2012 - %3, January

Fracked Beef: It's What's for Dinner?

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 7:14 PM EST

From a tainted water supply in Wyoming to toxic air pollution in Colorado, there are concerns aplenty about the public health effects of hydraulic fracturing. While many communities investigate what we drink and breathe for answers, one new report from The Nation and the Food & Environment Reporting Network highlights a key yet overlooked complication—fracking chemicals could affect our food.

For the cover story in the magazine's December issue, journalist and author Elizabeth Royte visited a North Dakotan cattle farmer living smack in the middle of the Bakken oil boom. The rancher, Jacki Schilke, decided to largely stop selling her cows for Black Angus beef after several died or started displaying mysterious symptoms, like rapid weight loss or tails that would simply drop off. Schilke, Royte writes, is surrounded by 32 fracked oil and gas wells within three miles of her 160-acre ranch. The author continues:

Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene and xylene—compounds associated with drilling and fracking, and also with cancers, birth defects and organ damage. Her well tested high for sulfates, chromium, chloride and strontium; her blood tested positive for acetone, plus the heavy metals arsenic (linked with skin lesions, cancers and cardiovascular disease) and germanium (linked with muscle weakness and skin rashes). Both she and her husband, who works in oilfield services, have recently lost crowns and fillings from their teeth; tooth loss is associated with radiation poisoning and high selenium levels, also found in the Schilkes' water.

According to Royte, the state's health and agriculture officials told Schilke this wasn't cause for concern. Another state air quality official told OnEarth magazine that in investigating Schilke's health complaint, tests never revealed pollutants above "normal background" levels. Of course, it doesn't help Schilke that there's scarce research into the connection between food and fracking. Earlier this year, an Ithaca veterinarian and Cornell professor published a peer-reviewed study (the first of its kind) examining health problems in animals from 24 farms across six drilling states. The authors, Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald, looked at several frack-heavy areas, and found that animals exposed to chemicals in fracking fluid or wastewater often died, couldn't reproduce, or had offspring with birth defects.

Still, much remains unknown—or disputed. Critics accuse the Cornell study of being un-scientific because of its use of anonymous sources, and also because the researchers didn't test the effects of specific chemicals on cows directly; instead, the authors relied on events they didn't control. Of course, controlled testing of the direct effects of particular chemicals is made all the more difficult because of legislative loopholes that allow companies to keep the identities and concentrations of fracking chemicals guarded. Bamberger and Oswald, for their part, attributed the report's reliance on anonymity to industry non-disclosure agreements.

The potential fracking-food connection is especially important to consider as New York's heavily delayed decision on how to regulate fracking approaches. In her interviews with concerned upstate New York farmers and Brooklyn gourmands, Royte shows how citizens' taste for locavore beef, dairy, and other meat products could come into direct conflict with a landscape compromised by drilling. If Governor Cuomo does decide to end the state's fracking moratorium, that could be a lot of 'splaining to do for New York's DIY-or-die foodie communities.

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Conservative Dogma Is Bad For You

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 6:36 PM EST

I guess today is the day for either catastrophic news (sea levels rising faster than we thought, GDP growth worse than we thought) or else political news that just makes me laugh. Earlier this morning I passed along the comical news that Republicans refuse to tell anyone what entitlement cuts they allegedly want to make, and now I learn from MoJo's own Erika Eichelberger that our good friends at ALEC have finally gotten the comeuppance they deserve. ALEC is a conservative group that writes model bills for friendly state legislatures, and although they sometimes branch out into things like voter ID laws, most of their focus is on anti-tax and anti-labor bills.

Every year they write a report extolling the virtues of their work and ranking all 50 states by how slavishly they follow ALEC's recommendations. But they mostly use statistical comparisons that would embarrass an eighth-grader. They cherry pick, showing the performance of one particular state vs. another. They show only the top seven, or nine, or five states compared to the bottom seven, or nine, or five. They weight every state equally, so big growth in tiny states counts as much as sluggish growth in big states. And guess what? Using their carefully invented measures, states with high ALEC scores always turn out to perform better than states with low ALEC scores. Amazing!

Well, this year someone finally called their bluff and simply produced a bog-ordinary scatterplot that compared ALEC scores vs. economic performance for all 50 states. And guess what? It turns out that high ALEC scores are correlated with negative employment growth, negative income growth, negative government revenue growth, and no difference in state GDP growth. Erika has all the charts here. Enjoy.

BP's Dispersant Allowed Oil to Penetrate Beaches More Deeply

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 6:33 PM EST

A worker cleans up oily waste on Elmer's Island, LA,  21 May 2010: Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard, via Flickr

A worker cleans up oily waste on Elmer's Island, Louisiana, on May 21, 2010: Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley, US Coast Guard, via Flickr 

In an attempt to deal with the 206 million gallons of light crude oil erupting from the Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010, BP unleashed about 2.6 million gallons of Corexit dispersants (Corexit 9500A and Corexit EC9527) in surface waters and at the wellhead on the sea floor. From the beginning the wisdom of that decision was questioned. I wrote extensively about those concerns in "BP's Deep Secrets."

In the short term the dispersed oil made BP's catastrophe look like less of a catastrophe since less oil made it to shore. But what about the long term?

In a new paper in PLOS ONE, researchers took a closer look. They examined the effects of oil dispersed mechanically (sonication), oil dispersed by Corexit 9500A, and just plain seawater (the control). They used laboratory-column experiments to simulate the movement of dispersed and nondispersed oil through sandy beach sediments.

Clean seawater, crude oil dispersed by sonication, or crude oil dispersed by Corexit and sonication were flushed through the sand columns by gravity. The effluent of the columns was collected as a time series in 4 vials each. PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549.g001Clean seawater, crude oil dispersed by sonication, or crude oil dispersed by Corexit and sonication were flushed through the sand columns by gravity. The effluent of the columns was collected as a time series in four vials each. PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549.g001

Their findings: Corexit 9500A allows crude oil components to penetrate faster and deeper into permeable saturated sands where the absence of oxygen may slow degradation and extend the lifespan of potentially harmful polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a.k.a. organic pollutants—a.k.a. persistently abominable hork—in the marine environment.

"The oil concentrations used in our experiments are at the lower end of those reported for coastal waters after the Deepwater Horizon accident, and the Gulf of Mexico beaches were flooded with consecutive surges of oil."

Furthermore, the authors warn, dispersants used in nearshore oil spills might penetrate deeply enough into saturated sands to threaten groundwater supplies. (Did anyone look at this in the BP settlement?)

How does dispersant change oil's behavior in a beach? The authors write:

The causes of the reduced PAH retention after dispersant application has several reasons: 1) the dispersant transforms the oil containing the PAHs into small micelles that can penetrate through the interstitial space of the sand. 2) the coating of the oil particles produced by the dispersant reduces the sorption to the sand grains, 3) saline conditions enhance the adsorption of dispersant to sand surfaces, thereby reducing the sorption of oil to the grains.

In other words, repeated flushing by waves washing up a contaminated beach may pump PAHs deep into the sediment when dispersant is present. Natural dispersants—those produced by oil-degrading bacteria—may support this effect when oil is present in the sand for longer time periods.

Furthermore the continuous flushing by waves on an oil-contaminated beach may result in the release of PAHs from the sand back to the water. And after PAHs are released from the sediment, UV light can increase their degradation but also increase their toxicity to marine life by up to eightfold.

As for what effects those long-lived PAHs have released back into the water, the authors cite recent research findings: 

  • Increased mortality in planktonic copepods exposed to dispersants with stronger effects on small-sized species. 
  • In early life stages of Atlantic herring dispersed oil dramatically impaired fertilization success. 
  • Grey mullet exposed to chemically dispersed oil showed both a higher bioconcentration of PAHs and a higher mortality than fish exposed to either the water-soluble fraction of oil or the mechanically dispersed oil.

 

Carl Pellegrin (left) of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and Tim Kimmel of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepare to net an oiled pelican in Barataria Bay, La., Saturday, June 5, 2010: Deepwater Horizon Response via FlickrWorkers from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service prepare to net an oiled pelican in Barataria Bay, June 5, 2010: Deepwater Horizon Response via Flickr

The open access paper:

  • Alissa Zuijdgeest and Markus Huettel. Dispersants as Used in Response to the MC252-Spill Lead to Higher Mobility of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Oil-Contaminated Gulf of Mexico Sand. PLOS ONE (2012). DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0050549

Lindsey Graham Wants the Government to Be Able to Lock You Up Forever Without a Trial

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 6:11 PM EST
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is not happy that the government might have to actually convict a suspected terrorist of a crime before locking them up forever and throwing away the key. So he's working on an amendment to the pending defense bill that would make it clear that if the government thinks you're a terrorist, it can put you in prison without ever having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you so much as vandalized a dive bar bathroom wall. 

The text of the amendment, which is circulating on the Hill but has not yet been formally introduced, would affirm the government's power to "detain under the law of war" any individual "who joins al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or an associated force" and "plans or participates in a belligerent act against the United States on behalf of such forces anywhere within the United States and its territories." In other words, you could be deprived of your freedom in a war with no definable end, based on the mere suspicion that you've committed a crime. During the debate over last year's defense bill, Congress agreed to leave open the question of whether or not military detention authority applied to US citizens apprehended on American soil. This amendment would ensure that it does.

The amendment is a response to the one proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would prevent the government from detaining Americans and legal permanent residents suspected of terrorism without charge or trial. That amendment wouldn't protect all non-citizens apprehended on US soil however, so civil liberties and human rights groups are opposing it as unconstitutional. "Any approach to dealing with indefinite detention should be consistent with basic constitutional principles, which say that all persons are guaranteed due process," Human Rights First's Raha Wala said in a statement emailed to reporters.

Instead, these groups are backing amendments from Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) that would ensure that any person—citizen or otherwise—apprehended on US soil could not be deprived of their freedom without due process of law. You know, like it says in the Constitution.

 

White House Makes Laughable Defense Bill Veto Threat

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 4:59 PM EST

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act if the final version includes certain provisions, including continuing restrictions on Guantanamo Bay detainee transfers that make it impossible for the administration to close the prison. The statement was issued Thursday, as the Senate debated the defense bill.

Legislators should be forgiven for not taking this threat too seriously.

The first big restrictions on Gitmo transfers passed in 2010. Attorney General Eric Holder called them "dangerous," but the administration did nothing. Then in January 2011, the administration's ability to move detainees out of Gitmo was curtailed again. The administration did nothing. They issued a formal veto threat in 2011 over provisions in that year's National Defense Authorization Act, then backed down.

Obama reiterated his intention to close the Guantanamo detention camp on Jon Stewart's Daily Show just prior to the 2012 election. But Congress has hemmed him in with those transfer restrictions, and bringing suspected terror detainees to US soil is even less popular than it used to be.

Civil liberties and human rights groups have urged Obama to veto the defense bill if it retains the transfer restrictions, since they would make it impossible for Obama to fulfill his promise to close Gitmo. It's also the only way for the administration to convince Congress that it's actually serious when it says the restrictions are unacceptable. 

But they probably aren't serious, at least not if we're defining "seriousness" as being actually willing to veto the bill. Not if the past is any indication.

Congress About to Get Hit in the Head With the Price of Climate Change

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 4:21 PM EST

A few weeks ago I linked to a piece Chris Mooney did for us about the effect of climate change on Hurricane Sandy. Chris made the point that although you can argue about whether climate change is responsible for any particular hurricane, there's no question that climate change is responsible for a rise in sea level, which makes the damage from hurricanes much worse than it otherwise would be. And that includes Hurricane Sandy. "There is 100 percent certainty that sea level rise made this worse," sea level expert Ben Strauss said. "Period."

Well, it turns out the news is even worse than that. A new study using satellite data suggests that, if anything, forecasts of sea level rise in the most recent IPCC reports have been too low. Global warming is about where the predictions say it should be, but the amount of warming we're getting is increasing sea level a lot faster than we thought it would. The chart below shows the difference between reality and the two most recent IPCC forecasts.

This unexpected rise isn't due to medium-term variability, and it's not due to a temporary release from Greenland's ice sheets. The most likely explanation is simply that sea level rise is more sensitive to global warming than we thought. Congress—along with all the skeptics who argue that it's cheaper to pay the price of climate change than it is to stop it—should think about this when they're considering the $100 billion in disaster funds that northeastern states are requesting to clean up after Sandy.

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Chart of the Day: Our Economy's Real Problem

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 2:14 PM EST

Here's some grim news, courtesy of Brad DeLong. We all know that the economy is operating well below its potential, a problem that congressional Republicans, to their eternal dishonor, are flatly unwilling to allow anyone to deal with. But things are worse than that: the economy's potential has been going down too. The chart below shows the evolution of the CBO's estimate of potential GDP between 2007 and now 

Add up both the drop in potential GDP and the fact that we're operating well below even that, and the American economy is running at about $2.5 trillion under its forecast from only a few years ago. Congressional action probably can't fix this entirely, but it could sure fix a lot of it. It's scandalous that we're wasting our time talking about invented nonsense like Benghazi and the fiscal cliff instead.

New York City's Murder Rate Was Zero Last Monday

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 1:43 PM EST

Matt Steinglass passes along some good news from the Big Apple:

New York City went a day without a murder on Monday, which according to police was the first time anyone could remember that happening. Overall, the city's murder rate this year is down 23%, reaching levels last seen in 1960. This is a milestone in the 20-year-long decline of violent crime in the Big Apple. It's cause for celebration, and Reuters reports that crime expert Tom Repetto attributes the success in part to the city's aggressive policing strategies, the famous "broken windows" tactics that got started in the 1990s under Ray Kelly, the police chief, and have more recently included the controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

Hmmm. Broken windows. Really?

But hold on a minute. Up in Boston, they also had tremendous success in cutting murder rates in the 1990s. But they didn't focus on the broken-windows strategy, stop-and-frisk, or going after petty offenders. Instead they launched a project called "Operation Ceasefire" to cut gang violence.

Gangs? Okey dokey.

But hold on another minute! What's that you say, Eric Tucker of the Associated Press? Washington, DC is likely to see its first year in decades with less than 100 murders? Wow! In the late 1980s and early 1990s Washington had over 500 murders per year. Why the decline? No single factor, says Mr Tucker. A little of this, a little of that, a little of something else you probably never even thought of.

Matt suggests this means we shouldn't look for simple answers:

What's the takeaway message? I'd say there are two of them. First of all, beware of takeaway messages! Lots of things in life, maybe most things, often the most important things, don't have explanations that can be packaged as a simple, coherent thesis. Second, given our inability to explain definitively why the crime rate is falling, we may need some scepticism about the recent push to demand scientifically valid evidence for the effectiveness of social betterment programmes. Random controlled trials might very well have found that the broken-windows strategy doesn't prevent crime, "Project Ceasefire" doesn't prevent crime, reducing rates of single motherhood doesn't prevent crime, family planning doesn't prevent crime, banning lead doesn't prevent crime, and so on and so forth; there might have been no statistically significant difference one could isolate for any of these things. And yet it seems extremely likely to me that most or all of these were good things to do! The drop in violent crime probably has to do with all of them.

I want to be careful here. Crime is a complex problem, and Matt is right that lots of things can affect both its rise and fall. I happen to believe that both "broken windows" and "Operation Ceasefire" programs are effective. And yet, I think he's 180 degrees off here. If you had lots of different cities with lots of different results, you'd be justified in thinking that lots of different things were responsible. But when you have lots of different cities all showing the exact same thing—a huge and completely unexpected drop in violent crime—does it really make sense that it's happening for a different reason in every city? It might! But that would sure be a monumental coincidence. More likely, there's some single factor underlying the decrease that affected the entire country. In fact, since drops in violent crime were also recorded in Canada during the past two decades, and elsewhere around the world during other time periods, it's probably some worldwide factor. And on that score, gasoline lead reigns supreme. There's really nothing else that persuasively explains a global rise and fall in violent crime that happens at different times in different countries. More on this later.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 29, 2012

Thu Nov. 29, 2012 1:42 PM EST

U.S. Army Capt. Peggy Hu, Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team civil affairs, speaks with a local child during a routine patrol in the local area Nov. 21. U.S. Air Force photo.

Study: ALEC Is Bad for the Economy

| Thu Nov. 29, 2012 12:08 PM EST

The American Legislative Exchange Council, the corporate-funded group that generates nearly a thousand pro-business model bills per year and feeds them to state legislatures nationwide, is holding its annual policy summit in the nation's capital this week to meet with new state lawmakers and "prepare the next generation of political leadership." This coincides with the release of a report showing that ALEC's economic prescriptions are not good for the economy.

Each year, ALEC ranks the states on how tightly they adhere to the group's policy recommendations—from personal and corporate tax rates, to public sector employment levels, to right-to-work laws—as a predictor of their economic growth. The study released Wednesday, by the Iowa Policy Project and Good Jobs First, two policy groups that promote economic growth at the state level, introduces those rankings to reality. It concludes: "A hard look at the actual data finds that the ALEC…recommendations not only fail to predict positive results for state economies—the policies they endorse actually forecast worse state outcomes for job creation and paychecks." (Though the report is careful to maintain that though ALEC policies are correlated with less prosperous state economies, that doesn't necessarily mean the policies caused economic decline.)

Let's take a look. In six key measures of economic growth, ALEC's "Economic Outlook Rankings" fail to coincide with the actual economic outlook of a state over time. On the horizontal axis we have all 50 states' ALEC economic grades from 2007, when ALEC started its ranking system. The vertical axis shows the percent change in actual economic performance from 2007 until last year. If ALEC's fortune-telling were correct , the plotted points would form an upward, rightward line, with a better score corresponding with a better economy. But what happens is pretty much the opposite:

 

Note the downward slope:

 

Whoa, downward slope:

 

A better economy means higher incomes, means more tax revenue, right? 


 

Aaaaand upward slope:

Instead of boosting states' fortunes, the report finds that ALEC's preferred policies seem to provide "a recipe for economic inequality, wage suppression, and stagnant incomes, and for depriving state and local governments of the revenue needed to maintain the public infrastructure and education systems that are the true foundations of long term economic growth and shared prosperity."