The United States Should Do More to Promote Safe Energy Production Which Does Not Threaten Environmental and Public Health

by Diane, M.P.H, M.S.

While every major energy source has strengths and weaknesses, some forms of energy production are safer and pose fewer catastrophic consequences for environmental and public health than others. As the population and energy requirements of the United States continue to grow, it is of utmost importance that American citizens learn as much as possible regarding the most practical, environmentally-friendly, and cost-efficient ways to produce clean, renewable energy, without creating more problems in the long run. Several serious regulatory weaknesses currently exist in the United States, with regard to oil and natural gas drilling operations, and nuclear energy production. However, efforts are being made by the current administration to reduce the harmful environmental impact of these industries and improve public health safety (19, 23). There is much more that our nation and citizens can do to meet our energy needs, reduce some of our wasteful habits and materialism, reuse, recycle, and protect our environmental and public health for generations to come. We can also learn from other countries who have already addressed their requirement for clean, renewable, environmentally-friendly energy. By recognizing the importance of protecting the environment during any discussion of energy production, current and future public health will likewise be preserved. 

Deepwater Drilling for Oil:

Deepwater drilling for oil poses terrible economic, environmental, and health consequences, as we have seen in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Gulf coast, since the April 20, 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Macondo Prospect Oil Field. Numerous, huge “dead zones” have been found on the ocean floor, and significant damage to the ecosystem is still evident. A wide array of physical and mental health problems have been documented, including skin rashes such as eczema, upper and lower respiratory symptoms, asthma, persistent cough, bronchitis, gastrointestinal symptoms, episodic diarrhea, headaches, confusion, memory problems, depression, anxiety, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, sleep disorder, as well as, increased rates of substance abuse, suicide, and domestic abuse (23). Elevated blood concentrations of chemicals persist among large numbers of fishermen, families, clean-up volunteers and workers, who had been exposed directly or indirectly to oil and Corexit dispersant fumes. The oil, fumes, contaminated coastal and marine environment were heavily laced with various toxins, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene. Benzene is known to cause leukemia in humans, while toluene acts as a teratogen at high doses. There is still valid concern regarding the safety of seafood from many areas of the Gulf of Mexico.

Thousands of oil and gas wells drilled in the Gulf of Mexico during the last 60 years have been abandoned, or temporarily and improperly closed, are not being inspected, and are at risk of leaking and contaminating the environment. “Associated Press” writers Jeff Donn and Mitch Weiss had published an article detailing this problem on YAHOO NEWS, July 7, 2010, but authorities have known about the problem for years (6). As a matter of fact, a new miles-long 0il streak in the Gulf was recently traced during March, 2011 to such a drilling well which had been “temporarily closed.” Who knows how many other land- or marine-based oil and natural gas wells have been abandoned, not properly sealed, and are currently leaking in other regions of our country, polluting drinking water, air, soil, and the marine environment, including the seafood that we eat? How often are such sites properly inspected and maintained? Probably not often enough to prevent a leak before it starts and causes environmental harm. More consistent regulation and monitoring of the oil industry is necessary to prevent such a catastrophic situation in the future.

Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas:

A drilling technique for natural gas known as “hydraulic fracturing”, or “fracking”, is now being conducted in the Marcellus Shale of Susquehanna County, in northeastern Pennsylvania (a region quite close to and geologically interconnected with New Jersey and New York), and is being planned for upstate New York and possibly other parts of the country. The process involves injecting a “fracturing” brew made up of various types of drilling fluids, including diesel fuel, carcinogenic and radioactive chemicals, and huge amounts of water, under high pressure, into wells that extend deep into the ground, often several miles, in order to free oil and natural gas trapped in shale formations. The drilling fluids and water also serve to lubricate and cool the drill bit, as it heats up while drilling into the underlying rock.

Just as nuclear power plants can increase the risk of environmental pollution, blood abnormalities, cancer, genetic damage, leukemia, miscarriage, fetal and early childhood morbidity and mortality, with their periodic and sometimes unplanned emissions of radioactive particles into the local air and water, spent fuel rods, nuclear waste and leaks of radioactive wastewater, fracking poses similar, significant environmental and public health risks. Recent studies have indicated that fracking increases the risk of contamination to soil, air, agricultural land, rivers, lakes, streams, aquifers and drinking water, as well as ground tremors, earthquakes, mudslides, and sinkholes (5, 10, 11, 14, 17, 19, 26, 29, 30, 31, 39, 40, 41, 42, 45). Between 2005-2009, tens of millions of gallons of diesel fuel had been injected into onshore fracking wells by oil and gas companies, a clear violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act (39). Additionally, Pennsylvania environmental regulators recently announced that gas industry wastewater containing diesel fuel, other toxins, and high levels of radioactivity has been discharged into several Pennsylvania rivers and streams by sewage treatment plants that were not designed to treat and remove radioactive materials. In other cases, the wastewater has been dumped directly into the rivers and streams without undergoing any treatment process at all. There is now grave concern that the toxins may have already entered public drinking water, due to the fact that most treatment plants are not designed to concentrate and eliminate such contaminants, especially radioactive components (19).

Fracking often involves the use of injection wells to dispose of wastewater left over from the gas drilling process. This form of wastewater disposal has been shown to induce earthquakes and tremors throughout large geographic areas, even many miles away from the well site. Since last September, 2010, the Arkansas Geological Survey has recorded thousands of tremors and earthquakes with magnitudes beyond 2.0 and up to 4.1 in north-central Arkansas and correlated them with the use of injection wells for wastewater disposal (5,10,17,29). What if a nuclear power plant, such as New York’s Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, happens to be situated close to a region experiencing tremors or an earthquake triggered by fracking or the use of injection wells for wastewater, such as the Marcellus Shale of northeastern Pennsylvania? Are we prepared to face a catastrophe like Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, close to one of our own urban areas (New York City)?

Although some oil and gas companies are now recycling fracking wastewater rather than disposing it into wells, significant risks to environmental and public health remain. Some methods of recycling the toxic brew can leave behind salts or sludge highly concentrated with radioactive material and other chemicals which are dangerous for human and aquatic life. The injection wells can continue to leak for decades after they have been hydrofracked. There is also evidence now that fracking may actually have a worse effect on the climate and global warming than coal mining, due to potent methane emissions resulting from the drilling process (14).

Nuclear Power:

Approximately 20% of electricity in the United States is currently provided by nuclear power from 104 commercial reactors. Although the U.S. nuclear industry has had one of the best industrial safety records in the world, at least nine significant accidents have occurred in the U.S. since 1979, resulting in more than $140 million in property damage (20). Unfortunately, nuclear power plant technology has not changed much during the last 25 years. According to Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, the country’s largest environmental group, risks that were inherent in the industry during the 1970’s and 1980’s are still present today (3). Fifty-six serious violations were documented at nuclear power plants between 2007 and 2011, including missing or mishandled nuclear material, faulty backup power generators, corroded cooling pipes, leaks from deteriorating underground pipes of radioactive tritium into groundwater supplies, inadequate emergency plans, and even marijuana use inside a nuclear plant (38). In March 2011, nuclear experts announced to Congress that spent fuel pools at U.S. nuclear power plants were already too full to be considered safe. Of the 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S., twenty-four are in areas experiencing the most severe levels of drought. Twenty-two of the latter reactors must rely on submerged pipes which draw billions of gallons of water for cooling and condensing steam after it has turned the plants’ turbines. At least five nuclear reactors are in earthquake-prone seismic zones and at risk of earthquake, flooding, or tsunami damage, including the Diablo Canyon Power Plant and San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California, the South Texas Project near the Gulf Coast, the Waterford Steam Electric Station in Louisiana, and the Brunswick Steam Electric Plant in North Carolina (20). The Oyster Creek plant in Lacey Township, New Jersey, has been leaking radioactive tritium from underground pipes for quite some time, and there is concern that the tritium may soon contaminate a major aquifer from which drinking water is drawn. Additional problems with nuclear power production include the large amounts of freshwater that must be used for once-through cooling systems, trapping of wildlife inside these systems, and increased temperature of the water which can be harmful to flora and fauna when it returns to the local ecosystem.

As demonstrated by the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island in 1979, and the current one at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, the consequences of a partial or full meltdown are terribly high. Some of these consequences include radioactive contamination of huge geographic areas, including the air, marine environment, fish, seaweed, plankton, rivers, lakes, streams, drinking water, agricultural land and food supplies, as well as, temporary and very often permanent displacement of large populations, astronomical cleanup costs, increased morbidity and mortality among nuclear plant workers and residents exposed to high levels of radiation, significant increases in the risk of cancer and many other public and mental health problems (2, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 27, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38). Even evacuating at-risk populations to well-equipped shelters can still leave survivors vulnerable to contagious diseases due to crowded conditions and emotional problems like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. A nuclear disaster can also severely damage the economy of a contaminated region for many years.

The storage of nuclear waste alone poses a huge problem, since it often contains radioactive isotopes that have half lives that can persist in the environment and contaminate the food chain for hundreds, thousands, and 10,000’s of years or longer. Since the 1940’s, much radioactive fallout and waste has already contaminated land, air, drinking water supplies, and marine environments throughout many parts of the U.S. and the world, due to years of weapon testing, weapon detonations during the Cold War, deteriorating submarines and thousands of drums of radioactive waste dumped into the ocean by various governments, accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima Daiichi, and other nuclear power plants. It is nearly impossible to get a full sense of all the environmental and public health ramifications when one considers these facts, as well as our current national issues with nuclear waste, spent fuel rods, leaks of radioactive tritium and other contaminants into groundwater, planned and unplanned releases of radioactive steam into the air. Furthermore, it seems morally unethical and arrogant for any nation to create a form of waste which will outlast any civilization, is dangerous, difficult, and highly expensive to manage and store, and will pose serious, long-term environmental, genetic, and public health risks for future generations (34).

The effect of radiation on all living organisms is known to be cumulative and based on a dose-response relationship, even with exposure to low levels of radiation. The younger the living organism is at the time of exposure, the greater the risk of chromosomal damage, genetic defects, and detrimental health effects. Children whose bodies are undergoing rapid cell division while growing will be at greater risk of negative health effects than the elderly whose cell turnover has slowed considerably. The central nervous system, in particular, is extremely sensitive to radiation, even more so than other organ systems in the body. While exposure to high levels of radiation generally causes clinical symptoms to appear within a much shorter time than low levels of radiation would, low level exposure accumulated over time may still trigger serious genetic damage, leading to changes in cell structure, function,and metabolism, and eventually impaired immunity and health. The steady increase during the last forty years in the incidence rate of brain, thyroid, and other cancers, leukemia, Alzheimers and other neurological diseases, autism, and behavioral disorders, especially in developed countries, could be due to many factors, of course, including increasing exposure of the population to chemicals, pesticides, X-rays, electricity and electrical appliances, wireless technology, as well as, air and water pollution. But one must also question whether exposure to the growing use of nuclear technology since the 1950’s has also had some detrimental effect on human health (7, 12).

Renewable Energy Which is Safer for Environmental and Public Health: Solar/Wind Power and Waste-to-Energy Plants

It is almost impossible to design backup systems at a deepwater oil drilling site, natural gas hydraulic fracturing site, or nuclear power plant that can eliminate all human error or the impact of natural tragedies. The most vulnerable nuclear power plants in the U.S. should obviously be decommissioned as soon as possible, in order to reduce the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. To replace the electricity lost from closing such plants, we will need to conserve more. Federal subsidies that would normally go to the nuclear industry, i.e., subsidies paid by both ratepayers and taxpayers, should instead be directed toward the aggressive expansion of cleaner, renewable energy resources, like solar and wind, which take less time and money to build than nuclear power plants, are less costly to maintain, and do not cause catastrophic meltdowns, massive spills along our coastlines, or global warming. Iowa already obtains about 20% of it’s energy from wind power. Portugal has fulfilled 45% of it’s energy needs from solar and wind power in just the past five years. Offshore wind projects currently being planned in the U.S. are estimated to provide 25% of America’s electricity. In addition to providing clean, renewable energy, such projects will create more jobs, as well as, a safer and more secure energy supply for the U.S. (3, 28).

In addition to solar and wind energy projects, the United States should aggressively promote the building of environmentally friendly waste-to-energy plants. Such plants have been used successfully for years in Europe and would reduce the need for landfills, as well as, the expense of hauling of urban and residential waste to landfills. New York City alone ships 10,500 tons of residential waste each day to landfills in Ohio and South Carolina. Europe has greatly surpassed the United States in developing technology to convert residential and industrial trash into heat and electricity, without the release of harmful emissions or other environmental pollution. Already 400 plants have been built and are operating for this purpose, primarily in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. These countries have the highest rates of recycling and burn only non-recyclable material in their energy-generating incinerators.

Waste-to-energy plants produce much lower lower levels of pollutants than new state-of-the-art landfills, but nine times the energy! Filters and scrubbers capture small particulates, noxious emissions, and hazardous elements such as dioxins, furans, hydrochloric acid, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and heavy metals like lead and mercury, which are then concentrated and handled with care, rather than dispersed into air, soil, and water, as they would be in a landfill. Additionally, the primary climate warming gas released by burning garbage in these facilities is carbon dioxide, whereas modern landfills still emit methane which is about 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a climate warming gas (4, 32, 43, 44). Other problems associated with landfill use include the ongoing expense of hauling trash to the site, which greatly exceeds the upfront cost of constructing a new waste-to-energy plant or retrofitting an older incinerator, as well as, the unreliability of landfill liners to prevent environmental and groundwater contamination from leaking toxic substances.


As Nickolas J. Themelis, Professor of Engineering at Columbia University and a waste-to-energy proponent, has stated, America’s dependance on the use of landfills and resistance to constructing new waste-to-energy plants is economically and environmentally irresponsible (32). America’s use of landfills and dependance on oil, gas, and nuclear power are also harmful to public health.

The geology of the earth, risk of earthquakes, and weather patterns affecting flood, ice, hurricane, tornado, and wildfire formation are not always predictable and change over time naturally. Why? Because the earth itself is like a complicated living organism. New stress fractures and faults can suddenly develop in old, seemingly stable rock formations, as a result of natural erosion and weathering, earthquakes, tremors, the subtle shifting of tectonic plates, mining, digging, and drilling operations, natural and manmade diversion of aboveground or underground flowing water, and other major land transformations. Underground streams and aquifers which appear to be self-contained may eventually become linked with other waterways and aquifers, as soil, rock, and tectonic plates shift over time. These geological transformations have been occurring on earth since the beginning of time. It is impossible for man to control or predict every force of nature, as well as, completely protect all structures such as energy plants from damage due to natural forces, no matter how well-built they may seem to be. The Federal Government, Environmental Protection Agency, Division of Homeland Security, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) whose responsibility it is to regulate all U.S. nuclear power plants, energy corporations, state health departments, and American people should face this reality and do much more to safeguard our current and future environmental and public health. Unfortunately, too many of our politicians are aggressively lobbied and financially rewarded by corporations which promote oil and gas exploration and/or nuclear energy production. The corporations tend to place profit before environmental and public safety and often neglect to upgrade their facilities, admit their mistakes, or eliminate violations, even when having been given numerous citations. Many Americans are just not aware of such issues regarding the energy industry, nor understand how to respond to such a threatening and powerful lobby. Sadly, innocent American citizens are the ones who will suffer severe health consequences and property damage as a result of a major catastrophe.

Please contact the White House, your Congressmen, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state and local public health developments and voice your support for clean, environmentally-safe, energy production which does not pose a threat to human health. Let them know that you want them to more strongly promote measures which:

  1. Aggressively support clean, environmentally-safe, renewable energy production, such as solar, wind, and emission-free conversion of waste into energy, as done by Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. A number of uninhabited areas in the midwest could be selected for very large solar and wind farms. This would pose a minimal effect on the environment and migratory birds, while generating electricity for other regions of the country.
  2. Preserve and protect all aspects of the environment (e.g., air; marine-, brackish-, and fresh-water; marshes; wetlands; forests; mountains; land; soil) and consequently the food supply and public health, from carcinogenic chemicals, radiation, pesticides, and other toxic substances.
  3. Reduce, reuse, and recycle the earth’s resources, as well as, residential and industrial waste as much as safely possible. resources.
  4. Increase energy efficiency and conservation for electronics, appliances, water/heating/cooling systems, residential and industrial structures.
  5. Make all vehicles travel further on a gallon of gasoline.
  6. Limit or prevent new permits for offshore deepwater drilling, as well as “hydraulic fracturing” for natural gas.
  7. Significantly improve regulation, safety mechanisms, and inspection of temporarily closed and currently functioning oil and natural gas drilling sites, injection wells, nuclear power plants, and the environment and waterways surrounding these sites, in order to prevent catastrophic events, radiation releases, and environmental pollution.
  8. Reduce our dependance on forms of energy which increase pollution, environmental degradation, and global warming gases, such as coal, gas, oil.
  9. Discourage the excessive use of antibiotics, hormones, fungicides, pesticides, genetically-modified seeds and crops, which then enter the food chain and water supply and jeopardize the health and well-being of any form of life, whether botanical, human, insect (Note the alarming increase in “Colony Collapse Disorder” among bee populations worldwide), marine, land animals, birds, etc.
  10. Design and develop communities where residents can more easily walk to school, work, shops, hospitals, and cultural activities, so that the need for vehicles is lessened. Community development of this sort would have an additional benefit to human health by reducing morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.
  11. Encourage corporate, business, and human activities to take place primarily during daylight hours, as opposed to nighttime hours, in order to reduce electricity use.
  12. Reduce or eliminate the lobbying power, practically tax-free status, and insufficient and lax regulation of energy corporations which have been putting profits before public safety and will eventually destroy our children’s future health and well-being.

America should become a world leader in promoting a way of life which minimizes wasteful energy use, maximizes clean, safe, renewable energy production, and protects, rather than destroys, public health, nature, and the environment. There are many ways in which our society can reduce it’s current materialistic habits and gluttonous use of energy. We should not wait for a human or environmental catastrophe to make us change our ways. It is always better and much less costly to prevent problems ahead of time, before they happen. Speak up and let Washington hear your voice! Thank you for your consideration of this matter.


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{ 1 comment }

Neva Stent December 29, 2011 at 8:42 pm

We had the capacity in the UK to be one of Europe’s foremost in Solar Power until the government stepped in and smashed the industry by decimating the feed-in-tariff to half it was before.

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