The Year in Pollution: Here Are The Nastiest Cases of Toxic Discharge in 2015

animas river spill
People kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colorado, August 6, in water colored from a mine waste spill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that a cleanup team was working with heavy equipment to secure an entrance to the Gold King Mine. Workers instead released an estimated one million gallons of mine waste into Cement Creek, which flows into the Animas River. JERRY MCBRIDE/THE DURANGO HERALD/PRESS ASSOCIATION/AP

There’s no subtle way to say this: 2015 was a garbage year for our air and water. A river in Colorado turned a bright mac-and-cheese orange with mining waste. Photos of the streets of Beijing, thick with air pollution, looked downright apocalyptic. Parents in Flint, Michigan can look forward to a 2016 living in fear for their children’s brain development after learning their water is full of too much lead. One of the biggest automakers in the world admitted to rigging its vehicles to pass emissions tests, even when they were spewing out as much as 40 times the legal limit of the harmful pollutant NOx. It’s a mess out there, fam.

But amid the muck was a few bright spots: Obama’s Clean Power Plan made it through several Republican challenges mostly unscathed, and the federal government rolled out its first-ever rule limiting ozone emissions this year, putting a cap on the amount of the harmful pollutant (which is linked to asthma, heart disease, premature death, and an array of pregnancy complications) that states are allowed to emit. But—sorry, there’s a “but”—the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the cap at the upper limit of what experts recommended, which many health advocates say amounts to a weak rule that still leaves plenty of room for ozone to damage human health. According to The New York Times, the EPA had sought public comment on a more restrictive cap, but industry lobbyists then “waged an all-fronts campaign” to urge the agency to publish as weak a standard as possible.

Meanwhile, a report found that the U.S.’s regulations on fine particulate matter (linked to asthma risk and a range of other health problems) isn’t nearly adequate, and still leaves Americans at risk for early death. So even if you live in a place that complies with the EPA’s fine particulate matter rules (many places—where about 44 percent of Americans live—do not) the air you breathe could still lead you to die sooner than you should.

Also, sadly, this article is not going to get any cheerier.

And now! Here’s a roundup of the most spectacularly awful pollution stories from 2015. This list is by no means exhaustive. It could go on forever. Sorry! But it’s true. Happy New Year.

Flint Michigan's Water May Damage Kid's Brains Flint, Michigan, where the mayor declared a state of emergency last month after lead was discovered at too-high levels in children's blood. The source of the lead is Flint's water supply. Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Children of Flint, Michigan Might Be Permanently Damaged by Lead in the Water

The lead-tainted water supply in Flint, Michigan has spiked the levels of lead in children’s blood at such a scale that Mayor Karen Weaver announced she was preparing the city to need more special education programs in the near future to deal with the “irreversible” effects on children’s brain development. Weaver declared a state of emergency, the head of Michigan’s environmental regulation agency resigned, and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder apologized for the disaster this week.

Lead exposure “affects children’s brain development resulting in reduced intelligence quotient (IQ), behavioral changes such as shortening of attention span and increased antisocial behavior, and reduced educational attainment. Lead exposure also causes anemia, hypertension, renal impairment, immunotoxicity and toxicity to the reproductive organs,” according to the World Health Organization. “The neurological and behavioral effects of lead are believed to be irreversible.”

Volkswagen Scandal Expands The 482,000 diesel Volkswagen and Audi cars sold in the U.S. with "defeat devices" since 2008 will have emitted enough excess pollution to kill 60 people across the country prematurely. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Volkswagen Emissions Cheating Scandal May Have an Actual Death Toll

This year, we learned that automaker Volkswagen cheated on emissions tests on a massive scale, rigging 11 million of its cars worldwide with “defeat devices” to pass emissions tests, while in reality they were pumping far more toxic pollution than was legal. Scientists have established that, statistically, exposure to air pollution correlates with earlier-than-normal death. MIT and Harvard researchers applied those statistical models to the Volkswagen scandal, and concluded in a recent study that the roughly 500,000 rigged cars sold in the U.S. alone would emit enough excess NOx by the end of 2016 to cause roughly 60 people to die 10 to 20 years prematurely.

All that excess pollution will also “contribute directly” to 31 cases of chronic bronchitis, 34 hospital admissions for heart and respiratory conditions, 120,000 “minor restricted activity days” (like missing work or school) and roughly 210,000 days of lower-respiratory symptoms, such as coughing. They calculated that all those sick people, from 2008 through the end of 2015, will cost the country $450 million. That’s in the United States alone—another 10.5 million rigged cars, or more than 20 times the amount sold in the US, were sold abroad.

1218_Beijing_Smog_Red_Alert_01 A woman at Tiananmen Square wears a protective mask amid heavy smog, after the city issued its first ever "red alert" for air pollution, in Beijing, December 9. Reuters/Damir Sagolj

Beijing’s Air Pollution Problem Turned the City Post-Apocalyptic

In December, Beijing twice issued an air pollution “red alert,” the highest level warning, which triggers the shutdown of schools and factories, and restricts traffic. The smog was expected to rise above 500 micrograms per cubic meter. For perspective, levels above 25 are considered unsafe by the World Health Organization.

One resident described the pollution during that time as so thick she could “taste the bad air” through her facemask.

Beijing’s dire problem, linked to China’s dependence on burning coal, has produced headlines that read like post-apocalyptic speculative fiction. People in Beijing are rapidly buying up cans of clean air from Canada for $14 a pop, before shipping. A Beijing restaurant started charging extra for clean air.

RTX1WQKC Residents, fed up with the ongoing methane leak, rally outside Los Angeles City Hall on December 1, 2015. Gus Ruelas/Reuters

LA’s Methane Leak May be the Biggest Environmental Disaster Since the BP Spill

For about two months straight, a vast amount of methane gas has been spewing out of a natural gas facility 25 miles north of Los Angeles, and no end is in sight. The company responsible, Southern California Gas Co., has said that it might take several months to plug the leak.

The latest estimates, from the Environmental Defense Fund, show that 74,500 metric tons of methane gas have been released so far. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas: It absorbs heat so effectively that it can be as much as 80 times more potent in terms of global warming than carbon dioxide is in its first two decades in the atmosphere. Gizmodo reports that, in terms of overall emissions, that’s the equivalent of putting seven million more cars on the road.

08_10_2015_Gold King Mine EPA Animas River Spill Yellow mine wastewater is seen at the entrance to the Gold King mine in San Juan County, Colorado, in this photo released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and taken August 5. EPA/Reuters

The EPA Turned a River Bright Orange. Oops

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency managed to cause an environmental disaster. The agency says it was using heavy machinery to investigate pollutants at an abandoned gold mine in Colorado when it accidentally released an estimated 1 million gallons of built-up mining waste into the nearby Animas River—turning it a spectacularly unnatural orange hue. In short, the agency poked a hole in the wrong place.

The waste contained lead, arsenic, cadmium and aluminum. To be fair, the mine, like many mines left abandoned and unremediated by companies across the West, had been slowly releasing such contaminants for years—the EPA was there to try to stop the leak.

“This is a huge tragedy. It’s hard being on the other side of this. We typically respond to emergencies, we don’t cause them,” David Ostrander, EPA’s director of emergency preparedness for the region, said at the time. “But this is just an unanticipated situation that didn’t quite come out as planned.”

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