Thousands of Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Threaten the Environment, and Taxpayers’ Wallets

All’s not well:  Thousands of oil and gas wells have been abandoned across California, creating risks to the environment and the pocketbooks of taxpayers who could be stuck with huge cleanup bills, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization, and the Los Angeles Times.  About 35,000 wells are no longer producing, half of them sitting idle for more than a decade. By law, fossil fuel companies are required to post  bonds to cover the cost of closure and cleanup of well sites. But the amount that the industry has provided–about $110 million–is woefully inadequate, according to a study released in January by the California Council on Science & Technology. Analysis of that data by reporters for the Center and the Times found that cleanup costs could be closer to $6 billion. That doesn’t even include the cost of decommissioning offshore oil wells and platforms. Meanwhile these sites continue to release toxic gases, putting nearby residents at risk of illness or even gas explosions, along with emitting greenhouse gases like methane. The report includes a data visualization that allows Californians to see if they live within 600 feet of the state’s 70,000 active or 35,000 idle wells.

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Escalating epidemic: More than 1,000 people have now died from coronavirus, well above the death toll from the SARS epidemic in 2002 and 2003, which killed 774 people worldwide. And Monday was the first time the Chinese government announced more than 100 deaths in a single day. The virus has sickened more than 43,000 people, mostly in mainland China but with cases also reported in 24 other countries. In Hong Kong, two cases in a single apartment building 10 floors apart has raised fears that the virus can spread through pipes. The authorities put the residents of more than 30 other units in the building under quarantine, The New York Times reports. Shan Li and Joyu Wang report for The Wall Street Journal that the medical system in China’s Hubei province, where the virus broke out in December, has been overwhelmed, and hospitals are turning away all but the most severe cases.

  • Also: There has been an outpouring of emotion online for Li Wenliang, the young Chinese doctor whose efforts to warn people about the mysterious virus were suppressed by government censors, and who then died from coronavirus, Li Yuan writes for The New York Times. “I haven’t seen my WeChat timeline filled with so much forlornness and outrage,” wrote Xu Danei, the founder of a social media analytics company. The government has tried to crack down on this speech, deleting videos and messages where possible, prompting rising demands for free speech, according to the Los Angeles Times’ Alice Su. A group of university scholars issued an open letter to the National People’s Congress demanding immediate implementation of China’s constitutional guarantee of the freedom of speech. “Where there is no free speech, there is no safety,” they wrote. Meanwhile, a lawyer and citizen journalist who reported on the deteriorating situation in Wuhan is missing. According to The Washington Post, Chen Qiushi’s friends said the authorities had told his family that he had been forcibly quarantined in an undisclosed location.

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Pesticide wars: The leading manufacturer of chlorpyrifos, an insecticide used on dozens of crops and linked to developmental problems in children, announced that it will cease production of the chemical. The announcement came on the same day that a ban on selling chlorpyrifos in California took effect, Brady Dennis and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post. Although agricultural producers in California can still use the chemical this year, they cannot possess or use chlorpyrifos after December 31. Hawaii has also outlawed chlorpyrifos, and demand is expected to fall further as a result of a ban in the EU. While Corteva, Inc., formerly Dow Chemical, will cease production, there are still producers under other generic labels. During the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency had announced plans for a nationwide ban, but the agency reversed that position after President Trump took office. “It’s about time that Corteva stops selling a pesticide that damages children’s brains and poisons farmworkers. Yet the government must take a stand and ban this chemical,” said Marisa Ordonia, an attorney with the nonprofit environmental law group Earthjustice. “While we are celebrating this victory, we will continue fighting to protect children from chlorpyrifos and other brain-damaging pesticides.”

  • Also: The Arizona company Pool Water Products Inc. will pay a $800,000 penalty for violating federal pesticide laws by selling a banned pesticide, ALL Clear 3” Jumbo Chlorinating Tablets, after a statewide stop-sale order in 2018. State inspectors found the unregistered pesticide, which is used to disinfect pools, during an inspection of the company’s warehouse.

Second comeuppance: A U.S. District Court in Colorado has ordered Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Co. to pay $696,173 in lost wages to Brandon Fresquez, a former employee who faced illegal retaliation after reporting track defects, bringing the total due the whistleblower to more than $1.74 million. Previously, the court ordered Burlington Northern to pay Fresquez $800,000 to compensate for emotional distress, and an additional $250,000 in punitive damages. As reported by FairWarning, in 2015 the railroad was ordered by a jury to pay another whistleblower, Michael Elliott, $1.25 million for contriving an excuse to fire him after he reported safety violations to federal authorities, a decision that was upheld on appeal in 2018.

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Trumped up?: The Justice Department has ended the antitrust investigation of automakers who agreed to meet California’s voluntary vehicle fuel economy targets to reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, Politico reports, concluding the companies violated no laws. The announcement that Ford, Volkswagen, Honda and BMW would meet California’s standards was widely seen as a rebuke to President Trump, whose administration is pushing for less stringent targets. “These trumped up charges were always a sham—a blatant attempt by the Trump administration to prevent more automakers from joining California and agreeing to stronger emissions standards,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement. “This is a big loss for the President and his weaponization of federal agencies—and a victory for anyone who cares about the rule of law and clean air.”

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Green light: For the first time the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded a self-driving car company an exemption from federal vehicle safety standards that apply to all other passenger cars and trucks, Matt McFarland reports for CNN. Over the next two years, the company Nuro can launch up to 5,000 of its R2 autonomous vehicles, which do not carry passengers—only cargo—and the speed tops out at 25 miles per hour. The company has plans to begin delivering Domino’s pizza and groceries from Kroger or Walmart in Houston later this year. The company previously tested grocery delivery in Arizona in 2018. Meanwhile, the nonprofit group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety released a poll that it said shows that motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians are ”overwhelmingly concerned” about sharing the road with driverless vehicles.

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Shifting responsibility: A new federal bill to be introduced by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, both Democrats, seeks to hold the plastics industry—and the food and beverage companies that rely on it—responsible for the mountains of waste they create. The New York Times’ Michael Corkery writes that the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act is a long shot, having no Republican co-sponsors, but the effort, even if “politically unrealistic,” is evidence of a growing movement to curb plastic pollution.

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When industry self-regulates: A new ProPublica investigation shows that Evenflo, one of the biggest sellers of children’s booster seats, ignored government research and the strong recommendation from one of its safety engineers to stop selling car booster seats for children who weigh less than 40 pounds. Internal test videos show that when child-sized crash dummies in the company’s Big Kid boosters were subjected to the forces of a side impact collision, they were thrown far out of their shoulder belts. “Evenflo’s top booster seat engineer would later admit in a deposition if real children moved that way, they could suffer catastrophic head, neck and spinal injuries — or die,” Daniela Porat and Patricia Callahan write. Even so, the company gave the product passing marks, and even marketed the seat as “side-impact tested.” Porat and Callahan note that, “the company’s test bar was so low, the only way to fail was if the child-sized dummy ended up on the floor or the booster itself broke into pieces.” Side impact crashes cause numerous injuries and deaths to children, but the article acknowledged there is no good data on how often children are injured using one company’s booster seats or another’s.

Jessica McKenzie is an independent journalist. Find more of her work at jessicastarmckenzie.com.

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