Blue Marble - July 2010

Which Infant Formulas Contain Secret Toxic Chemicals?

| Mon Jul. 12, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

I stared again at the breast milk-increasing tinctures and fenugreek capsules under the dainty "For Moms" sign in Whole Foods, too embarrassed to ask where the corresponding "So You've Failed As a Mother" aisle might be. Eventually I discovered a short shelf of cans across from pet food. Even in San Francisco's most stroller-endemic neighborhood store, you can buy a dozen herbal options to increase breast milk supply, but only two brands of infant formula—and one label actively encourages you not to buy it for actual infants under the age of one. I finally left with a guilty conscience and a tin of Earth's Best Organic Infant Formula With Iron to try out on my six-month-old son. But what was I feeding him, exactly?

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Introducing: Mojoceratops!

| Fri Jul. 9, 2010 7:50 PM EDT

The next time a troll tells us we're living in the Stone Age—or the Late Cretaceous, at least—we can say, "Damn straight."

We've got a dinosaur named after us: Mojoceratops.

OK, not exactly. Mojoceratops is real, but we can't take credit for the name. It's actually the brainchild of Nicholas Longrich, a researcher in Yale University's geology department who, um, rocked the world of rocks this month with news that he'd discovered a "new" dinosaur. The proper name for this crazy-looking creature came to him as he was discussing his groundbreaking work with colleagues. At a bar.

"Yes, there was beer involved, but we weren't, like, pissed," he laughed when MoJo caught up with him today. "I didn't even think about it, I just said it." He and his friends tried coming up with a few serious names, too, but none of them quite measured up.

It just rolls, like a steady wind over the fossil-rich soil of Western Canada: Mojoceratops.

Did we mention it was a plant-eater? What's more: Mojoceratops ate organic and local.

Dude, that's totally gotta be named after us.

Us-inspired or no, the story of how Longrich discovered and named the dino bears more than a passing resemblance to this news organization's investigative process. The intrepid paleontologist—an expert in evolution who's spent the past few years traipsing about the Canadian mud and the brush, hunting for more evidence of dinosaur life—knew something was fishy when he found a fossil sample in the basement of New York City's American Museum of Natural History.

Audio: A Conversation with a Pro-Drilling Environmentalist

Fri Jul. 9, 2010 5:58 PM EDT

The Climate Desk

Need to Know's Alison Stewart speaks with Amanda Little, a journalist and self-proclaimed "pro-drilling environmentalist." Little describes her personal experience on an off-shore oil rig and her optimistic belief that American ingenuity can solve our energy problems. Little is the author of  "Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells."

This interview was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Images BP Doesn't Want You to See

| Fri Jul. 9, 2010 5:18 PM EDT

As a writer and photographer covering the oil spill in the Gulf, I've been frustrated by the well-documented efforts by BP and the US Government to limit media access to the damage. The restrictions tightened last week, when the Coast Guard announced rules that prevent the public—including news photographers and reporters—from coming within 20 meters (about 65 feet) of any response vessels or booms on the water or beaches. Violate the "safety zone" rule and you can be slapped with a $40,000 fine and prosecuted under a Class D felony.

Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen defended the buffer, saying it is "not unusual" to enact measures for "marine events" or "fireworks demonstrations." Allen spokesperson Megan Molney wrote in a July 4 email: "These 20-meter zones are only slightly longer than the distance from a baseball pitcher's mound to home plate. This distance is insignificant when gathering images." Perhaps Molney has never shot video or taken a photograph. But those of us working here know that the real impact—and, one fears, the real goal—of the so-called safety zone is to make it difficult to document the impact of the spill on the land and the wildlife.

Click here for Julie's photos.

This post was produced by the Atlantic as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

BP Ignoring Dispersant Limits With Coast Guard's Consent

| Fri Jul. 9, 2010 2:51 PM EDT

So much for the May 26 directive from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard calling for BP to slash dispersant use in the Gulf. According to records recenty released by the Coast Guard, BP has exceeded the limits on an almost daily basis since the directive took effect—with the express approval of the federal government.

BP was supposed to limit subsea use to 15,000 gallons per day and "eliminate the surface application of dispersants" except in "rare cases when there may have to be an exemption." But as we reported several weeks ago, the company is still regularly exceeding both those limits. BP also hasn't reduced its average use much at all—just 9 percent from the pre-directive average.

In order to surpass the limits imposed by the EPA and the Coast Guard, BP needs to request an exemption from the government's on-scene coordinator (currently Coast Guard Admiral James Watson, who took over on June 1). Based on exemption requests, which the Coast Guard posted online, the Coast Guard has granted BP permission to surpass those limits routinely—and with few questions, notes Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. In the majority of cases, he writes, the federal on-scene coordinator has "accepted without modification the exemption request submitted by BP" and "has simply approved the exemption request by signing and dating it at the bottom."

A look at the requests and approvals makes that clear. On May 29, the company requested permission to spray up to 19,000 gallons of disperstants over a period of 12 hours, arguing that it had spotted some "dispersible oil" approximately 20 to 30 miles from the spill site; burning or skimming the oil, BP said, wouldn't be sufficient. The plan was approved without any suggested modification. On June 2, BP asked for an exemption to use up to 6,000 gallons per day on the surface for a whole week, noting that "BP also respectfully requests to exceed these volumes as required." That, too, was greenlighted.

On June 25, the Coast Guard actually raised the amount approved from BP's request. BP asked to use 30,000 gallons, and Watson authorized 43,000 gallons. On June 26, BP upped the request again—this time to 50,600 gallons. (The Coast Guard only granted the company permission to use 10,880 gallons that day, but that was still 10,880 gallons more than the directive a month earlier indicated should be allowed.)

The pattern continues through June. The repeated exemptions of course beg the question: What's the point in setting limits on dispersant use—an acknowledgment that these chemicals themselves present serious environmental concerns—if they're going to be ignored almost every day?

UPDATE: The EPA sent along this statement regarding the dispersant use: "The goal of this directive was to rampdown dispersant use from peak usage, and dispersant use has dropped by nearly 70 percent. EPA and the Coast Guard took these steps to ensure that BP prioritized skimming and burning and relied on surface application only as a last resort. That prioritization has happened."

A Solar Revival at the White House?

| Fri Jul. 9, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

Will President Obama pull a Jimmy Carter? No, I'm not talking about failing to get reelected. I'm talking about throwing up some solar panels on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The group 350.org and the solar company Sungevity is petitioning Obama and other world leaders to take their residences off the grid. After all, Obama did promise to green the White House shortly after he was elected.

Here's their pitch:

Should Sasha and Malia be studying by the light of a solar powered bulb?

Today, environmental author Bill McKibben and his international campaign350.org are joining the solar company Sungevity in a new effort to encourage President Obama to reinstall an updated set of solar panels on the White House roof.

In 1979, President Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House only to have them taken down by Reagan a few years later. (Reagan also slashed subsidies for solar and now other nations dominate the industry).

They end with this hope: "Who knows, maybe before too long President Obama will be signing a new climate law by the light of a solar powered bulb?"

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Allen to BP: Where's the New Plan?

| Fri Jul. 9, 2010 10:31 AM EDT

Thad Allen, National Incident Commander for the Gulf disaster, sent a letter to BP's chief managing director last night demanding an "updated and detailed" timeline and plan for capping the gushing well.

Earlier this week, BP said it is pushing to cap the Gulf gusher by July 27, which also happens to be the day the company is expected to report its second-quarter earnings to shareholders. But there are still a number of concerns about the company's ability to meet its latest goal.

BP is going to attempt to put in place a new cap, one that is expected to capture more oil from the well. But there's a risk that the removal of the current cap might yet again unleash the full flow into the Gulf. Allen wants more information on that plan, as well as the contingency plan should that fail. He also asks for details about how bad weather in the Gulf might impact those plans. He also wants an updated completion date for the relief wells, the only option for actually sealing off the well at this point. The first relief well is supposed to be completed by mid-August.

Last month, Allen said the federal government had directed BP to capture at least 90 percent of the flow of oil from the cap by mid-July, which is of course upon us.

Here's Allen's latest letter.

"If We All Saw This Coming, Why Did It Happen Anyway?"

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 4:56 PM EDT

Several Congressmen want to know why the Federal Emergency Management Agency's infamous formaldehyde trailers have made a reappearance in the Gulf despite orders that they be barred from use as housing.

As we noted before, the decision to auction off the trailers generated plenty of controversy earlier this year, with critics warning that the trailers might end up being sold to people who had no idea of their origin and health concerns. The Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on the trailers on April 28, shortly after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon but before people had a sense of how bad that disaster might get. Among the concerns raised in that hearing was that FEMA and the General Services Administration had never actually had the trailers tested to see how hazardous the levels of formaldehyde might be. House members questioned whether it was possible to ensure that the trailers would not be used as housing.

Now committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and subcommittee chairman Bobby Rush have a message for FEMA and GSA: We told you so. The pair sent a letter to GSA head Martha Johnson and FEMA head Craig Fugate asking why the "rigorous measures" they were assured would be implemented to guarantee that the trailers would not be used for housing clearly have not been followed. "Despite these precautions, it appears that these toxic trailers are once again being used for housing in the Gulf Coast," they wrote.

At the hearing, they write, GSA and FEMA said they "believed the units no longer contained dangerous levels of formaldehyde," but also that because the agencies "failed to test the actual units, this claim could not be verified." Of course, the prospect of them being used for the oil disaster was not even on the radar then. "But even then it was easy to anticipate what we are now seeing—buyers using these trailers for housing, and doing so with no warning or understanding of the serious health risks associated with formaldehyde," they write. "If we all saw this coming, why did it happen anyway?"

The lawmakers sent a list of questions to both agencies about they were not better prepared for this and didn't do more to protect people from these trailers. Here's the full letter.

Moratorium Case Goes to Another Oily Court

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 3:19 PM EDT

The Obama administration is back in court today, appealing last month's decision by a Louisiana court to throw out its temporary moratorium on new offshore drilling. But just like the judge who first struck down the moratorium, the judges on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel that will hear the case have financial holdings or other ties to the oil and gas industry.

Only three judges from the panel in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans will hear the appeal of the case, Hornbeck Offshore Services LLC v. Salazar. The Alliance for Justice (AFJ) looked at the financial records of the three-member panel that will hear the Obama administration's appeal and found that two of the judges, Jerry Edwin Smith and William Eugene Davis, "frequently represented the oil and gas industries while in private practice." Smith represented Exxon, Conoco, and Amoco, as well as others. Davis represented Diamond Drilling Company in private practice, and has also held stock in Edge Petroleum and Progress Energy.

Both Davis and Smith have also attended all-expense paid "seminars" sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE), a free-market organization whose seminars focus claim to be "pro-environment," but focus on explaining "why ecological values are not the only important ones."

The third judge on the panel, James L. Dennis, has had financial holdings in at least 18 companies in the energy industry. He used to own stock in Deepwater Horizon rig owner Transocean, but sold it in 2006. His 2008 financial disclosure listed a range of investments in oil and natural gas producers, suppliers, distributors, and service companies.

Davks, Smith, and Dennis aren't the only 5th circuit judges with ties to the industry. AFJ surveyed all the judges, both active and senior (which means they are essentially retired but can still volunteer to hear a case) members, and found that many of them have ties to the oil and gas sector, whether through stock holdings or a history of representing the industry in private practice.

Based on 2008 financial disclosure forms and responses to Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaires, AFJ also reports that Edith Jones, the chief judge on the panel, has invested in Exxon Mobil, Pennzoil, BP, and Amoco, among other energy firms. Carolyn King has invested in Exxon and BP. Jacques Wiener has invested in Exxon and Chevron, among others. Harold DeMoss has invested in several energy companies, including Anadarko Petroleum, which owns a 25 percent share of the well currently spewing oil into the Gulf. Edith Clement has held stock in Exxon, Texaco, BP, Chevron, and Conoco. The list goes on and on—basically, there are very few 5th circuit Justices who don't have some sort of financial connection to the oil and gas industry.

AFJ President Nan Aron argues that the Fifth Circuit is "marinating in a pervasive oil culture," which should present "legitimate questions about potential bias." While she said they’re not accusing the court of any wrongdoing, she suggested that most on the circuit should recuse themselves from the case.

"The justice system's legitimacy depends on the confidence that individuals have in its ability to be fair and impartial," Aron says. "Given the significance of this case and the national attention it is receiving, it is important for judges to appear as fair and impartial as possible."

But as has been noted many times now, it's hard to find a judge in the Gulf without ties to the industry. In the region, 37 of 64 federal judges have some oil sector connection.

Oral arguments begin this afternoon in New Orleans. The court is expected to move quickly on a decision, as the administration wants the six-month moratorium back in place and drillers in the area are itching to get back in the waters. Meanwhile, environmental groups are pushing to get the US District Court to revoke Judge Martin Feldman's decision in the case revoked, arguing that of his holdings in the energy industry constitute a conflict of interest. "The Court's financial holdings in various companies involved in oil and gas drilling raise in an objective mind a reasonable question concerning the Court's impartiality in these proceedings," the motion from the environmental groups said in the filing.

Enviro Links: Lessons from Exxon Valdez, Turtles in Peril, and More

| Thu Jul. 8, 2010 10:11 AM EDT

Here's the latest on the Gulf oil disaster, now in its 78th day:

Cleanup workers from the Exxon Valdez oil spill warn Gulf workers of the long-term health hazards of exposure.

Transocean, the owner of the Deepwater Horizon rig and the world's largest offshore drilling company, is known for "testing local laws and regulations" in its operations around the world, reports the New York Times. Their record includes charges of human rights abuses, tax fraud, and questionable legal maneuvering, just to name a few.

TPM reports that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which enforces the Endangered Species Act, underestimated the impact an oil spill might have on vulnerable species like sea turtles when it signed off on new Gulf drilling in 2007.

Michelle Obama plans to visit the Gulf sometime soon.

Some owners of BP stations are switching brands (or at least, trying to) as boycotts of the oil company threaten their businesses. "It's either change or go out of business," said Abdel Berry, who owns three BP stations near Detroit.

Religious leaders visit the Gulf, call for better protection of God's creation.

BP is pushing to cap the Gulf gusher by July 27, which happens to be the day the company is expected to report its second-quarter earnings to shareholders.

The Gulf spill site gets Obama-ized.

And in non-oil news:

The Discovery Channel loves sharks, and so does Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).