Blue Marble - June 2010

Which Veggies Should You Plant Right Now?

| Tue Jun. 22, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

I've been on a vegetable-gardening tear lately. This weekend, I planted lettuce, peas, sweet peppers, artichokes, and tarragon. The only problem: I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. I approach the nursery the way most people go grocery shopping: "This looks good. I guess I'll get it." I know in the back of my head that you're supposed to plant certain things at certain times, but I've never done any real research.

Turns out there's an excellent tool for lazy gardeners like me: SproutRobot. Enter your zip code, and it'll tell you which vegetables you should be planting right now, and for the rest of the season (for a small fee, it'll even send you personalized planting instructions and heirloom seeds in the mail). According to SproutRobot's calculations, I was right about the peas, but not the other stuff: I would have had better luck in my Berkeley backyard with beets, carrots, celery, pumpkins, onions, green onions, radishes, spinach, turnips, kale, chard, collard greens, and potatoes.

We'll see what happens.

 

 

 

 

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The Oil Rig Disease

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 7:27 PM PDT

Gulf of Mexico Oil Rigs: 1942-2005 from tsinn on Vimeo.

This video by the Swordpress graphically shows how the Gulf of Mexico has been transformed from a wilderness to an urban ocean in only six decades. Note the deeper wells are represented by larger dots and how that trend has developed over time. HT Deep Sea News.

The Gulf of Oil from Space on Day 60

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 5:29 PM PDT

NASA image courtesy the MODIS Rapid Response Team

This image of the Gulf of Mexico was taken on 19 June, showing oil spreading northeast from the leaking Deepwater Horizon well and appearing as a maze of silvery ribbons in this photolike image from the MODIS on NASA’s Terra satellite. From the Earth Observatory caption:

The location of the leaking well is marked with a white dot. North of the well, a spot of black may be smoke; reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say that oil and gas continue to be captured and burned as part of the emergency response efforts. The large image provided above is at MODIS’ maximum spatial resolution (level of detail). Twice-daily images of the Gulf of Mexico are available from the MODIS Rapid Response Team in additional resolutions and formats, including a georeferenced version that can be used in Google Earth.

Another way to look at the spill can be found on  the website IfItWasMyHome, which helps put the spill into perspective. You can overlay the current area of surface oil against your own county/state/country. The site's been up and running for a while but the spill changes daily.

 

Just how radically the spill changes from day to day can be seen in this oil spill timeline map. You'll have to go to the ESRI website to run the animation. It's worth the click. Note that you can also click through to a larger advanced animation with multiple layers of information.

 

Evening Enviromental Link Dump

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 3:08 PM PDT

In climate bill news:

Senators complain to Politico that John Kerry (D-Mass.) cares too much about climate change. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) whines that Kerry's persistent pursuit of his vote for carbon caps is like being "pursued by a suitor, just as boys pursue girls." Another senator, too cowardly to say so on the record apparently, bemoans, "He’s so obsessed … it’s all climate, all the time with him."

But at least some liberal Senate Democrats are standing up for the need to include climate provisions in an energy bill this year and threatening rebellion if it doesn’t.

President Obama will meet with a bipartisan group of senators on Wednesday to "bridge some differences" on energy policy.

And in BP oil disaster news:

BP uses a "risky" well design much more often than its peers, reports the Wall Street Journal. This cheaper well design has been fingered as a potential cause/contributor to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

GQ has a gripping account of the final days and hours of the Deepwater Horizon, with first-hand accounts of what took place on the rig before and during the explosion.

CNN bars two commentators who are now paid BP consultants, Alex Castellanos and Hilary Rosen, from discussing the oil disaster on their programs.

BP CEO Tony Hayward has been getting his fair share of criticism for attending a yacht race over the weekend. But Obama, too, has been chastised for his golf outings amid the oil crisis.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said that federal responders "don’t know the exact status of the well bore," which, if compromised, might unleash even more oil into the Gulf. Allen also said that they have set a goal of raising their siphoning capacity to 60,000 to 80,000 barrels a day by mid-July. Keep in mind the official government spill estimate is still a maximum of 60,000 barrels per day. Might that rise significantly yet again?

And in other environmental news:

The EPA is urging Congress to reinstate the Superfund "polluter pays" tax, which required oil and chemical companies to pay into the cleanup fund. The tax lapsed on December 31, 1995, and since then Congress has appropriated about $1.2 billion a year in taxpayer dollars for hazardous-waste cleanups.

State of Denial at Interior Dept.?

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 1:54 PM PDT

The New York Times has a big piece today looking at yet another piece of technology on the Deepwater Horizon rig that apparently malfunctioned: the "blind sheer ram," a pair of blades that were supposed to slice through the drill pipe and seal the well off in the event that everything else fails. The Times calls it the "ultimate failsafe device." Problem is, it did fail.

The article explores why that may have happened, and also notes that the Deepwater was only outfitted with one blind shear ram, while many other rigs have begun using two of them. But the key point in the piece is that for years prior to the Deepwater blowout the Minerals Management Service (MMS) was well aware problems with this technology. This revelation isn't exactly new; as we noted last month, MMS knew of problems with shear rams, but issued no new regulations to deal with them (in addition to ignoring a number of other red-flags on deepwater drilling technology over the years). In fact, a number of studies finding problems with shear rams and blowout preventers were commissioned by MMS.

The article highlights the fact that the Obama administration failed to look at this and other major concerns about offshore drilling technology before announcing a major expansion of drilling in March. But what's most interesting, however, is that Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes is now pretending that MMS had no indication of potential problems. No, really:

"What happened to all the stakeholders—Congress, environmental groups, industry, the government—all stakeholders involved were lulled into a sense of what has turned out to be false security," David J. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said in an interview.

And later in the piece:

Mr. Hayes, the deputy interior secretary, said senior officials were reassured, perhaps wrongly, by "the NASA kind of fervor" over the oil industry’s seemingly “terrific technology.” They took comfort in what appeared to be a comprehensive regime of regulations. Most of all, he said, they were impressed by the rarity of significant oil spills even as more of the nation’s domestic oil supply was being drawn from ultradeep wells.
"The track record was good," he said. "The results were significant."
Not even environmental groups bitterly opposed to expanding offshore drilling were raising concerns about the industry's technology for preventing deepwater spills, he added. "We were not being drawn by anybody to a potential issue with deepwater drilling or blowout preventers."

Really? Because I can go back to the record from a Senate hearing last November on offshore development and find two environmentalists raising a number of concerns about the safety of offshore drilling– see Dr. Jeff Short of Oceana and John Amos of SkyTruth.

Hayes also argues that the report that MMS provided to the administration before Obama made the decision to open new areas to drilling didn't provide any warnings about technology failures or the potential dangers a spill could pose, instead stating that the safety and engineering requirements for offshore drilling were "extensive" and blowouts were "very rare." He's faults MMS for not providing the information in their report to the administration, but skirts the fact that MMS is a division of the Department of Interior. If MMS wasn't giving the administration accurate information, that was DOI's problem to address.

But it gets worse. Hayes wants us to think that Interior had no way of predicting problems at MMS, despite the piles of evidence to the contrary.

"We did not have red flags about a problem with the enforcement culture at M.M.S.," Mr. Hayes said. "We certainly have that now."

No red flags? Reports on technology failures aside, those sex, oil, and cocaine parties weren't enough of a warning that something was terribly wrong at MMS? Is Hayes seriously trying to argue that DOI was blameless here?

Paying People to Take Their Meds

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 1:28 PM PDT

An experimental program in Philadelphia is giving financial incentives to patients who follow their prescriptions for warfarin, a generic anti-blood clotting medication. Patients who don't properly fill and follow their prescriptions cost the US $100 billion in additional health care costs every year, reports the New York Times. To reduce this waste, the Aetna-sponsored program in Philly creates a lottery-like pool in which patients can win up to $100 a day for taking their prescribed meds.

Two leading causes of prescription non-compliance are cost of medicine and forgetting to take it. In addition, says IMC2, a "brand engagement" company, patients also complain about side-effects and insufficient information. Prescriptions may help certain diseases, but lead to potentially deadly side effects: for example, studies have shown warfarin (prescribed for heart conditions) can significantly raise the risk of death from stroke or internal bleeding. And even without the side-effects, some patients simply believe they don't really need the medication. NYT reader Booth Selig, says: "As a 74-year-old, I have fought doctors for years when it comes to various prescribed medicines—multiple heart meds and wafarin being two examples... It is difficult and time consuming to manage, requires weekly doctor visits until regulated, and has caused countless hospitalizations and deaths... Many people no longer trust the FDA or their doctors advice and with good reason."

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"Gusher," "Disaster," "Blowout": What to Call the Gulf (Spill)?

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 8:10 AM PDT

Day 62 and we're well beyond the point where "oil spill" does justice to the slow motion tragedy unfolding in the Gulf. Spill, of course, suggest that a finite quantity has been released. But not only is the Gulf gusher still gushing, we still don't know exactly how much it's spewing. The latest federal estimates the well could be leaking as much as 65,000 barrels per day. An internal BP document, meanwhile, indicates that it could reach 100,000 barrels a day if the worst-case-scenario plays out.

So how should those of us reporting on the disaster refer to it? "Spill" has been the noun of choice, likely because it is both short and the term we are most familiar with based on previous oil accidents, like the Exxon Valdez. But this piece in the Biloxi Sun Herald yesterday raises a good point: Why don't reporters start referring to it by something more accurate?

Some of the ideas floated in the piece:

Gusher
Catastrophe
Life-altering catastrophe
Debacle
Calamity
Technological disaster
Big mess
Leak
Blowout

I figured we should throw this out to readers as well. What do you think reporters should be calling this?

Death by Hamburger?

| Mon Jun. 21, 2010 2:30 AM PDT

Whether you're a burger lover or a strict vegetarian (I'm somewhere in the middle—more on this in the July/August 2010 issue of Mother Jones), you've probably heard that too much meat is definitely not a good thing. Most recently, researchers have linked overconsumption of red meat with early puberty in girls: A University of Brighton study found this month that about half of UK girls who ate 12 or more servings of meat each week at age seven had started their periods by age twelve and a half, compared to about a third of those who ate fewer than four servings. Worrisome, since some research suggests that girls who go through puberty early are at greater risk for breast cancer.

Meat-heavy diets aren't great for adults, either: In 2009, a landmark National Cancer Institute study of 500,000 Americans between the ages of 50 and 71 found that people who eat a quarter-pound of red meat or processed meat every day were 30 percent more likely to die in the 10 years of the study than those who ate 5 ounces of red meat or less per week. Compare that to research about vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventists, many of whom live significantly longer than the average American.

So, how much meat is too much? Americans eat about eight ounces of meat every day, more than twice the rest of the world's average. Most health experts agree that's too much (and in addition to being unhealthy, mass production and consuming this much meat has major environmental consequences). You can find current USDA guidelines for meat consumption here (generally five to seven ounces of meat or beans a day for adults, less for kids depending on age and size), but some some people think those recommendations are suspiciously high: Marion Nestle writes about agriculture lobby groups' influence over the USDA dietary recommendations in her book Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health.

But you don't have to swear off summer barbecues, either. As a rule of thumb, nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner, proponent of the light-on-meat flexitarian diet, recommends thinking of meat as "condiment instead of a large-meal focal point." Aspiring flexitarians, she says, should aim for two meatless days per week. 

In addition to limiting overall meat consumption, Imogen Rogers, a lead author on the UK study, notes that the World Cancer Research Fund recommends avoiding processed meat (such as ham and bacon), which has been linked to increased cancer risks. "Processed meat is also very high in salt, and at least in the UK the vast majority of children consume well in excess of the recommended maximum salt intakes," says Rogers. The National Cancer Institute also warns against eating meat cooked at high temperatures. "The way people cook red meat is usually by grilling, barbequing or frying," says Jie Lin, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas. "No matter what types of meat—red meat or white—if cooked under high temperature, generate HCAs that could lead to cancer."

Interested in cutting back on meat? Check out the Meatless Monday campaign, an initiative by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health aimed at reducing Americans' meat consumption by 15 percent.

 

The Gulf of Oil from Space on Day 50

| Sat Jun. 19, 2010 9:34 AM PDT

This image is from NOAA's Operational Significant Event Imagery site dating 9 June 2010, ten days ago now. But it's one of the better one's I've seen so far of the extent of the spill in the larger Gulf of Mexico basin. (Click here for a larger image.) As you can see, there's a helluva lot of oil out there. And that's just the surface. Add to this the news that BP said its main vessel capturing oil from the huge Gulf of Mexico spill shut down overnight last night  due to a blocked vent, hopefully to restart later Saturday after a lightning storm passes.

BP has now deployed its supposedly green Evergreen Burner to vaporize oil and gas through 12 nozzles from whence it's burned without producing visible smoke... suggesting yet again that BP is the modern master of smoke and mirrors. Because an industry analysis (pdf) finds the atomizer process to be the safest option for burning oil, but still a producer of all kinds of atmospheric nasties, includiing ozone, sulfur dioxide, and a host of greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxides.

On Burning Sea Turtles Alive

| Fri Jun. 18, 2010 4:03 PM PDT

Like many, I was shocked and dismayed earlier this week when a video surfaced alleging that sea turtles were being burned alive during BP recovery efforts. In the video, captain Mike Ellis (who's working with BP) talks about how shrimp boats are using booms to consolidate pools of crude and oil-slimed matter and then setting it on fire for an in-situ burn. According to Ellis, the pools of crude were not being checked for wildlife before being lit, meaning sea turtles caught in the slicks were likely being burned alive.

It's been difficult to find any hard evidence that turtles were indeed burned alive. There haven't been reports of charred shells or eye-witness accounts of seeing actual turtles on fire. That said, the Los Angeles Times yesterday corroborated part of Ellis's account: 

"But the burn operations have proved particularly excruciating for the turtle researchers, who have been trolling the same lines of oil and seaweed as the boom boats, hoping to pull turtles out of the sargassum before they are burned alive... Yet in one case, the crew had to fall back and watch as skimmers gathered up a long line of sargassum that hadn't yet been searched--and which they believe was full of turtles that might have been saved."

Petty Officer Crystal Kneen from the Deepwater Horizon Joint Information Center in Houma, Louisiana, said that she didn't know of any turtles harmed by the burn. That may be true but Dr. Chris Pincetich, a biologist with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project,* says he knows and has spoken to Captain Ellis personally and the deaths of these turtles is extremely likely. In addition, this NOAA guide called Oil and Sea Turtles: Biology, Planning, and Response (PDF) states that although in-situ burns are not preferable, they could be better than the alternative of letting the oil remain: "Obviously, in-situ burning would be an unlikely choice where sea turtles aggregate--although in such an area, the impacts of prolonged or heavy exposure to untreated surface oil would be evaluated against the risks." The guide also states that although burning removes far more oil than could be contained manually, it also sometimes leaves behind residue that congeals and is eaten by wildlife.