spill could spew 6 million gallons per day if the wellhead that's currently restricting the flow breaks.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday May 14

| Fri May 14, 2010 7:51 AM EDT

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Bugs Bite: A unfortunate side-effect of climate change is bugs gone wild.

Pass Or Else: EPA warns if climate bill doesn't pass, it'll regulate GHGs itself.

Yes He Can: Kerry thinks climate bill will pass, and has some good reasons.

Dead Ducks: Wildlife casualties are a good predictor of oil spill coverage.

One Kid Too Many: Overpopulation is bad, but China's one-child policy is worse.

JPM Gets F: JPMorgan gets an "F" for investing in mining companies.

White Only?: Continuing the craziness, Arizona bans ethnic studies courses.

Telling Signs: Were Kagan's Clinton-era actions on abortion telling?

Selling Fear: Pharma literally makes up diseases and sees what sells.

Over the Hill: The Pill celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Speaking Out: A female prisoner is punished for reporting her rape by a prison guard.

 

 

An Oil Drilling Company Even Sarah Palin Can Hate

| Fri May 14, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig that exploded and is still spewing millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, is sending a message loud and clear: it intends to assume very little financial responsibility for the disaster. In a filing submitted to a federal court in Houston this week, the company has invoked an obscure, 159-year-old law to contend that it should only have to pay for the cost of salvaging the debris of the rig from the ocean.

This is a claim so outrageous that even Sarah Palin is complaining about it. The former-half-term Governor of Alaska and drilling cheerleader-in-chief took to Twitter late on Thursday to lambaste Transocean:

Oil spill states:FIGHT that 150-yr-old,irrelevant maritime law thats used as claim to NOT apply remedy to innocent injured people;Alaska did

Palin is referring to the aftermath of Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska's Prince William Sound in 1989, when Exxon also attempted to use the Limitation of Shipowner's Liability Act of 1851 to curb its liability for the incident. The company wasn't successful, though it managed to drag out the legal case for almost two decades and ultimately paid just $500 million in damages—a fraction of the disaster's total cost.

The Deepwater Horizon rig was valued at $500 million before it blew up on April 20 and later sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Now it's worth only $27 million. If Transocean's bid is successful, the company could dodge paying not only any environmental damages, but also for compensating its employees who were injured in the blast. McClatchy reports:

In a statement, Transocean said the court petition was filed at the request of its insurance companies, and the petition will allow the company to consolidate all outstanding lawsuits before a single federal judge in Houston. The company said it now faces more than 100 lawsuits over the spill in several states.
Lawyers for those injured in the blast said the petition could also prevent any claims filed more than six months after the accident.
"It's very unfair," said Matthew Shaffer, a Houston attorney who represents a handful of Transocean employees injured in the blast. "It's a slap in the face to anyone who has been injured because of their negligence."

It remains murky which of the companies involved in the spill deserves the lion's share of the blame. BP maintains that the problem was with Transocean's rig; Transocean blames contractor Halliburton for a bad cement job. Halliburton says it was just following orders from BP. 

But regardless of who's the biggest culprit, it's rather rich for Palin to be posing as the champion of those injured by the spill. Even in the midst of the disaster, she was defending offshore drilling (including in a Facebook post titled "Domestic Drilling: Why We Can Still Believe"). "I want our country to be able to trust the oil industry," she said in a recent speech. But as all three of the major players in the Gulf spill scramble to avoid responsibility, it's not clear why Palin thinks the industry has earned that trust.

Does Rapid Population Growth Lead to War?

| Thu May 13, 2010 5:41 PM EDT

From obstetrician and public health expert Malcolm Potts, responding to readers in the ongoing population forum:

Nearly all the fragile states such as Yemen (average number of children 6.2), Somalia (6.8 children), and the oxymoronic named Democratic Republic of the Congo (6.7) have rapid rates of population growth. (North Korea, with its mad despotic ruler is an exception proving the rule). Consider the Congo with 63 million people today and perhaps 186 million in 2050. Since World War II, there have been more deaths in the Congo from violence than anywhere else on earth. Yet the intentional community is doing almost nothing to help slow population growth in a voluntary way. I am on the board of Population Services International and we sell contraceptives at a subsidized prices in many countries, including the Congo. But we cannot keep up with demand because of shortages of contraceptives. The United Nations Population Fund and other agencies and donors interested in family planning and population growth should stop having so many staff going to innumerable meetings and start buying more contraceptives. Family planning is about commonsense, but common sense is a rare commodity when it comes to anything to do with sex and reproduction.

Agree? Disagree? Join our population conversation here.

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Murkowski Backs BP Bailout

| Thu May 13, 2010 4:13 PM EDT

Democrats this afternoon attempted to bring up their Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act, a measure that would raise the liability cap for major spills like that currently underway in the Gulf to $10 billion. Under the current law, BP could be on the hook for only $75 million total for the spill—which is far, far less than this spill is going to cost.

Even a $10 billion cap could still be too low; some analysts predict that the total cost of the BP spill could hit $14 billion. Raising the cap, one might think, would be a popular move for Congress. It would both force BP to pay up all it owes to the Gulf Coast, and also ensure that any companies that embark on risky drilling ventures do a better job of ensuring safety and adequate clean-up plans. BP could surely afford to pay the full costs; after all, the company pulled in $5.6 billion in profits in just the first quarter of this year. But Republicans objected to the move.

The block was led by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski who valiantly stood up for the rights of oil companies, big and small, to dump oil into our waterways with little fear of liability:

The reason I stand and object at this point in time is I don't believe that taking the amount of the cap, if you will, the liability cap from $75 million, where it currently is, to $10 billion in strict liability, 133 times the size of the current strict liability limit, is where we need to be right now.
This has been named the "Big Oil Bailout Prevention Liability Act." But I think you've got some irony here in that what this would do is give all of America's offshore oil resources to the biggest of Big Oil. It would be impossible or perhaps close to impossible for any energy company that is smaller than the super majors, smaller than the national oil companies, to operate in the OCS. $10 billion in strict liability would preclude their ability to obtain financing, to obtain the bonds or insurance for any exploration, and look at who is producing in the offshore? It's the independents. They produce two-thirds of natural gas, one-third of the oil.

Yep, just sticking up for the little guys.

Who's Backing the Climate Bill?

| Thu May 13, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

When Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman and the now-out-of-the-picture Lindsey Graham were working on their climate legislation, they made a big deal of courting support from the biggest foes of such a policy. They held numerous meetings with groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, and Kerry made much of the anticipated support from three large oil companies: Shell, ConnocoPhillips, and BP. A number of business and environmental leaders stood with Kerry and Lieberman at yesterday's roll out (although the oil companies were laying low.) Did all the senators' courting pay off? Well, not exactly. The reactions from various interests groups to the long-awaited bill were lukewarm at best. 

The Chamber's chief lobbyist, Bruce Josten, praised the senators for "their work to constructively engage the business community on these issues," but maintained that the bill is still "a work in progress." American Petroleum Institute president Jack Gerard said the bill "reflects the complex relationship between the U.S. energy system and greenhouse gas emissions which come from every car, home, factory and farm in America." He added the group would need more time to consider the full bill before endorsing it.

And how about the environmentalists? A coalition of 22 environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), issued a statement praising Kerry and Lieberman for releasing a bill that "jumpstarts the Senate debate over America's energy future." But individual groups expressed concerns about some provisions. Larry Schweiger, head of the National Wildlife Federation said the offshore provisions are "a beginning, but we have to improve, learn from what happened" in the Gulf.

Frances Beinecke, president of NRDC, said it is "too soon to say where NRDC stands on every aspect of the bill." But Beinecke criticized both the offshore drilling provisions and the nuclear incentives, calling the $54 billion in loan guarantees "excessive" and the proposed streamlining of licensing for new plants "ill-advised."

Leftier green groups were even more critical. Friends of the Earth called it a "dangerous" bill that "threatens to stymie the fight against global warming." The Center for Biological Diversity called the bill "a disaster," and Greenpeace called it a "dirty energy bailout bill."

Wednesday's release was a discussion draft, meaning there may be changes between now and when (or if) the bill makes it to the floor. Expect plenty of effort from all sides to shape it in the coming weeks.

Could the Climate Bill Undermine Existing Air Rules?

| Thu May 13, 2010 11:50 AM EDT

Health groups are raising concerns about a provision buried in the 987-page American Power Act unveiled yesterday that they believe might undermine existing clean-air standards.

On page 182 of the bill from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency is directed to "establish a task force" that would examine "existing programs" at the state and local level to curb pollutants from power plants. The task force would look at "the effect the programs may have on the pace and extent of the transition of the existing coal-fueled power plants to significantly lower greenhouse gas emitting technologies or the retirement of existing coal-fueled power plants in the fleet."

The task force is also given the authority to review federal regulations "currently under development for control of power plant air pollutants other than greenhouse gases." Clean air groups believe that is probably targeted at rules currently under consideration for mercury, smog, and soot emissions.

The task force would also look at the impact "exemptions" from existing rules might have on power plants – with an eye toward maintaining the "reliability of electric service." The task force includes representatives of the EPA – but also a number of agencies, groups, and businesses that might not have public health as their primary focus: the Department of Energy, the Department of the Treasury, state public utility commissions, and the electricity generating sector.

Clean Air Watch president Frank O'Donnell argues that the provision may indicate that "public health safeguards should be weakened to aid in the 'transition' to lower-carbon future energy sources." In including the provision, O'Donnell says, the authors were "obviously aided by ghost writers from the electric power industry."

The American Lung Association yesterday said it was "shocked" by this particular provision. The provision, said CEO Charles D. Connor, "would unleash a dangerous process to attack life-saving rules on coal-fired power plants and threaten to permit much more air pollution around the nation." The group wants the language stripped from the bill.

Kerry yesterday downplayed the concerns about the provision, but acknowledged to ClimateWire that it's "one of the things we've still got to kind of shape up a little bit."

Public health advocates will surely be on top of it. "The outrageous proposal creates an open door through which millions of tons of life-threatening pollution could be allowed to flow," said Connor.

Key Senators Mildly Positive About Climate Bill

| Wed May 12, 2010 5:08 PM EDT

For a long time, the biggest complaint about the Senate climate and energy package was that no one had seen it. With a 978-page discussion draft hot off the presses, at least one criticism is off the table. And while it's too soon to know who plans to vote for the bill, there have been some early, positive remarks from key senators.

Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the Republican who was working with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on the legislation up until a few weeks ago, kept the door to a yes-vote slightly open:

I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to improve upon these concepts and find a pathway forward on energy independence, job creation, and a cleaner environment. We should move forward in a reasoned, thoughtful manner and in a political climate which gives us the best chance at success. The problems created by the historic oil spill in the Gulf, along with the uncertainty of immigration politics, have made it extremely difficult for transformational legislation in the area of energy and climate to garner bipartisan support at this time.

Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), an opponent of offshore drilling who yesterday afternoon fired off an irate Tweet about the bill's rumored drilling provisions, appears to be satisfied by the actual draft:

I’m glad the climate bill includes my proposal for a moratorium on any new drilling, until we know what happened aboard the Deepwater Horizon. Also, they had their eye on expanding drilling into new areas of the Gulf of Mexico near Florida, and I told them to stay out of it. And I’m glad they listened.