November 2023 Vol. 78 No.11




PG&E plan to bury power lines underground met with opposition due to high rates 

Pacific Gas & Electric — one of the nation’s largest utilities whose equipment has sparked some of California’s deadliest wildfires — wants to bury power lines in some of its most at-risk areas to prevent destructive blazes like the 2018 Paradise fire that killed 85 people. 

But state regulators are balking at the utility’s plan because it would take too long and cost $5.9 billion. The company’s customers — who already have some of the highest rates in the country — would have to pay for it. 

Regulators want PG&E to put a protective cover over many of its overhead power lines instead of burying them. The cover approach is cheaper, but riskier. PG&E says burying a power line reduces the chance it will start a wildfire by 99 percent because it can’t be blown down by wind storms. The protective cover, which would better insulate the power line should it fall to the ground, would reduce that chance by 62 percent. 

“We’re not going to live with 35% risk,” said PG&E CEO Patti Poppe, who was rounding down in her assessment. “Who wants to get on a plane that has a 35% chance of crashing?” 

PG&E, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019 after it faced more than $30 billion in damages for wildfires started by its equipment, is trying to convince regulators that its burying plan is better. The company filed its plan with state regulators last year. 

The California Public Utilities Commission, whose members are appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, is scheduled to decide the issue in November. 

What PG&E wants to do is unprecedented in both scale and speed. Its plan to bury 2,000 miles of power lines is part of a broader goal of putting 10,000 miles underground over the next decade. The case is being closely watched, not just in California, but throughout the country as more utilities weigh the risks versus the cost of burying power lines. 

Most of the nation’s power lines are above ground because it’s cheaper to do it that way. But more utilities have been burying power lines in response to bigger and more destructive natural disasters. In Florida, where hurricanes are more of a threat than wildfires, about 45 percent of Florida Power and Light’s distribution system is underground, according to the company’s website. 

California’s other big investor-owned utilities have also been putting power lines underground. Southern California Edison, the utility that covers much of central and Southern California, says it plans to bury 600 miles of power lines by 2028. San Diego Gas & Electric has buried 145 miles of power lines since 2020 and plans to do another 1,500 miles by 2031. 

The issue can have repercussions beyond the price of electricity. In the past year, seven of the top 12 insurance companies doing business in California have either paused or restricted new business in the state, citing wildfire risk. 

Sewer gas leak hospitalizes four DC high school students 

Four high school students from McKinley Tech High School in Washington, D.C., have been hospitalized due to exposure to a hazardous odor. 

These students reported feeling unwell after detecting an unusual smell, and they were swiftly transported to a local hospital. Fortunately, their condition is stable. 

Investigations have revealed that the mysterious odor is hydrogen sulfide, commonly known as sewer gas. This gas is notorious for its flammable and toxic characteristics and tends to accumulate in low and enclosed spaces because it is denser than air. 

Inhaling sewer gas can lead to a range of health complications, from mild issues like headaches and eye irritation to severe outcomes such as unconsciousness or even death. 

Beaumont, Texas, unveils $123 million plan to overhaul water infrastructure 

Beaumont municipal authorities have introduced a comprehensive strategy aimed at alleviating the city’s persistent water infrastructure concerns. 

This intricate plan, spanning five years, carries a substantial price tag of $123 million, with a significant portion, $43 million, allocated to the replacement and maintenance of water pipelines during this period. 

City officials emphasize the urgency of these improvements, underscoring that without swift action, the city’s water supply could be in jeopardy within half a decade. Beaumont City Manager Kenneth Williams stressed the pressing need for action, citing the considerable aging of the city’s infrastructure. 

The five-year initiative’s primary objectives include the replacement of antiquated infrastructure to ensure the reliable provision of water and sewer services, as well as the enhancement of public parks and playgrounds. 

While the plan’s costs are undeniably substantial, Beaumont’s Public Works Director, Bart Bartkowiak, detailed the allocation of funds, specifying that approximately $43,965,000 would be devoted to water line replacements and rehabilitation within the distribution system. The remainder of the budget will support crucial upgrades such as the revitalization of Lawson’s pump station, repairs to water wells, replacement of aging waterlines, and the overall maintenance of Beaumont’s water infrastructure. 

City officials are keenly aware of the long-standing issue of discolored water and are actively developing a plan to address it. However, implementation is not anticipated until two years from now. Bartkowiak shared that the design phase for this project is nearing completion, with a projected implementation date in early 2025. Once executed, this initiative is expected to significantly reduce instances of discolored water in the distribution system. 

HDD mud spills force authorities to halt wastewater pipeline construction in NY’s Genesee County 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put a stop to the construction of a wastewater pipeline meant to serve the Science, Technology, and Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP) due to multiple incidents of drilling fluid spills in a protected wetland. 

State environmental regulators had previously cited the project for violations. 

In response to three separate spills of drilling fluids onto federally protected land, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has issued an order to cease construction of the wastewater pipeline that was intended to support the Genesee County, N.Y., Economic Development Center’s STAMP project. 

This shutdown will persist until the spills are effectively cleaned up, and the necessary reports and plans are reviewed and approved. The state Department of Environmental Conservation had already issued its violation notice the previous week. Both agencies have indicated that fines could be imposed. 

This setback represents the latest obstacle for the Genesee County EDC’s STAMP project, which was anticipated to bring around 9,000 high-tech jobs to rural Genesee County. STAMP’s development has been in progress for over a decade, with the Genesee County EDC currently overseeing the infrastructure construction, including a 9.5-mile long wastewater pipeline. This pipeline extends into Orleans County, where it discharges into the Oak Orchard Creek. 

A temporary restraining order issued by an Orleans County judge prevents the pipeline from crossing the county line, but construction within Genesee County is still allowed. The spills and the cease order from the Fish and Wildlife Service are related to the construction of the part of the pipeline within Genesee County. 

The drilling fluid, a mixture of water and Wyoming sodium bentonite, has spilled three times since mid-August. This slurry is used to facilitate horizontal drilling for pipelines by solidifying the tunnel walls. 

Michigan rejects last effort to criminally charge officials in Flint water scandal 

The Michigan Supreme Court rejected a last-chance effort to revive criminal charges against seven people in the Flint water scandal, waving away an appeal by prosecutors who have desperately tried to get around a 2022 decision that gutted the cases. 

The attorney general’s office used an uncommon tool — a one-judge grand jury — to hear evidence and return indictments against nine people, including former Gov. Rick Snyder. But the Supreme Court last year said the process was unconstitutional, and it struck down the charges as invalid. 

State prosecutors, however, were undeterred. They returned to Flint courts and argued the charges could be easily revived with a simple refiling of documents. That position was repeatedly rejected all the way to the state’s highest court. 

“We are not persuaded that the question presented should be reviewed by this court,” the Supreme Court said in a series of one-sentence orders Wednesday. 

Orders were filed in cases against former state health director Nick Lyon, former state medical executive Eden Wells and five other people. 

Snyder was charged with willful neglect of duty, a misdemeanor. The indictment against him has also been dismissed, though the Supreme Court did not address an appeal by prosecutors Wednesday only because that case is on a different timetable. 

Managers appointed by Snyder turned the Flint River into a source for Flint water in 2014, but the water wasn’t treated to reduce its corrosive impact on old pipes. As a result, lead contaminated the system for 18 months. 

Lyon and Wells were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Some experts have attributed a fatal Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in 2014-15 to the water switch. They were accused of not warning the public in a timely manner. 

Indictments were also thrown out against Snyder’s former chief of staff, Jarrod Agen; another key aide, Rich Baird; former Flint Managers Gerald Ambrose and Darnell Earley; former city Public Works Director Howard Croft; and former health official Nancy Peeler. 

Snyder, a Republican, acknowledged that state government botched the water switch, especially regulators who didn’t require certain treatments. But his lawyers deny his conduct rose to the level of a crime. The former governor recently called it “political persecution.” 

Prosecutors could try to start from scratch. But any effort to file charges in a more traditional way against some targets now could be barred by Michigan’s six-year statute of limitations. 

Navigator CO2 Ventures puts proposed carbon dioxide pipeline project on hold for reassessment 

Navigator CO2 Ventures announced that it is putting on hold one of the two biggest proposed carbon dioxide pipeline projects in the Midwest so it can reassess the project. 

The company withdrew its application for a key permit in Illinois and said it was putting all its permit applications on hold. The decision comes after South Dakota regulators last month denied a permit. 

The proposed 1,300-mile project would carry carbon dioxide emissions from more than 20 industrial plants across South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The Illinois permit is crucial because that’s where the company planned to store the carbon dioxide underground. 

“As is consistent with our recent filings in neighboring jurisdictions, Navigator will be taking time to reassess the route and application,” the company said in a statement. 

Navigator said it is not abandoning the project. It plans to reapply for permits where appropriate after completing its evaluation. 

Opponents cheered the news that the project is being put on hold, and promised to keep fighting when the company reapplies. Opponents had organized landowners who were concerned about the project. 

“When you organize the families most at-risk of eminent domain, you can stop a pipeline,” said Jane Kleeb with the Nebraska-based Bold Alliance that also fought against the ill-fated Keystone XL oil pipeline. “This is a core lesson we have learned over the years, as pipeline corporations try to bully hard-working Americans into giving up their land for corporate greed.” 

Proposed pipelines in the region would use carbon capture technology that supporters believe would combat climate change. Opponents question its effectiveness and the need for potentially huge investments over cheaper renewable energy sources. New federal tax incentives and billions of dollars from Congress toward carbon capture efforts have made such projects lucrative. 

Summit Carbon Solutions is behind the biggest proposed carbon dioxide pipeline in the area. It is pressing forward with its plans despite regulatory setbacks in the Dakotas. North Dakota agreed to reconsider its denial of a permit for the $5.5 billion, 2,000-mile pipeline that would cross five states, and Summit is reapplying in South Dakota. A separate hearing on that project in Iowa started in August. And Minnesota regulators plan to conduct a detailed environmental review of the project. 

The Summit pipeline would carry carbon dioxide emissions from more than 30 ethanol plants in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. The emissions would be buried in North Dakota. 

Pennsylvania candy company contests OSHA citations following gas explosion that killed seven 

The U.S. Department of Labor has found a well-known Pennsylvania candy maker failed to evacuate employees after some reported smelling gas before a March 2023 explosion that killed seven workers at the company’s West Reading facility. 

The department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an investigation and learned R.M. Palmer Co. did not remove workers from the manufacturing plant despite workers’ concerns about what OSHA later determined was a natural gas leak. The agency cited the company under its general duty clause for not evacuating workers. OSHA also cited R.M. Palmer for not marking the emergency exit. 

The company has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. 

In a separate statement, R.M. Palmer Co. reiterated its cooperation in the investigation and the company’s intention to “vigorously contest OSHA’s citations, which it believes are legally and factually unsupported.” 

The company referred to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in July 2023, which highlighted the following findings: 

  • After the accident, the NTSB investigation found that natural gas was leaking from a DuPont service tee under a public road less than 2 feet from underground piping that ran between the company’s headquarters building and the building that ultimately exploded. Analysis by the NTSB Materials Laboratory found a longitudinal crack in this DuPont service tee. 
  • This leaking DuPont service tee was installed in 1982. 
  • The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration added the type of service tee that was leaking to their list of pipe materials with “poor performance histories relative to brittle-like cracking” in 2007. 
  • In 2021, UGI exposed and retired the service line that was connected to this DuPont service tee when they relocated the natural gas meter from the basement to the exterior of the building that ultimately exploded. After the service line was retired, however, the 1982 DuPont service tee remained connected to the natural gas system, pressurized at full system pressure. 
  • As part of the meter relocation project, UGI installed a new service tee and a new service line. A small leak was also found in this newly installed service. 

Florida TaxWatch outlines recommendations to upgrade sewer infrastructure state-wide 

Florida TaxWatch released its Septic-to-Sewer: Protecting Florida’s Ground and Surface Water Report, outlining four commonsense recommendations to combat the threat to Florida’s waters by antiquated septic tank technologies: 

The Florida Legislature should task the Department of Environmental Protection to create, and comply with, a comprehensive plan to develop water and wastewater infrastructure statewide, including the development of central sewer lines and wastewater treatment facilities and the removal or enhancement of septic tanks. The approval of projects should be based upon established statewide priorities and demonstrated needs, following the model exhibited by the DOT Work Program. 

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection should work with the Florida Legislature to pass legislation that incorporates the provisions of Executive Order 23-06 into Florida Statutes. 

Where central sewer is not possible, the Florida Legislature should require enhanced, nutrient-reducing technology for septic tanks within a BMAP or in an area with a high-water table. 

The Florida Legislature should authorize the development and implementation of a septic tank inspection and monitoring program, as well as extend an existing financial assistance program or create a new financial assistance program to help economically challenged property owners remediate septic tank issues. The state should consider imposing a user fee on utilities that can be bonded against to sustain funding for septic conversions. 

Thirty percent of Florida’s population utilizes septic systems to treat their residential waste. That 30 percent represents 12 percent of the United States’s septic tank usage. With 76 percent of Floridians living in coastal zones, septic tank effluent is too rarely mitigated, and is a completely preventable recipe for disaster. Septic tank effluent fuels harmful algal blooms; feeds dangerous bacteria including Vibrio vulnificus, the “flesh-eating bacteria;” and contaminates ground and surface waters. 

Governor Hochul secures $234.5 million for New York water infrastructure 

Governor Kathy Hochul announced that the Environmental Facilities Corporation Board of Directors has approved $234.5 million in financial assistance for water infrastructure improvements across New York State. 

The Board’s approval authorizes municipal access to over $226.8 million in low-cost short-term financing and previously announced grants to commence essential water and sewer infrastructure work, including flood mitigation measures safeguarding critical clean water systems from high-water events. 

The Board also acted to ensure the long-term affordability of three existing projects, authorizing long-term financing totaling over $7.7 million to municipalities, providing debt service savings for these initiatives. 

Among the projects receiving funding approval today, $148 million was allocated for a clean water resiliency initiative that will aid the city of Long Beach in its long-term recovery from the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This critical project will protect the city’s wastewater treatment systems with flood mitigation measures, convert the city’s water pollution control plant into a pump station, and connect it with Nassau County’s South Shore Reclamation Facility. 

In conjunction with the ongoing Bay Park Conveyance Project, the city’s efforts will enhance the water quality of the Western Bays and Reynolds Channel. EFC is prefinancing the project to provide the city with the upfront capital required for construction. These funds will be reimbursed through federal disaster grant programs.

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