Victory for Clean Energy

NW Natural Withdraws its Hydrogen-Fracked Gas Blending Project in Eugene

Gas tap with pipeline system at natural gas station.

What does it really take to fight for non-polluting and equitable energy choices while calling out greenwashing and false solutions? Beyond Toxics made a decision to step forward to halt an ill-conceived energy project put forward by NW Natural, a corporation that makes its profits by promoting the sale and use of fracked methane gas. Our decision aligns with our environmental justice values, specifically supporting community health and fair treatment.

This October, Beyond Toxics joined with other organizations to intervene in a proposal by NW (Not-so-very) Natural to stop a $10 million project to build an experimental hydrogen-blending facility in West Eugene. Our intervenor status was approved by the Oregon Public Utilities Commission, which would need to approve NWN’s project before any proposal could proceed.

On November 1st, mere weeks after our team intervened in NW Natural’s application, the corporation formally withdrew its application. The cancellation of the methane-hydrogen blending project in West Eugene is a clear victory for community organizing! We were able to see this experimental project for what it was - greenwashing and the continuation of climate-destabilizing fossil fuel infrastructure.

It was important we took immediate action to block NW Natural’s predatory plan to use the Bethel neighborhood for the experimental project. As climate justice advocates, we want to share the facts about why hydrogen is the wrong choice for the Bethel neighborhood, and for Oregon!

The project objective was to send methane-hydrogen blended fuel into 2,273 residences in the Bethel neighborhood in West Eugene, a working class neighborhood. However, Bethel residents weren’t given a choice to opt-out, which meant the project was being forced on unsuspecting residents. As one Eugene elected official told me, “Here in Bethel, we’re their guinea pigs.” In addition to being the test subjects for this controversial project, NWN admits the costs of building out a large new fossil fuel infrastructure would be shifted to Oregon ratepayers.

That is merely the start of why this project is better dead. While NWN’s methane-hydrogen project plans are shelved for now, we are skeptical that they will remain forever buried. Should these plans come back to Lane County, the public must be armed with the knowledge of its potential negative impacts on our community.

Greenhouse Gas
Methane is the most potent greenhouse gas in the short term. Methane has twenty-one times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. Yet, NWN’s $10 million “blending” project will remain 90-95% methane gas, with only 5-10% hydrogen in the blend. That minimal reduction in methane gas accomplishes next to nothing to reduce methane in the atmosphere where it will continue to swiftly affect the earth’s temperature and climate system.

Dangerously Unstable
The volatile nature of hydrogen makes sending hydrogen into homes highly risky. Hydrogen erodes metal pipes and valves, a process called Hydrogen Embrittlement. This occurs when metals become brittle as a result of introducing hydrogen into pipes and appliances. The degree of embrittlement becomes significant when it leads to cracking. Older appliances in houses may have weaknesses that make it more risky to introduce even modest amounts of hydrogen blended in with natural gas. A recent explosion of hydrogen in North Carolina seriously damaged 60 nearby homes, including making at least one home uninhabitable.

Water Usage
Technological inefficiencies along with green hydrogen’s reliance on freshwater during its production process are very worrisome, particularly because the West Eugene project would be using our drinking water from the McKenzie River. In Oregon, as well as other areas of the world, increasing drought conditions may put thirsty communities in competition with multinational hydrogen corporations for fresh water necessary for human, environmental and agricultural survival. A recent article on hydrogen in Reuters cited an Australian study estimating the upper end of water use at over 21 gallons to create one kg of hydrogen - which is equal to 1 gallon of gasoline in BTU equivalent. That’s a lot of water for very little energy.

Public Health
Blending hydrogen and methane increases emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) compared to burning methane alone. This raises the risk of NOx-associated chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma. Furthermore, if hydrogen blends cause pipe embrittlement, there may be increased health risks from carbon monoxide leaks from escaping methane gas.

Economics
Economic concerns being discussed by research firms, such Carbon Tracker (10/20/2022), have warned that up to $100 billion of “dirty” hydrogen investments – those which utilize fossil fuels as a feedstock – could become obsolete as nations move to reduce reliance on gas, particularly in light of the desire to avoid purchasing gas from Russia while it attacks Ukraine. According to Forbes Magazine (7/31/2021), “... many of the companies pushing hydrogen aren’t doing so to save the planet. They’re doing so to save their business models in a time of extreme transition towards greener technologies and e-mobility.”

It seems worthwhile to explore the possibilities for clean hydrogen in fuel cells needed for transportation (after all, hydrogen is rocket fuel) or heavy industrial uses. However, we know that blended hydrogen in homes does very little for public health or to help Oregon achieve its carbon reduction goals. NW Natural's claim that hydrogen is the pathway to “transition” away from fossil fuels for residential use is pure greenwashing. It is clear that their claims are merely a ploy to maintain the status quo for gas companies and keep us chained to fossil fuel infrastructure such as gas pipelines and appliances.

The more we learn, the more we understand that, wherever big natural gas companies peddle hydrogen blending projects, their proposals take us in the wrong direction to realistically meet climate harm reduction goals. For these reasons and more, Beyond Toxics stepped up to successfully stop this risky project. Now we can get back to the business of investing in the emissions reductions we need, and quickly, to protect health and step back from the brink of climate disaster.

Lisa Arkin,
Executive Director

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Public Pressure Brings Down Polluting Giant

On Friday afternoon, I went with two other Beyond Toxics staff members to stand across the street from the JH Baxter wood treatment facility. We took a moment to breathe in a deep breath of air and celebrate the absence of creosote vapors – the nauseating, eye-burning, nose-searing combination of many chemicals including naphthalene and petroleum – that have defined living in the area for decades.

 

 

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JH Baxter’s unrelenting toxic pollution has, since the day it began operating, caused devastating harm to workers, Bethel residents and the surrounding neighborhood. We will continue to stand by the community to do everything to ensure this polluter is held accountable to pay for cleaning up dioxin-contaminated soils, toxic PCB plumes in the groundwater and nearby streams and their own highly contaminated 42-acre site. 

The devastating effects of JH Baxter’s greed and illegal practices will be felt in the community for decades to come. People who once lived there or who still live there will suffer an increased susceptibility to chronic health problems including cancer, asthma, hypertension, and diabetes for the rest of their lives. The toxic legacy left behind will haunt nearby neighborhoods for generations not yet born.

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Bethel neighbor listens to a West Eugene clean air presentation.

The closure of JH Baxter is nothing short of a ground-breaking community victory! For residents of West Eugene, the closure of JH Baxter warrants a well-deserved victory lap. It is a time to celebrate the years of community organizing and public pressure that led to this moment: shuttering a repeated and intentional polluter! 

Beyond Toxics has fought for clean air in the Bethel community since 2006. We’ve been fighting for the principle of holding polluters accountable since our founding in 2001. Our work with West Eugene neighbors began by raising awareness about air and groundwater pollution from the Union Pacific Rail Yard.

We further amplified our work in 2009, when we walked the streets with City Councilor Andrea Ortiz (she later died of complications from a respiratory illness). As we walked together, Councilor Ortiz commented on a persistent chemical stench from nearby industrial facilities, leaking rail cars parked next to homes and parks, and two separate groundwater plumes of vinyl chloride and PCBs. We discussed high rates of cancer, asthma and other illnesses as well. In particular, we talked about the unbearable odors emanating from the JH Baxter plant.

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City Councilor Andrea Ortiz. (deceased; photo taken in 2004)

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During the 2012 West Eugene Bus Tour a Latinx mother tells the crowd of her daughter suffering from asthma as a result of living near JH Baxter.

A year later, a teacher from Fairfield Elementary School called us in a panic as the staff rushed the school children back inside from recess. I will never forget her words: “A wall of chemical vapors is overwhelming us! We can’t breathe!” she said. It was the smell of creosote, and JH Baxter was the source.

This call, and other developments, led us to develop the first ever Environmental Justice Toxics Bus Tour in Oregon in 2012.

 

Over the years we have supported the efforts of Bethel residents to expose JH Baxter’s litany of toxic abuse with a bevy of  grassroots organizing tactics, including health studies, air quality studies, testifying, supporting community coalitions and filing a truckload of complaints. Perhaps most importantly, in 2014 we filed a successful US EPA civil rights and environmental justice complaint against the Lane Regional Air Protection Authority. Without fail, we let regulatory agencies know, in no uncertain terms, that they had failed the community, sacrificed public health and allowed themselves to be subservient to one of Oregon’s worst polluters. 

In fact, a day before the shutdown plans were known, Beyond Toxics and the Active Bethel Community had sent a letter to the Mayor and Eugene City Council calling for our elected officials to ask Governor Brown and the DEQ to issue a Cease and Desist order to force JH Baxter to stop operations.

Despite the quiet outward appearance I witnessed on Friday, we remain vigilant in insisting regulators hold JH Baxter to the task of paying for cleanup of the neighborhood and their own seriously contaminated 42 acre site.

The courts will consider JH Baxter’s case to contest (as in “not pay”) the $223,000 civil penalty issued by the DEQ for violating their pollution permit. Striving to uphold environmental justice principles during this court case, we successfully petitioned regulators to represent the community’s interest in JH Baxter’s upcoming court hearing (Read our petition to participate on the community’s behalf). Beyond Toxics will be there to ensure environmental justice is upheld!

JH Baxter and the history of how elected officials and regulatory agencies ignored the downwind Bethel community is an example of structural injustice and unfair treatment. As the dark, harrowing shadow of JH Baxter’s toxic legacy recedes, we must continue to insist that Bethel neighbors deserve a sense of well-being and hope for a thriving and just future.

~ Lisa Arkin, Executive Director, Beyond Toxics

 

See our latest video on YouTube highlighting Beyond Toxics' work in West Eugene

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