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Tag: "environment"

Pipelines vs. Trains

[ 65 ] January 21, 2014 |

As another oil train is dangling over a railroad bridge in Philadelphia, some wonder whether pipelines or trains are better for transporting oil. The answer from available evidence in the United States seems that the difference is fairly negligible.

Including major derailments in Alabama and North Dakota, more than 1.15 million gallons of crude oil was spilled from rail cars in 2013, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

By comparison, from 1975 to 2012, U.S. railroads spilled a combined 800,000 gallons of crude oil. The spike underscores new concerns about the safety of such shipments as rail has become the preferred mode for oil producers amid a North American energy boom.

The federal data does not include incidents in Canada where oil spilled from trains. Canadian authorities estimate that more than 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6, when a runaway train derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. The cargo originated in North Dakota.

But then:

The March 2013 Exxon Mobil Pegasus tar sands oil pipeline disaster in Mayflower, Arkansas that poisoned nearby wetlands and killed dozens of birds, turtles and snakes. Exxon has never provided a definitive total of how much oil spilled, estimating 210,000 to 294,000 gallons. Mayflower and its wildlife are still struggling to recover.

An 840,000 gallon oil pipeline rupture in North Dakota discovered last October, but that may just be the tip of the iceberg. According to one news report, there have been hundreds of publicly unreported oil pipeline spills in North Dakota in the last two years.

A 27,000 gallon fuel leak in Utah last March that could’ve been much more disastrous if not for a beaver dam.

17,000 gallons of crude oil spilled by the Koch Pipeline Company in Texas last October.

In other words, transporting oil from Canadian tar sands is going to be terrible for the environment and public health of the United States whether it comes via pipeline or rail and both need to be opposed.

Biomass is a Terrible Idea as a Major Energy Source

[ 185 ] January 17, 2014 |

You might think corn-based ethanol is the worst possible “green energy” alternative. And I’d like to think you are right. After all, turning the entire Midwest into a giant corn monoculture and destroying the remnants of a once fertile ecosystem in order to force an inefficient and dirty way to create ethanol on a nation all because of an already powerful industry with a huge lobbying arm is a pretty bloody awful idea.

But then there’s biomass. And sure, efficient use of plant resources makes sense. After all, the timber industry realized by the 1940s that rather than wasting all that sawdust and stumpage, turning it into wood alcohol or other products was a smart economic strategy that ultimately meant needing to cut less trees for the same amount of product. But biomass as a core alternative energy source? Only if you like massive deforestation.

In 2007, the European Union set an ambitious goal to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 20 percent below their 1990 levels by 2020. That, in effect, required power plants across the continent to quickly find new ways to make energy. Some turned to wind and solar. But for coal-fired power plants it was much cheaper to convert their facilities to burn wood. The conundrum for those companies is that much of western Europe doesn’t have sufficiently large forests left to meet the demand, and the remaining woodland is heavily regulated. So corporations turned to the Southeastern U.S., where wood is plentiful, and regulations about what can be done on private land are lax.

Wood pellet manufacturing in the U.S. is now booming.

Drax, Britain’s largest coal plant, is in the process of converting most of its operations to biomass fuel, and other power plants across the continent are following suit.

In 2008 Europe imported about 2.5 million tons of wood pellets. By 2012 it imported 9 million. And by 2020 it’s projected to import upwards of 20 million tons, largely from the United States and Canada, according to John Bingham of Hawkins Wright, a British forest products consultancy.

….

Quaranda said his group has documented several cases of forests clear-cut for biomass fuel. A Wall Street Journal report also found clear-cutting in North Carolina.

Seth Ginther, a lawyer with the U.S. Industrial Pellet Association, insists the pellet industry is not responsible for environmental damage. But he acknowledged that private landowners are free to do what they wish, including cut down whole trees on their land.

And in the South, where nearly 90 percent of land is privately owned, there is no law on the books requiring landowners to grow those trees back.

Dozens of biomass facilities have been built in the South. There are currently two in Louisiana, with eight more planned, according to Quaranda.

With a permit to build roads for logging in a protected area of the Atchafalaya pending approval from the Army Corps of Engineers, Dean Wilson worries he’s just seen the beginning of a decades-long battle to protect the woods he’s been looking after since the 1980s.

Now Wilson is trying to employ the same tactic he used when he found out retailers were selling cypress mulch taken from the Atchafalaya.

Biomass as a major industry basically means the elimination of the United States’ private forests. It would provide a lot of short term profit for companies and land-owners and unbelievably enormous long-term problems, including the destruction of ecosystems, huge losses of carbon-using greenery, erosion, degraded water quality, and widespread deforestation. And if anyone believes the idea that trees are a crop and thus will be replanted for future use, especially on private land, please contact me about the oceanfront property I have to offer you in western Nebraska. The regulatory regime on reforestation, especially in the South is basically zero.

Industrialized biomass is a terrible idea and while we need a multifaceted energy production future and while all energy production has a cost, this cost is completely unacceptable.

Terrible Republican Ideas, Part 24,209

[ 52 ] January 10, 2014 |

House Republicans passed a bill yesterday gutting Superfund. Yes, that’s right, the Republican Party supports the exposure of Americans to toxic waste.

Of course, as we all know there is no meaningful difference between the parties and thus Rand Paul is the only true progressive alternative in 2016 because of some grandstanding speeches on a single issue that he has taken no concrete actions to change.

Today in the Sixth Extinction

[ 16 ] January 3, 2014 |

A rundown of animals officially declared extinct in 2013 and how they reached their end.

Everything in the Oceans is Dying

[ 7 ] December 30, 2013 |

The plastisphere, a new ecological regime of the oceans defined by humans dumping plastic into the oceans, has the potential to dramatically remake water life.

About 245 million tons of plastic is produced annually around the world, according to industry estimates. That represents 70 pounds of plastic annually for each of the 7.1 billion people on the planet, scientists say.

The waste gathers in vast oval-shaped ocean “garbage patches” formed by converging currents and winds. Once trapped in these cyclonic dead zones, plastic particles may persist for centuries.

The physiological effects of plastic debris on the fish, birds, turtles and marine mammals that ingest it are well-documented: clogged intestines, restricted movement, suffocation, loss of vital nutrients, starvation.

The effects of the plastisphere are only beginning to be understood.

Edward Carpenter, a professor of microbial ecology at San Francisco State University, first reported that microbes could attach themselves to plastic particles adrift at sea in 1972. He observed that these particles enabled the growth of algae and probably bacteria and speculated that hazardous chemicals showing up in ocean animals may have leached out of bits of plastic.

Carpenter’s discovery went largely unnoticed for decades. But now, the scientific effort to understand how the plastisphere influences the ocean environment has become a vibrant and growing field of study. From Woods Hole to the University of Hawaii, scientists are collecting seawater and marine life so they can analyze the types, sizes and chemical compositions of the plastic fragments they contain. Their findings are shedding new light on the ramifications of humanity’s addiction to plastic.

“We’re changing the basic rhythms of life in the world’s oceans, and we need to understand the consequences of that,” said marine biologist Miriam Goldstein, who earned her doctorate at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography by studying plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Hawaii and California.

Everything in the Oceans is Dying

[ 11 ] December 23, 2013 |

Today, dolphins:

So far this year, nearly 1,000 bottlenose dolphins — eight times the historical average — have washed up dead along the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Florida, a vast majority of them victims of morbillivirus. Many more are expected to die from the disease in the coming months.

The high death toll from the resurgence of the virus, which killed 700 dolphins in an outbreak 25 years ago, has alarmed marine scientists, who say it remains unclear why the dolphins have succumbed to the disease. The deaths, along with a spate of other unrelated dolphin die-offs along Florida’s east and west coasts, raise new questions about the health of the ocean in this part of the country and what role environmental factors may be playing, scientists said.

The Indian River Lagoon, a diverse estuary, has been tainted by huge algae blooms caused in part by too much nitrogen. Research on some of the dead dolphins in the estuary — 76 died this year, the third series of deaths since 2001 — has showed that some had high levels of mercury, fungal diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and oral-genital tumors. The dolphins found were emaciated.

“You have to think, ‘Where does antibiotic-resistant bacteria come from in dolphins?’ ” said Dr. Bossart, who is involved in a long-term study of the Indian River Lagoon dolphins. “One thought is that it comes from environmental pollution.”

Not Just the Oceans

[ 34 ] December 15, 2013 |

It’s not just the state of the oceans that makes me want to drink. Reading about the Great Lakes will do just fine.

Tiny plastic beads used in hundreds of toiletries like facial scrubs and toothpastes are slipping through water treatment plants and turning up by the tens of millions in the Great Lakes. There, fish and other aquatic life eat them along with the pollutants they carry — which scientists fear could be working their way back up the food chain to humans.

Scientists have worried about plastic debris in the oceans for decades, but focused on enormous accumulations of floating junk. More recently, the question of smaller bits has gained attention, because plastics degrade so slowly and become coated with poisons in the water like the cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs.

“Unfortunately, they look like fish food,” said Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres organization, speaking of the beads found in the oceans and, now, the lakes. His group works to eliminate plastic pollution.

Studies published in recent months have drawn attention to the Great Lakes, where there may be even greater concentrations of plastic particles than are found in oceans. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has also been looking at the impact of microplastics on marine life.

Remember folks, every time you brush your teeth, you poison aquatic life. And eventually, yourselves.

Everything in the Oceans is Dying

[ 57 ] December 13, 2013 |

In comments yesterday, duck-billed placelot pointed me to a truly terrifying story. Basically all the starfish in the northern Pacific are disintegrating.

It’s normal for a tiny portion of starfish populations to suffer from so-called “wasting syndrome.” If the creatures’ skin is wounded or becomes too dry, little lesions can become infected and lead to the loss of arms. But the disease is typically isolated to one or two starfish among hundreds in a rocky tide pool. And even in bad cases, it rarely stretches beyond a single population. “The spatial extent is unprecedented,” says Pete Raimondi, chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department at UC Santa Cruz, which monitors starfish populations on the West Coast. “If it’s as extensive as it looks like it is, then we’re talking about a loss of millions and millions.”

While starfish—which scientists call sea stars to avoid the misconception that they are actually fish—often recover from the lesions, infections on the West Coast are proving lethal. Populations of starfish monitored by Raimondi have essentially disappeared over a period of months. “They will start losing arms or bits of arms and in the end, they kind of disintegrate … into a gooey mess,” he says. An individual sea star may go from whole to remains in a period of days. Though starfish generally have the ability to grow new arms, in these cases wounds don’t heal and innards become exposed as the animal falls apart.

Nobody really knows what’s going on. Quite possibly it is related to climate change and warming water temperatures, making starfish, like bats and frogs, a whole group of animals that could be driven to extinction within a few decades. Some have speculated it is Fukushima radiation, but that reeks of knee-jerk conspiracy theory. Could be a freak bacteria or virus, and of course such things are always possible, such as the contagious cancer wiping out Tasmanian devils that seems to be wholly unconnected to human behavior.

Either way, given the centrality of starfish to the North Pacific tidal ecosystem, this could be disastrous for a number of species. Not to mention make visiting tide pools pointless.

As I said yesterday, I assume everyone paying attention to what is going on with the oceans drinks heavily. This news should make everyone start doing shots right now.

Everything in the Oceans is Dying

[ 36 ] December 12, 2013 |

I assume anyone paying attention to what is happening to the ocean ecosystem also drinks heavily.

Wolves

[ 42 ] December 5, 2013 |

The West has reinvigorated its war on wolves and the Obama Administration has sadly capitulated to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, in what is yet another example of its poor policy toward public lands that originated with the Salazar appointment to Interior and has not improved at all. This is been one of the weakest performances for progressives in the entire administration (along with education policy) and an area where the administration has almost total control to set policy (unlike say, closing GITMO which we can say is disappointing but where the president is highly constrained by Congress).

Wyoming classifies wolves as predatory animals that can be killed by any means and without limit in more than 80 percent of the state, and in parts of Idaho, there are no limits for when or how many wolves can be killed. Not to be outmatched, Montana nearly doubled the bag limit on wolves this year, extended the hunt season to allow killing of pregnant females and refused to listen to pleas by park biologists to create a safety buffer just outside the park’s boundaries to protect straying research animals.

These hunts are a throwback to the not-so-distant days when wolves were ruthlessly persecuted and nearly wiped out from the entirety of the lower 48.

Today wolves live in only about 5 percent of their historic range and have less than 1 percent of their former numbers.

Despite these dismal figures, the Obama administration has proposed to remove protections for wolves across most of the country. With numbers going down from hunts and protections gone, wolf recovery that is broadly supported by a strong majority of the American public, has cost taxpayers millions, benefits ecosystems, and is a tremendous Endangered Species Act success story will be flushed down the drain.

Awful. But this hasn’t received much political pushback, which is another piece of evidence to me of the decline of the environmental movement, which today is as weak as it’s been politically since the 1950s.

Environment and the Border

[ 2 ] December 3, 2013 |

Michelle Chen provides a useful overview of the intertwined environmental and humanitarian disaster of American policies toward the Mexican border. She covers several important issues. To excerpt from her introduction:

The parts of the border that take the form of an actual, physical barrier are an intrusion on the landscape, an eyesore to many — and to millions, a deadly obstacle to overcome. Elements of the local environment, from deserts to the Rio Grande, have been trampled, polluted, criss-crossed by truck convoys, occupied by federal agents and factories, and traversed by migrants following well-worn and perilous trails. And each phase of commercial development and economic exchange has also left an ecological mark, from the bustle of tourists to the churn of the maquilas to the paths trod by migrants following smugglers.

Just as immigrant rights activists see the border as a violent social barrier, environmentalists see the border fence as an assault on the integrity of regional ecologies. The border environs is both a symbol of global environmental changes — transnational movement of people and natural resources, climate change, the wave of urbanization that is sweeping wild lands worldwide — and a symptom of acute environmental impacts — the footprints of stampeding livestock, baking asphalt slicing through desert, and a dense network of dams and pipelines tapping the veins of increasingly parched riparian habitats. In the border zone, life is disrupted by the armature of the state.

Selenium

[ 31 ] November 16, 2013 |

This is not an acceptable decision from the EPA during a Democratic administration:

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency allowed the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection to change how toxic selenium pollution from mountaintop removal mines is measured for the purposes of determining compliance with the Clean Water Act. Selenium, which causes significant biological damage to fish native to the waters of Appalachia, is a toxic pollutant discharged from valley fills into rivers and streams below mountaintop removal sites. The EPA-backed changes to how Kentucky measures selenium pollution allow the state to rely on an impractical and complicated test of tissue samples from fish rather than the current practice of directly sampling the water discharged below mountaintop removal mines and other selenium sources. EPA’s capitulation gives a free pass to industry and will allow unacceptably high levels of selenium pollution to continue flow into Kentucky’s waterways.

If anything, Obama’s EPA should be cracking down on coal mining and making it harder for the mountaintop removal industry to destroy the mountains and ecology of Appalachia. There is no good reason not to directly sample the water. None. Except that the coal industry doesn’t like it. Because ultimately this isn’t about the poisoning of fish. It’s about the poisoning of people. If the fish are poisoned, the people probably are at higher risk as well. Of course, one expects nothing else from the coal industry; it’s spent the last 125 years treating the people of Appalachia like feudal serfs. But for the Obama EPA to actually weaken testing rules, that I don’t get.

Here’s some background on why this all matters:

Current selenium limits in states like West Virginia have helped the Sierra Club and other nonprofits force coal companies to hand over millions of dollars in fines and cleanup costs, but those standards are based on older EPA water criteria and guidance that hasn’t been revised in nearly a decade. New data has suggested less stringent requirements would be adequate and the EPA has said it is updating the acute and chronic freshwater ambient water quality standards for selenium, though the agency has yet to act.

Kentucky is now trying to move ahead while the agency drags its feet, having developed its own criteria with help from the EPA and submitted it for federal approval. The proposal would require that high selenium levels be present in fish tissue before triggering a violation, and it would likely be emulated by neighboring states if it gets the green light from the EPA.

In taking the initiative, Kentucky is hoping to put more regulatory control in its own hands on an issue that has been litigated frequently in other states like West Virginia, according to Crowell & Moring LLP partner Kirsten L. Nathanson.

“The environmental groups have been driving enforcement through lawsuits,” Nathanson said. “Kentucky is trying to find an instructive solution to these issues and avoid some of these ad-hoc enforcement actions by taking affirmative control of its regulatory program for selenium.”

Industry has always preferred state-led regulatory programs because the states are far easier for industry to control than the feds. Politicians come cheaper and they tend to be much friendlier to local industry.

A very disappointing decision.

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