Category Archives: History

Brookline history

Pipeline fiascos: Mass. gas morass

In a brazen money-grab, two big U.S. pipeline companies proposed major new natural-gas pipelines across southern new England a few years ago. At 2.7 Bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day), their combined new capacity would have far exceeded the most aggressive estimate of domestic needs over 30 years, 1.1 Bcf/d.

Thinly disguised motives were to build channels to ship U.S. natural gas overseas as LNG (liquefied natural gas), mainly sent in ocean-going tankers to Europe. Natural gas is a finite and strategic U.S. resource that has greatly reduced emissions of toxic substances and greenhouse gases, as compared with coal-fired power, during our country’s transition to renewable energy.

The pipeline developments were poorly reported in New England. The Boston Globe, the region’s largest news medium, has never employed a competent energy reporter. It has lacked a dedicated reporter on environmental issues since Beth Daley left in 2011 for a Knight fellowship at Stanford, never to return. Its politics reporters are usually clueless about business. Its business reporters pretend to be clueless about politics.

Take the money and run: Greedy, hostile companies trying to ream out New England were Kinder Morgan of Houston, TX–successor to Enron, El Paso Pipeline and Tennessee Gas Pipeline–and Spectra Energy of Houston–successor to Texas Eastern Pipeline and Algonquin Gas Transmission. Spectra recently became a division of Enbridge, a tar-sands pipeline developer located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

The greedy, hostile companies were looking for a cheap date and found one. What could be cheaper than building pipelines with somebody else’s money? At somebody else’s risk? The 2014 Republican candidate for Massachusetts governor became an eager cheerleader. On Election Day, 2014, five Kinder Morgan executives forked over $2,500 to the campaign of Governor-elect Charles Duane Baker, Jr. Senior personnel at other interested companies and groups had kicked in earlier for “Charlie”–as he styled himself.

As Gov. “Charlie” likely knew at the time and surely should have known, the largest electric utilities in New England entertained partnerships with Spectra Energy. Eversource–successor to Boston Edison–and National Grid–successor to Northeast Utilities–considered commitments to Spectra’s “Access Northeast” project: a major, new gas pipeline along the route of the Algonquin pipeline opened in 1953.

Payback to business backers of Gov. “Charlie” was prompt. Angela O’Connor became chair of the Department of Public Utilities (DPU). She was a former president of New England Power Generators Association. Ron Gerwatowski became assistant secretary for energy. He had been a senior vice president at National Grid. Robert Hayden, a DPU lawyer who lost for Congress, running as a reactionary, became DPU commissioner.

Three months after Gov. “Charlie” took office, mastiffs at the Department of Energy Resources proposed to allow electricity distribution companies to invest in natural-gas pipelines, funded by surcharges levied against retail electricity rates. They should have known the proposal violated both letter and spirit of the 1997 Electric Utility Restructuring Act. [St. 1997, C. 164] That law took the distribution companies, including Boston Edison and Northeast Utilities, away from electricity generation they had mismanaged.

Three and a half months later, the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office (AGO) notified the DPU that the proposal in DPU docket 15-37 appeared to violate the Electric Utility Restructuring Act. According to the AGO, the proposal also lacked “ratepayer protections such as competitive processes, transparency, avoidance of conflicts of interest and incentives to achieve the best results for ratepayers.” In other words, it encouraged greedy, hostile companies against which the Electric Utility Restructuring Act had been aimed.

Battling the elements, elements mostly win: An ox set to be gored by would-be money-grabbers was the operator of the Distrigas LNG terminal on the Everett waterfront. Since 1971, that facility has landed natural gas shipped from overseas to fuel what became the largest generating plant in New England. Lower costs for U.S. gas delivered from pipelines shut in three other New England LNG terminals, but the Everett terminal survived through enterprising services and favorable, long-term contracts.

More recently interconnected to major pipelines, the Everett terminal has supplied gas to pipeline customers during winter months when demands peak. Operator GDF Suez, reorganized as Engie in 2015, was incensed to find that Massachusetts might subsidize operations of pipeline competitors through regulated electricity rates and promptly filed a Massachusetts lawsuit: Engie Gas & LNG v. Department of Public Utilities. Other New England energy operators petitioned a federal agency to block similar state subsidy schemes.

Through an amicus filing, the AGO advised the Supreme Judicial Court that DPU support for pipeline subsidies using regulated electricity rates violated the Electric Utility Restructuring Act and went beyond DPU powers under the state’s general laws. The SJC assigned expedited reviews. In a decision of August, 2016, the SJC flatly reversed the DPU, closely following the attorney general’s reasoning.

Seeing that Massachusetts utilities were lining up behind the Specta project, Kinder Morgan had folded its cards before the SJC decision, shelving the “Northeast Energy Direct” project. Less than a year later, finding no customer base to support oversized capacity, Spectra shut down the “Access Northeast” project. Thus the administration of Gov. “Charlie” was left adrift–ready to run but lacking a race track.

Working mostly in the shadows, Gov. “Charlie” continues catering to business allies at the expense of voters and taxpayers. Recently the DPU shut down residential solar energy, again pandering to large utilities that would rather not be bothered with an intermittent, nondispatchable energy source.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, March 6, 2018


Residential solar suffers a major setback from latest DPU decision, Solar Energy Business Association of New England (Amherst, MA), January 12, 2018

Enzo DiMatteo, More banks bailing on tar sands pipelines, Now Magazine (Toronto), November 6, 2017

Herman K. Trabish, Massachusetts utilities take divergent approaches to grid modernization, Utility Dive (Washington, DC), September 6, 2017

Mary C. Serreze, Enbridge suspends Access Northeast natural gas pipeline plan, Springfield (MA) Republican, June 29, 2017

Jon Chesto, Lacking financing, utilities put $3 billion natural gas pipeline plan on hold, Boston Globe, June 29, 2017

Andy Metzger, State House News, Beaton ‘saddened’ by retribution charges as State House inquiry lingers, Worcester (MA) Sun, October 2, 2016

Richa Naidu and Sweta Singh, Enbridge buying Spectra in $28 billion deal, Reuters (UK), September 6, 2016

Lee Hansen, The Massachusetts natural-gas pipeline-expansion proposal, Connecticut General Assembly, August 29, 2016

Eugenia T. Gibbons, DPU approval for pipeline tax sought no more, but Spectra project still very much in the works, Mass. Energy Consumers Alliance (Boston), August 25, 2016

Engie Gas & LNG v. Department of Public Utilities, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Case nos. SJC-12051 and SJC-12052, August 17, 2016

Colin A. Young and Katie Lannan, State House News, Gov. Baker signs renewable energy bill, Quincy (MA) Patriot Ledger, August 8, 2016

Jon Chesto. SJC rejects Baker’s plan to impose fee for gas pipelines, Boston Globe, June 29, 2016

William Opalka, Generation owners seek to block EDC-pipeline deals, RTO Insider (Potomac, MD), June 27, 2016

Jon Chesto. Kinder Morgan shelves $3 billion pipeline project, Boston Globe, April 20, 2016

Mary C. Serreze, More than 90 Massachusetts lawmakers oppose ratepayers financing natural gas pipelines, Springfield (MA) Republican, April 11, 2016

Craig Altemose, Gov. Baker’s campaign contributions from energy executives, Huffington Post, April 7, 2016

Mary C. Serreze, Supreme Judicial Court to consider if Massachusetts electric utilities can buy pipeline capacity on behalf of power plants, Springfield (MA) Republican, April 5, 2016

Paul J. Hibbard and Craig P. Aubuchon (Analysis Group, Boston), Power System Reliability in New England, November, 2015 (prepared for Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office)

Rebecca Tapper, Healey slams Baker’s DPU in letter, Commonwealth, September 22, 2015

Craig Altemose, Emerging reality of gas infrastructure: destination export, Huffington Post, July 10, 2015

Initial comments of the attorney general, Department of Public Utilities docket 15-37, June 15, 2015

Shira Schoenberg, Seek to expand state’s natural gas capacity, Baker administration tells Department of Public Utilities, Springfield (MA) Republican, April 14, 2015

Natural gas delivery capacity for thermal load and electric generation, Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, Docket 15-37 initial filing, April 2, 2015

Brian Dowling, National Grid joins $3 billion New England pipeline buildout, Hartford (CT) Courant, February 18, 2015

Mary C. Serreze, Region needs energy upgrades, including more natural gas pipeline capacity, says grid operator ISO New England, Springfield (MA) Republican, January 26, 2015

David Abel, Baker appoints controversial new energy team, Boston Globe, January 13, 2015

Matt Murphy, State House News, Beaton shakes up DPU team, hires former National Grid exec, Lowell (MA) Sun, January 12, 2015

David Abel, Environmentalists wary of Baker’s energy pick, Boston Globe, November 28, 2014

Shira Schoenberg, State Rep. Matt Beaton appointed energy secretary by Gov.-Elect Charlie Baker, Springfield (MA) Republican, November 17, 2014

Beth Daley, Senior reporter at New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Huffington Post, 2014

Thomas Overton, Everett LNG terminal at the crossroads, Power Magazine, July 2, 2013

An act relative to restructuring the electric utility industry, Massachusetts Acts of 1997, Chapter 164

Craig Bolon, New gas pipelines spurned: no subsidies from electricity rates, Brookline Beacon, August 17, 2016

Craig Bolon, Little need for new gas pipelines, Brookline Beacon, July 20, 2016

Craig Bolon, New England gas pipelines: attorney general weighs in, Brookline Beacon, November 1, 2015

Craig Bolon, New England gas pipelines: need versus greed, Brookline Beacon, August 29, 2015

The slow poison: environmental lead

Lead was shown to be a poison around 2,000 years ago by the Greek physician Pedianos Dioskorides, whose medical manual continued in use for more than 15 centuries. Although in ancient Rome and in some medieval settings lead was widely used, so far scholars of those eras have found little evidence that lead poisoning was recognized as more than an occupational hazard, mostly affecting mine and smelter workers.

The industrial revolution, starting in Europe during the late eighteenth century, brought a surge in the use of lead and a corresponding surge in lead poisoning. In England, a physician found the “Devonshire colic” was lead poisoning in 1767, caused by apples crushed into cider with lead implements. Otherwise, until the late twentieth century, the great majority of lead concerns continued to focus on workplace hazards.

Diagnoses: Frank symptoms of lead poisoning tend to set in at blood concentrations around 40 ug/dl (micrograms per deciliter) or 2 uM (micromolar). They become acute around 80 ug/dl or 4 uM. Before the 1960s, there were no reliable tests to measure such relatively small concentrations, less than a part per million. Testing environments were often lead-contaminated, especially after leaded gasoline began to be sold as motor-vehicle fuel in the 1920s. Test results might differ by factors of four or more. Diagnoses relied heavily on observations rather than on tests and almost always focused on acute symptoms.

Acute lead-poisoning symptoms include skin pallor, constipation, intestinal cramps, muscle spasms or paralysis, hallucinations and a “lead line” visible in the gums. Early tests included “stippling” of erythrocytes in blood, described in 1899, and opaque bands seen in X-rays near the ends of bones, described in 1943. By the time those tests showed problems, though, lead exposures had become profound.

A rare report about chronic effects of lead exposure described children who had apparently recovered from an acute episode of poisoning. Elizabeth Lord, a child psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital from 1929 to 1942, followed 20 chidren for several years. She and Randolph Byers, a pediatrician at Children’s from 1925 to 1971, reported that all but one of those children showed learning disabilities persisting from infancy into early childhood, when they no longer had acute symptoms.

Automotive threats: The most significant and widespread source of lead for most modern environments in the United States was leaded gasoline, used as motor-vehicle fuel. Its chief sponsor in the 1920s was General Motors–as part of a struggle for market share with Ford and smaller competitors, with promises of “comfort, convenience, power and style” according to G.M. advertising.

In 1922, Charles F. Kettering, vice president for research, and Thomas Midgley, Jr., chief chemist, filed a patent application for tetraethyl lead as a gasoline additive to prevent engine knock and increase power (U.S. Patent 1,492,953 issued in 1926). The main alternative had been grain alcohol. The patent gave G.M. a major advantage: unlike an approach using alcohol, G.M. could control the market and reap monopoly profits.

Led by Kettering, General Motors entered into partnership with DuPont to produce trtraethyl lead and began a campaign of promoting so-called “Ethyl” gasoline and trying to discredit objections and alternatives. From the late 1920s through the early 1970s, nearly all U.S. automobiles and light trucks used leaded gasoline. Over about 80 years, more than seven million tons of lead entered U.S. environments from motor vehicles.

Measurements: In 1964. Sir Alan Moncrieff and others at Children’s Hospital in London tried to extend the Byers and Lord investigations, measuring blood lead in about 200 children. They used an optical absorbance technique, reporting substantial variations for repeat measurements. They found nearly all children evaluated as psychologically normal had blood lead under 40 ug/dl and those evaluated as retarded or disturbed had levels up to 70 ug/dl. They did not follow subjects over extended times.

In 1971, researchers at the Connecticut School of Medicine described a method using a then new technology of atomic absorption spectroscopy to improve sensitivity. They reported a coefficient of variation of 2.7 percent. A small cohort of children regarded as normal all had blood lead under 30 ug/dl. A larger cohort from a depressed area of Hartford had levels up to 150 ug/dl. The researchers did not follow subjects over extended times.

By 1979, a method using atomic absorption spectroscopy reproduced measurements of blood lead with a standard deviation of 2.3 ug/dl, reliable enough to support the CDC “level of concern” of 30 ug/dl (1.5 uM) at the time, although not reliable enough to apply much lower standards to individuals in medical settings. Technologies to measure lead in blood and tissues continued to improve, supporting medical diagnoses as well as stimulating research.

Harmful effects without acute poisoning: Concerns about harms from lead levels lower than those found with acute poisoning were confirmed in the late 1970s. Research organized by the late Herbert L. Needleman, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital, was reported in 1979. It focused on children whose lead exposures had been regarded as normal, using standards from the early 1970s.

Needleman saw signs of lasting harm to children as a young physician working at a community health clinic in Philadelphia. He suspected research would show differences in mental skills and social behaviors that grew with differences in lead exposure. Aware that his research was likely to be closely scrutinized, Needleman and his colleagues assembled a large cohort of subjects drawn from public school populations in Somerville and Chelsea, MA–avoiding, for example, subjects drawn from special schools or from medical clinics.

Because mental skills and social behaviors develop with many influences, Needleman and colleagues compiled background information about each subject that would make it possible to adjust results for a range of social and economic factors. Instead of relying on isolated measurements of blood lead that might not represent exposure history, they took measures of cumulative lead exposure from deciduous “baby” teeth that subjects had shed and provided.

After adjustment for social and economic factors, results in 1979 from Needleman and colleagues showed that as children’s lead exposures increased mental skills decreased and social behaviors became less adaptive. The researchers argued that prevailing standards for lead exposure were far too lax. Based mainly on acute poisoning, those standards ignored lead exposures that would harm children.

Lead from the air: Lead from gasoline, spread through the air, was the most serious and pervasive lead hazard in the United States between about 1930 and 1990. Although researchers and physicians had continued to sound alarms, lead was finally removed from U.S. motor-vehicle gasoline as a byproduct of other environmental concerns, not because of the alarms over lead poisonings and impairments.

In 1954 Arie J. Haagen-Smit, a Caltech chemistry professor, showed that clouds of smog, blighting the Los Angeles area for many years, were mostly produced by sunlight-stimulated reactions of hydrocarbon fumes from motor vehicles. Less frequent but occasionally severe smog attacks were becoming common in other locations. including mountain areas around Denver, CO. Public pressure grew to address the problems.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 (P.L. 88-206), a legacy from former Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D, ME), required major reductions in motor-vehicle emissions by 1975. Research during the 1960s had shown that catalytic converters, made with ultrathin layers of precious metals, could achieve the results by oxidizing hydrocarbons in exhaust fumes. However, lead from gasoline would quickly foul those devices.

In 1970, General Motors began a campaign to remove lead from U.S. gasoline, a great irony. Decades earlier G.M. had promoted leaded gasoline, but by 1970 the company had sold its interests in tetraethyl lead and had filed patent applications for catalytic converters. In 1973, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations reducing, in stages, amounts of leaded gasoline allowed to be distributed in the U.S..

Removing lead from gasoline produced prompt declines in surveys of blood lead. By the middle 1970s, blood lead measurements had become fairly reliable, leading the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to add blood-lead testing in a second National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for 1976-1980–by luck coinciding with impacts of EPA regulations reducing lead in gasoline–as well as in subsequent surveys.

U.S. lead in gasoline and average blood lead, 1976-1980

BloodLeadSurveys1976-1980

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control

Lowering total lead in U.S. gasoline from about 200,000 tons per year to about 100,000 tons per year (50 percent) paralleled a reduction in average blood lead measured for HNANES II subjects of all ages from about 16 ug/dl to about 10 ug/dl (40 percent). At the peak of production around 1970, leaded gasoline probably caused more than half the total blood-lead burden carried by U.S. residents.

Regulation: As authorized under the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970, in 1974 the U.S. began requiring new cars to run on unleaded gasoline and requiring retail outlets to make unleaded gasoline available. After 1995, retail sale of leaded gasoline was banned. The long “phase-out” of lead in U.S. gasoline paralleled declines in measurements of blood lead, as recorded by national health surveys.

By 1989, unleaded gasoline accounted for 90 percent of motor-vehicle gasoline sold in the U.S. A statistical analysis performed that year, adjusting for several social and economic factors, found that the reduction of lead in gasoline had lowered average blood lead for U.S. residents by about half.

After gasoline lead, the next most common household lead hazards in the United States have long been paint containing lead pigments, lead in water pipes and fixtures, and lead in soils and dust. These threats are geographically concentrated, as compared with lead from gasoline. They occur mainly in older neighborhoods where leaded paint and lead water pipes were common, near current and former incinerators and coal-fired power-plants, and near current and former industries working with lead.

Before the 1970s, lead pigments were typical major components of paints. The federal Lead-based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 1971 (P.L. 91-695) and amendments in 1973 banned most retail sales of leaded paint after 1974. A series of federal laws and regulations starting that year, plus state regulations, gradually restricted uses of lead in water pipes and fixtures. The major federal laws were the following:
Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 (P.L. 93-523)
Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1986 (P.L. 99-339)
Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996 (P.L. 104-182)
Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act of 2011 (P.L. 111-380)

Effects on child development: Pursuing Needleman’s work into unexplored territory, in 2005 Bruce P. Lanphear and colleagues at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and other institutions published data analysis for childhood harm from lead exposure–based on research by other groups. Results indicated major, lasting harm at blood levels below 10 ug/dl (0.5 uM). Lanphear and colleagues estimated IQ loss of about four points for blood lead increasing from 2-1/2 to 10 ug/dl.

Those results drew objections–particularly lack of adjustment for social and economic factors–but they provoked anxiety. The CDC “level of concern” for children’s blood lead had been lowered from 30 ug/dl in 1979 to 10 ug/dl. Echoing Needleman and colleagues from 1979, Lanphear and colleagues argued in 2005 that prevailing standards for lead exposure were still too lax.

Blood lead in U.S. children, 1997-2015

BloodLeadChildren1997-2015

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control

In 2008 Todd A. Jusko at the University of Washington and colleagues at several other institutions published a new study of about 200 school children in Rochester, NY, who had been followed for six years. Results adjusted for social and economic factors showed IQ loss of about five points for children with blood lead about 5 to 10 ug/dl, compared with children with blood lead about 2 to 5 ug/dl. Findings from Lanphear and colleagues in 2005 showing harmfui effects of blood lead below 10 ug/dl were thus confirmed.

One might have thought the Obama administration would step into the situation by funding research with much larger subject groups and conducting exhaustive reviews of standards. However, there was no new large-scale research, and it took 3-1/2 years for significant progress revising standards. In May, 2012, the Centers for Disease Control lowered a threshold for blood lead in young children to 5 ug/dl, renaming that a “reference level” instead of a “level of concern.”

As reported by the Boston Globe, in the final days of the Obama administration the EPA “sidestepped the issue of a specific new threshold for acceptable lead levels” of soils in urban environments. The agency provided only “general guidance.”

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, February 26, 2018


Shelia Kaplan, EPA sidestepped decision to tighten standards for lead levels, leaving communities adrift, Boston Globe Media (Stat), March 28, 2017

Mary Tiemann, The Safe Drinking Water Act: a summary of the act and its major requirements, Congressional Research Service, 2017

Kathleen L. Caldwell et al., Measurement challenges at low blood lead levels, Pediatrics 140(2), August, 2017 (special article)

Steven D. Blatt, Howard L. Weinberger and Travis R. Hobart, Blood lead levels in young children: US, 2009-2015, Journal of Pediatrics 181:328-329, 2017

Mathy Stanislaus, Memorandum re updated scientific considerations for lead in soil cleanups, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, December 22, 2016

James Grout, ed., Lead poisoning and Rome, Encyclopedia Romana (University of Chicago), 2016

Blood lead levels in U.S. children, 1997-2015, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016

Jianghong Liu et al., Impact of low blood-lead concentrations on IQ and school performance in Chinese children, Public Library of Science, PLoS One 8(5):1-8, 2013

Richard W. Hornung, Bruce P. Lanphear and Kim N. Dietrich, Age of greatest susceptibility to childhood lead exposure, Environmental Health Perspectives 117(8):1309-1312, 2009

Todd A. Jusko et al., Blood-lead concentrations less than 10 micrograms per deciliter and child intelligence at six years of age, Environmental Health Perspectives 116(2):243-248, 2008

David C. Bellinger, Very low lead exposures and children’s neurodevelopment, Current Opinion in Pediatrics 20(2):172–177, 2008

Claire B. Ernhart, Effects of lead on IQ in children, Environmental Health Perspectives 114(2):A85-A86, 2006

Bruce P. Lanphear et al., Low-level environmental lead exposure and children’s intellectual function: an international pooled analysis. Environmental Health Perspectives 113(7):894–899, 2005

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, Standing up to the lead industry: an interview with Herbert Needleman, Public Health Reports 120:330-337, 2005

William Koverik, Ethyl-leaded gasoline: how a classic occupational disease became an international public health disaster, International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health 11(4):384-397, 2005

Judah Ginsberg, Alice Hamilton and the development of occupational medicine, American Chemical Society, 2002

Herbert L. Needleman, The removal of lead from gasoline, Environmental Research A84(1):20-35, 2000

Sven Hernberg, Lead poisoning in an historical perspective, American Journal of Industrial Medicine 38(3):244-254, 2000

Christian Warren, Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000

Herbert L. Needleman, Childhood lead poisoning: the promise and abandonment of primary prevention, American Journal of Public Health 88(12):1871-1877, 1998

Jerome Nriagu, Clair Patterson and environmental lead poisoning, Environmental Research 72(2):71-78, 1998 (abstract)

Bill Kovarik, Charles F. Kettering and the 1921 discovery of tetraethyl lead, Society of Automotive Engineers, 1994

Legislative history of lead-based paint, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1993

Preventing lead poisoning in young children, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1991
See Fig. 2.5, Change in blood-lead levels in relation to a decline in use of leaded gasoline

Herbert L. Needleman and David Bellinger, The health effects of low-level exposure to lead, Annual Review of Public Health 12:111-140, 1991

Michael Weisskopf, Auto pollution debate has a ring of the past, Washington Post, March 28, 1990

Jerome O. Nriagu, The rise and fall of leaded gasoline, Science of the Total Environment 92:13-28, 1990

Joel Schwartz and Hugh Pitcher, The relationship between gasoline lead and blood lead in the United States, U.S. Journal of Official Statistics 5(4):421-431, 1989

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, A gift of God?: The public health controversy over leaded gasoline during the 1920s, American Journal of Public Health 75(4):344-352. 1985

Herbert L. Needleman and Philip J. Landrigan, The health effects of low-level exposure to lead, Annual Review of Public Health 2:277-298, 1981

Herbert L. Needleman et al., Deficits in psychologic and classroom performance of children with elevated dentine lead levels, New England Journal of Medicine 300(13):689-695, 1979

Carole Schmidt, Lead determination in blood by atomic absorption spectroscopy, Journal of the American Industrial Hygiene Association 40(12):1085-1090, 1979

National Research Council, Airborne Lead in Perspective, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 1972

Thomas F. Murphy, Shozo Nomoto, and William Sunderman, Jr., Measurements of blood lead by atomic absorption spectrometry, Annals of Clinical Laboratory Science 1(1):57-63, 1971

Richard M.S. McConaghey, Sir George Baker and the Devonshire colic, Medical History 11(4):345-360, 1967

Alan A. Moncrieff et al., Lead poisoning in children, Archives of Diseases in Childhood (UK) 39:1-13, 1964

J.E. Bradley et al., The incidence of abnormal blood levels of lead in a metropolitan pediatric clinic, Journal of Pediatrics 49(1):1-6, 1956

Arie J. Haagen-Smit, The control of air pollution in Los Angeles, Engineering and Science 18(3):11-16 (California Institute of Technology), 1954

Randolph K. Byers and Elizabeth E. Lord, Late effects of lead poisoning on mental development, American Journal of Diseases of Children 66(5):471-494, 1943

Alice Hamilton, Plumbism in the industries of the Middle West, Ohio Public Health Journal 2(1):3-11, 1912 (then the Monthly Bulletin of the Ohio State Board of Health)

W. Dowling Prendergast, The classification of the symptoms of lead poisoning, British Medical Journal 1(2576):1164-1168, 1910

George Baker, An essay concerning the cause of the endemial colic of Devonshire, J. Hughs (UK), 1767

China’s air pollution: a four-letter word

Coal.

After it emerged from the Communist blackout during the 1970s, China prospered by building export industries, largely powered by coal. In earlier times, China was only a modest consumer of energy. Recent governments promoted heavy industry–including metals and other mineral products–exploiting the country’s largest energy resource. Each year since 2010, China consumed more coal than all the rest of the world.

Coal consumption in China and elsewhere

ChinaCoal1965-2016

Source: BP Review of World Energy, 2017

Communist emperor Hu Jintao (2003-2013) built coal-fired electricity plants, blast furnaces, smelters, cement kilns and pottery ovens, never seeming to look back. His regime turned China into the world’s Coal Empire and sent its capital into a new Dark Age. Beijing, along with much of northeast China, has been suffering from massive air pollution–comparable to Pittsburgh at its worst in the 1940s.

As angry protests grew, successor Xi Jinping feared losing the Mandate of Heaven and started to tamp down some of the coal burning. Four years later, northeast China showed little air-quality improvement. That is hardly surprising, since Chinese coal consumption, after growing by a factor of about 2-1/2 over the ten years of Communist emperor Hu, shrank only about two percent during the first four years of Xi.

Propaganda: Government media in China often tout national progress in renewable energy: a government subsidized solar-panel industry and the growth of wind farms. However, modest growth in solar and wind energy has been swamped by surging outputs from coal-fired power plants.

Recently the independent TMT Post (Telecommunications, Media and Technology, based in Beijing) reported in Chinese about plans to replace conventionally fueled cars with electric vehicles, citing a speech by Xin Guobin, China’s Vice Minister of Industry. As electricity is actually generated in China, using it to power vehicles becomes more of an environmental threat than burning gasoline.

For the same amount of mechanical energy, both the toxic and the greenhouse gas emissions are higher. A few years ago, some Chinese engineers spoke hopefully about cleaner and more efficient generating plants, but high costs made them a small element in the power industry. Recently, air pollution–darkening the skies–was reported as causing up to 35-percent losses at Chinese solar farms.

Death by air: China’s air pollution from coal is causing more than a quarter million premature deaths a year, as reported in the New York Times. Economist Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago and four other academics recently found that in the northeast provinces of Shanxi and Hebei air pollution from burning coal has shortened life expectancy by three years.

So far the Xi regime failed to make a significant difference. After enforcing some restrictions on coal for a couple of years, reports of lower economic growth led to retrenchment. Initiatives to switch from coal to natural gas made minimal progress, because China lacks gas reserves and infrastructure to transport gas. In rural areas, many Chinese are reported to defy regulations and burn coal and waste wood for home heating.

China’s choices are economic. There is no practical way to reconcile headlong growth fueled by coal with good air quality and normal life expectancy. It will be one or the other. If air quality gets substantial improvement–no matter what combination of strategies might be employed–the Chinese economy will slow down in order to pay for it.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 8, 2018


Zhou Chen, Li Rongde and Wu Xiao, Thousands in rural China secretly burn coal as gas prices soar, Caixin Global (Beijing), December 8, 2017 (in English)

Unattributed, China does U-turn on coal ban to avert heating crisis, BBC (UK), December 8, 2017

Muyu Xu and Dominique Patton, North China air quality shows no improvement, Reuters (UK), October 28, 2017

Joshua S. Hill, Severe Chinese air pollution cuts solar energy potential as much as 35 percent, Clean Technica, October 24, 2017

Chinese coal-fired electricity generation expected to flatten as mix shifts to renewables, U.S. Energy Information Administration, September 27, 2017

Vicki Ekstrom High, Air pollution cuts three years off lifespans in northern China, University of Chicago News, September 11, 2017

Unattributed, Vice Minister of Industry Xin Guobin: China is studying traditional-fuel vehicle timetable, TMT Post (Beijing), September 9, 2017 (in Chinese)

Statistical review of world energy, British Petroleum (UK), June, 2017

Edward Wong, Study finds coal burning causing the most air-pollution deaths in China, New York Times, August 17, 2016

Jake Spring, In coal-powered China, electric car surge fuels fear of worsening smog, Reuters (UK), January 27, 2016

Matt Sheehan, Power politics behind China’s climate pledge, Huffington Post, November 14, 2014

David Stanway, Pollution worst on record in Beijing, Reuters (UK), January 12, 2013

Anders Norbom Walløe, The Mandate of Heaven: Why is the Chinese Communist Party still in control of China?, University of Oslo, 2012

Jonathan Watts, Two faces of China’s giant coal industry, Manchester Guardian (UK), November 15, 2009

Craig Bolon, China’s influence on nuclear power, Brookline Beacon, September 9, 2016

Wind energy: broken promises

“Falmouth selectmen decided…not to appeal a judge’s determination that [two wind turbines] must be shut down.” As noted by the Boston Globe in 2017, they were “simply built too close to homes.” Not mentioned in the Globe: potential harms to residents’ health had been clear years before when the turbines were proposed, yet the project had been promoted by a prominent state official during the Patrick administration.

Small-scale collapse: The Falmouth wind-power crisis was entirely foreseeable, It sprang from ignorance of the Patrick administration’s first energy secretary. He was a Falmouth native who had no strong qualifications for that job–even reported as having trouble with high-school chemistry. Rather than invest in scientific knowledge, he spent much of a career as a “policy analyst.”

Former Gov. Patrick’s first-term energy agenda was also bollixed by a wholly avoidable fracas over burning wood for energy–a gross source of ordinary, fine-particle air pollution. At the start of a second term, Patrick insisted that all “cabinet officers” resign. He then reappointed each one except for the former energy secretary, and he soon restructured policy, moving away from wind energy and toward solar energy.

Large-scale collapse: The Nantucket Sound wind-power collapse was not entirely forseeable. That is a rare region of Massachusetts with fairly strong and reliable winds. Aside from local politics, an obstacle dating from the 1990s had been vague costs to mount wind turbines offshore. European equipment suppliers were able to hide information by getting governments to sponsor infrastructure work. As late as 2007, a review by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory warned about “high and uncertain costs.”

Political struggles over Cape Wind were often waged by proxy. During 2003, for instance, Michael Egan of Osterville and other opponents funded a review by a nominally nonprofit organization, claiming the project would cost the region more than $60 million a year in lost revenue because of fewer tourists and lower real estate values. During those years, Cape Wind’s chief developer Jim Gordon was constantly on the defensive and would not say much about financial issues.

In November, 2010, the Patrick administration set a price, approving a power-purchase agreement between Cape Wind and National Grid–the largest utility in southeastern Massachusetts–starting at $0.187 per kWh. For the year 2010, ISO New England reported an average wholesale price for electricity distributed in New England of $0.0593 per kWh. Cape Wind came to market at more than three times New England’s average price.

The high price shifted opinions away from Cape Wind. Many felt Cape Wind had lied to the public about the feasibility of its plans. Under 2010 contracts with utilities, Cape Wind got until the end of 2014 to start construction. Opponents tried to hinder Cape Wind with lawsuits. They prevailed; Cape Wind never installed a wind turbine. At the end of 2014, utilities terminated contracts with Cape Wind for lack of performance. That marked the end of a regional era in wind energy, coming at the end of the Patrick administration.

Progress and prospects: So far there has been no dramatic surge of wind power in New England. Instead, some states have been turning away. Although New Hampshire and Vermont have promising wind potentials, after about 2010 their politics swang against wind turbines. Preservationists there call them “industrial wind.”

The development of wind energy in New England is strongly skewed toward the northern states. Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont have about 90 percent of the rated generating capacity, with 68 percent just in Maine. Sources of data report amounts that differ, mostly because of dates when wind farms are considered active.

Rated MW, end of year 2016

    5 Connecticut
901 Maine
115 Massachusetts
185 New Hampshire
    9 Rhode Island
119 Vermont

Source: American Wind Energy Association

Since taking office in 2011, Maine’s aggressive and racist Gov. LePage has missed few chances to oppose wind and solar energy development. His chief advisor has been an appliance installer with no scientific training. However, wind-energy business in Maine is also aggressive. After being stymied in 2013 and 2014, developers came back strongly the next two years, opening six wind farms and doubling Maine’s capacity. Because of term limits, LePage leaves office in January, 2019.

Since 2012, the remainder of New England has seen little wind-energy activity, adding less than 20 MW of rated capacity on land. While it was clear that former Gov. Patrick in Massachusetts and former Gov. Shumlin in Vermont stepped aside in the face of political forces, the situation in New Hampshire remains murky. Geographies of Connecticut and Rhode Island offer little land-based wind potential, although there is substantial potential over Long Island Sound and nearby ocean.

Wind turbines seen from Barlows Point, Block Island, simulated view

BlockIslandSimulatedViewBarlowsPoint

Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2013

In the spring of 2017, the Deepwater Wind company reached full power with a 5-turbine offshore wind farm, rated at 30 MW, located just south of Block Island–part of Rhode Island southwest of Narragansett Bay. The starting wholesale price of energy is very high: $0.244 per kWh. However, Block Island was never connected to the New England grid before and was paying even higher prices to a company operating a small plant using diesel engines.

There are no similar offshore opportunities of comparable size elsewhere in New England. However, Martha’s Vineyard and–ironically–Nantucket both suffer from frequent problems. They receive electricity from the New England grid, but demands often exceed supply. When that happens, voltages sag and can drift out of phase with currents.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, January 2, 2018


Katharine Q. Seelye, After 16 years, hopes for offshore wind farm in Massachusetts blow away, New York Times, December 19, 2017

Wilson Ring, Associated Press, Vermont wind-turbine noise rules displease everyone, Portland (ME) Press Herald, November 13, 2017

Doug Harlow, Anti-wind group opposes plans for 200 turbines in Somerset County, Kennebec (ME) Journal, August 15, 2017

Fred Sever, Should northern New England host transmission lines?, Maine Public Radio, August 7, 2017

Jon Chesto, Two Cape windmills have stopped spinning, but someone still has to pay, Boston Globe, July 12, 2017

Cassius Shuman, Island operating on wind farm power, Block Island (RI) Times, May 1, 2017

Tux Turkel, Refrigeration technician is LePage’s energy policy adviser, Portland (ME) Press Herald, February 19, 2017

Unattributed, Maine Governor Paul LePage criticized for racist remarks, BBC (UK), August 27, 2016

Bruce Mohl, Utilities terminate Cape Wind power contracts, Commonwealth, January 6, 2015

Wholesale load cost report for December, 2010, ISO New England, January 18, 2011

Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, Gov. Patrick taps DCR chief as energy secretary, Boston Globe, December 1, 2010

Rodrique Ngowi and Jay Lindsay, Massachusetts regulators approve offshore wind power deal, Boston Globe, November 22, 2010

Steve LeBlanc, Associated Press, Wood power worse polluter than coal, Boston Globe, June 10, 2010

Ryan Wiser and Mark Bolinger, Annual Report on U.S. Wind Power Installation, Cost and Performance Trends, Lawrence Berkely National Laboratory, 2008

Scott Allen, Study funded by foe says wind turbines to hurt Cape tourism, Boston Globe, October 28, 2003

Craig Bolon, Renewables: inherit the wind, Brookline Beacon, June 3, 2017

Craig Bolon, Surfing a vortex: energy and climate, Brookline Beacon, February 12, 2017

Craig Bolon, Renewable energy: New England experience, Brookline Beacon, August 15, 2015

Craig Bolon, Rhode Island: offshore wind-power, winning and losing, Brookline Beacon, July 26, 2015

Anti-missiles: blind and misguided

U.S. missile interceptors take off with great roars, bright flames and plumes of smoke. There’s just one big problem. They don’t reliably intercept missiles. In Arabia, five of the latest PAC-3 interceptors, from the Raytheon Patriot family, failed to stop one SCUD-variant ballistic missile launched from about 600 miles away in Yemen.

Missed missiles: A missile exploded at the Riyadh airport on November 4, 2017, a few hundred yards from the main passenger terminal. At least one of the PAC-3 interceptors launched by Arabian forces against it may have struck the rocket motor of the incoming missile. If so, the missile’s warhead had detached, continuing toward its target. Only poor incoming guidance probably prevented a disaster.

SCUD missiles, originally developed in the former Soviet Union, have never been more than terror weapons. Their liquid fuels make them clumsy to transport and unlikely to provide rapid response. Their poor guidance means they usually miss by spans big enough that their explosives fail to disable strategic targets.

Modern anti-missile systems might be able to counter the original SCUD missiles, but recent variants have a new feature: detachable warheads. If an explosive warhead detaches before an incoming missile has been struck, interception is likely to fail. Current anti-missile systems have not been able to strike a detached warhead. In Arabia, U.S. missile interceptors look to have failed at least twice during the year 2017.

Technology sales: Arabia currently relies on U.S. anti-missile technologies but may be starting to regret that. AP and other mainstream news media pay little attention to the issues, but reports from specialty news sites mention contacts with Russian organizations. Turkey, which previously relied on U.S. technology, has already jumped ship.

Early U.S. Patriot anti-missile systems were highly touted, but independent U.S. experts documented failure rates of more than 90 percent. The latest generation of Patriot missile interceptors is getting its first hostile exposures in Arabia. As usual, U.S. defense contractors and the host country’s military claim they achieved success, but so far independent U.S. experts find failure.

Turkey recently agreed to buy two S-400 anti-missile systems from Russia, the first to be installed in 2020. However, it’s not clear whether Russian technology actually has advantages. The critical tests are hostile engagements, and few have yet been reported that involve the S-400. One system installed by Russia in Latakia, Syria, failed to intercept strikes by U.S. cruise missiles in April, 2017.

Distant misses: Long-range U.S. GMD interceptors–all but a few stationed in Alaska–have an even more dismal record. Despite more than $40 billion spent on them over more than 20 years, there has never been a realistic test of interception. Only one test was directed toward a long-range missile. It was a set-up stunt, aiming the attacking missile almost directly at the defending one.

A follow-up test in the Pacific, involving Japan, failed to intercept another missile. It had been intended to demonstrate U.S. “defense in depth”–ability to intercept missiles from North Korea at shorter ranges. Following that failed test, Raytheon received a federal production contract for the SM-3, Block IIA interceptor that was tested–despite evidence the system does not work reliably.

To many with long memories, the Trump administration, as well as the Putin regime in Russia, look to be building “Maginot Line” defenses, recalling bunkers built in France during the 1930s that failed to stop Nazi invasions near the start of World War II. The grossly inflated U.S. military budget pays for more and more systems known to be unreliable. Just as the Nazis did, enemies would seek paths they cannot defend.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, December 29, 2017


Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay, Turkey and Russia sign deal on S-400 missile interceptors, Reuters (UK), December 29, 2017

Katie Paul and Rania El Gamal, Saudi Arabia says it intercepts Houthi missile fired toward Riyadh, Reuters (UK), December 19, 2017

Aziz El Yaakoubi, Houthis say missile targeted meeting of Saudi leaders, Reuters (UK), December 19, 2017

Max Fisher, Eric Schmitt, Audrey Carlsen and Malachy Browne, U.S. interceptor missile appeared to fail in Arabia, New York Times, December 4, 2017

Sylvia Westall, Rania el Gamal, Tom Perry and Stephanie Nebehay, Saudi crown prince calls Iran supply of rockets military aggression, Reuters (UK), November 7, 2017

Shuaib Almosawa and Anne Barnard, Saudis intercept missile fired from Yemen that came close to Riyadh, New York Times, November 4, 2017

Stephen Carlson, Raytheon receives $614.5 million for SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile interceptors, UPI, August 29, 2017

Stefan Becket, U.S. missile defense test fails to intercept target over Pacific, CBS News, June 22, 2017

Laura Grego, What you should know about the upcoming GMD missile defense test, Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), May 29, 2017 (part 1)

Robert Burns, Associated Press, U.S. plans first test of ICBM intercept, with North Korea in mind, WTOP (Washington, DC), May 26, 2017

John R. Haines, Putin’s Maginot Line exposed by North Korea’s missile launch, Foreign Policy Research Institute (Philadelphia, PA), May 17, 2017

Tom Balmforth, After U.S. strikes Syrian airbase, Russians ask: where were our vaunted air-defense systems?, Radio Free Europe, April 7, 2017

Laura Grego, George N. Lewis and David Wright, Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous U.S. Approach to Strategic Missile Defense (60 pages), Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), July, 2016

Barton Gellman, Study cuts Patriot anti-missile success to nine percent, Washington Post, September 20, 1992

Craig Bolon, Star Wars revisited: shooting fish in a barrel, Brookline Beacon, September 4, 2017

Craig Bolon, Undeclared wars: the rain of U.S. cruise missiles, Brookline Beacon, April 9, 2017

Concrete cancer: silent threat

Portland concrete is the most common building material–generally strong, inexpensive and readily applied. World production now runs around 60 quadrillion pounds of finished concrete a year. While much of it will remain sturdy for decades, some degrades far sooner–from both internal and external causes. Major internal defects are sometimes called “concrete cancer.”

Internal problems of Portland concrete–a mixture of Portland cement, stone and water–are often caused by incompatible stone aggregate, comprising around three-quarters of finished concrete by weight. Problem aggregates may contain clay, shale, dolomite rock, gypsum, sulfide minerals or chemically active silica that can can cause concrete to swell and crack over time. Some such damage may appear soon after concrete mixing and setting, but other damage can emerge years later.

Costs of transporting heavy, bulky materials mostly limit concrete suppliers to local and regional sources. Using practical sources, they try to prepare mixtures that provide good strength and long-term reliability. In the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain regions of the United States, many sources of stone are igneous rocks that come from mountains dominating the geology of those regions. They have characteristic hazards.

Latent problems: Portland concrete’s problems can appear as spalling breakage–notably around joints and edges–as pop-out fragments that dislodge from surfaces, as shallow cracks that are often nearly parallel and as deep cracks at different angles that intersect. The first three problems may develop in days to months from ineffective composition, mixing or installation. They can sometimes be repaired.

A pattern of deep, intersecting cracks–sometimes called “map cracks”–that emerges years after concrete has set can indicate defects in materials, potentially leading to structural failure. Attempts to repair this type of defect often fail, as more of the deep, intersecting cracks continue to appear. These problems are caused by materials that slowly swell, overstressing and fracturing a solid concrete matrix.

Deep map cracks in Portland concrete

ConcreteDeepMapCracks
Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

Problem types and tests: Some latent problems are related to stresses occurring in use. Those are provoked by variable loads on concrete structures–as experienced by pavements and bridges for example–or by changing temperatures, especially cycles of freezing and thawing. Many reviews address them under the heading D-cracking or “distress cracking.” In contrast, latent problems related to materials will appear when bearing loads and temperatures are nearly constant–for example, in a house foundation.

Tests of compressive strength, typically performed about a month after preparing concrete, rarely reveal latent problems with materials. Despite decades of research and attempts at specification, So far there has been no single test method for qualifying concrete materials that fully insures against latent problems. The most effective guard against them is long-term experience with specific sources.

Alkali reactions: Latent problems have been recognized since the 1930s that are caused by reactions of alkalis, produced by mixing Portland cement and water, with components of stone aggregates. They were first documented by the late Thomas E. Stanton, an engineer working at the California Division of Highways. The most common problem comes from reactive silica imbedded in stone aggregates.

Stone of both igneous and sedimentary origin may contain reactive silica. Among igneous (and metamorphic) sources, it is fairly common in granite, gneiss and hornfels. It is not usually found in andesite, basalt, gabbro or tuff. Particle size is a critical factor, with fine sand sizes to small pebble sizes typically the most troublesome.

Adding pozzolans, such as natural pumice or furnace fly-ash, can suppress effects of reactive silica. They combine with calcium hydroxide from Portland cement, reducing its alkalinity and strengthening it. Mixtures of calcined lime and pumice made highly durable Roman mortars and cements. However, the amounts of various pozzolans needed with different Portland cements and stone aggregates and the optimum concrete curing cycles remain in some dispute.

A less common alkali-related problem can occur when dolomite–mostly magnesium-calcium carbonate–is a component in stone aggregate of sedimentary origin. Harmful swelling of afflicted concrete tends to be more rapid than swelling caused by reactive silica. Unfortunately, tests that help control reactive silica may not give reliable results with dolomite, and adding pozzolans does not help.

Sulfides: Sulfides occur occasionally in igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. When a stone aggregate containing sulfides is used to make Portland concrete, it can cause latent problems by primary swelling and through oxidation to sulfates. Problems have been reported in Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They were first documented in the 1960s by the late Richard C. Mielenz, a geologist and civil engineer who later served as president of the American Concrete Institute.

Contamination of Portland concrete with sulfides is less common than with reactive silica and dolomite. It has received less attention. However, major problems developed in Canada, near Montreal, and in eastern Connecticut, near the town of Willington–affecting thousands of home and other building foundations. There is currently no known way to suppress problems with sulfides. Correcting damages often involves costly work to excavate and replace failed concrete.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, November 15, 2017


Mineral Commodity Surveys, U.S. Geological Survey, 2017 (world cement, p. 45)

Kay Wille and Rui Zhong, Investigating the deterioration of basement walls made of concrete in Connecticut, University of Connecticut, 2016

I. Oliveira, S.H.P. Cavalaro and A. Aguado, Evolution of pyrrhotite oxidation in aggregates for concrete, Construction Materials 64(316):e038 (Materiales de Construcción, Madrid, Spain, in English), 2014

M.D.A. Thomas, B. Fournier and K.J. Folliard, Alkali-aggregate reactivity, Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2013

Thomas Schmidt, Andreas Leemann, Emanuel Gallucci and Karen Scrivener, Physical and microstructural aspects of iron sulfide degradation in concrete, Cement and Concrete Research 41(3):263-269. 2011

Michelle L. Wilson and Steven H. Kosmatka, eds., Aggregates for concrete, Chapter 5 in Design and Control of Concrete Mixtures, 16th Edition, Portland Cement Association, 2011

James A. Farny and Beatrix Kerkhoff, Diagnosis and control of alkali-aggregate reactions in concrete, Portland Cement Association, 2007

Handbook for identification of alkali-silica reactivity in airfield pavements, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation, 2004

M.Y. Shahin and S.D. Kohn, Paver’s concrete distress manual, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2nd Edition, 1997

E.A. Whitehurst, D-cracking and aggregate size, Concrete Contruction, August 1, 1980

Richard C. Mielenz, Reactions of aggregates involving solubility, oxidation, sulfates or sulfides, Highway Research Record 43:8-18, National Research Council (Washington, DC), 1963

Nuclear renaissance: a vanishing era

In early 2008, the late Sen. George Voinovich (R, OH), then the ranking minority member and formerly chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Clean Air and Nuclear Safety, predicted rapid progress for a new generation of nuclear energy. Writing in the professional journal Nuclear News, he hailed “a license application to build a new nuclear power plant…for the first time in over 30 years.”

Voinovich wrote that federal regulators expected “18 more applications within the next two years for a total of more than 30 new reactors.” Now, over nine years later, there have been just two applications for new U.S. nuclear power-plants–one in Georgia and one in South Carolina, each with two reactors. One of the new projects has recently been shuttered. It is not clear whether it will ever be revived. The other project is effectively on death watch.

Promises: The key promises for a “nuclear renaissance” were to combine so-called “passive safety” with standard designs and single-step permitting–the major features of “third generation” nuclear reactors claimed to yield improved reliability and much lower costs. By the late 1990s, enthusiasts were enjoying great sport, projecting ever lower costs based on speculation about economies of scale.

In order to exhibit the lowest possible amounts, promoters touted so-called “overnight” costs–omitting interest, infrastructure, land and site preparation. “Overnight” estimates ranged as low as about $1 a watt, although some plants from the 1980s had cost around $4 a watt even before factoring inflation. Starting in the mid-1990s, many early promoters were academics. None had much practical work experience designing, building, operating or maintaining a nuclear power-plant.

Glory days of a “nuclear renaissance” prevailed around 1997 through 2007, when promises attracted growing attention and realities had yet to emerge. Afterward both everyday and episodic factors intervened. The rubber was to meet the road when equipment builders proposed prices and potential utility customers had to decide whether or not they could afford the tabs.

While the Clinton and the Walker Bush administrations rarely encouraged nuclear power, the Obama administration, guided by former Secretaries of Energy Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz, adopted advances in nuclear power as a major feature of climate action programs. The Obama administration authorized subsidies through federal loan guarantees–promising safe operation, almost unlimited energy and hardly any greenhouse-gas emissions.

V.C. Summer Nuclear, Unit 2, Proposed

SummerNuclearUnit2
Source: South Carolina General Assembly

Progress and warnings: Westinghouse, now a division of Toshiba in Japan, became prime contractor for both new U.S. nuclear power-plants, using a proprietary design called AP-1000. It offers the advantages claimed by promoters of the “nuclear renaissance.” In addition, Westinghouse divided power-plants into “modules” that could be built off-site and assembled as needed. By building factories to produce the modules, Westinghouse maintained it would improve economies of scale.

Westinghouse bid on the new power-plants mostly at fixed prices rather than on a “cost plus” basis, as had been common during the nuclear heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. That approach tended to place the company at risk from an unproven new design. News services began to report warnings several years ago. In early 2012, Ray Henry wrote for Associated Press, “On top of construction costs running much higher than expected, the price of natural gas has plummeted, making it tough for nuclear plants to compete.”

Collapse: “One doesn’t hear much about the nuclear renaissance these days,” wrote Paul Barrett for Bloomberg News in the fall of 2015. About a decade after its days in the sun, the enterprise now looks headed toward burial. Utilities have backed away from even considering new facilities they see as likely to remain unsound. Would-be visions of a grand future proved long on fervor but short on results. The once eager promoters have gone silent.

The first shoe dropped when Westinghouse declared bankruptcy in early 2017. No other company was prepared to pick up the pieces from a proprietary design. Four months later, utilities that had contracted for the South Carolina plant issued a stop-work order, soon putting about 6,000 workers into layoffs. The South Carolina politicians who had allowed utilities to start charging customers before the plant was operating went into shock, pointing fingers and trying to evade blame.

Problems with the new power plants were known inside companies building the plants. An audit of the South Carolina plant had been completed by Bechtel, one of the world’s largest construction companies, a year and a half before South Carolina utilities pulled the plug. Supposedly cost-saving modular designs had actually been major problems. Many interfaces between modules did not work as designed, leading to costly, on-site rework. A nuclear industry largely idle for over 20 years had lost a large, former corps of skilled workers. Training new workers took far more time and effort than planned.

The new plant being built in Georgia has not yet been cancelled. Unlike the South Carolina plant, its owners accepted federal loan guarantees and have a financial cushion. However, efforts in Georgia are likely to be plagued by the same problems as those in South Carolina. They are probably also less than 25 percent complete, despite already costing more than the entire original construction budget.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, October 18, 2017


South Carolina governor releases report on VC Summer flaws, World Nuclear News (London), September 6, 2017

Sammy Fretwell and Avery G. Wilks, Long-secret report details significant problems at failed nuclear-reactor project, Columbia (SC) State, September 4, 2017

Andrew Brown, Secretive report on South Carolina nuclear reactor construction never given to state utility regulators, Charleston (SC) Post and Courier, August 31, 2017

Seanna Adcox, Associated Press, Billions lost in nuclear power projects, with more bills due, WTOP (Washington, DC), August 5, 2017

Steven Mufson, South Carolina utilities halt work on new nuclear reactors, Washington Post, July 31, 2017

Diane Cardwell and Jonathan Noble, Westinghouse files for bankruptcy, in blow to nuclear power, New York Times, March 29, 2017

Dick Miller, et al., Project assessment report on V.C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station Units 2 and 3, Bechtel Corp., February 5, 2016 (as supplied by the South Carolina governor’s office and posted by Charleston Post and Courier, 16 MB)

Paul Barrett, What killed America’s climate-saving nuclear renaissance?, Bloomberg News, October 27, 2015

Ray Henry, Associated Press, Some leaders souring on nuclear power costs, WTOP (Washington, DC), March 4, 2012

Matthew L. Wald, Approval of reactor design clears path for new plants, New York Times, December 23, 2011

David Biello, Designs for newest U.S. nuclear plants aim to balance safety and costs, Scientific American, March 23, 2011

Paul L. Joskow and John E. Parsons, The economic future of nuclear power, Daedalus (Cambridge, MA), 2009

Paul Brown, Voodoo economics and the doomed nuclear renaissance, Friends of the Earth (UK), 2008

George V. Voinovich, Making the nuclear renaissance a reality, Nuclear News 51(3):13-16, 2008

John Deutsch, Ernest J. Moniz, et al., The Future of Nuclear Power: An Interdisciplinary Study, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003 (30 MB)

Craig Bolon, China’s influence on nuclear power, Brookline Beacon, September 9, 2016

Craig Bolon, Third-generation nuclear power: uncertain progress, Brookline Beacon, September 6, 2016

Craig Bolon, Will New England revive nuclear power?, Brookline Beacon, August 10, 2016

Suicides among veterans: searching for factors

Suicide among U.S. military veterans became a rising concern during the era of the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War, begun in 2001 and 2003 by the Walker Bush administration. Sens. Daniel Akaka (D, HI), Patty Murray (D, WA) and Tom Harkin (D, IA) called attention to the crisis in 2008, claiming the Department of Veterans Affairs was trying to ignore a growing problem.

Sen. Harkin had filed a bill the previous year asking the department to document suicides among veterans and take steps to prevent them. About eight years passed before the issue gained traction. Democrats in Congress continued to seek action, while Republicans who supported the Iraq War resisted. As a last blast before retiring, in late 2014 former Sen. Tom Coburn (R, OK)–an anti-abortion, “gun rights” reactionary–blocked the major bill then in Congress, using a procedural foil.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act (PL 114-2) was soon refiled, passed and signed into law by former Pres. Obama. It stimulated research at the Department of Veterans Affairs and improved access to help at federal facilities. It also opened the door to new efforts aimed at understanding the effects of war stresses on military personnel.

Searching for factors: Reacting to early criticism, the Department of Veterans Affairs had published a 2012 report on veteran suicides, but it was pockmarked with missing information and did not measure impacts and trends clearly. Renewed research led to a more comprehensive report released in August, 2016, and to publication of data organized by states in September, 2017.

The newly published data have attracted interest: the first organized and detailed information available from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The 2016 report focused on veterans enrolled in programs operated by the department. However, in a chart–without numerical data–it also showed that the ratio of veteran to civilian suicides remains high and rose steadily between 2003 and 2008, as critics in Congress had charged. [Figure 14, page 25]

Ratios of veteran to civilian suicides by years

VeteranCivilianSuicideRatio2001-2014
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

On average, in 2001 military veterans were about 15 percent less likely than civilians to commit suicide. By 2009, they were about 20 percent more likely to commit suicide. Throughout, the veterans who enrolled in federal services (shown as “VHA Veteran”) have been more likely to commit suicide than the veterans who were not enrolled. Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq associated with increases in veteran suicides. Uses of federal services also associated with increases in veteran suicides.

State factors: The most recently released data, grouped by states where veterans who committed suicide were living, make it possible to look for other factors. The states reporting the lowest rates of veteran suicides during 2001 through 2014 were Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut–about 22 to 26 suicides per year per 100,000 veterans. The states reporting the highest rates were Montana, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Wyoming–about 69 to 55 per year, around 2-1/2 times as much as the states reporting the lowest rates.

The Department of Veterans Affairs released state data at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon. The few reporters from mainstream media who were paying attention noticed high suicide rates in Mountain West states. Some speculated that rural isolation might be a factor. None compared suicide rates quantitatively with the characteristics of states.

Characteristics of states are unlikely to be strong factors in veteran suicide rates, because they cannot identify impacts on the lives of individual veterans. For example, higher state spending on mental health services might be associated with a lower suicide rate, but it could have impact only if the services were actually being used by veterans. In fact, an analysis showed no statistically significant relation.

Since motor vehicle accidents may involve reckless and destructive behaviors, their impact was examined. Motor vehicle fatality rates have been collected and reported by federal agencies since the 1920s. So far, that has turned out to be the strongest state factor found associated with veteran suicides.

Veteran suicide versus motor vehicle fatality rates

VeteranSuicideVsMotorVehicleDeathRates
Source: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Two other state factors produced statistically significant associations: percents of households reported as containing loaded guns and percents of state populations living in rural areas. Data on loaded guns were collected in a 2002 survey reported in a medical journal. Data on rural populations came from the 2010 federal census.

Correlations (R) with veteran suicide rates

MV death rates….0.50

Loaded guns…….0.43

Percent rural…..0.40

Sources: as described in text

The state factors are not statistically independent. Together they account for less than 40 percent of the state-to-state variance in veteran suicide rates. Although they can provide some insight, effective ways to prevent veteran suicides will likely develop from considering individual circumstances.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 19, 2017


Suicide rates of U.S. military veterans, 2001 through 2014, per 100,000 per year, Brookline Beacon, September 19, 2017

Thomas E. Ricks, Veterans Administration throws suicide stats out the back door on Friday at 5 pm, Foreign Policy, September 18, 2017

Hope Yen, Associated Press, Suicide among veterans highest in western U.S. and rural areas, ABC News, September 16, 2017

Suicide among veterans, state data sheets, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, September 15, 2017

Suicide among veterans and other Americans 2001-2014, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, August 3, 2016

Lauren M. Denneson et al., Suicide risk documented during veterans’ last Veterans Affairs health care contacts prior to suicide, Military Behavioral Health 5(1):1-119, 2016

Dave Philipps, Senate approves research into combat effects on mental health, New York Times, November 12, 2015

Kimberly Leonard, Obama signs suicide prevention bill to aid veterans, U.S. News, February 12, 2015

Richard A. Oppel, Jr., Preventing suicides among veterans is at center of bill passed by Senate, New York Times, February 4, 2015

Rep. Timothy Walz, Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, H.R. 203 of the 114th Congress, PL 114-2, U.S. House of Representatives, filed January 7, 2015

Motor vehicle fatality rates per 100,000 persons per year for calendar 2014, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2015

Leo Shame, III, GOP senator blocks vets’ suicide prevention bill, USA Today, December 16, 2014

Janet Kemp and Robert Bossarte, Suicide data report, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2012

State urban and rural population percentages, 2010 Census of Population, U.S. Bureau of the Census

Associated Press, VA official accused of covering up suicide rates, NBC News, April 24, 2008

Sen. Tom Harkin, Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, S. 479 of the 110th Congress, U.S. Senate, filed February 1, 2007

Catherine A. Okoro et al., Prevalence of household firearms and firearm-storage practices in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, Pediatrics 116(3):370-376, 2005

Star Wars revisited: shooting fish in a barrel

Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) has been underway in the United States over 20 years, managed since 2002 by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. The objective has been to disable long-range ballistic missiles at high altitudes, by striking them with interceptor missiles. The program sprang out of “Star Wars”–the Strategic Defense Initiative begun in 1983 during the first Reagan administration.

Efforts were inhibited by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 between the U.S. and the former USSR, and only research occurred at first. During the first Walker Bush administration, the U.S. withdrew from the treaty and began full-scale development and deployment–then called the National Missile Defense program, later renamed GMD. Following a longstanding pattern of problems with military programs–”buy before fly”–about 30 GMD interceptors were deployed to the field years ago, long before any successful test.

Test fatigue: At a cost of around $40 billion, the GMD program conducted 40 test flights between June, 1997, and August, 2017, with about half involving some type of missile interception (listed in the GMD Wikipedia article). About half the flights are officially marked as “success.” However, the most recent one during May, 2017, was the first to disable a long-range missile.

To alert readers, the 2017 test was unconvincing. The target missile’s range of travel was just barely enough to make it a long-range missile: less than two-thirds the range between North Korea and Los Angeles, which is the longest potential range achieved so far by North Korea. Much more discouraging: the target’s path was aimed directly toward the interceptor missile, making interception far easier than a wide-angle path.

All but a few of the GMD interceptors–ones used in testing–have been deployed to Alaska, where they have midcourse access to flight paths between North Korea and places in the continental United States. However, using that access would require interceptions at angles of up to 90 degrees. No test so far has explored the practical need for wide-angle interception at very high speed and altitude.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, September 4, 2017


Robert Burns and Lolita Baldor, Pentagon missile defense program scores direct hit, Associated Press, May 31, 2017

Robert Burns, Leery of North Korea, U.S. plans first test of ICBM intercept, Associated Press, May 27, 2017

Laura Grego, The upcoming GMD missile defense test, Union of Concerned Scientists (Cambridge, MA), May 25, 2017

Cristina Chaplain, et al., Missile defense: some progress, U.S. Government Accountability Office, May, 2017

Ken Dilanian, U.S. may not be able to shoot down North Korean missiles, say experts, NBC News, April 19, 2017

Andrew Glass, President Reagan calls for launching Star Wars in 1983, Politico, March 23, 2017

David Willman, Flaw in the homeland missile defense system, Los Angeles Times, February 26, 2017

Ground-based Midcourse Defense program overview, U.S. Missile Defense Agency, 2016

Thomas Karako, Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC), 2015

Shipping channels: Navy collides with commerce

Recent collisions in the western Pacific between ships of the U.S. Navy and commercial ships highlight a continuing hazard for U.S. military: unsound practices when navigating ocean shipping corridors. During the first eight months of 2017, two DDG guided-missile destroyers from the Seventh Fleet and one of its CG guided-missile cruisers collided with commercial ships.

Both DDG destroyers were badly damaged, and 17 Navy sailors aboard them died. The much larger commercial ships with which they collided suffered no injuries to crew and were able to continue operations at sea. Commercial shippers tend to employ locally experienced captains or pilots to navigate congested shipping corridors.

The U.S. employs Navy personnel mainly trained to navigate open ocean. It is at a disadvantage around busy shipping corridors. To compensate, rules require multiple personnel on duty for navigation and require ship captains on duty during known hazards. On the day of the second major collision in 2017, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson ordered an emergency “stand down” and a comprehensive review of operating safety for the entire Seventh Fleet.

Information available to the public during the third week in August shows differing circumstances for the two major collisions. The later one, between the USS McCain and the Alnic MC commercial oil tanker, occurred within a narrow, internationally recognized shipping channel at the east end of the Singapore Strait. The earlier one, between the USS Fitzgerald and the ACX Crystal container ship, occurred in coastal waters of Japan, regulated as open seas.

USS Fitzgerald collision: The USS Fitzgerald collision occurred about 10 miles southeast of Shimoda, Japan. Located near the mouth of Sagami Bay, that sea zone is crossed by around 400 large merchant ships a day, according to the Coast Guard of Japan. Like USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal, many of them are headed toward or away from the port of Yokohama, just south of Tokyo.

The zone does not have regulated shipping channels, yet the Tokyo Islands of the Izu chain–Oshima, Toshima, Nijima and Kozushima–form a corridor narrowing to about 15 miles in width when approaching Sagami Bay from the south. That is narrower than most of the famously hazardous Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Sumatra.

The USS Fitzgerald was sailing generally southwest, close to the center of the corridor between the Izu Peninsula and the Tokyo Islands, when it was speared on the starboard side by the ACX Crystal container ship, sailing generally northeast through the corridor. A more cautious course for the USS Fitzgerald could have taken it a few miles closer to Shimoda and the Izu Peninsula, among most of the ship traffic heading generally southwest, although possibly at a slower speed.

Crediting the MarineTraffic service, the New York Times published a tracking video showing the path of the ACX Crystal around the time of collision with the USS Fitzgerald. That was assembled from transmissions via shipboard Automatic Identification System transponders, received through the MarineTraffic network. The Times tracking video does not show the other ships in the area. The Times stated there were no transmissions available from the USS Fitzgerald.

The Times video showed the ACX Crystal making a sudden change in direction and halting, then going on but soon returning to the site of the sudden change, then continuing toward Yokohama. Spearing the starboard side of the USS Fitzgerald suggests that Fitzgerald failed to yield according to international conventions of maritime navigation. The U.S. Navy refused comment until it finishes an investigation.

USS McCain collision: The USS McCain collision occurred about 9 miles east of Tanjung Penyusup–at the southeast extreme of the Malaysia mainland–shortly after entering the shipping channel for the Singapore Strait. Some news reports confused the Singapore Strait with the adjacent, much longer Malacca Strait. According to the local association of ship pilots, the Singapore Strait is traversed by about 150 large merchant ships a day.

Both the USS McCain and the Alnic MC were headed generally southwest, toward Singapore. The strait, which narrows to less then four miles, has an internationally recognized shipping channel that is monitored by Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It is the chief ocean bottleneck for shipping between east Asia and India, the Persian Gulf, east Africa, the Middle East and Europe, via the Suez Canal.

The course of the USS McCain, at the time it was speared on the port side by the Alnic MC oil tanker, remains unclear. Both ships should have been headed in nearly the same direction, generally southwest, after entering the east end of the shipping channel.

Crediting the MarineTraffic service, the London Daily Mail published a tracking video showing the path of the Alnic MC around the time of collision with the USS McCain. That was assembled from transmissions via shipboard Automatic Identification System transponders, received through the MarineTraffic network. The Daily Mail tracking video shows many other commercial ships in the area, but it does not show any military ships, including the USS McCain and a Malaysian Navy ship some news reports said was nearby.

At 00:48 into the video (21:19:40 GMT), several ships are sailing southwest at about 9 to 12 knots on the north side of the channel. Others are sailing in the opposite direction on the south side. In a cluster of three, Team Oslo leads Alnic MC, followed by Guang Zhou Wang, just entering the east end of the shipping channel. Alnic MC posts a speed of about 9-1/2 knots.

At 00:51 into the video (21:24:50 GMT), Alnic MC has suddenly veered south and lowered its speed. It is inside the shipping channel, toward the center and about a mile past the entrance. It comes almost to a halt and continues to turn. Guang Zhou Wang and other ships pass. After turning a total of about 225 degrees, Alnic MC moves northward, crossing and leaving the shipping channel.

Alnic MC then completes a full turn of 360 degrees and proceeds southwest–outside the shipping channel on the north side. BBC and other news media reported that the collision took place at 21:24 GMT, coinciding with Alnic MC veering southward. For Alnic MC to spear USS McCain on its port side, the Navy ship looks to have maneuvered in some rogue manner within the shipping channel, not in the usual southwest flow toward Singapore at 9 to 12 knots. Again, the U.S. Navy refused comment until it finishes an investigation.

Troubled organization: The Seventh Fleet appears to have been a troubled organization for years. As of August, 2017, 28 of its officers had been charged with official corruption in the “Fat Leonard” contracting scandal. Nineteen admitted accepting bribes and favors in return for supplying advance notice of fleet movements and ignoring issues with contracts. Dozens more investigations are said to be underway.

The Seventh Fleet has been reported with more severe morale problems than the other Navy fleets, some say because of shorter breaks between deployments at sea. However, it is the only “forward deployed” fleet, with its home base in a foreign country. Seventh Fleet staff face years-long tours of duty with their immediate families imbedded in a foreign culture whose language and customs are difficult to learn. Staffing shortages have been reported in some high-demand specialties, including sonar operators.

In 2016 the commander of Yokosuka Naval Base, the home of the Seventh Fleet in Japan, was dismissed for failing to maintain standards. Two days after the major collision with a commercial ship in August, 2017, the commander of the Seventh Fleet was dismissed. New prosecutions for corruption and sharp questions about navigation errors in the recent collisions may make recovery of confidence slow and difficult.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, August 23, 2017


Ken Moritsugu, Associated Press, Navy dismisses Seventh Fleet commander after warship accidents, ABC News, August 23, 2017

Katy Daigle, Associated Press, Four accidents, two deadly, raise questions about Navy operations, Washington Post, August 22, 2017

USS John S. McCain may have suffered steering failure, Maritime Executive (Fort Lauderdale, FL), August 22, 2017

Maya Salam, Previous collisions involving U.S. Navy vessels, New York Times, August 21, 2017

Anna Fifield and Dan Lamothe, Chief of Naval Operations orders fleetwide investigation following latest collision at sea, Washington Post, August 21, 2017

Lolita C. Baldor, Annabelle Liang and Stephen Wright, Associated Press, U.S. Navy chief orders probe into Pacific fleet and a pause in operations after recent spate of collisions, London Daily Mail, August 21, 2017

Tracking video: collision off Singapore, London Daily Mail crediting MarineTraffic, August 21, 2017

Jaspreet Kaur, Assistant chief of staff of Seventh Fleet of U,S, Navy pleads guilty in ‘Fat Leonard’ bribery case, San Diego Military News, August 18, 2017

Tyler Hlavac, Navy officials look at giving Seventh Fleet a higher manning priority, Stars and Stripes, July 26, 2017

Scott Shane, Maritime mystery: why a U.S. destroyer failed to dodge a cargo ship, New York Times, June 23, 2017

Ford Fessenden and Derek Watkins, The path of the container ship that struck a U.S. Navy destroyer, New York Times, June 19, 2017

Elizabeth Shim, U.S. guided-missile cruiser collides with South Korean boat, United Press, May 9, 2017

Maritime traffic in southeast Asia, MarineTraffic (London), 2017

Automatic Identification System, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2017

Craig Whitlock, The man who seduced the Seventh Fleet, Washington Post, May 27, 2016

Hope Hodge Seck, Commander of largest U.S. Navy base in Asia fired after investigation, Military News, April 20, 2016

Navigation Safety Guidance for Tokyo Area, Coast Guard of Japan, 2014 (in English)