Blue Marble - January 2011

GOP Wants EPA to Keep Sitting On Its Ash

| Wed Feb. 23, 2011 3:04 PM EST

The Environmental Protection Agency has been weighing several regulatory options for dealing with coal ash, the toxic remnants left behind in the process of burning coal in our nation's power plants. The new regulations have been delayed for months now, and there's a good deal of concern that the agency may bow to pressure from industry groups to set a weaker standard. But if House Republicans get their way, the EPA won't set new rules for coal ash disposal at all.

Among the many anti-environmental provisions in the spending bill that the House passed early Saturday morning was a provision blocking the EPA from finalizing a coal ash rule, sponsored by Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.). As the Center for Public Integrity reports, both lawmakers have been heavily backed by utilities.

The EPA was already under a great deal of pressure to issue a weak rule on coal ash, the stuff captured by scrubbers because we have deemed it too hazardous to emit into the air. The agency proposed a tough rule in October 2009 that would have designated the waste as toxic, but when the rule emerged from the White House Office of Management and Budget last May a much weaker option was also on the table. The administration has faced a good deal of pressure from utilities and the coal-ash recycling industry to adopt the weaker option in setting a final rule.

Right now, utilities are allowed to dump the ash into vast open pits. The EPA signaled its plans to regulate the waste in December 2008, after an earthen dike containing 1.1 billion gallons of the sludge ruptured at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee. But if House Republicans get their way, nothing will change—leaving a number of communities around the country in harm's way. The Environmental Integrity Project has identified 137 sites where toxic materials from coal ash have leached into the groundwater, and the EPA has labeled 49 dump sites "high hazard."

The House-passed continuing resolution would also bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions and slash the agency's budget by a third.

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Maine Gov: "Worst Case Is Some Women May Have Little Beards"

| Wed Feb. 23, 2011 2:31 PM EST

Today, the Bangor Daily News reports on Maine governor Paul LePage's weird comments on the chemical bisphenol A. Last week, LePage remarked:

"Quite frankly, the science that I'm looking at says there is no [problem]," LePage said. "There hasn't been any science that identifies that there is a problem."

LePage then added: "The only thing that I've heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen. So the worst case is some women may have little beards."

Quick, someone call JAMA! We have a scientist in the house, folks.

Unfortunately, bizarre though LePage's comments may be, he's not the only one confused about BPA, as I reported in my piece on BPA in canned foods. The FDA can't seem to make up its mind on the issue, despite National Institutes of Health's finding that BPA is of "some concern for effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures."

Also, I don't want a beard, even a little one. Just saying.

Ga. Law Could Give Death Penalty for Miscarriages

| Wed Feb. 23, 2011 8:32 AM EST

It's only February, but this year has been a tough one for women's health and reproductive rights. There's a new bill on the block that may have reached the apex (I hope) of woman-hating craziness. Georgia State Rep. Bobby Franklin—who last year proposed making rape and domestic violence "victims" into "accusers"—has introduced a 10-page bill that would criminalize miscarriages and make abortion in Georgia completely illegal. Both miscarriages and abortions would be potentially punishable by death: any "prenatal murder" in the words of the bill, including "human involvement" in a miscarriage, would be a felony and carry a penalty of life in prison or death. Basically, it's everything an "pro-life" activist could want aside from making all women who've had abortions wear big red "A"s on their chests.

I doubt that a bill that makes a legal medical procedure liable for the death penalty will pass. The bill, however, shows an astonishing lack of concern for women's health and well-being. Under Rep. Franklin's bill, HB 1, women who miscarry could become felons if they cannot prove that there was "no human involvement whatsoever in the causation" of their miscarriage. There is no clarification of what "human involvement" means, and this is hugely problematic as medical doctors do not know exactly what causes miscarriages. Miscarriages are estimated to terminate up to a quarter of all pregnancies and the Mayo Clinic says that "the actual number is probably much higher because many miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy that a woman doesn't even know she's pregnant. Most miscarriages occur because the fetus isn't developing normally."

Holding women criminally liable for a totally natural, common biological process is cruel and non-sensical. Even more ridiculous, the bill holds women responsible for protecting their fetuses from "the moment of conception," despite the fact that pregnancy tests aren't accurate until at least 3 weeks after conception. Unless Franklin (who is not a health professional) invents a revolutionary intrauterine conception alarm system, it's unclear how exactly the state of Georgia would enforce that rule other than holding all possibly-pregnant women under lock and key.

I've seen a lot of anti-woman, hate-filled bills this year, but this one takes the cake. And it's not just anti-woman, it's anti-logic. The bill contends that Georgia is exempt from upholding Supreme Court decisions like Roe v. Wade because the Constitution's Article I only governs five crimes: counterfeiting, piracy, high seas felonies, offenses against the law of nations, and treason. According to the bill, since murder is not one of those five crimes, it should be solely governed by the state. The bill also mandates that doctors must try to save the mother and the fetus, even though as we know, there are many situations in which both cannot be saved. It also changes medical terminology, re-designating all zygotes, embryos, and concepti as fetuses. In the bill's logic, a fertilized egg is the same as a person, and its destruction is murder. Sometimes even a fertilized egg will fail to adhere to the uterine lining, so would that make a uterus a murderer? At least the bill doesn't propose instituting pro-life Stork Bucks or outlawing "space abortions"...yet.

Coral Conundrum

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 7:46 PM EST
Photograph of Acropora pulchra by Albert Kok at nl.wikipedia, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photograph of Acropora pulchra by Albert Kok at nl.wikipedia, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
 

I had the good fortune to meet Greta Aeby last April at her lab on Hawaii's Coconut Island—that tiny gem in Kaneohe Bay that was filmed for the show open of Gilligan's Island—now home to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. I was planning to write about Greta's work on coral diseases for a new MoJo article. Then the Deepwater Horizon rearranged the known world and I never got to write that piece. 

Now I see that Greta is lead author of a new paper in PLoS ONE, assessing the causes of tumorlike diseases afflicting corals in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Coral cover in those waters has declined  by about 1 percent per year for the last 20 years, increasing to 2 percent between 1997 and 2003.

So what's doing that? This paper outlines the first broad-scale assessment of how nine "predictors of interest" correlate with tumorlike diseases. The predictors fall into three broad categories:

  • biological factors: population abundance of affected corals
  • human factors: human population
  • environmental factors: warming waters, surface ultra-violet radiation

 

Credit: Andy Collins, NOAA.Credit: Andy Collins, NOAA.

 

Statistical models were developed to examine the prevalence of two coral diseasesAcropora growth anomalies and Porites growth anomalies. These diseases manifest like tumors. They're easy to identify in the field and not easily confused with anything else.

The team surveyed for growth anomaly diseases on 937 reefs from 13 regions across the Indo-Pacific between 2002 and 2008. They examined corals at the genus level. The results:

  • The Acropora growth anomaly was most associated with Acropora abundance—that is, the more Acropora corals, the more Acropora disease too
  • The Porites growth anomaly was associated with Porites abundance, but also with nearby human populations—that is, the more people, the more disease too

 

Survey sites. Image: PLoS ONE DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0016887Survey sites. Image: PLoS ONE DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0016887

 

Which basically means that the growth anomaly diseases are likely communicable, and the the Porites version is also likely related in some fashion to an environmental co-factor or two: pollution, eutrophication, habitat fragmentation, and/or direct introduction of novel pathogens into the ecosystems.

Is there a similar correlation for human health, I wonder?

Meantime, the heavily populated coasts suffering the most Porites growth anomalies are also home to many of the 500 million people most immediately dependent on coral reefs. The authors note:

As human densities and environmental degradation increase globally, the prevalence of coral diseases like [Porites growth anomalies] could increase accordingly, halted only perhaps by declines in host density below thresholds required for disease establishment.

 
 

Finally, for your enjoyment, an incredibly gorgeous video of captive corals. Though the porno soundtrack is a puzzler.

The paper:

  • Aeby GS, et al. 2011 Growth Anomalies on the Coral Genera Acropora and Porites Are Strongly Associated with Host Density and Human Population Size across the Indo-Pacific. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16887. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016887

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

 

How Clean Must Food Containers Be Before Recycling?

| Mon Feb. 21, 2011 6:30 AM EST

From Econundrums reader Holly comes this question:

City recycling instructs you to put clean containers in the recycle bins. But I've become increasingly frustrated trying to get certain pet-food cans, yogurt containers, and margarine containers cleaned without using a lot of water. I feel that the water I use, the gas to heat the water, the dish soap, and the paper towels are wasting natural resources as well as costing me money. So how clean is clean enough?

This question irks me every time I throw a take-out salad container into the recycling. Will my leftover vinaigrette contaminate the whole bin? And if it does, will the recycling plant decide it's not worth the effort to clean and simply throw it into the trash instead?

I decided to call Recology, the company that runs San Francisco's recycling program, to ask about the fate of dirty food containers. According to Recology spokesman Robert Reed, most facilities won't throw away a container simply because it's dirty. And it's not a giant deal if containers have little food residue on them (say, the yogurt your spoon couldn't extract from the plastic cup).

But here's the interesting part: The cleaner your containers, the more they're worth on the recyclables market. Municipal facilities first sort recycling by type (paper, several kinds of plastic, tin, etc.), and then by quality. Workers separate clean recyclables from soiled ones, into bales. "If the bale is lower quality, there is less revenue coming back into the system from the sale of recyclables, which helps pay for the program," says Reed. The takeaway: By providing clean recyclables, you can actually save your city (and ultimately, taxpayers) money. 

Jennifer Berry, a spokeswoman for the recycling experts over at Earth 911, agrees. "It's a consistent refrain that I hear from recyclers that the 'cleaner' the product, the more it's worth and the more desirable it is."

Soiled containers are particularly problematic in communities where plastic and paper are transported together, since paper can easily absorb oil and other residue. But dirty plastic-only streams decrease cities' revenue, too. To wit: Frank Cvetovac is the operations manager at Epic Plastics, a manufacturer of plastic goods that buys its materials from municipal recycling facilities. One of Epic's regular suppliers doesn't have a very clean stream. "We offer them 25 or 30 percent less than market value, since we have to do so much work on our end to get it into usable shape," says Cvetovac.

That said, Berry and Reed agree that you should follow your city's guidelines on cleaning out containers, since facilities' equipment and capacity vary widely. But in general, you don't have to get all Lady MacBeth about it. "Remember that you don't have to get items clean enough to store food or eat from—so you don't necessarily have to use so much water that they are sterilized or completely grime free," says Berry. You might consider running containers through the dishwasher if you have one. If not, use a spatula to get most of the gunk out before you chuck it in the bin.

 

House Votes to Block EPA Climate Regs

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 7:28 PM EST
Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia, via Flickr

The House officially voted Friday afternoon to bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. From the Associated Press:

The 249-177 vote added the regulation ban to a sweeping spending bill that would fund the government through Sept. 30. The restriction is opposed by the Obama administration, which is using its regulatory powers to curb greenhouse gases after global warming legislation collapsed last year. The administration also says the ban would cost thousands of construction jobs.

It has been pretty clear for a while now that this was going to pass. It's probably most interesting for what it says about the bigger strategy of the GOP budget. This particular inclusion isn't about cutting spending in the least; it's ideological, and it's part of the wider anti-environment bent to the government funding bill (which you should know by now is called a "continuing resolution," or "CR" in DC-speak). The CR as written includes a massive cut to the EPA's budget, and as Jaeah Lee reported here on Thursday, Republicans have rolled out a loooong list of environmental programs they'd like to see cut. Their wish list includes defunding the White House Council on Environmental Quality entirely, stopping the EPA from regulating toxic air pollutants, and ending NASA's climate program. The question coming out of this will be how many of these programs Senate Democrats and the administration will go to the mat for when it comes down to preventing a government shut-down.

The House will vote on more amendments to the continuing resolution tonight. It's not yet clear when they'll pass the full CR, however.

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Eat More Anchovies, Herring and Sardines To Save the Ocean's Fish Stocks

| Fri Feb. 18, 2011 6:42 PM EST

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Cut back on tuna and salmon and load your plate instead with herring and sardines if you want to help save the world's fish. So says the scientist who led the most comprehensive analysis ever carried out of fish stocks in the world's oceans and how they have changed over the past century.

The study by Villy Christensen of the University of British Columbia's Fisheries Centre confirmed some previous indications that populations of predator fish at the top of the food chain, such as cod, tuna and groupers, have suffered huge declines, shrinking by around two-thirds in the past 100 years. More than half that decline occurred in the past 40 years.

Christensen found that the total stock of "forage fish", such as sardines, anchovy and capelin, has more than doubled over the past century. These are fish that are normally eaten by the top predators. "You remove the predator, you get more prey fish," said Christensen. "That has not been demonstrated before because people don't measure the number, they don't go out and count them."

Montana Rep: Global Warming Good for the Economy

| Thu Feb. 17, 2011 3:50 PM EST

This week, global warming is getting some love from Montana State Rep. Joe Read, a Republican, who has introduced legislation claiming that "global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate" of his state. Yes, that's the same state where Glacier National Park is currently melting. Scientists predict that the park's glaciers could disappear by 2030 or even sooner.

Read, who believes that global warming is natural and not caused by humans, did not immediately return a call requesting comment. He did, however, speak with Think Progress's Brad Johnson and expressed par-for-the-course GOP skepticism about the science behind climate change:

The science is driven by grant money. It’s all on the side for writing studies that global warming is happening. There’s nothing on the side that says I wish to write a paper that global warming is not an issue. Money has been flowing into the grant purse.

He also told Johnson that he's opposed to "pushing the agenda of global warming," which is "about directing levies and fees for carbon credits so the federal government gets an income source" and "potentially could destroy the economy of Montana and the United States."

State Rep. Mike Phillips, a Democrat and vice chairman of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee, told Mother Jones that "the whole notion that we will somehow benefit from climate change is absolutely ludicrous and this bill is a waste of the Legislature's time."

GOP "Carpet Bombing" of Environmental Protection Continues

| Thu Feb. 17, 2011 3:15 PM EST

To the dismay of environmentalists, religious groups, and citizens nationwide, this week House Republicans (and a handful of Democrats) have been piling on amendments to the temporary government-spending proposal, or Continuing Resolution (CR)—moves that would further undercut regulatory powers for federal agencies with environmental protection duties. (MoJo's Kate Sheppard has more on the CR from last week.)

"This bill isn't mere tinkering with policy, it's carpet bombing some of our nation's most important environmental laws," Kierán Suckling, who heads the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release yesterday. "In crafting this bill, Republicans have created a feeding frenzy for those intent on dismantling laws that for decades have protected our air, water, climate, and wildlife."

Environmental groups aren't the only ones who oppose the amendments. This week the Church World Service stated that the "proposed draconian Congressional cuts" to bilateral and multilateral programs for clean technology, disaster risk reduction, and adaptation funding would "harm American long-term interests by reducing support for programs that promote a more secure and stable world."

Particularly of concern among the 583 amendments are measures that would:

  • Prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic air pollutants, including mercury (No. 201, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-ID)
  • Cut EPA funds for curbing greenhouse gas emissions including carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrofluorocarbons (No. 466, Rep. Ted Poe, R-TX)
  • Interfere with the EPA's ability to limit toxic pollution from coal-fired power plants (No. 407, Rep. Ralph Hall, D-TX)
  • Bar the EPA from setting new health standards limiting coarse air particles (No. 563, Rep. Kristi Noem, R-SD)
  • Reduce the budgets of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service (No. 556, Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM)
  • Defund the Council on Environmental Quality, which coordinates environmental policy among all federal agencies (No. 202, Rep. Labrador)
  • Prohibit the Environmental Appeals board from reviewing or rejecting permits for off-shore drilling (No. 533, Rep. Don Young, R-AK)
  • Ban any contribution by the United States to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (No. 574, Rep. Pearce)

As a new survey released by the American Lung Association indicates, the public isn't going to be happy about these measures, either. In a memo to the ALA, the pollsters wrote: "A bipartisan 69 percent majority believes that EPA scientists, rather than Congress, should set pollution standards." And even when presented with the argument that EPA regulations will lead to higher gas and electricity prices and ship tens of thousands of American jobs to Asia, 63 percent of respondents said that Congress should not stop the agency from updating air quality standards.

A Sticky Situation for TransCanada's Keystone XL Pipeline

| Thu Feb. 17, 2011 7:07 AM EST

Environmental activists have long criticized the production of tar-sands oil; this especially dirty form of fuel demands tons of energy to obtain and results in high greenhouse gas emissions, not to mention the toxic wastelands its extraction leaves behind. But a new report, "Tar Sands Pipeline Safety Risks" (PDF), looks more closely at the environmental costs associated with the oil's transportation—which might soon run straight down the middle of the continent. A proposed TransCanada pipeline, the Keystone XL, would carry billions of gallons of crude tar sands oil from Canada into the US. This raw oil—more corrosive, volatile, and acidic than the upgraded synthetic tar-sands oil we've become used to—would flow from Alberta to Houston, through some valuable wetlands and aquifers in the Midwest.