Blue Marble - November 2008

Huntington vs. Burlington: How to Grow a Healthy City

| Mon Nov. 17, 2008 7:35 PM EST

westvirginia.jpgThe CDC recently ranked Huntington, West Virginia as America's unhealthiest city, leading the nation in rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes—even the percentage of elderly people who have lost all their teeth.

On the other end of the scale was Burlington, Vermont, land of happy, healthy hikers and natural-food co-ops. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Burlington is a relatively wealthy area, where fewer than 10 percent of people live below the poverty line. In Huntington, the number rises to nearly 20 percent.

In interviews with the Associated Press, a number of Huntington residents said they didn't have the time, the resources, or the inclination to prioritize personal health. Looked at that way, the equation seems simple: people in Burlington have the luxury to shop at boutique health food stores; people in Huntington don't.

But Keri Kennedy, a state health officer, says the bigger problem is one of perception.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

What Do You Do With Your Newspaper Sleeves?

| Fri Nov. 14, 2008 4:50 PM EST

newspaper150.jpgEarly next year, the NY Times plans to ditch its old plastic newspaper sleeves in favor of this one, a "biodegradable polybag." Here's the scoop:

With this new technology an additive is mixed with the plastic that causes the finished product to degrade over time, as it is exposed to oxygen in the open environment or in a landfill. In addition to being "oxo-biodegradable" the bag can be recycled along with any other plastic bags. The Times will be the first national newspaper to commit to using this environmentally friendly bag. While this new bag is more expensive, we believe it is an important change to make.

If the paper on your doorstep isn't the Gray Lady, though, your plastic sleeves are most likely still bound for landfill purgatory. Blogger Kate Galbraith recommends reusing them for storing food in the fridge—if you're ambitious, knock yourself out with bag crafts like these.

But after the jump, here's another idea, inspired by a post from Danny Seo. (He's kind of the green Martha Stewart):

Four Dams Down...

| Fri Nov. 14, 2008 12:58 AM EST

Wpdms_shdrlfi020l_klamath_river.jpg A tentative agreement has been reached to begin decommissioning four aging dams on the Klamath River—the largest dam-removal project ever undertaken. The agreement marks a major shift in the battle over Klamath water, reports AAAS.

The Klamath flows from southern Oregon through northern California. It's the third most important salmon river in the lower 48 after the Columbia and Sacramento. The dams provide cheap renewable energy and irrigation for farmers but not enough water for salmon. During the 2001 drought, federal officials shut off the irrigation water for the sake of the fish. In 2002, after protests from farmers, they reversed course and shunted flows back to Oregon's potato and alfalfa fields. At least 33,000 salmon died as a result of that decision, in one of the worst salmon kills in US history. In 2007 declining salmon in the Klamath produced a severely curtailed commercial fishing quota. Everyone got burned. Fish worst of all.

According to the new agreement, the dams will come down starting in 2020. Before that, scientists and engineers have to figure out what to do with all the silt accumulated behind them. Loosing the silt into the river's flow will likely suffocate everything downstream. Meanwhile Oregon and California will also use the time until 2020 to raise money to pay for the dam removal. Under the agreement, PacifiCorp customers will pay a 2% surcharge on their utility bills to raise up to $200 million for the dam removal. California is expected to issue general obligation bonds to raise an additional $250 million.

The EPA's Head Environmentalist

| Thu Nov. 13, 2008 1:35 PM EST

The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency is to protect public health and the environment. Yet the agency has not done much protection of the environment, public health or the public interest in many, many years. The President-elect's pick for the agency is going to have to turn around an environmental crisis that mirrors the financial one. While Obama's rumored cabinet picks are largely people who cut their teeth in the Clinton administration, or showed rare bipartisanship over the past eight years, one place a centrist will not do is the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are some good environmental laws on the books; the problem is enforcement. The Bush administration has encouraged the worst industrial practices by, for example, refusing to regulate mercury from power plants or allowing mountaintop removal mining—and the incrementalists who ran EPA during the Clinton administration bear at least some responsibility. They should not be invited back.

The new EPA leadership is going to have to do two things.

Southern Ocean Nears Acid Tipping Point

| Wed Nov. 12, 2008 11:53 PM EST

Southern_Ocean.png The Australian Broadcasting Corp reports the tipping point for ocean acidification is much closer than first thought. Here's the problem: As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, the oceans absorb more of it, which cranks their pH to dangerously acidic levels. Beyond a certain tipping point, marine creatures from corals to plankton won't be able to manufacture the calcium carbonate needed to make their shells.

Until now, the tipping point of acidification was forecast when atmospheric CO2 reached 550 parts per million—around the year 2060. But the new research by Ben McNeil of the U of New South Wales, published in the PNAS, reveals what no one knew before—that carbonate levels drop naturally in the Southern Ocean in winter anyway. Which means the tipping point is likely to be reached at around 450 ppm, which is due to arrive around 2030. Or sooner.

The Nobel-winning IPCC has set 450 ppm as the global stabilization target. However new research shows that number is way too high. Bill McKibben's excellent piece in the current Mother Jones explains why. BTW, we're currently at 385 ppm. If we allow ocean acidification to tip, prepare for hellacious repercussions, Earthlings. Jason Grumet, are you listening? Are you briefing the President-Elect? There is no other issue Obama needs to hit the ground running on faster.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Supreme Court Rules That Navy Can Use Sonar; Refuses To Discuss Impact on Whales

| Wed Nov. 12, 2008 8:35 PM EST

whale.jpgThe Supreme Court ruled today that a lower court overstepped its authority last February when, citing severe harm to whales and other marine mammals, it imposed strict rules on the Navy's use of sonar in the ocean off of Southern California.

The plaintiff in the case was the Natural Resources Defense Council, but it's not just environmental advocacy groups that oppose sonar. In 2006, Mother Jones reported that the International Whaling Commission, the UN, and a number of scientists had all concluded that the widespread use of sonar likely causes organ lesions, brain hemorrhages, and severe decompression sickness, all leading to mass beachings and deaths.

Despite the primacy of these concerns in the NRDC's filing, the court's decision did not directly address the merits of the environmental group's case. Chief Justice John Roberts did argue, however, that regardless of what harm the animals might suffer, the Navy's interests would almost certainly outweigh the whales'.

"For the plaintiffs, the most serious possible injury would be harm to an unknown number of the marine mammals that they study and observe," he wrote. "In contrast, forcing the Navy to deploy an inadequately trained antisubmarine force jeopardizes the safety of the fleet."

Guess no one told him that destroying marine ecosystems will cause bigger problems for the Navy than an enemy submarine.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from zen.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Pesticide Cocktails Kill At "Safe" Doses

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 9:47 PM EST

591px-Rana_sphenocephala.jpg Combinations of ten of the world's most popular pesticides decimate amphibian populations even if the concentrations are within EPA safe limits for each chemical individually. These supposedly safe low-dose cocktails kill 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles. One pesticide alone—endosulfan, a neurotoxin banned in several nations but still used extensively in US agriculture—killed 84 percent of the leopard frogs all on its own.

Obviously we can't get a new EPA chief fast enough.

Biologist Rick Relyea at the U of Pittsburgh exposed gray tree frog and leopard frog tadpoles to small amounts of the 10 most widely used pesticides on Earth. He chose five insecticides (carbaryl, chlorpyrifos, diazinon, endosulfan, and malathion) and five herbicides (acetochlor, atrazine, glyphosate, metolachlor, and 2,4-D). He then administered: each of the pesticides alone, all the insecticides combined, a mix of the five herbicides, or all 10 of the poisons.

Word of the Year: Hypermiling

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 3:58 PM EST

The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its word of the year: hypermiling. Hypermiling, of course, is maximizing your car's mileage by any means necessary, from simple solutions like driving barefoot (to lighten your lead foot) to putting MPG before mortality and tailgating big rigs (to minimize drag). And when you look up hypermiling in the dictionary, the guy whose picture should be there is Wayne Gerdes, the mileage master who coined the term and whom MJ entertainingly profiled nearly two years ago—way before the lexicographers caught on. And way before the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers discovered hypermiling and tried to rebrand it as "EcoDriving." Ugh. Hopefully the Oxford word mavens will scrape the bottom of this year's short list (staycation, tweet, hockey mom) before they immortalize that term.

EPA Whistleblower Charges Political Interference in Shutdown of BP Investigation

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 3:05 PM EST

The environmental watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is pushing for an investigation into whether the Bush Justice Department improperly shut down an investigation into a massive BP oil spill in Alaska. The allegations of potential political interference were lodged recently by EPA whistleblower Scott West, the former special agent in charge of the investigation, who retired from the agency in early November after 19 years of service. On West's behalf, PEER filed a complaint on Monday requesting an investigation by the Justice Department's Inspector General.

West's allegations stem from a 2006 spill from a BP pipeline that leaked a quarter-million gallons of oil onto the Alaskan tundra, the largest in the history of Alaska's North Slope. The company ignored workers' warnings that maintenance was needed prior to the spill. An investigation by federal and state authorities ensued, but was cut short in October 2007 when the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with BP, in which the company was given a misdemeanor charge and fined $20 million. According to PEER's compliant, this was a slap on the wrist compared with the penalties the oil giant should have received. "The fines proposed by Justice (to which BP immediately agreed) were only a fraction of what was legally required under the Alternative Fines Act. EPA had calculated the appropriate fine levels as several times what Justice offered BP—ranging from $58 million to $672 million." The settlement also ensured that BP executives would not face potential criminal liability, according to the PEER complaint.

Mini Nuke Plants Will Power 20,000 Homes

| Mon Nov. 10, 2008 9:49 PM EST

Susquehanna_steam_electric_station.jpg They're the size of a hot tub. They're buried underground. They'll power 20,000 homes for 10 cents a watt anywhere in the world, at a start-up cost of $2,500 a house. They're 5 years away from mass production. They're miniature nuclear reactors delivered to your hood by truck and guaranteed to be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts, and be theft-proof because they'll will be encased in concrete and buried underground. And—get this—they'll be safe because they'll be guarded by a security detail.

Wow. I feel so much better already. TSA for garden nukes.

The Guardian reports the mini nuke plants were developed by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, daddies to the first atomic bomb. The US government has licensed the technology to the New Mexico company Hyperion, which said last week it's taken more than 100 firm orders, largely from the oil and electricity industries. Hyperion plans to start mass production within five years. They're also targeting (is that irony?) developing countries and isolated communities.