Thursday, January 31, 2013

Virginia Extension -Help and Information for Private Well Owners

I spoke with Erin James Ling who is the coordinator of both the Virginia Household Water Quality Program, VAHWQP, and the Virginia Master Well Owners Network, VAMWON, as part of her job in the Biological Systems Engineering department at Virginia Tech. Erin works under Dr. Brian Benham, who re-launched the Virginia Household Water Quality Program in 2007 with a National Institute for Food and Agriculture, NIFA, grant. The VAHWQP uses the grant to sponsor and subsidize drinking water clinics held throughout the state where homeowners can get their well water analyzed for 14 chemical and bacteriological contaminants and cost only $49 (there are locations where the cost of the analysis is fully underwritten by the county extension office). The program consists of two meetings- one to get instructions and test kits, and the other a month later to get results and provide interpretation and recommendations. Samples are dropped off at the Virginia Cooperative Extension Office sponsoring the program and driven to Virginia Tech for analysis. The NIFA grant and trained extension volunteers have allowed Virginia to hold and subsidize the cost of the analysis for the water clinics in a dozen or more counties each year. 

Erin joined the program in 2008 as the coordinator of the programs (which is about half her job) and with additional funding for 2013 will be able to devote more of her time to developing and expanding the programs. The focus has been primarily on training extension agents and running the water clinics, but Erin want to move the program beyond that in the future. Since its inception in 1989 drinking water clinics have been conducted in 87 counties across the state analyzing 16,000 water samples. Since the re-launch of the program in 2008 3,000 household samples have been analyzed and results confidentially returned to participants. The program retains the analytical data on a county by county basis, but all identifying information like address or well owner are not kept with the data. The county water analysis data and questionnaire information is only accumulated to develop a statistical database on groundwater and household water quality by county and may someday be one of the more detailed private water supply quality databases in the nation- a database that can be mined for patterns in water quality, geology and well systems. In addition, the demographic information could help to develop better messaging to reach more well owners more effectively.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension was set up to meet the needs of rural landowners and brings the university knowledge and reliable information resources to rural people through the extension agents. As the rural population has changed, the services offered by the extension programs have evolved beyond the farm agents (like Kimbel, Hank Kimbel of Green Acres) to master gardeners, and protection of groundwater and health of Virginia private well owners. Erin with a master’s degree in Environmental Pollution Control and a second master’s degree in Rural Sociology is uniquely qualified to develop programs to build awareness of the risks and responsibilities of private water well ownership and develop programs to communicate technical information to the public.  The Household Water Quality Program and VAMWON program provide information, education, and tools that you can use to improve the quality of your life, help you determine if you need a water treatment system and if needed what system is right for you. The VAMWON consists of Extension agentsand screened volunteers trained in the proper design, management, andmaintenance of private water supply systems (springs, wells, and cisterns).VAMWON trained extension agents organize and conduct the county-based drinking water clinics and serve as a local resource for clientele with household water quality concerns. The schedule of water clinics for 2013 is available at this link.

The programs Erin coordinates are linking rural health with water quality information. She plans to expand the VAMWON program to increase capacity and reach and include septic systems. Maintaining septic systems and Alternative on-site sewage systems is really important to health. Household wastewater is loaded with disease-causing bacteria and viruses, as well as high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus. If a septic system is well-maintained and working properly, it will remove most of these pollutants. Insufficiently treated sewage from septic systems can cause groundwater contamination that can result in contamination of private water wells which can spread disease and impact household health. Understanding and maintaining your septic system and well and regularly testing your well water quality are the best way to protect the quality of your drinking water and the health of your family.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Toxic Chemicals in Chesapeake Bay -Expanding the Pollution Diet

from EPA report

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program just released a report that outlines the extent and severity of toxic contamination in the Chesapeake Bay and the Watershed. This report by Scott Phillips (USGS) and Greg Allen (EPA) is based on a review and compiling of water-quality reports from the various Chesapeake Bay watershed states (Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia) and Washington, D.C., and scientific work performed by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who have been doing extensive studies on contaminants in surface and groundwater and also the cause of observed impact on fish, plants and wildlife.  The authors of the EPA  report focused on summarizing studies conducted after 2000 with an emphasis on the 2010 water-quality assessment reports from the states to define the extent and severity of occurrence of: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); dioxins and furans; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); petroleum hydrocarbons; pesticides; pharmaceuticals; household and personal care products; polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs); biogenic hormones; and heavy metals in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and ultimately in the source drinking water for millions of people.

This report was issued under the “Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” released in May 2010 and is first in a series of actions to control pollution, restore habitat and wildlife, conserve land, and increase public awareness and accountability in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The federal ‘Strategy” for the Chesapeake Bay region of the 64,000-square-mile watershed includes using federal regulations to restore clean water, implement new conservation practices on four-million acres of farms, conserve an additional two-million acres of undeveloped land, and restore the habitat for key species such as oysters, black ducks, and brook trout. Under the “Strategy” the states will be held accountable to achieve specific milestones every two years to ensure measurable progress.

While there is overlap between the so called “settlement agreement” and “Strategy,” they are not the same. The settlement agreement resolved the lawsuit brought by former Maryland State Senator Bernard Fowler, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland and Virginia watermen’s associations, and others filed against the EPA in January 2009 alleging the Agency failed to fulfill its duties under the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Chesapeake 2000 Agreement. EPA settled the lawsuit with the “settlement agreement,” which required EPA to:  “Establish and implement a Chesapeake Bay total maximum daily load, TMDL, for nutrients and sediments.”  The TMDL required the creation of watershed implementation plans (WIPs) approved by EPA under threat of  “back step measures” by all of the Chesapeake Bay watershed states and the District of Columbia to ensure they achieve the nutrient and sediment allocations under the TMDL.

The TMDL addresses only pollution from excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment. The TMDL does not address toxic, carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors that may be present in the watershed. The excess nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay cause algae blooms that consume oxygen and create “dead zones” where fish and shellfish cannot survive, block sunlight that is needed for underwater Bay grasses, and smother aquatic life on the bottom. The result is fish kills and murky water that threaten the aquatic industry and recreational use of the bay. 

The TMDL sets a total Chesapeake Bay watershed limit for the six states and Washington DC of 185.9 million pounds of nitrogen, 12.5 million pounds of phosphorus and 6.45 billion pounds of sediment per year which is a 25% reduction in nitrogen, 24% reduction in phosphorus and 20 %t reduction in sediment from the current levels. The pollution limits are then partitioned to the various states, DC and river basins based on the Chesapeake Bay modeling tools and monitoring data. The estimated cost of implementing the WIPs in Virginia and Maryland were $13.6-$15.7 billion and $14.8 billion respectively. Now EPA is preparing to address the toxic pollutants.

This new report addresses toxic pollutants in the watershed and is the first step in a new round of regulations and requirements for the Chesapeake Bay watershed states and Washington DC. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, both largemouth and smallmouth bass show signs of feminization (testicular oocytes and vitellogenin in males), skin lesions and impaired immune systems. The scientists of the USGS and Fish and Wildlife discovered that the smallmouth bass have the most impacted with a higher incidence of intersex (male fish with eggs)occurrence and a high incidence of skin lesions and large fish kills in the Potomac and James Rivers. Smallmouth bass may be the most sensitive indicator of environmental health in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The smallmouth bass have been a warning, but the pollution problems they represent remain beyond our understanding at this time. The USGS and Fish and Wildlife have not succeeded in identifying the cause or causes of the feminization, skin lesions and impaired immune systems.
from EPA report

The EPA report found that PCBs, PAHs, herbicides (primarily atrazine, simazine, metolachlor, and their degradation products), and mercury were widespread throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Other contaminants like dioxins/furans, petroleum, hydrocarbons, some chlorinated insecticides (aldrin, chlordane, dieldrin, DDT/DDE, heptachlor epoxide, mirex), and some metals (aluminum, chromium, iron, lead, manganese, zinc) were known in localized occurrences. Finally, for atrazine, some pharmaceuticals, some household and personal-care products, some PBDEs, and biogenic hormones, the extent and amount of contamination could not be assessed based on the information available.

The Chesapeake Bay Program intends to develop toxic contaminant reduction strategies to be added to the Chesapeake Bay TMDL by 2015, but first more data needs to be gathered to identify the extent of contamination for many of the chemicals. The impact on human life and the ecosystem of these and other emerging contaminants is not understood. As the EPA report and previous work done by the USGS point out we need to determine the impact and fate of these micro pollutants before we implement the watershed cleanup plans to make sure we are implementing the right strategies for the health of the entire ecosystem which may include eliminating the use of certain chemicals, upgrading waste water treatment systems and other actions. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Keystone Pipeline New Nebraska Route Approved by Governor

On Tuesday, January 22nd  2013 Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska signed the recommendation to the U.S. Department of State for a Presidential Permit for the Keystone XL pipeline to cross the international boarder. This was expected after the Nebraska state regulators recommended approval of the new route for the Keystone XL Pipeline on January 4th 2013. The recommendation is in support of the TransCanada second application for a Presidential Permit to build the northern most section of the Keystone XL pipeline (Phase IV) from the Canadian Border from where Saskatchewan meets Nebraska along this new route through Nebraska that would join up with the Keystone Phase II which runs from Steel City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma. The new route avoids many of the fragile soils in northern Nebraska and the shallowest areas of the Ogallala Aquifer, but still overlies portions of the aquifer, which covers most of the state.  

There is currently a pipeline that runs east from Hardesty Saskatchewan to Manitoba and then south through the Dakotas to Steel City, Nebraska. It is a less direct route and is a lower volume pipeline. The existing Keystone Pipeline, is known as Phase I and run from Hardesty, Canada to Steel City, Nebraska near the Kansas and Nebraska border. Keystone Phase II runs from Steel City to Cushing, Oklahoma where it still terminates, leaving the Canadian crude oil in Oklahoma along with U.S. domestic production from North Dakota that has been using the pipeline to reach the Oklahoma storage facilities. Increased U.S. oil production combined with the Canadian production has produced a glut of oil waiting to be refined in Cushing, OK.

In February 2012 TransCanada announced their intention to build the Cushing Oklahoma to the Nederland, Texas portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Keystone Phase III, a 435 mile extension of the existing Keystone pipeline to Port Arthur and Houston areas. The Keystone Phase III Project (Oklahoma to Texas) began construction last summer and planned to begin operations in mid to late 2013. In response to the glut of oil in Cushing, Enbridge Inc. and Enterprise Products Partners owners of the Seaway pipeline that runs from the gulf coast area to Cushing, Oklahoma, reversed the flow in their gas pipeline to move crude from Cushing to the gulf coast refineries. The reversal  and change to crude required pump station additions and modifications, and was up and running in mid 2012, the capacity of the reversed Seaway Pipeline is up to 150,000 barrels of oil per day. 

According to the TransCanada the Keystone XL will also transport U.S. crude oil from the very large Bakken oil basin in Montana and North Dakota, along with Canadian oil, to U.S. refineries. TransCanada expects the cross border permit to be processed expeditiously and a decision made now that a new route in Nebraska has been approved by state regulators and endorsed by the Governor. This is alternative route for Keystone XL Phase IV will now be submitted as part of the Presidential Permit application. Though, it seems doubtful that the application will be approved any time soon.

The Keystone XL Pipeline has been very controversial. Most of the environmental controversy has seemed to focus on the vulnerability of the porous soils of the Sandhills and fears of a possible oil leak into one of the nation's most important agricultural aquifers. Moving the pipeline away from the Sandhills should mitigate that concern. However, many who oppose the Keystone XL pipeline want to prevent the development of the oil sands resources in Canada to prevent the acceleration of global warming. The Canadian oil sands have been known for decades, but until oil prices rose and technology improved these oil deposits were too expensive to exploit beyond the limited scope of surface mining which could reach only about 8% of the oil sands. Advances in technology in both oil sand extraction and refining techniques and rising oil prices altered the economics and have made the in-situ extraction of oil sand possible. Using Steam Assisted Gravity Drainage (SAGD) combined with horizontal drilling has allowed for in-situ extraction of the oil. These advances in extraction techniques have quadrupled recoverable oil reserves and moved Canada into second place in proved world oil reserves, it requires more energy to produce the oil and increases the carbon footprint of the crude as compared to oil from the Middle East or Brazil.

The current method of mining the Canadian oil sands increases the CO2 released in every gallon of gas adding to man’s carbon footprint. In addition, older methods of mining the oil sands left open pits that still need to be reclaimed, thought today groups of wells are typically drilled off a central pad and like fracking wells and can extend for miles in all directions. This reduces surface disturbances of the land and the footprint of the area to be reclaimed. Canada’s Imperial Oil just started operations at another new oil sands site, Kearl,  producing  another 110,000 barrels per day of bitumen. This bitumen doesn’t need to be refined. It goes straight to the pipeline, but in general, refining capacity and pipeline capacity are not keeping up with the production of Canadian crude and the price has fallen to the lowest in the world.

The Keystone XL is planned to initially transport of 830,000 barrels a day which will be ultimately expanded to 1.3 million barrels a day of oil, to be processed in the oil refineries along the Gulf Coast and in Oklahoma. The Keystone XL Phase IV pipeline could be completed by the end of 2014 if they received the Presidential permit this spring. In 2011 for the first time since 1949 the U.S. exported more petroleum products than it imported.  The United States remained a net importer of crude oil, some of which was refined into petroleum products that were then exported. The increase in exported distillate fuel (mostly diesel) is what allowed the U.S. to become a net exporter of petroleum products.

American refiners still imported large, although declining, amounts of crude oil from Canada, which in 2011 topped 2 million bbl/d for the first time, and from North Dakota's Bakken formation to process into petroleum products.  According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the U.S. consumed 18.8million barrels per day of petroleum products during 2011, making us the world's largest petroleum consumer. Current imports are 8.4 million barrels a day and Canada supplied the largest share of these petroleum imports. The next biggest sources of U.S. petroleum imports in 2011 were Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Nigeria, in that order. Overall, about 40% of U.S. petroleum imports came from countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), while 60% came from non-OPEC countries such as Canada, Mexico, Russia, and Brazil. Most ofthese petroleum imports were crude oil. 

In June 2010 TransCanada commenced commercial operation of the first phase of the Keystone Pipeline System. Keystone's Phase I was the conversion of natural gas pipeline to crude oil pipeline and construction of a bullet line that brings the crude oil non-stop from Canada to Steel City at 435,000 barrels a day. Phase II of Keystone was an extension of the pipeline from Steele City, Nebraska to Cushing, Oklahoma and began operations in February 2011. Keystone Phase II increased the volume per day of Keystone Phase I with the addition of pumping stations; the system now runs at 591,000 barrels a day. The Seaway pipeline began operations in June completing the ability to pipe crude from Canada to the Gulf Coast carrying 150,000 barrels a day. The Keystone Phase III when completed in 2013 will increase volume in the Oklahoma to Texas portion of the pipeline. The Keystone Phase IV when and if approved will increase volume of the upper portion of the pipeline from the current 591,000 barrels a day to 1.3 million barrels a day.

The Canadian pipeline, known as the Northern Gateway, is a 730 mile route from Alberta where the oil is produced to the Pacific port of Kitmat, for export to Asia. In order to  reach the port the pipeline must travel through British Columbia (the California of Canada) and is facing strong public opposition and the political leaders in British Columbia offer no support. Economic Benefit to British Columbia would be minimal. The Northern Gateway would open a potentially large new market for Canadian crude by taking oil over the Rockies to Kitimat, British Columbia, where it could be loaded onto tankers bound for China and other Asian markets. Due to the current excess in supply in the United States, the price of West Texas Intermediate crude has fallen and the price of the Canadian crude has fallen even more to near $50 per barrel due to a lack of capacity to refine the heavier crude.  The Northern Gateway could reduce that price differential somewhat and is being proposed to carry 525,000 barrels of crude a day. If it wins approval, Enbridge expects it to be up and running in 2017. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Texas Drought Continues

It’s only January, but already the Lower Colorado River Authority, LCRA, in Texas is preparing to cut off Highland Lakes water to most farmers again this year if drought conditions don’t improve. To help protect municipal and industrial customers during the drought, LCRA’s Board of Directors unanimously decided last week to withhold Highland Lakes water to most downstream farmers again this year if drought conditions don’t improve by March 1. Now, if the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approves the emergency drought relief measure for the second year in a row and the combined storage of lakes Travis and Buchanan are at or below 850,000 acre-feet on March 1, 2013 downstream farmers will not receive any Highland Lakes water.

Last March for the first time in its 78 year history LCRA did not deliver any irrigation water to most downstream farmers under emergency relief granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to the obligations under the existing water contracts. This year could see a repeat of that scenario.  According to Texas state water law, “first in time is first in right.” Downstream rice farmers were given first water rights in the Colorado basin, and these rights are senior to LCRA's water rights for the Highland Lakes. In fact, without the support of the rice farmers, the Highland Lakes and dams might never have been built. Rice farmers were among the strongest supporters of building the Highland Lakes and dams in the 1930s to reduce flooding and make water available during droughts. Nonetheless, it is most of the rice farmers who once more are in danger of not receiving any water under the emergency measures as the two year old drought continues.

Though 2012 was not as dry as 2011 the last few months have been particularly dry. Rainfall in October through December was the third driest on record for that period. Because the ground has been so dry lately, it would take a series of good soaking rains to produce significant inflows to help the lakes recover. Unfortunately, forecasts call for rainfall across the region to be generally below normal through at least March which would trigger the emergency measures once more. The current drought has also impacted the flow of the Colorado River, the Red River and much of Texas remains in drought. Fearful of the duration of the drought with a booming economy and growing population state politicians are taking action. 

The Texas legislature is considering House Bills 4 and 11 filed by Rep. Allan Ritter, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee which would utilize $2 billion of its “rainy day fund” to create a revolving loan fund for cities and water authorities to build water supply projects. The state's water plan proposes construction of up to 26 new reservoirs, desalination plants and pipelines and greater conservation and recycling of water, to meet the demands of a projected 46 million Texans in 2060. The proposed water infrastructure fund would be a giant step towards funding the state’s water plan and is supported by the Texas House Natural Resources Committee, the Sierra Club, Austin-based Environment Texas and several water authorities. This could make Texas a leader in water planing in the arid west. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Deepwater Horizon- Does The Penalty fit the Crime?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, announced last Thursday that Transocean Deepwater Inc., Transocean Ocean Holdings LLC,Transocean Offshore Deepwater Drilling Inc., Transocean Deepwater Inc. and Triton Asset Leasing GMBH have signed a cooperation and guilty plea agreement with the U.S. government pleading guilty to criminal violation of the clean water act, and agreed to pay $400 million in criminal fines and penalties and have agreed to pay an additional $1 billion to resolve federal Clean Water Act civil penalty claims for the 87 day oil spill at the Macondo Well and the Transocean drilling rig Deepwater Horizon back in 2010.

Under the settlement, the Transocean must also implement court-enforceable measures to improve the operational safety and emergency response capabilities at all their drilling rigs working in waters of the United States. These measures are aimed at reducing the chances of another blowout and release/spill of oil and at improving emergency response capabilities and will be in place for at least five years.

Back on November 15, 2012, BP agreed to plead guilty to 11 counts of felony manslaughter, one count of felony obstruction of Congress, and violations of the Clean Water and Migratory Bird Treaty Acts., all arising from the 2010 Macondo Well/ Deepwater Horizon blowout that killed 11 people and caused the largest oil spill and what EPA called in their press release the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. BP agreed to pay $4.5 billion, including $1.26 billion criminal fine, to end all criminal charges and resolve securities claims against them.

In addition, on November 28th 2012 EPA announced that it had temporarily suspended BP Exploration and Production, Inc., BP PLC and affiliated companies (BP) from new contracts with the federal government. This includes oil development leases in a Gulf as well as contracts with the Department of Defense. The suspension does not affect existing agreements and contracts BP has with the government. Since the Deepwater Horizon accident, the US has granted BP more than 50 new leases in the Gulf of Mexico, where the company has been drilling since the government lifted the drilling moratorium. In addition, in 2011 BP was the largest fuel supplier to the U.S. Department of Defense and is likely to be the largest supplier in 2012, and 2013. BP has also reached an agreement to settle claims from fishermen and others affected by the oil spill for $7.8 billion that was approved by a federal judge on December 21, 2012. According to a press release by BP, this raises to $41.95 billion the charge taken against income in the third quarter financial statements. BP’s financial statements as of  December 31, 2012 will reflect this additional charge that reflects the criminal settlements, the $18 billion spent on cleanup costs and the $15 billion  paid into the trust fund to compensate victims.  This settlement only addresses economic and property damage and does not address claims made by cleanup workers and other who say exposure to oil or oil dispersant has made them sick.

Separate from the corporate charges and settlements, a federal grand jury has indicted two BP supervisors, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine who were on board the Deepwater Horizon with seaman manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter for each of the 11 men killed in the blast, as well as a criminal violation of the clean water act. Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine were the on-site supervisors representing BP on the Deepwater Horizon drill rig. They were the Well Site Leaders known colloquially as the “company men.” Their job was to ensure that BP had “well control” by supervising the implementation of BP’s drilling plan and ensuring the safety of the operation.

According to charges filed by the United States against Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine on April 20th 2010 a negative pressure test was performed on the well to ensure that the temporary cement seal just installed would hold when the drilling mud was removed when the well displacement took place. During the test the pressure quickly built up above acceptable values. Each time the pressure was bled off it built up again along with abnormal fluid flow.

The two men were presented with what the U.S. Government characterizes as a nonsensical explanation that this was due to a "bladder effect” and directed the testing of the “kill line.” The government charges that rather than consult with BP engineers on shore about the continued high pressure in the drill pipe and ask for advice, Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine passed the negative pressure test. The government characterizes this as gross negligence.

The well was not secure. The abnormal readings during the negative pressure test were the indication that the well was not secure and Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine failed to adequately account for the abnormal readings during the testing. The government charges that these two men by deeming the negative pressure test a success allowed the displacement of the well to proceed and resulted in the blowout that killed 11 men aboard the rig that same evening. Mr. Kaluza and Mr. Vidrine are charged with involuntary manslaughter, seaman manslaughter and criminal violation of the Clean Water Act. Both men have pleaded not guilty in a New Orleans court. They face up to 10 years in prison on each of 11 counts of seaman's manslaughter and eight years in prison on each of 11 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The trial has been delayed until 2014 to allow the defense to adequately prepare.

Finally, former senior BP executive David Rainey pleaded not guilty to obstruction of justice charges for lying about how much oil was gushing out of the runaway well. He faces five years in prison if convicted.

Beijing Air Pollution off the Charts

Air pollution in Beijing is once more in the news. Last weekend the Air Quality index as measured by the PM2.5 monitoring station atop the US Embassy in Beijing surpassed 700 for 24 hours and the Chinese took a series of emergency response measures in Beijing Sunday to protect children and the old from the high levels of air pollution. The Beijing municipal government reported levels of 500 over the weekend, but the Chinese system does not report numbers beyond 500 which is the top of the official Air Quality scale. Nonetheless, the air quality had exceeded the standards of hazardous according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For comparison last month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the reduction in the fine particle pollution, PM2.5, average annual allowed level to 12 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) or an AQI of 39. The 24-hr standard was recently revised to a level of 35 ug/m3 (an AQI of 99) and in truth not all cities in the United States currently meet that standard. Bakersfield, California with a population of about 350,000 has some of the worst air in the United States and does not quite meet that annual level, but their air quality numbers are a fraction of Beijing’s.  

PM2.5 particles can be either directly emitted or formed via atmospheric reactions. Primary particles are emitted from cars, trucks, and heavy equipment, as well as residential wood combustion, forest fires, and agricultural waste burning. The main components of secondary particulate matter are formed when pollutants like NOx and SO2 react in the atmosphere to form particles. These particles are emitted from coal fired power plants and other combustion engines. The increase in automobiles and coal fired power plants (not using the cleanest technology) has created this problem in Beijing. While particulates can travel great distances, this problem is the result of the expansion of the economy without the strict air pollution controls on their coal fired power plants and industry, which was within my lifetime the experience in our own cities.

So, as the Chinese spew more and more carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere they are also spewing , pollutants and particulates which are most concentrated in their own cities. A natural gas fired power plant releases 40% less carbon dioxide and fewer pollutants than a coal fired plant and best technology could significantly reduce the particulates, but is expensive.  As the Chinese expand their air pollution, the United States continues to reduce ours. In the U.S. total toxic air releases in 2011 declined 8 % from 2010, mostly because of decreases in hazardous air pollutant emissions, even while total releases of toxic chemicals increased for the second year in a row, according to the EPA. In the mid-Atlantic Region including my home of Virginia, air data shows a decrease of 32.5 million pounds or 13.8 % of chemical releases as compared to 2010.

Last year the Chinese began publishing the small particle, PM2.5 air pollution data for Beijing . Before last year the Chinese had been reporting their air quality based on PM10, which are particles smaller than 10 micrometers but larger than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. According to the US EPA and World Health Organization, the smaller, finer pollutants measured by PM2.5 are especially dangerous for human health. Studies have shown that people increased risk of asthma, lung cancer, cardiovascular problems, birth defects and premature death from particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter that lodge deep in the lungs.

The air pollution in Beijing, home to over 20 million people, is easily seen by the smog that wraps the city’s apartment complexes and office buildings many days. The US Embassy in Beijing has their own PM2.5 monitoring station atop their building and has been reporting via an open Embassy Twitter Feedhourly PM2.5 pollution data. The U.S. Embassy reported a series of readings beyond the scale of the air quality index, AQI, (which goes to 500) in fall of 2010 and levels over 700 this past weekend which sparked emergency measures and public response (over the Internet). Current air quality levels from the US Embassy are 175 which is “ unhealthy”but the crisis seem to be over for the moment.  

Monday, January 14, 2013

Uranium Mining in Virginia a Threat to Our Water Resources

Last week the winter session of the Virginia General Assembly was called to order. Scheduled to be decided this winter is whether or not to lift a 30-year-old moratorium on uranium mining within the state. Senator John Watkins has introduced a proposal to require the state to draft uranium-mining regulations, essentially ending the 30 year moratorium on Uranium mining in the Commonwealth. Senator Watkins, from Powhatan and Senator Richard Saslaw, from Fairfax will carry the legislation in the Senate, and Delegate Jackson Miller, from Manassas, will introduce similar legislation in the House of Delegates. Now is the time to make your voice heard.

In 1978 a particularly rich deposit of Uranium was discovered at Cole's Hill in Pittsylvania County in south central Virginia. This was followed by a flurry of exploration for uranium deposits in Virginia. In 1982 the Commonwealth placed a moratorium on uranium mining. In recent years, as the price of uranium reached $140 around 2007, and two families living in the vicinity of Cole's Hill formed a company called Virginia Uranium, Inc. to begin exploring the uranium deposit once again. Though the uranium spot price has fallen to around $40, that is still more than twice the historical price, and Virginia Uranium and their supporters have called for the Virginia legislature to lift the uranium mining moratorium for now just on Cole's Hill. As this was all percolating in state politics, in 2009 the Virginia Coal and Energy Commission requested that the National Research Council convene an independent committee of experts to review all the literature and develop a report to identify the scientific, environmental, human health and safety, and regulatory aspects of mining and processing Virginia’s uranium resources. In addition, Fairfax Water commissioned a white paper on uranium mining and ended up with the Fairfax County Water Authority opposing uranium mining in Virginia and supporting the continuation of the moratorium on uranium mining in the Commonwealth.  

After reviewing these reports and as a voting member of the Potomac Watershed Roundtable I voted with the majority to maintain the moratorium on uranium mining. The Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts with which I am also affiliated (through my volunteer work at the PWSWCD) also supports maintaining the moratorium. The Virginia Municipal League, the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Farm Bureau, the Fauquier Water Authority, and local governments from Halifax and Virginia Beach, oppose lifting the ban. Last week Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who serves as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate if the vote falls to party lines (Sen Watkins is a Republican and Senator Saslaw is a Democrat so that does not seem likely), announced that he supports maintaining the moratorium on uranium mining. Let me tell you why I do not want to see the moratorium lifted at this time.
From the Fairfax Water White Paper

Geological exploration has identified more than 55 locations within the Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions of Virginia where uranium is found.  Uranium occurs in the Lovingston rock formation at a fraction of a percent.  In order for a uranium occurrence to be considered a commercially exploitable source of uranium ore, it must be of sufficient size, be at least 0.1% uranium to the other rock components in the deposit and be able to be mined and processed with current technology. So far only the uranium deposits at Cole Hill have been proven to meet these requirements. Even the “rich deposits” at Cole hill will produce 1,000 pounds of waste called tailing for every pound of uranium extracted. The waste, the mine tailings, is the problem.

There are several methods to mine and process uranium. The choice of mining method depends on the quality and quantity of the ore, the shape and depth of the ore deposit, the type of rock, and a wide range of site-specific environmental conditions. Because of the geology in the Commonwealth of Virginia, it is likely that only open pit or underground mining would be viable. While there are risks inherent in mining to worker the uranium miners would also face the additional risk of dust containing radiation.

After the millions of pounds of rock are removed from the ground by conventional mining methods, the uranium must be separated from the rock and minerals and other radioactive materials, impurities removed and yellowcake produced. Yellowcake is a concentrated form of uranium oxide made in a combination of crushing and/or grinding the rock and chemical processes to dissolve the uranium from the rest of the rock using acids or bases to leach the uranium from the rock dust. The yellowcake then needs to be separated, dried, and packaged. There is more than one type of processing and the choice depends on the nature of the uranium ore, the composition of the rock in the formation as well as environmental, safety, and economic factors. During uranium ore processing, several waste products are created, including tailings, leached residue and waste water. Tailings consist of everything that was in the ore except the extracted uranium. Tailings from uranium mining and processing operations contain radioactive materials remaining from the radioactive decay of uranium, such as thorium and radium as well as heavy metals also present in the rock. The real risks to Virginia are the risks of contamination to our water resources from the waste water and tailings. Uranium tailings are a source of radioactive contamination for thousands of years, and therefore must be controlled and stored carefully away from water which will erode and carry the radioactive materials into the ground and surface water.

Over the past few decades, improvements have been made to tailings management systems to isolate tailings from the environment. The long term effectiveness of these management systems has not been tested and uranium mining is typically carried out in arid environments. Virginia is subject to relatively frequent storms that produce intense rainfall. Natural events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, intense rainfall, or drought could lead to the release of contaminants into the waters of Virginia. It is questionable whether modern-engineered tailings containment could be expected to prevent erosion and surface and groundwater contamination for as long as 1,000 years. In Coles Hill alone the tailings waste will amount to over 118,888,000,000 pounds of pulverized rock with radioactive materials that can slowly leach into our groundwater through failure to prevent percolation of precipitation into the tailings containment or through accidents be released from impoundments to surface waters. Though Virginia’s rainfall averages 42 inches a year in past few years alone rainfall has varied from under 30 inches to a high of 82 inches of rain a year. Water is a great solvent and in Virginia it would seem impossible to keep such vast quantities of tailings permanently isolated from water.  

The only use for uranium is for weapons and nuclear powered reactors. The United States currently has 104 nuclear reactors in operation supplying about 20% of U.S. electricity, and in 2011 these reactors required 20,256 short tons of concentrated enriched uranium and this is not expected to change significantly in the future. In 2010, the United States imported 92 % of the uranium that it needed to fuel its nuclear power reactors. There appears to be adequate world supply for our limited number of nuclear power plants at this time. Uranium mining and processing represents unique risks to source water supplies from toxic and radioactive byproducts. The half-life of the uranium 238 and its isotopes is thousands of years. A containment failure will risk the groundwater and surface water supply of the Commonwealth, and for Cole's Hill will endanger the drinking water supply of Virginia Beach if there is a breach in containment. With current technology, the risk is too great.  The uranium will still be there when our knowledge of how to stabilize for hundreds of year the mine tailings increases to the point we can safely mine the uranium without endangering our water resources.
The formation the contains uranium in Virginia from Fairfax Water

Thursday, January 10, 2013

2012 the Warmest Year for U.S., but not for the Earth

NOAA 2012 Temperature Map

On Tuesday the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Climate Data Center announced that 2012 had been the warmest year on record for the contiguous United States  with average temperatures 3.2°F above the 20th century average. While global temperatures are unlikely to reach a record for 2012 (only data through November 2012 is available) still, according to the latest data from the National Climatic Data Center, the high average global temperatures for November 2012 combined with record to near-record warmth over land from April to September and warmer-than-average global ocean temperatures contributed to the first 11 months of 2012 ranking as the eighth warmest 11 month period on record with 1998 remaining the warmest year on record for the earth.

According to the weather scientists at NOAA the average temperature for the contiguous United States for 2012 was 55.3°F, which was 3.2°F above the 20th century average and 1.0°F above the previous record from 1998. Every state in the contiguous United States had an above-average annual temperature for 2012. On the national scale, 2012 started off much warmer than average, with the fourth-warmest winter (December 2011–February 2012) on record, but the real and immediate problem is water.  The winter snow cover for the contiguous United States last winter was the third smallest on record, and snowpack totals across the Central and Southern Rockies were less than half of normal. The warm spring resulted in an early start to the 2012 growing season in many places, which increased water demand on the soil earlier than what is typical. In combination with the lack of winter snow and lingering dryness from 2011, the record-warm spring laid the foundation for the great drought of 2012. The average precipitation total for the contiguous U.S. for 2012 was 26.57 inches, 2.57 inches below average, and the 15th driest year on record for the nation.  

Regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency remain focused on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but if CO2 is the main driver of climate change and these new temperature highs in the United States are evidence of climate change and not just extreme weather, then it is too late and the United States at about 16% of global carbon emissions and falling cannot stop the growth in CO2 emissions. According to the International Energy Agency, IEA, 2011 estimates of world CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion, World CO2 emissions rose by 1 billion metric tons in 2011, a 3.2 % increase  to reach 31.6 billion metric tons. In 2011 the top four world generators of CO2 emission from fossil fuels were in descending order China, the United States, the European Union and India who edged out Russia to take the number four slot. China, the largest emitter of CO2 increased their emissions the most. China contributed almost three quarters of the global increase, with its emissions rising by 720 million metric tons, or 9.3% to 8.46 billion metric tons of CO2, and are now driving global CO2 emissions. It is estimate that China will emit around 10 billion metric tons of CO2 in 2013. CO2 emissions in the United States in 2011 fell by 92 million metric tons of CO2 or 1.7% to an estimated 5.32 billion metric tons.  U.S. emissions have now fallen by 430 million metric tons or 7.7% since 2006, the largest reduction of all countries or regions and no real growth is forecast. There is no interest in reducing CO2 emissions or even stopping emissions growth in China. They are not yet a rich nation and are currently experiencing the coldest winter in 28 years. China remains focused on food and growth. 

In the U.S. the EPA has used regulation to ensure that total CO2 emissions are reduced over time. In 2012 EPA proposed the first Clean Air Act standard for carbon dioxide. Under the new rule, new power plants will have to emit no more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That standard effectively changes the fuel of choice for all future power capacity additions to natural gas, nuclear, or the renewable category (with government subsidies).  In addition the EPA and the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) new millage and emission standards for automobiles and light trucks for model year 2012 through 2025 requiring continued improvement of about a 5% per year in average fuel economy from 2016 when they are required to have at least a 35.5 mpg fleet average for vehicles sold in the U.S. and will have to boost car and light truck fuel economy to an average 56.2 miles per gallon by 2025 significantly reducing the use of fuel.   The major users of energy in the United States are heating of residential and commercial buildings (11%), industry (20%), transportation including cars, trucks, trains, planes and ships (27.4%), and electric power generation (40%). Passenger cars, light trucks and motorcycles represent 17% of the national greenhouse gas emissions. With the CO2 standard and fuel economy standards the U.S is on track to reduce their CO2 emission in the coming decades.

The climate of the earth is constantly changing on a geological time scale, but the geological record hints that sudden shifts can happen. The controversy over both the science and policy relating to climate change is far from over, but policy mandates to have the United States adopt constraints on fossil fuel energy consumption will have little impact on the global level of CO2. The earth’s atmosphere is interconnected and worldwide CO2 emissions will continue to grow powered by China and India in the short run. We need now to appropriately respond to the continuing drought.
Drought conditions November 2012 NOAA

The Renewable Fuel Standard, RFS, creates a regulatory mandated demand for corn in the United States. In 2012 the RFS mandated ethanol consumed 5.05 billion bushels of corn almost 50% of the corn crop. The USDA has forecast total corn production for 2012 at 10.7 billion bushels, down 13% from 2011. The lowest U.S. production of corn since 1995. Much of the Midwest remains in drought conditions, and according to the most recent USDA and NOAA reports drought could impact the corn crop next year, too. To fulfill the RFS mandate we are using up our water resources (using the Ogallala Aquifer) and we might be forced to buy corn, taking food from the mouths of poorer nations. Yes, we can buy more corn if need be. The United States is still a rich enough country and we will eat meat and the long list of food made from corn products and make lots of ethanol to dilute gasoline, but the cost is the United States is exporting hunger to fulfill the RFS.

Monday, January 7, 2013

New York Fracking Report Leaked to the New York Times

Extent of Marcellus Shale within the Devonian Shale of the Northeast- USGS

Last Thursday the New York Times reported that an analysis on fracking prepared in early 2012 was leaked to their paper. This analysis was prepared last year after the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2011 draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on drilling comment period was closed and might have been prepared in response to the comments received. The 8 pages obtained by the New York Times were characterized by the paper as containing an analysis that showed that hydraulic Fracturing, or fracking, could be safely done in New York by implementing the proper mitigation measures. The report, obtained by the New York Times from and “expert who did not believe it should be kept secret,” was characterized by State Department of Environmental Conservation, DEC, as an out of date summary that was nearly a year old and will undergo significant changes. The revised version of the Environmental Impact Statement has not yet been completed or released and the DEC’s health assessment is being reviewed by three outside experts. I think someone may have violated the terms of their consulting contract.

The report (or summary) the New York Times had seems to be in agreement with the recommendations made in the report of the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board in 2011. That report had a rational approach to regulation recommending disclosure, testing, evaluation and modification of regulation and practices based on the information and data obtained. It assumes information and data will be gathered and analyzed and seems to be the accepted view, but fracking is a highly complex issue whose greatest risks are to our water resources. There needs to be much more data collected over time and analyzed. That has not being done in the past and until extensive data is collected and studied we will not truly know. The data needs to be collected on a state by state basis and provided to the US Geological Survey (USGS) and US EPA to consolidate on a national level. It is essential that the USGS be involved because of the unique expertise and research in geology and water resources.

In 2011, the EPA began a series of research projects into the impacts and potential impacts of fracking on water that are scheduled for completion in late 2014. These projects will be the basis of their actions and future regulations for oil and gas operations. Whether the EPA will regulate oil and gas exploration nationally or leave the oversight in the hands of the states is an open question. There is an argument that water resources and geology are very local phenomena and cannot be generalized over the nation and that hydraulic fracturing should remain under local oversight. According to the New York Times the leaked report rejects performing a quantitative risk assessment because such an assessment would ‘involve making a large number of assumptions about the many scenario-specific variables that influence the nature and degree of potential human exposure and toxicity.”

The EPA research projects may help with that though all the answers will not be known in 2014.  The current fracking projects at the EPA are a series of studies. Existing Data from multiple sources have been obtained for review and analysis. Well construction and hydraulic fracturing records provided by well drillers are being reviewed for 333 oil and gas wells across the United States; data within these records are being examined to assess the effectiveness of current well construction practices at containing gases and liquids before, during, and after hydraulic fracturing.

Computer models are being developed (or expanded) to identify conditions that may lead to impacts on drinking water resources from hydraulic fracturing. The EPA has created hypothetical scenarios for water acquisition, well injection, and wastewater treatment and waste disposal stages of the water cycle that they hope to have the models evaluate. Computer models are also being used to explore the possibility of subsurface gas and fluid migration from deep shale formations to overlying aquifers in different scenarios. The effectiveness of the models would be dependent on how closely the model predicts transport behavior in rock and shale and the similarity in behavior of different formations.

Laboratory studies are being performed to identifying potential impacts of inadequately treating hydraulic fracturing wastewater and discharging it to rivers. Experiments are being designed to test how well common wastewater treatment processes remove selected contaminants from hydraulic fracturing wastewater, including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides and organic contaminants. Since wastewater treatment plants are not designed to remove more than biological waste and bacteria, any removal of fracking chemicals and contaminants would be incidental.

The EPA has identified chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids from 2005 to 2011 and chemicals found in flowback and produced water. The EPA is performing toxicity assessments based on chemical, physical, and toxicological properties for chemicals with known chemical structures and using exiting toxicology models to estimate properties in cases where information is not available. The important thing that EPA is doing is bringing together all the data and previous work to get as complete picture of what we know about how hydraulic fracturing may be impacting our water resources and that would allow a broad quantitative health risk assessment to be performed along the identified routes of exposure.  

New York placed a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus Shale in 2010 while it assessed the effects of fracking. New York DEC’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on drilling was released in the fall of 2011 and recommended that drilling be permitted, but with conditions. The comment period was extended and the DEC began a revision to the EIS that has been going on for over a year. The leaked report indicates that the DEC is recommending lifting the ban on hydro fracking in New York, but that is not certain and fracking remains controversial for good reason.

A large swath of southwestern New York sits atop the Marcellus Shale, which is the third-largest natural gas field currently known in the world. The Marcellus Shale alone is estimated to be 500-trillion-cubic-feet of gas reserve. This resource could heat our homes for a generation or more, and power our electrical generating plants, even fuel cars either directly or through plug in hybrids. The possible impacts to our economy and environment are far reaching. The potential risks are also far reaching.

Our ability to recover natural gas buried a mile or more beneath the earth has increased. Advances in horizontal drilling which allows a vertically drilled well to turn and run thousands of feet laterally through the earth combined with advances in hydraulic fracking, the pumping of millions of gallons of chemicals and water into shale at high pressure have increased our ability to recover natural gas from shale. Hydraulic fracking while old has made tremendous advances in the past 15 years have made it possible to economically access this gas. Our knowledge of the impacts from fracking has lagged behind our ability to access the gas.
In hydraulic fracking on average 2-5 million gallons of chemicals and water is pumped into the shale formation at 9,000 pounds per square inch and literally cracks the shale or breaks open existing cracks and allows the trapped natural gas to flow. Each stage of the fracking water cycle is a potential area for impact to drinking water supplies especially from human error and irresponsibly and improperly handling chemicals and contaminated water and poorly managing and protecting our water resources. Water used for fracturing fluids is acquired from surface water or groundwater in the local area. Billions of gallons of water will be used in each region for fracking. Wastewaters from the hydraulic fracturing process (flowback or water produced in the well) needs to be properly treated before it is returned to the waters of the earth. The reality is all water on earth has been here for 4.5 billion years and no new water is being created. The fate of the water that flows back after fracturing has to be addressed, but not all fracturing fluids injected into the geologic formation are recovered. The EPA estimates that the fluids recovered range from 15-80% of the volume injected depending on the site. The long term fate of any residual fluid has not been studied.

 There have been documented cases of seepage into drinking water wells through improperly sealed or abandoned drilling wells.  An ongoing monitoring and data collection program needs to be part of the permitting process. Potential impacts to our water supply from hydraulic fracking needs to be studied over time and regulations modified to better protect our water supplies and natural resources as fracking expands in the region. Our water resources are sacred and irreplaceable. The gas will be there when we know how to access it safely.  The least risky course might be to delay lifting the moratorium until the US EPA finishes its research in late 2014 and then slowly allow a limited number of wells that will include monitoring over decades of the groundwater resources in the area with all the data given to the USGS for analysis.  Any area in consideration for fracking should have several years of quarterly groundwater testing and analysis before fracking begins to establish a base line for groundwater study. Now would be a good time to start developing groundwater monitoring programs.    

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Curiosity Rover the Mars Mission Update

Curiosity Self Portrait from NASA site

On August 6th 2012 at 1:32 am (eastern time) the rover Curiosity, a large mobile laboratory, was set down on Mars inside the Gale Crater by NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory, MSL, beginning a two-year investigation of Mars, the Red Planet. The rover was designed to analyze samples scooped from the soil and drilled from rocks. The record of the planet's climate and geology is essentially "written in the rocks and soil" -- in their formation, structure, and chemical composition and this Mars mission is designed to unveil some of those secrets. The rover's on-board laboratory will study rocks, soils, and the local geologic setting in order to detect forms of carbon, the chemical building blocks of life on Mars. Curiosity carries a radioisotope power system that generates electricity from the heat of plutonium's radioactive decay. This power source gives the mission an operating lifespan on Mars' surface of a full Martian year (687 Earth days) or more and hopefully be able to gather enough data to assess what the Martian environment was like in the past. 

For about three weeks NASA scientists put Curiosity through its paces, testing its equipment and upgrading its software to the exploration software. According to Ben Cichy chief software engineer for the Mars Science Laboratory mission. The flight software for Curiosity was focused on landing the vehicle. It included many capabilities that were no longer needed once Curiosity was down, and contained only basic surface operation capabilities, so the software was upgraded. Once the Curiosity rover was checked out and ready to go the rover began it eastward trek toward Mount Sharp, a mountain about 3 miles (5 kilometers) tall. The rover is conducting experiments along the way, seeking clues in the rocks and soil that would indicate whether Mars ever was capable of supporting microbial life. It is taking and sharing pictures of the trip and using the Foursquare application.

The first Martian rock NASA's Curiosity rover investigated was found to be a close match in chemical composition to an unusual but well-known type of igneous rock found in many volcanic provinces on Earth according to Edward Stolper of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., who is working with the Curiosity team. On Earth, rocks with this composition typically come from the planet's mantle beneath the crust, from crystallization of relatively water-rich magma at elevated pressure and hints of a Mars past when there was water on the plant.

A set of instruments aboard the have analyzed samples of the atmosphere collected near the "Rocknest" site in Gale Crater where the rover stopped for research. Findings from the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instruments found  an increase of 5 %  in heavier isotopes of carbon in the atmospheric carbon dioxide compared to scientists’ estimates of the isotopic ratios present when Mars formed. These enriched ratios of heavier isotopes to lighter ones suggest the top of the atmosphere may have been lost to interplanetary space. Losses at the top of the atmosphere would deplete lighter isotopes. Isotopes of argon also show enrichment of the heavy isotope, matching previous estimates of atmosphere composition derived from studies of Martian meteorites on Earth. 

Scientists theorize that in Mars' distant past its environment may have been quite different, with persistent water and a thicker atmosphere. NASA's Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution, or MAVEN, mission will investigate possible losses from the upper atmosphere when it arrives at Mars in 2014. The Opportunity rover that landed in 2004 is still operational in the southern hemisphere of Mars. The Spirit rover also landed in 2004 stopped communicating with NASA in 2010. Previous work on Mars found water carved channels and sediments that was once carried by water to form fans and deltas within lake basins. Recent small craters discovered by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter expose buried ice in the middle latitudes of Mars. This ice is a record of past climate change. Not stable today, it was deposited during a period of different obliquity, or tilt, of the planet's axis. 

So far Curiosity has traveled 0.42 mile (677 meters) since Curiosity's landing stopping ever few meters to take samples and test rocks. The Curiosity rover is parked for the holidays but continues testing the Martian environment from its holiday location within Yellowknife Bay. The mission's plans for most of 2013 center on driving toward the primary mission destination, the 3-mile-high (5-kilometer) layered mound we are calling Mount Sharp to determine if areas within the Gale Crater and specifically Mount Sharp ever were a habitable environment for microbes. The mission, like all the Mars missions is slow going.  It is now expected that the trek to Mount Sharp will not begin until end of January or early February.