Scientific Sleuth Gets the Call When Communities are Contaminated


Wilma Subra has studied the biological impacts of industrial and naturally occurring chemicals for over 25 years. When chemical spills or toxic industrial releases affect unsuspecting communities, Subra, a microbiologist and chemist, often gets called in to investigate. Her experiences have taught her that the contamination of communities and waterways is just part of doing business for multinational corporations and it is becoming a significant, growing byproduct of our current, poorly regulated industrial practices.

Subra has served as vice-chair of the Environmental Protection Agency's National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, as well as on the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. When Subra and I first spoke, shortly after January's crisis in Charleston, West Virginia, which contaminated the drinking supply of 300,000 people, she was concerned but not surprised. This wasn't the first time, nor will it be the last, that a deadly brew of industrial and regulatory negligence put an unsuspecting community in crisis.

Subra has seen our nation's most notorious environmental disasters. She was there in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath and for the continuing saga of the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill (and its supposed fixes with the oil dispersant Corexit). She was the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (or “Genius Grant”) that allowed her to travel around the nation to consult with people as they struggle to come to terms with the new reality of having their environment contaminated and health compromised by industrial toxins.

Subra has seen it all too often. Calm and matter of fact—a scientist to the core—she knows the drill.

“What happened in West Virginia occurs often,” she explains. “We know the name of the chemical, but do we know its health impacts or how long it will persist in the environment, or how far downstream it will travel? There are a huge number of chemicals in industrial facilities. The majority of them have not been tested for impacts on health or the environment.”

The Washington Post, prompted by the West Virginia spill, belatedly noted that the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, launched to regulate chemicals, had for nearly 40 years been blocked by the chemical industry from studying the nearly 85,000 chemicals in wide use.

By contrast, Subra has followed the human health and environment impacts of deregulated industrial chemicals for her entire career. Between 2010 and 2012, when there was still a real opportunity to pass more effective federal laws, the Post under-reported the topic. Backed by a coalition of medical groups, the Safer Chemicals Act was blocked by the chemical industry, which made significant campaign contributions to a long list of Beltway legislators who kept the bill from reaching a vote. Because West Virginia is commutable for Washingtonians seeking open spaces and second homes, the risks of unregulated chemicals contaminating citizens now hits closer to home for the Post and its readers.

Does the Public Recognize the Danger?

Do people have to turn a blind eye until the ripple of contamination crises finally reaches — or comes close to — each community? I asked Subra.

“I don’t think people understand the large vacuum in research and regulation,” she said. “Until it becomes a personal issue there’s not much interest in knowing about it. But then when you are affected, you want that information right away.”

When exposures occur, healthcare providers and emergency room personnel need to know the specific chemicals involved to assess the symptoms and decide treatment. But often that information is not available. In some states, to protect corporate trade secrets, doctors must sign agreements prohibiting their sharing any information about chemical composition with the patients being treated.

According to Subra, in West Virginia, the manufacturer of methylcyclone hexane, the contaminant that leaked into the Elk River “had a lot of secrets” that blocked information about its toxicity. Subra has seen this information shutdown many times. “The companies often have details of the chemical composition but they call it proprietary. They are not compelled to provide that to the local governments, federal government, emergency responders, the people who are being exposed or their doctors.”

Both the short-term options for treatment, and the long-range health impacts remain unknown. This also occurred in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and treatment with Corexit.

As people in the Gulf regions began reporting symptoms, “we did not have the information on the chemicals that were in the crude oil itself,” Subra recalls. “And then they started spraying the crude with the dispersant [Corexit] and that information was proprietary too. So we couldn’t get either the chemical components or the health impacts associated with Corexit.”

People had to wait weeks, a similar time frame as in West Virginia. “That is inappropriate,” Subra says. “We need to have access to that information right away because people are being made very, very ill. And we need to know what the chemicals are, what the health impacts are, to be able to treat those people.”

Calls for Help

“Usually I get a phone call from someone asking me, 'Please tell us what is going on that is making us sick,'” says Subra.

Soon, she's off to the affected area, where she researches the industrial contaminants, looking at local industrial facilities, water treatment plants, agricultural processing, and chemical plants, seeking to find the contents of their emissions. She then holds public workshops in the areas.

Many community members walk into her workshops thinking: “This doesn’t apply to me.” But when they learn about the specific chemicals and their associated health impacts, Subra says there’s an "ah-ha" moment. “They realize, 'Those are the symptoms I have and I didn’t realize that could be coming from chemical exposure.”’

Acute symptoms immediately on exposure may include burning eyes, irritated nose, throat and lungs, and respiratory problems. But with ongoing exposure, symptoms worsen over time, Subra has observed. “People may develop cardiovascular impacts, decreased lung function, and in the long term, liver and kidney damage, blood, brain and liver cancers.”

Long-range symptoms may also include personality changes, depression, anxiety, irritation, confusion, drowsiness, and irregular heartbeat. According to Subra, “Many of these are not recognized as associated with exposure to, for example, gas compressor station chemicals.” When people go to the doctor with this range of health complaints, they are rarely asked if they live near industrial facilities.

For the most part, she says, people aren’t aware of which chemicals are in their community. Subra recommends that people keep a log of odors they smell and their symptoms. “If they smell something, and then they experience a health impact, then they record it.”

Monitoring Toxic Emissions

For certain industries, facilities are obliged to provide their daily records, if asked. They are also required to report any accidental chemical releases to the federal, state, and local governments, emergency responders and 9/11 operators, although enforcement on reporting is lax.

But the oil and gas industry is not required to report its emissions. Thanks to the Halliburton Loophole — the name given to a special provision in the Energy Act of 2005 inserted by former Vice-President Dick Cheney — all processes associated with hydraulic fracturing, including the reporting of emissions and chemical mixes, are exempt both from all standard EPA regulations like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Ironically, if the fracking industry was required to report emissions to the federal government, the EPA might have had more accurate data on methane emissions with which to project the acceleration rate of climate change. But a recent analysis by 15 climate scientists found that the EPA vastly underestimated projections by 150% (and even more in certain locations). That means fracking’s methane emissions are accelerating the progression of climate change, but the government’s ability to monitor that accurately is impaired by the Halliburton Loophole.

The Tentacles of Gas Pipelines and Infrastructures

Having witnessed a number of significant contamination crises, Subra is concerned about the mass nationwide reach of the octopus-like tentacles of the gas industry. As the buildout of fracking infrastructures continues, according to Subra, the following contamination threats are exempted from reporting requirements:

  • The over 700 chemicals deployed to excavate and release the gas.

  • The underground contaminants (including heavy metals, radioactive isotopes, and radon) unearthed and released by the fracturing process.

  • The 30-plus carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals released by compressor and metering stations, including benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, naphthalene, and carbon disulfide, which increase risk of developing leukemia and other cancers.

  • The methane, volatile organic compounds, combustion products and ground level ozone releases from drilling, production and processing facilities, pipelines, and compressor stations, and liquefied natural gas export ports.

  • The radon and radioactivity carried to end users in homes, apartments and offices where gas is used as a home heating and cooking fuel.

These exposures occur throughout the U.S., yet there are no requirements to report the events or their noxious contents.

Recently, a compressor station in Hancock, NY, announced a blow-down event occurring over a 12-hour period. But the fracking operators were not required to report the quantity or makeup of the chemicals released. Any other type of chemical plant or refinery would be required to report the specific releases.

“If following an event, people go to the gate of a well site or facility, to seek information, frequently the facilities are not manned and no one is there,” Subra points out. “Or if they are manned, the personnel will say that, 'We don’t have to tell you what we released or whether we had a release or not.' These facilities are only required to report to the state once a year. They are not required to report when they have an accident or event of any kind,” she says. “Meanwhile the people downwind are very, very sick. And they are trying to figure out should they leave the area, what could they do to reduce their exposure, and how long is this event going to go on for?”

Although not everyone has the chutzpah to drive right up a fracking well pad to obtain information, there is no other way to get it. Recently, Cabot Oil & Gas obtained a sweeping injunction against Vera Scroggins, a Bradford County, PA grandmother. The decision prohibited her from setting foot on 312 square miles of her local community (including the regional hospital) because she had gone to fracking sites seeking information.

Due to the dispersion of drilling infrastructures, a much wider population is now being exposed to these hazards via pipelines and compressor stations. Small leaks can occur anywhere along a gas pipeline, which now criss-cross the nation. Many people don’t know that they live near a gas pipeline. In Subra’s native Louisiana, after a sugar cane harvest, farmers burn the stalks to clear the cane field. The next day, it’s possible to find pipeline locations because the flammable gas emitted by leaking pipelines keeps on burning.

According to Subra, since many pipelines were laid down in the 1920s and '30s, there are few records of their locations. Recently constructed pipelines do map their locations, but pipeline companies are loathe to show them to the public, due to concerns over terrorism. Once a pipeline is built, its site becomes confidential. As a result, people are being exposed without knowledge that a pipeline is in their area.

Are federal agencies, in particular the Environmental Protection Agency aware of these mounting health risks? Subra believes that “the message is getting through to them clearly, but because of the political situation it’s very difficult to change regulations and enforce them.” If states successfully enforce regulation, “they get line item vetoed right out of the budget. When legislators aim to get stricter regulations on the books, the oil and gas lobbyists are right there to ensure that the laws don’t pass,” Subra says.

Now, the EPA itself is being targeted by a new anti-environmental PR front group. It’s not enough for the industries that profit from toxic chemicals and environmentally destructive fossil fuel energy production to have effectively blocked chemical safety for nearly 40 years, or to exempt fracking from all standard health and environmental protection and reporting. Now, they are targeting the EPA itself. According to Huffington Post reporter James Gerken, “Manufacturing doubt around scientific issues and sowing confusion through the media is a well-documented industry strategy.”

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