Blue Marble - June 2009

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday, June 24

Wed Jun. 24, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Environment, science, and health news tidbits for today:

Michelle's soft sell: While President Obama touts the cost-saving benefits of healthcare reform, the first lady talks wellness, nutrition, and prevention. Why isn't she getting into the political nitty gritty? Watch David Corn debate the issue on Hardball.

Waxman-Markey or bust: Looks like the big vote's back on for Friday. The League of Conservation Voters gave members of the House an ultimatum: Support the American Clean Energy and Security Act, or kiss any 2010 endorsement from us goodbye.

Why whales shouldn't summer in Europe: Since the 1986 international ban on commercial whaling, Japan has done most of the world's whale killing, often with the transparent excuse of "doing research." But this season, Europe might actually out-whale Japan.

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League of Conservation Voters to Congress: Support Climate Bill or Else

| Tue Jun. 23, 2009 3:50 PM PDT

For a mainstream green group, the League of Conservation Voters took a fairly radical step today.

In an unprecedented move, the LCV sent letters to all members of the US House with this promise: Vote against the American Clean Energy and Security Act (HR 2454), and you can forget about getting the conservation group's endorsement in November, 2010.

"The stakes could not be higher," Gene Karpinski, president of the bi-partisan group, explained in the letter. "A safer, healthier planet and a new energy economy hang in the balance."

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.

Hillary Clinton Could Make or Break U.S. Dependence on the Tar Sands

| Tue Jun. 23, 2009 2:56 PM PDT

An obscure executive order issued by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 has given Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the power to approve or deny a massive oil pipeline between Canada's controversial tar sands and U.S. oil refineries.

In the coming weeks, the State Department will decide whether to grant a permit for the  1,000-mile Alberta Clipper pipeline, which would be capable of carrying up to 800,000 barels per day of crude oil--or about 8 percent of net U.S. oil imports--from the tar sands in eastern Alberta to refineries on Lake Superior in Wisconsin.

Under current law--rarely invoked, given that oil imports typically arrive in the U.S. by tanker--the Secretary of State must receive all applications for the construction of "pipelines, conveyor belts, and similar facilities for the exportation and importation of petroleum." If the Secretary finds that granting a permit "would not serve the national interest," she can deny it.

Europe to Out-Whale Japan

| Tue Jun. 23, 2009 10:04 AM PDT

The International Whaling Commmission is meeting in Portugal this week, which is appropriate as it looks like this year Europe may kill more whales than Japan.

In a related note, it looks like that in at least one small Japanese fishing town, the local Buddhist priest is keeping track of the whales killed by locals. Upon death, the whales are given a Buddhist name that is entered into an official death register, much like a human's would be. The town has been recording the whales' deaths for 320 years. There's even a grave (complete with headstone and flowers) for the fetuses of whales found in their mother's bodies. I'm not at all in favor of whaling, but I suppose if you're going to do it, it's nice to at least commemorate the animals' deaths. Although one could argue, if you really respect the animal, you wouldn't kill it in the first place.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, June 23

| Tue Jun. 23, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

The Blue Marble's not the only place where we cover science, health, and environment news. Here's a Tuesday morning roundup from the rest of Motherjones.com:

On settling: Some enviros want to hold out for a new and improved Waxman-Markey climate bill, while others say the current version is our best shot at saving the climate before it's too late. Who's right? Well, you decide.

And you thought you didn't care about land use: Kevin Drum shows how smart transportation and land policy can dramatically decrease greenhouse gas emissions, in both the city and the country.

Healthcare cronyism alert: We know why Republicans oppose the public option, but what about the Dems who keep resisting it?

 

SCOTUS Allows Waste Dumping in Alaska Lake

| Mon Jun. 22, 2009 4:14 PM PDT

In a major setback for the people and wildlife of southern Alaska, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 today that the Coeur d’Alene Mines Corporation can legally under the Clean Water Act dump more than 4.5 million tons of “slurry”—a mining waste byproduct that’s a mixture of crushed rock and water—in the Lower Slate Lake in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The ruling overturned a May 2007 decision by a lower appeals court denying Coeur d’Alene’s permit, which applies to its Kensington Gold Mine north of Juneau, Alaska's capital city.

But isn’t the Clean Water Act supposed to protect our lakes and rivers and other water sources? Well, yes. For nearly 30 years, the CWA expressly prohibited pumping harmful waste materials into waters, allowing only "fill material" for building structures like seawalls and levees to be dumped, and only then with permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. But in 2002, the Bush Administration tweaked the definition of "fill" to include dangerous waste products with an EPA memo that the public never saw. The memo's expansion of the "fill" definition permitted harmful slurry dumping into lakes and other water sources. In making its decision today, the Supreme Court relied on this memo.
 

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Cute Endangered Animal of the Week: Ocelot

| Mon Jun. 22, 2009 2:08 PM PDT

Last week's cute endangered animal, the Hawaiian Monk Seal, was an ocean creature, so this week's pick is from the land: the ocelot. The ocelot is a nocturnal wildcat known for its strikingly beautiful coat. The 4'-long, 24 to 35lb animals used to roam from Texas through Louisiana and Arkansas but due to habitat destruction by roads and agriculture, today there are fewer than 100 of the cats in the wild left in the US.

One obstacle to conservation is that like many wild cats, ocelots are solitary and need a large range, 500 acres for a single adult. Ocelots are also picky about what kind of land they will call home: they prefer dense brush with trees (so they can hide and sleep during the day) and need a steady supply of small mammals, rodents, lizards, or other prey to live on. Fun fact: ocelots will pluck all the feathers and fur off their prey before eating it.

Although ocelots are endangered, some people apparently keep them as pets, and they are popular as zoo exhibits. Ocelots seem to do fine in captivity, living up to 20 years: their lifespan in the wild is only seven to 10 years. Though ocelots are endangered in the US, they can be found wild in various parts of Central and South America. The US population, however, has a peculiar enemy: cars. The animals seem to have little concern for traffic running through the nature preserves on which they generally live, and being hit by a car kills 2% of the ocelot population in a given year.

Though the ocelot seems to have little chance for recovery in the US, there is news of a feral population in Florida. Spanish painter Salvador Dali had a pet ocelot named Ozzie, but in general the cats are known to make poor pets. However, those desiring the ocelot's distinctive coat can settle for the "ocicat": an entirely domestic cat that looks like an ocelot, but doesn't have the loudly yowling, aggressively affectionate, spray-happy attributes of its wild cousin. (To hear the growls of an ocelot in heat, click here.)

 

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Study: 98 Percent of "Eco-Friendly" Products Make Misleading Claims

| Mon Jun. 22, 2009 11:32 AM PDT

A study of 4,000 "eco-friendly" consumer products found on supermarket shelves found that 98 percent of them make false or misleading claims. The study, presented to Congress earlier this month by the environmental consulting firm TerraChoice, found rampant greenwashing in every product category. Twenty-two percent of the products it evaluated featured an environmental badge, or "green label," that was actually meaningless.

Congress is now debating better ways clamp down on greenwashing. The Federal Trade Comission, which is supposed to prevent the practice, has taken almost no enforcement action against greenwashers over the past decade. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is contemplating introducing a bill that would boost federal oversight of eco-marketing, including product lablels.  While one third of conumers rely on labels to decide if a product is environmentally friendly, there is a confusing jumble of 300 competing environmental certification programs that bombards them with competing and misleading claims.

UPDATE: Check out the interview I did on the subject with Green Patriot Radio.

EPA Declares Environmental Emergency in Libby

| Mon Jun. 22, 2009 6:55 AM PDT

Nine years ago, Mother Jones reported on the damage done to the town of Libby, Montana, and its inhabitants by the asbestos in W.R. Grace's nearby mine. In 2008, Grace settled with the people sickened and killed and their families for some $3 billion. Last Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency finally declared an environmental emergency in Libby, invoking a clause of the 1980 Superfund law for the first time in the agency's history. The EPA will spend over $100 million trying to clean up the town. 

The EPA declaration represents some long-delayed good news for the people of Libby. But if they were hoping for accountability for Grace's executives, they're out of luck. Federal prosecutors brought charges against four Grace employees for criminal conspiracy to cover up the risks from the asbestos contamination from the company's mine. But three execs were acquitted, and charges against the final Grace defendant, O. Mario Favorito, were dismissed last week. It now seems that no one will go to jail for the conduct that has been linked to the deaths of over 200 people and the sickening of thousands more.

Weird Weather Watch: Siberian Heat Wave

| Mon Jun. 22, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

If you know anything about Siberia, it is that Siberia is cold . You may also associate it with gulags, Stalin, or the USSR's forced relocation of various ethnic groups, but even if you don't, the cold you've heard about. In fact, Siberia is home to Oymyakon, a hamlet of 800, and the coldest continuously inhabited place on the planet.

This past winter, Oymyakon hosted droves of Russian reporters in huge fur jackets who had come to report on an especially cold winter. Twice, temperatures dropped to -60.2 C, or nearly -86 F, marking one of the coldest winters the village of once-nomadic reindeer herders has suffered in nearly a century.  It was so cold, Russia Today reported, that human life virtually ground to a halt. 

 

But not these days. Today (which is really tomorrow there) , and yesterday, and for the past two weeks, Oymyakon has been in the grips of an unprecedented heatwave. On Thursday, temperatures were recorded at just under 32 C, or nearly 90 degrees. (32.6 C is the highest ever recorded temperature), with weekend temperatues in the high 80s.

What does it mean? This past Tuesday, the White House released a report saying that global warming has already begun to affect Americans . Could climate change be altering Siberia's famous frigidity too?