Blue Marble - October 2010

Kentucky Groups Sue for Clean Water Act Enforcement

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 8:15 AM PDT

A coalition of environmental and citizen groups is filing suit against three mining companies in Kentucky for violations of the Clean Water Act, after an investigation into state records found the companies willfully, and regularly, ignoring pollution limits at or near mining sites.

After digging through records at the state's Division of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, the groups say they found more than 20,000 violations for just these three firms—ICG Knott County, ICG Hazard, and Frasure Creek Mining, a subsidiary of Trinity Coal. The companies regularly noted that they had exceeded pollution limits in their self-reported quarterly filings, but they also often failed to submit reports or falsified monitoring data. In one case the groups cite, the data on manganese levels at one test site was 40 times the legal limit. Overexposure to the element has toxic effects and can impair motor skills and cognitive function.

The groups say they are filing suit because the state office has not enforced the law. Donna Lisenby, who works for the environmental group Appalachian Voices, described literally blowing the dust off stacks of reports from the companies that did not appear to have been actually reviewed by anyone in the state office. Or at least, they were not reviewed thoroughly; she also described reports that appeared to have the same data copied and pasted from previous months, and reports that were dated before the testing was actually conducted. "Unless coal companies have invented a time machine, it's just not possible to submit test results for August and September that were taken in July," she said.

The records were obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request. Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance jointly filed the notice of intent to sue on Thursday, though they must wait 60 days before moving forward with the actual suit. The goal, the groups said, is to push the companies to comply with the law, and for state officials to actually enforce that law. The groups estimate that the companies would have been subject to $740 million in fines had the law been enforced.

"Our state officials have closed their eyes to an obviously serious problem," said Ted Withrow, a member of Kentuckians For the Commonwealth. "These are not small exceedances—some are over 40 times the daily maximum. This should have been a red flag."

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Greasing the Political Pipes, TransCananda-Style

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 6:38 AM PDT

In Nebraska this week, the state's governor and attorney general quietly returned sizable campaign donations from TransCanada, the company looking to build a massive pipeline clear across the state. The donations to Republican Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning not only looked bad, since the company is seeking approval to build a portion of its 1,980-mile pipeline across the state, but could also be illegal, since TransCanada is, as the name suggests, a foreign corporation.

Heineman and Bruning each accepted $2,500 for their re-election campaigns, which they returned earlier this week after the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission raised concerns about the legality of the donations. The Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club is calling for an investigation by the Federal Election Commission. "Since state elected officials were the recipients of these contributions and federal election laws are involved," said Ken Winston, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, "the investigation needs to be conducted by federal officials."

FEC laws bar foreign companies "from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly."

The company insists that the donations were on the up-and-up; it has an office in Omaha and is incorporated in Delaware. "The contributions were legal," Jeff Rauh, a spokesman for TransCanada, told the Lincoln Journal-Star. "The contributions were returned out of an abundance of caution."

But the Nebraska watchdog reports that the donations drew attention because they listed incomplete and inaccurate addresses, and gave the street address of the company's Alberta office.

Even if it is technically legal, it certainly highlights TransCanada's desire to grease the works in the state. While the decision on whether TransCanada can build the pipeline will ultimately come from the Department of State, state elected officials will likely weigh in on eminent domain law and the safety precautions the company will need to take.

This is just the latest controversy over the proposed pipeline, which would cross Nebraska and five other states as it carries oil from Alberta to Houston. In July, the company sent threatening letters to landowners despite the fact that its massive pipeline project has not been approved at the federal level. Heineman has largely avoided the subject of the pipeline in public remarks, saying it's a "federal regulatory issue" and not something the state government should be involved in. So much for that.

White House Pushes Back on Spill Report

| Fri Oct. 8, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

The White House is pushing back against the draft reports the National Oil Spill Commission released Wednesday on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that included scathing criticism of the administration's handling of the disaster. The reports' harshest criticism was directed toward the administration's handling of information about the size of the spill and the extent of the damage.

"This was an unprecedented environmental disaster met with an unprecedented federal response which prevented any of the worst-case scenarios from coming to fruition," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Thursday. "When we had information, we gave it to the public."

He also refuted the report's claim that the Office of Management and Budget blocked another federal agency from releasing estimates about the worst-case scenario for the spill. "No information was altered. No information was withheld. And nothing in the report had anything to do with the robust response," said Gibbs.

Gibbs defended the report's criticism of White House Energy and Climate Adviser Carol Browner for misrepresenting a document outlining where the oil in the Gulf went. "I think it is fair to say that Carol probably did hundreds of hours of interviews and may have misspoke once, which is a pretty darn good track record and one that we made sure was accurate certainly just a few hours later," said Gibbs. In fact, the report lists multiple media appearances in which Browner made the similar claims about the oil being "gone."

Gibbs also maintained that the White House believed the report "represented the fact that there was very good news, that oil had biodegraded, that oil had been skimmed, that oil had been burned, that the very worst-case scenarios that many people thought we would be dealing with never came to fruition, largely because of that federal response." The spill commission's report actually notes that the so-called oil budget didn't actually look at the amount of oil that had biodegraded, and criticized this as one of the "important shortcomings" in the report that the administration "obscured" its public roll out.

Gibbs did acknowledge that the response could have been improved, however. "There isn't anybody in this building or anybody who worked on this that would say we did everything perfectly," said Gibbs.

Discovery of a Marine Ecotone

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 10:32 AM PDT

 (Phytoplankton. Photo courtesy the NOAA MESA Project.) 

The ocean just got richer than we ever imagined—thanks to a new flow cytometer that measures the size and pigment composition of every phytoplankter present in a sample of seawater at the mind-blowingly fast rate of thousands of cells per second.

With that stream of data, researchers from the University of Washington found that communities of phytoplankton south of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, are big players when it comes to carbon: sequestering up to 50 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the ocean. 

 

(Phytoplankton bloom off Vancouver Island. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.)

Typically biologists with traditional cytometers look for phytoplankton using tablespoon-sized samples of seawater collected 10 to 50 miles or more from each other.  But the new instrument, SeaFlow, samples seawater continuously, making it possible to analyze samples either every three minutes or else two samples per mile traveled. It does this by tapping into the systems aboard most oceanographic research vessels that supply running seawater to the wet labs.

 

 (François Ribalet prepares the SeaFlow at the start of a recent expedition. Photo courtesy the University of Washington.)

The new technology collects more samples in a day than most scientists normally gather on an entire cruise. It also sorts the phytoplankton into distinct communities, completing work in five minutes that takes two months with traditional cytometers and microscopes.

 
(Phytoplankton. Photo courtesy the NOAA MESA Project.) 
 
A prototype of the device revealed a biological hotspot off Vancouver Island andfor the first timea marine ecotone, something oceanographers knew must exist but had no way to locate before now.
 
Ecotones are areas where different habitats overlap, where a prairie and forest meet, for example, or a river and estuary intersect. Ectones are rich with species because plants and animals from both ecosystems might be found there, along with those adapted specifically to the hybrid environment. The ecotone discovered by François Ribalet and colleagues is a 40-mile-wide region where ocean water rich with nitrates met coastal water rich with iron. 

(Diatoms. Photo by Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

Here, Ribalet et al found not one but five oceanic phytoplankton communities, each taking advantage of the concentrations of carbon and nutrients.

"This was just unexpected diversity," Ribalet says. "It flies in the face of the textbooks." 

(Phytoplankton. Photo courtesy the NOAA MESA Project.) 

The researchers also discovered the phytoplankton hotspot sequesters 50 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide produced nearby.

"We thought that had to be a mistake at first," says Ribalet. "They are such small cells to do so much."
 

 Here's the abstract of the paper in PNAS:

In terrestrial ecosystems, transitional areas between different plant communities (ecotones) are formed by steep environmental gradients and are commonly characterized by high species diversity and primary productivity, which in turn influences the foodweb structure of these regions. Whether comparable zones of elevated diversity and productivity characterize ecotones in the oceans remains poorly understood. Here we describe a previously hidden hotspot of phytoplankton diversity and productivity in a narrow but seasonally persistent transition zone at the intersection of iron-poor, nitrate-rich offshore waters and iron-rich, nitrate-poor coastal waters of the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Novel continuous measurements of phytoplankton cell abundance and composition identified a complex succession of blooms of five distinct size classes of phytoplankton populations within a 100-km–wide transition zone. The blooms appear to be fueled by natural iron enrichment of offshore communities as they are transported toward the coast. The observed succession of phytoplankton populations is likely driven by spatial gradients in iron availability or time since iron enrichment. Regardless of the underlying mechanism, the resulting communities have a strong impact on the regional biogeochemistry as evidenced by the low partial pressure of CO2 and the nearly complete depletion of nutrients. Enhanced phytoplankton productivity and diversity associated with steep environmental gradients are expected wherever water masses with complementary nutrient compositions mix to create a region more favorable for phytoplankton growth. The ability to detect and track these important but poorly characterized marine ecotones is critical for understanding their impact on productivity and ecosystem structure in the oceans.
 
The paper:

Francois Ribalet, et al. Unveiling a phytoplankton hotspot at a narrow boundary between coastal and offshore waters. PNAS.

Just How Much Did the Feds Screw Up Gulf Spill Estimates?

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 7:27 AM PDT

The four draft staff reports that the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling released yesterday had quite a bit to say about the Obama administration's botched handling of the BP oil spill. You can see the reports on the spill size and dispersant use for more.

But sometimes, an image really does tell you a lot about the story. That is certainly the case with this graph documenting the flow rate estimates from the government and outside experts over the course of the disaster. The blue lines represent the official government estimates and the green lines show how much independent experts said was spewing from the Gulf well every day.

Hey, Kids! All Aboard the Clean Coal Bus!

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, an astroturf front for a group of big coal, railroads and power companies, is on tour with a 42-foot "mobile classroom" bus. The bus is mostly traveling in coal communities throughout West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana, wending its way through university campuses and community gatherings.

The bus features exhibits demonstrating why coal is getting cleaner and reminds the locals that moving towards clean coal preserves jobs. Scientific proof of coal's cleanliness comes in the form of a video interview with Dr. David Bayless, director of the industry-sponsored Ohio Coal Research Center

The bus isn't the first of ACCCE's educational campaigns. Last year, the coalition targeted kids with coloring books that featured lumps of coal getting "clean" in the shower, and then ended the year with little coal Christmas carolers.

 

 

 

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Lack of Planning for Dispersant Use "Handicapped" Response

| Thu Oct. 7, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

The Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies didn't do their homework on dispersants before the Gulf spill began on April 20. That's the conclusion of a second staff report released Wednesday by the National Oil Spill Commission. While it's certainly less scathing than the report on the government's handling of questions about the size of the spill, the dispersant report doesn't exactly let the Obama administration off easy--in fact, it lambasts government officials for failing to prepare adequately for a disaster of this magnitude.

Over the course of the spill, 1.84 million gallons of the chemicals were sprayed at the surface of the water and injected at the well head. As we've reported extensively here, the decision to use these chemicals was made with relatively little information about the toxicity of the products or their longterm impacts. BP essentially ignored a directive from the EPA to find an alternative to its product of choice, and the Coast Guard repeatedly approved requests to exceed the limits that the government eventually set on dispersant use.

The report criticizes the EPA for not considering the possibility that dispersants "might have to be used in the massive volumes required in the Gulf" prior to the April 20 spill or "the distinct possibility that massive volumes of dispersants might be needed at the subsea level." It concludes:

Neither omission can be justified on the ground that a major subsea spill was wholly unforeseeable. The oil and gas industry has been extracting high volumes of oil from reservoirs in the Gulf for twenty years. This is not a new, unanticipated development. Nor is deepwater drilling.

The report also criticizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for not previously evaluating the "potential impacts of voluminous and extended use of dispersants on marine life and the nation's fisheries."

These failures, the report states, meant that "the National Incident Commander, the EPA Administrator, and the NOAA Administrator were seriously handicapped when the Macondo well explosion occurred and decisions had to be made immediately in the absence of adequate contingency planning." The lack of adequate planning also "made unclear the lines of authority between various federal agencies in determining whether dispersants should be used."

Still, the report concludes that government responders acted as reasonably as possible with regard to dispersant use given the minimal information they were working with. "Given the conditions under which officials like Admiral [Thad] Allen and EPA Administrator [Lisa] Jackson were acting, there is no clear evidence that their decisions to authorize high volumes of dispersants, including at the subsea, were unreasonable," it concludes.

But that doesn't mean that there's nothing to criticize in the response. Two sources informed the commission staff that the EPA "waited until late June to permanently install one of the Agency’s most senior officials at the Unified Command Center in Robert, Louisiana." The report notes that EPA "could have done a better job of ensuring that its on-scene representatives had both the expertise and the authority to make decisions regarding the use of dispersants."

It also notes that the fact that BP and its contractors were in charge of applying the dispersant "fueled public distrust of the decision to use dispersants." While the commission staff did not find evidence of BP or contractors intentionally violating government directives on their use, the situation did create the impression of impropriety.

"Not an Incidental Public Relations Problem"

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 12:30 PM PDT

The Obama administration misled the public about the size of BP's spill and misrepresented a report about how much oil remained in the Gulf following clean-up efforts, according to one of four staff reports released today by the National Oil Spill Commission, the panel convened by the President to investigate the disaster. According to the report, the White House also deliberately kept a worst-case scenario estimate under wraps, despite a federal agency's request to make the information public.

Initially, BP claimed that 1,000 barrels oil per day were leaking from the well, an estimate the administration adopted. But, according to the report ("The Amount and Fate of the Oil"), "Neither the Coast Guard nor BP divulged the data or methodology behind this estimate. Based on the information we have to date, it appears the figure came from BP without supporting documentation."

When the administration revised its estimate to 5,000 barrels per day a week after the spill, it again provided the public with dubious information. The report indicates that the number was basically made up. The figure came from a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who had no experience making this kind of estimate, used "imprecise" methodology, and did not rely on established or peer-reviewed methods. From the report:

This is not a criticism of the scientist, who made clear his assumptions and that the 5,000 bbls/day figure was a "very rough estimate." His stated intent in disseminating the estimate was to warn government officials that the flow rate was multiple times greater than 1,000 bbls/day.
Despite the acknowledged inaccuracies of the NOAA scientist's estimate, and despite the existence of other and potentially better methodologies for visually assessing flow rate (discussed below), 5,000 bbls/day was to remain the government's official flow-rate estimate for a full month, until May 27, 2010.

The 5,000 barrels estimate would prove to be only one-twelfth of the actual rate of flow from the well. Meanwhile, government responders were aware that BP had listed a 162,000-barrels-per-day "worst-case scenario" estimate in its original drilling permit. According to officials interviewed by commission staff, NOAA wanted to make that information public in late April or early May, but the White House Office of Management and Budget quashed the agency's request.

The administration's claims about the flow rate from the well and its oil budget report, touted as describing the "fate of the oil" in the Gulf, "were the source of significant controversy, which undermined public confidence in the federal government's response to the spill," the report also notes, concluding that it was "not an incidental public relations problem."

The absence of trust fuels public fears, and those fears in turn can cause major harm, whether because the public loses confidence in the federal government's assurances that beaches or seafood are safe, or because the government's lack of credibility makes it harder to build relationships with state and local officials, as well as community leaders, that are necessary for effective response actions.

The spill commission's report states that the administration's oil budget report, released on August 4, was intended to be an "operational tool" for responders, but administration officials promoted it as an official estimate and "obscured some important shortcomings" in the report. For instance, it claimed the oil was "biodegrading quickly" but did not provide sources or data to support that conclusion, or even define what "quickly" meant in this context. The purpose of the budget, the commission's report states, "was to tell responders how much oil was present for clean-up operations, not to tell the public how much oil was still in Gulf waters." The report faults White House energy and climate adviser Carol Browner for presenting the budget "as a scientific assessment of how much of the oil was 'gone'," when it did not support her claims.

The report also notes that false statements by administration officials that the oil budget was "peer-reviewed" "likely contributed to public perception of the budget's findings as more exact and complete than the budget, as an operational tool, was designed to be."

Based on interviews with personnel who worked on the spill response, the commission's report is preliminary and has yet to be fully endorsed by the commission's members. The commission also released staff reports today on the use of dispersants in response to the spill, decision-making in the Unified Command, the history of offshore drilling, and the implications of drilling in the Arctic.

I'll have more on the commission's report on dispersants shortly.

Science Shots: Lizard Love; Extinct DNA; Volcanoes Fertilize Oceans, Kill Neanderthals

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 11:00 AM PDT

A sampling of the latest science papers. Forthwith: Lizard families form multigenerational dynasties; Extinct passenger pigeons speak through DNA; 2008 volcanic eruption fertilized North Pacific; Volcanic eruptions 40,000 years ago doomed Neanderthals and enabled rise of an upstart pipsqueak, Homo sapiens.

  • Researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz found that desert night lizards from the Mojave Desert live in family groups and show patterns of social behavior more commonly associated with mammals and birds. Desert night lizards are unusual among reptiles in that they're vivparous, giving birth to live young. They also huddle in groups through the winter beneath fallen Joshua trees. Genetic analysis revealed the huddling groups are made up of related individuals. Five years of study showed that young desert night lizards stay with their mothers, fathers, and siblings for several years after birth. Some groups aggregate under the same fallen log year after year, forming dynasties. The investigation provides new insights into the convergent evolution of cooperative behavior. The paper, Convergent evolution of kin-based sociality in a lizard, appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B .
  • DNA extracted from 100-year-old museum specimens reveals extinct passenger pigeons were less closely related to New World mourning doves, as formerly believed, and more closely related to New World pigeons. Biogeographic analysis suggests they may have colonized North America from Asia and dispersed into South America. Passenger pigeons were entirely nomadic, forming huge flocks and breeding colonies, millions strong. They were the most abundant birds on the planet. In the early 1800s, flocks were vast enough to take days to pass overhead, literally darkening the sky. Nothing in modern times compares. Passenger pigeons were also one of North America's first birds driven to extinction at human hands. The paper, The flight of the Passenger Pigeon: Phylogenetics and biogeographic history of an extinct species, appears in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.
  • The 2008 eruption of the Kasatochi volcano in the Aleutian Islands spewed iron-laden ash over a large swath of the North Pacific. The result was an ocean productivity event of unprecedented magnitude—the largest phytoplankton bloom detected in the region since ocean surface measurements by satellite began in 1997. Yet the bloom resulted in only a modest uptake of atmospheric CO2. The paper, Volcanic ash fuels anomalous plankton bloom in subarctic northeast Pacific, is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

  • New research suggests that climate change following massive volcanic eruptions drove Neanderthals to extinction and cleared the way for modern humans to thrive in Europe and Asia. These eruptions caused a "volcanic winter" as ash clouds obscured the sun's rays, possibly for years. The paper, Significance of Ecological Factors in the Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transition, appears in the October issue of Current Anthropology. From the abstract:

For the first time, we have identified evidence that the disappearance of Neanderthals in the Caucasus coincides with a volcanic eruption at about 40,000 BP. Our data support the hypothesis that the Middle to Upper Paleolithic transition in western Eurasia correlates with a global volcanogenic catastrophe. The coeval volcanic eruptions (from a large Campanian Ignimbrite eruption to a smaller eruption in the Central Caucasus) had an unusually sudden and devastating effect on the ecology and forced the fast and extreme climate deterioration ("volcanic winter") of the Northern Hemisphere in the beginning of Heinrich Event 4. Given the data from Mezmaiskaya Cave and supporting evidence from other sites across the Europe, we guess that the Neanderthal lineage truncated abruptly after this catastrophe in most of its range. We also propose that the most significant advantage of early modern humans over contemporary Neanderthals was geographic localization in the more southern parts of western Eurasia and Africa. Thus, modern humans avoided much of the direct impact of the European volcanic crisis. They may have further benefited from the Neanderthal population vacuum in Europe and major technological and social innovations, whose revolutionary appearance shortly after 40,000 BP documents the beginning of Upper Paleolithic.

 

More on the Bagged Bags

| Wed Oct. 6, 2010 7:42 AM PDT

Several people have noted in response to my eco-chip bag diatribe that there were also concerns about whether Frito-Lay's noisy SunChip bag actually lived up to its claims of compostability. I'll explore that more below, but the point remains that the stated reason for bagging the bags wasn't a concern about the whether they worked—it was purely in response to complaints about the sound (and the declining sales that resulted).

I still think this reflects more on Americans (or, at least, SunChip eaters) than it does on Frito-Lay. But let's take a look at some of the complaints about whether the bag lived up to its eco-claims. Blogger Andrew Odom has been dogging this issue for a few months now. His repeated attempts to compost the bag (see trial one, two, and three) yielded no discernible results. The bag didn't so much as appear thinner or worn down after weeks in the soil. He concluded that, without the aid of a composting facility or an expensive composting machine, the bags weren't going to break down in 14 weeks as the company promised.

He writes about why this is a problem:

If Joe Smith eats a bag of SunChips and then discards the bag out the window thinking to himself, "Oh, it’s one of those tree-hugger bags. It'll just disappear like the bag shows," and the bag claim is bogus, then isn’t the compostable bag just another piece of trash? It is for at least the 14 weeks it sits idle on standard soil under standard conditions.

Odom thinks the Frito-Lay's stated reason for ditching the bags was just a cover for these real problems with the claims about their biodegradability. I don't have that much faith in corporate America's concern about living up to green marketing. I'm pretty sure the complaints about the noise were what did the bags in—and that's what inspired me to write yesterday's rant about the American consumer.

Others have also raised concerns about just how eco-friendly this particular type of bioplastic actually is. There is of course a healthy debate about the sustainability of those products, but it's hard to argue that they're not at least a little bit better than the petroleum-derived plastic bags that most chips come in.

Now Frito-Lay says it's going back to the drawing board on compostable bags. A company representative writes to the blog The Inspired Economist:

While Frito-Lay works to develop a next-generation compostable package, SunChips Original snacks will remain in the current 100% compostable package, while the other SunChips flavors will be transitioned back to their traditional packaging. Once the improved compostable bag is ready, it will be featured in the SunChips Original flavor, allowing Frito-Lay to monitor consumers' response.

I'm glad to see the company is not shelving the idea of a compostable bag altogether. Maybe the next generation can solve the problems with the sacks—real and exaggerated.

See yesterday's post on this topic here.