Sand Creek: Suncor employees tested for benzene exposure

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From TheDenverChannel.com (Lance Hernandez):

State health officials tested the water in December after an employee told them he thought it had a chemical smell. Company spokeswoman Lisha Burnett said trace amounts of benzene were found in two faucets at the sprawling facility and that “all other refinery locations have been confirmed to meet drinking water standards.”[…]

Dr. Chris Urbina, the state’s chief medical officer, told 7NEWS the longer one is exposed to benzene the greater the risk. “We could see an increased heart rate, confusion, lethargy, headaches, nausea and vomiting if they consume it,” the doctor said. “And of course, it can lead to death of you’re exposed to large quantities of benzene.” Urbina said one of the long-term impacts is leukemia…

Urbina said Suncor’s water system is a closed system. He said however the benzene is getting into the drinking water at Suncor, it is not contaminating the drinking water of any other Denver Water customers.

Thanks to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Twitter feed (@cdphe) for the link.

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

Study indicates hail may disappear from Colorado’s Front Range by 2070

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Here’s the release from the University of Colorado (Kelly Mahoney/Jane Palmer):

Summertime hail could all but disappear from the eastern flank of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains by 2070, says a new study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Less hail damage could be good news for gardeners and farmers, said lead author Kelly Mahoney, a research scientist at CIRES, but a shift from hail to rain can also mean more runoff, which could raise the risk of flash floods. “In this region of elevated terrain, hail may lessen the risk of flooding because it takes awhile to melt,” Mahoney said. “Decision makers may not want to count on that in the future.”

For the new study, published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, Mahoney and her colleagues used “downscaling” techniques to try to understand how climate change might affect hail-producing weather patterns across Colorado.

The research focused on storms involving pea-sized and smaller hailstones on Colorado’s Front Range, a region that stretches from the foothill communities of Colorado Springs, Denver and Fort Collins up to the Continental Divide. Colorado’s most damaging hailstorms tend to occur further east and involve larger hailstones not examined in this study.

In the summer in Colorado’s Front Range above about 7,500 feet, precipitation commonly falls as hail. Decision makers concerned about the safety of mountain dams and flood risk have been interested in how climate change may affect the amount and nature of precipitation in the region.

Mahoney and her colleagues began exploring that question with results from two climate models, which assumed that levels of climate-warming greenhouse gases will continue to increase in the future, from about 390 parts per million in the atmosphere today to about 620 parts per million in 2070.

But the weather processes that form hail, like thunderstorms, occur on much smaller scales than can be reproduced by global climate models. So the team “downscaled” the global model results twice: first to regional-scale models that can take regional topography and other details into account, then again to weather-scale models that can resolve individual storms and even the cloud processes that create hail. The regional-scale topography step was completed as part of NCAR’s North American Regional Climate Change Assessment Program.

Finally, the team compared the hailstorms of the future, from 2041 to 2070, to those of the past, from 1971 to 2000, as captured by the same sets of downscaled models. Results were similar in experiments with both climate models.

“We found a near elimination of hail at the surface,” Mahoney said.

In the future, increasingly intense storms may actually produce more hail inside clouds, the team found. However, because those relatively small hailstones fall through a warmer atmosphere, they melt quickly, falling as rain at the surface or evaporating back into the atmosphere. In some regions, simulated hail fell through an additional 1,500 feet of above-freezing air in the future as compared with the past.

The research team also found evidence that precipitation events over Colorado become more extreme in the future, while changes in hail may depend on the size of the hailstones — results that will be explored in more detail in ongoing work.

Mahoney’s postdoctoral research was supported by the Postdocs Applying Climate Expertise, or PACE, program administered by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and funded by CIRES Western Water Assessment, NOAA and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. PACE connects young climate scientists with real-world problems such as those faced by water resource managers.

Co-authors of the new paper include James Scott and Joseph Barsugli of CIRES and NOAA, Michael Alexander of the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory and Gregory Thompson of NCAR.

CIRES is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA.

Aspinall Unit update: Reclamation is forecasting 450,000 acre-feet (67% of 30 year average) of inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir

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From email from Reclamation (Erik Knight):

The January 1st forecast is out and the prediction is for 450,000 acre-feet of inflow to Blue Mesa Reservoir during the April-July runoff period. This represents 67% of the current 30 year average. In response to this dry forecast releases at Crystal Dam will be reduced by 300 cfs on Wednesday, January 11th. This will bring releases down to 800 cfs and with no Gunnison Tunnel diversions, flows in the Gunnison River through the Black Canyon should also be around 800 cfs…

As a reminder the next Aspinall Operations meeting will be held on Thursday, January 19th, at 1:00 p.m. in Montrose at the Holiday Inn Express. We have tentatively scheduled a presentation by Vern Jetley, a retired Reclamation photographer who will be talking about the construction history of Blue Mesa dam/reservoir.

More Aspinall Unit coverage here.

Snowpack news: Colorado River basin is at 59% of average, San Juan, Dolores and San Miguel basins come in at 67% of average

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From Think Progress Green (Amanda Peterson Beadle):

Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, points out that the NASA global temperature anomaly maps show that December just keeps getting warmer, which creates the extreme swings. “It’s key to remember that warming might actually bring bigger storms to the Rockies due to there being more moisture in the air,” Schendler said. “At the same time, because the atmosphere can hold more water, it can suck the land dry of more water than before.”

From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel (Dennis Webb):

As of this morning [January 9], the Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack was just 59 percent of average. Portions of the basin had seen little recent snow until a storm that arrived on Saturday. The Gunnison River Basin also is at 59 percent, and the Yampa/White River is at 58 percent. Other readings include the San Juan, Animas, Dolores, and San Miguel basins, 67 percent; Arkansas basin, 83 percent; Upper Rio Grande, 86 percent; Laramie and North Platte, 64 percent; and South Platte, 76 percent.

From the Vail Daily (Jaymee Squires):

If you’ve looked at weather maps lately, you have probably noticed the dramatic shape of the jet stream as it takes weather from the Pacific Northwest and blows it north towards Canada. This leaves most of Colorado in a high pressure area, where the warm air sustains itself with the Colorado sun and deflects incoming storms. The jet stream then takes a southward dip somewhere in the Midwest, taking our much-needed moisture towards the northeast, where they just plow it into piles and wait for spring. Since most of our snow typically comes from the Pacific Northwest, it’s not likely we’ll see any of that moisture until the jet stream changes its path.

From the Vail Daily (Lauren Glendenning):

Eddie Box Jr. and his wife, Betty, of the Southern Ute Indian tribe, came to Vail Mountain [ed. last Saturday] to do a traditional prayer ritual for snow for the third time in the resort’s 49-year history. Box was first there in 1962, the resort’s inaugural year, as a teenager joining his father, Eddie Box Sr…

As people gathered around and formed a circle around the Box family and other tribe members, they looked on as the Utes performed the sacred ritual. First there was a slow waltz in a circle, followed by chants, drums and then a group dance. People all around could be heard saying “snow.” The snow got thicker and started coming down heavier. Sutner said the Utes are 3-for-3 in Vail — the snow fell consistently the first two times they did the ritual, and Saturday’s beginning was a good start. “It’s not so much about a snow dance, but it’s about honoring our rich history with the Southern Utes,” Sutner said.

Secretary Salazar Announces Decision to Withdraw Public Lands near Grand Canyon from New Mining Claims

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Here’s the release from the U.S. Department of Interior (Adam Fetcher):

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today announced his decision to protect the iconic Grand Canyon and its vital watershed from the potential adverse effects of additional uranium and other hardrock mining on over 1 million acres of federal land for the next 20 years.

Secretary Salazar’s decision will provide adequate time for monitoring to inform future land use decisions in this treasured area, while allowing currently approved mining operations to continue as well as new operations on valid existing mining claims.

“A withdrawal is the right approach for this priceless American landscape,” Salazar said. “People from all over the country and around the world come to visit the Grand Canyon. Numerous American Indian tribes regard this magnificent icon as a sacred place and millions of people in the Colorado River Basin depend on the river for drinking water, irrigation, industrial and environmental use. We have been entrusted to care for and protect our precious environmental and cultural resources, and we have chosen a responsible path that makes sense for this and future generations.”

The Public Land Order to withdraw these acres for 20 years from new mining claims and sites under the 1872 Mining Law, subject to valid existing rights, is authorized by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. A Record of Decision was signed by the Secretary today during a ceremony held at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C.

The withdrawal does not prohibit previously approved uranium mining, new projects that could be approved on claims and sites with valid existing rights. The withdrawal would allow other natural resource development in the area, including mineral leasing, geothermal leasing and mineral materials sales, to the extent consistent with the applicable land use plans. Approximately 3,200 mining claims are currently located in the withdrawal area.

“The withdrawal maintains the pace of hardrock mining, particularly uranium, near the Grand Canyon,” said Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey, “but also gives the Department a chance to monitor the impacts associated with uranium mining in this area. It preserves the ability of future decision-makers to make thoughtful decisions about managing this area of national environmental and cultural significance based on the best information available.”

During the withdrawal period, the BLM projects that up to 11 uranium mines, including four that are currently approved, could still be developed based on valid pre-existing rights – meaning the jobs supported by mining in the area would increase or remain flat as compared to the current level, according to the BLM’s analysis. By comparison, during the 1980s, nine uranium mines were developed on these lands and five were mined out. Without the withdrawal, there could be 30 uranium mines in the area over the next 20 years, including the four that are currently approved, with as many as six operating at one time, the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) estimates.

The withdrawn area includes 355,874 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on the Kaibab National Forest; 626,678 acres of Bureau of Land Management lands; and 23,993 acres of split estate – where surface lands are held by other owners while subsurface minerals are owned by the federal government. The affected lands, all in the vicinity of the Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon National Park, are located in Mohave and Coconino Counties of Northern Arizona.

“The decision made today by the Secretary will help ensure continued protection of the Grand Canyon watershed and World Heritage designated Grand Canyon National Park,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “As stewards of our national parks, it is incumbent on all of us to continue to preserve our treasured landscapes, today and for future generations.”

Today’s decision is the culmination of more than two years of evaluation during which the BLM analyzed the proposed withdrawal in an EIS prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Park Service.

Numerous cooperating agencies, tribes, counties and stakeholders were fully engaged in this process, which included an extensive public involvement period which generated more than 350,000 comments, including input from more than 90 countries. Substantive comments, including those on the economic impact discussion, were addressed in the Final EIS, released on October 27, 2011 for a final 30-day review period.

Information on the withdrawal is at http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/mining/timeout.html or can be obtained by calling (602) 417-9504.

Think Progress Green (Jessica Goad) is running lists of the top five winners and losers from Secretary Salazar’s action:

WINNERS

1. The 25 million people who get their drinking water from the Colorado River
The Colorado River is the lifeblood for residents of the southwest. It is one of the most important rivers in the nation, providing drinking water to 25 million Americans. Uranium mining could contaminate this precious water source, the legacy of which is in the water contamination across Arizona and the southwest and is felt most acutely by Native American tribes. Water authorities in Arizona, California, and Nevada have stated that “federal agencies with oversight over mineral exploration and mining operations in the Lower Colorado River Basin must use their authority to prevent any potential for deterioration of this critical water supply for millions of people.”

2. American businesses

The outdoor recreation industry thrives on Americans’ ability to get outside. In Arizona alone, the outdoor recreation economy annually supports 82,000 jobs, generates almost $350 million in state tax revenue, and stimulates about $5 billion in retail sales and services. Businesses like rafting companies, outfitters, and gear manufacturers all benefit tremendously from the Grand Canyon’s unpolluted water, air, and landscapes. As Black Diamond Equipment CEO Peter Metcalf has stated, “The outdoor industry depends on public land so its consumers have a place to recreate using the products it sells.”

3. Arizona workers
Tourists spending money in and around the Grand Canyon create jobs. Headwaters Economics found that Grand Canyon National Park supported over 6,000 jobs in 2009 and those tourists spent more than $400 million. Arizonans feel the direct, indirect, and induced impacts of this spending in places like Tusayan and Flagstaff, but also more broadly through hotels, flights, rental cars, and other expenditures. As Sherry Henry, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism said, “No other Arizona industry produces the same economic impact to the Grand Canyon State than our travel and tourism industry.”

4. Sportsmen
Hunters and anglers have been some of the most outspoken proponents of protecting the Grand Canyon from the industrialization that mining would bring. A letter from nine sportsmen groups in July 2011 noted that “Uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park is wholly unacceptable given the best science available and the potential impacts.” The Arizona Game and Fish Commission has endorsed the mineral withdrawal. With these 1 million acres protected from new mining claims, sportsmen will not lose access to this prime fish and wildlife habitat.

5. American families
The Grand Canyon is one of America’s most popular destinations. Almost 5 million people visit every year to take part in camping, hiking below the rim, viewing the sights from the window of a lodge, or otherwise taking in the canyon’s natural magnificence. By stopping excess uranium mining on 1 million acres, all Americans and future generations will have an opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon in its untarnished state.

LOSERS

1. International atomic interests
A number of different mining companies have expressed interest in the uranium deposits around the Grand Canyon, many of which are foreign or multinational. Examples are Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear agency; Denison Mining, partially owned by Korea’s state-owned electric utility; and Vane Minerals, a British company.

2. Reps. Jeff Flake, Paul Gosar, Trent Franks
Reps. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Paul Gosar (R-AZ), and Trent Franks (R-AZ) have taken the lead in relentlessly attempting to block Secretary Salazar’s temporary withdrawals and forcing the administration to open the Grand Canyon area to industrial development. Flake’s effort over the summer to attach a policy rider on a budget bill to tie the Interior Department’s hands was dubbed “the Flake earmark.” Flake has already received $12,000 in campaign contributions from mining interests for his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign.

3. National Mining Association
The National Mining Association is one of the largest natural resources trade and lobbying groups in the nation. In 2011 it spent $3,580,266 lobbying Congress on various issues, and its non-coal-focused PAC has already spent $78,000 in campaign contributions for the 2012 cycle ($70,500 of which went to Republicans). A spokesman from the group in June stated that Secretary Salazar’s 6-month withdrawal “sets a troublesome precedent.”

4. Scientist Karen Wenrich

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee called a hearing in November 2011 to continue to push for uranium mining around the Grand Canyon. But it was revealed at the hearing by Grand Canyon champion Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) that the scientist whom they called to testify that there would be little impact from uranium mining on the Colorado River stood to make $225,000 from it. Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that Karen Wenrich, a retired United States Geological Survey scientist, entered into a deal to sell 61 uranium claims only if the mineral withdrawal did not go through.

5. Companies seeking to exploit the public’s treasures for corporate profits
Under the 1872 Mining Law, mining companies are not required to pay royalties to the public for the mineral resources that they extract. Not only are taxpayers not properly compensated for their natural resources, but they are frequently left to foot the bill for environmental cleanup. Congress must pass legislation such as Rep. Ed Markey’s H.R. 3446 to solve this problem. However, Secretary Salazar’s withdrawal will stop additional companies from profiting off this antiquated system while endangering a national treasure.

More Colorado River Basin coverage here.