Blue Marble - April 2011

Since Fukushima, Chernobyl Tourism on the Rise

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 12:26 PM PDT

Via Der Spiegel, I learned a fun Earth-Day's-Eve fact: At Chernobyl's infamous defunct nuclear power plant, you can take a tour that includes a Geiger counter and lunch in the plant cafeteria. This spectacle attracts a particular kind of tourist:

For her visit to the danger zone, Margarita from Italy has chosen to wear leopard-print linen shoes and pink lipstick. Her eyebrows are dyed lime green, her dark hair blond. "I lead a dangerous life," says Margarita, who is in her mid-twenties, in a breathy voice. "All the dye in my hair is also harmful to my health."

And in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, more and more edgy tourists like Margarita are flocking to Chernobyl: According to Der Spiegel, tours have been sold out since Japan's nuclear problems began.


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WATCH: Our Adventure Fact-Checking the Infamous Hockey-Stick Graph

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 9:59 AM PDT

We thought recreating the famous hockey-stick climate graph for Kate Sheppard's piece on the Climategate scandal would be easy. Boy were we wrong. Here's a video by MoJo fact checker Jaeah Lee and staffer Jen Phillips about the strange case of one very elusive graph:

 

Rites of Passage: Scarred for Life

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 4:27 PM PDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

With a dangerous reputation, crocodiles would not be the first animal you would associate with mental and physical strengthening. Surprisingly, the people of Papau New Guinea have a connection between man and beast that marks a boy's journey into adulthood.

Many traditional celebrations that accompany events like birth, the start of adolescence, marriage, and death are richly integrated with the use of natural materials; such as feather, skin and bone. But when an occasion as serious and important as the coming of age beckons, the rituals connection between cause and effect must reflect this intensity.

 

Many inhabitants of the South Pacific islands practice some form of physical transformation during male adolescence. The sacred act of scarring which people of the Solomon Islands practice can make rituals such as ceremonial hair cutting, and being cast into the wilderness for a short period, seem relatively less challenging.

For decades, tribes have used the tradition of scarification to mature their young boys into men. For a number of weeks, the boys psychological as well as physical barriers are pushed with consistent verbal taunts as well as public humiliations. However their discipline is yet to be tested to its breaking point.

In the video below you will see how the South Pacific filming team caught this incredible ceremony in high definition.

The Gulf Disaster One Year Later

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 11:56 AM PDT

Some of the top stories around the web on the anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon:

The Times-Picayune remembers the 11 men whose lives were lost at sea.

The Center for Public Integrity has an excellent piece today about BP's public relations work on the Gulf, focusing on one woman in particular who became the company's friendly face for community outreach. Turns out she has history of playing the public on BP's behalf.

Scientific American has a piece looking at the long-term impact for wildlife in the Gulf, concluding that there are still more questions than answers when it comes to the health of the ecosystem.

The NAACP published a report today, "My Name is 6508799," which details the economic and health impacts for Gulf coast residents, many of them minorities, in the past year.

Over at Grist, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) weighs in on what has changed in terms of drilling safety in the past year. His conclusion: Not a damn thing.

More than 3,200 oil and gas wells are still unplugged in the Gulf, threatening the same waters besieged by the 4.9-million barrel spill last year, the Associated Press reports today. The wells are still classified as "active," even though they haven't been tapped for five years and no one plans to come back to them anytime soon.

The New York Times has a nice short profile of Michael Bromwich, the guy tapped to head the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement in the wake of the spill.

National Geographic looks at six things that experts got wrong about the spill.

On Tuesday, the federal government reopened the last of the Gulf waters closed to fishing during the spill.

 

Kettleman City's Growing Toxic Web

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 4:00 AM PDT

Kettleman City just can't catch a break. This predominately low-income, non-white, industrial community in Central California, profiled by Mother Jones last year for its unusually high rate of birth defects, is about to add another smokestack to its long list of major pollution sources: a 600-megawatt power plant that will be exempt from current federal air pollution regulations.

How is that possible? The current federal emissions standards for toxins such as carbon monoxide, lead, and sulfur dioxide were created by the Environmental Protection Agency while the permit application for the plant was still pending. The plant's developer, Avenal Power Center, argued in court (PDF) that the agency should exempt it from the new standards. Earlier this year, the EPA signed off on its plan.

"This decision is bad not only for the residents of Avenal and Kettleman City, who will be breathing the emissions from this plant; it's also a bad precedent for the rest of the country," said Paul Cort, an attorney for Earthjustice, which filed comments on Sunday opposing the EPA's proposed exemption for the Avenal plant. "It would allow similar projects to be built even when we know that they will result in harmful pollution and even when they admit that they will not have best available pollution controls installed."

More pollution is coming to Kettleman City despite major problems with the dirty industries that it already has. Earlier this month, the EPA released a report (PDF) revealing a list of violations at Waste Management's huge toxic waste dump three-miles outside town. The report found that Waste Management disposed of "prohibited waste" that didn't meet treatment standards, inadequately analyzed waste in its lab, and created fire hazards. In an email to Mother Jones, and EPA spokesman called the report "part of an ongoing enforcement process which includes both compliance and potential penalties."

Despite the dump's long history of violations, including a $300,000 fine for improperly storing PCBs (a now-banned hazardous chemical linked to cancer and birth defects), the California branch of the EPA says that it "does not believe there is anything unique about the environment [in Kettleman City] that poses a risk to the community."This should come as good news to Waste Management, which is seeking to double the size of its dump—further increasing Kettelman City's cumulative toxic burden.

Environmental groups say the EPA is ignoring its own findings. Some violations detailed in the report took place during the same period the birth defects broke out, points out Bradley Angel, the director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a non-profit that initially discovered and publicized the birth defects. The EPA did not respond to a follow-up request for comment.

"BP Hasn't Made People Whole"

| Wed Apr. 20, 2011 2:35 AM PDT

Read about the top 10 reasons to still be pissed off about the BP spill here.

The Gulf oil disaster largely disappeared from the headlines last August, after the well was finally capped and the federal government declared that most of the oil was "gone."

For Gulf coast residents, though, the nightmare was just beginning. A year later, business hasn't come back for many in fishing and tourism, and the compensation check from BP still hasn't arrived. In the areas closest to the shores, people are reporting health problems consistent with exposure to chemicals. Dead turtles, dolphins and fish are still washing ashore. So are tar balls. So while most of the country has moved on, a number of Gulf coast residents have been in DC over the past week to tell decisionmakers one thing: It's not over.

Mother Jones talked to with several Gulf residents who have become advocates for their communities in the wake of the spill.

Kindra Arnesen, 33, of Buras, Louisiana

Arnesen and her husband, David, were just putting the finishing touches on the house they rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina when the Deepwater Horizon exploded. The disaster made an accidental activist out of this fisherman's wife and restaurant owner.

"We're not used to having to come up here and ask all these agencies in DC to do what our tax dollars pay them to do. I own two homes, a restaurant, and four boats. I've put that back together in the last five years. I don't owe no money on anything. We work really, really hard for what we do and what we get, and then it is almost like we’re painted by our own politicians through their actions, or lack thereof, as people that don’t need to exist, like we are expendable."

To read my interview with Arnesen, click here.

Cherri Foytlin, 38, of Rayne, Louisiana

Foytlin, a reporter, wife of an oilfield worker, and mother of six, walked 1,243 miles from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to demand a better future for Gulf residents.

"I would love for my husband to be making solar panels, but all the solar panels are being made in China. One of the things I’m totally advocating is bringing clean energy jobs here, and then providing subsidies so our oil workers get those jobs first."

"We are not divided. It's them that's dividing us up, and making us feel like we’re against this other group, that the oil workers are against the green movement and the green movement are against the oil workers. They are not—they are against the oil companies. That's a big difference. The oil companies don't care about the oil workers."

To read my interview with Foytlin, click here.

Ryan Lambert, 53, of Buras, Louisiana

Lambert rebuilt his charter boat company, Cajun Fishing Adventures, after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. But a year after the oil disaster began, business still hasn't come back.

"BP hasn't made people whole. I'm not saying I'm so much worried about me, because financially, I'm okay. I'm the oldest one in the business, just about. But the youngest guys are starving to death. People are losing their homes, losing their boats and there's BP advertising that they're spending millions of dollars. They're not. They're not making anyone whole."

To read my interview with Lambert, click here.

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Why Iowa's Hogs and Vermont's Maple Trees Do Have a Stake in Global Warming

| Tue Apr. 19, 2011 9:15 AM PDT

On Monday I posted an explanation of the Supreme Court case American Electric Power Company Inc. v. Connecticut, which the court heard oral arguments on this morning. At the heart of the case is the question of whether states and other entities can sue the country's biggest emitters for their contribution to global warming. Six states, the city of New York, and a handful of land conservancies have filed suit against the five biggest emitters in the United States using a common law nuisance argument. Basically, they argue that global warming, caused at least in part by these utilities, is harming their residents and environment.

On Tuesday, the American Security Project released a new report outlining the impact climate change could have on each state. The report could help bolster the states' arguments by showing that climate change really could have real and quantifiable impacts on states' economies.

Here are some of the projected costs to the six states involved in the case:

Connecticut:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that protecting the coast from a projected 20-inch sea level rise in sea level would be between $500 million and $3 billion by 2100.
  • Rising temperatures are a threat to wildlife and forestry in the state, which generate $300 million in annual revenue through tourism.
  • Between 2010 and 2050, climate change could cost Connecticut $9.5 billion in gross domestic project loss and over 36,000 jobs.

Iowa:

  • Winters and springs could become 30 percent wetter over the next few decades—increasing the frequency of weather events like the flood that ruined $4 billion in crops in 2008.
  • Iowa farmers already lose $40 million in hogs and pigs every year due to heat stress, a number that would likely climb as temperatures rise and impact an industry worth $4.3 billion annually.

Rhode Island:

  • The EPA estimates that sea level rise will cost Rhode Island up to $530 million by the end of the century.
  • Climate-spurred natural disasters affecting the port of Providence could directly impact the manufacturing and trade that accounts for 25 percent of the state’s $45 billion annual income.

Vermont:

  • Under business-as-usual projections, average temperatures in the state are expected to rise between 4 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, a change that would cut short the sap-tapping season and hurt the $32 million maple syrup industry.
  • Shorter winters and less snow would raise operating costs for ski resorts, a $750 million industry in the state, as operators would have to churn out more artificial snow to stay in business. The amount of artificial snow produced by ski resorts is already increasing; it went up 15 percent between 1997 and 2009.

New York:

  • Increased frequency and severity of hurricanes, Nor’easters and other extreme events could lead to "hundreds of billions—if not trillions—of dollars" in losses for New York's coastal areas.
  • Industries that will be affected by climate change provide 290,000 jobs and $77 billion in profits each year for New York.
  • Between 2010 and 2050, New York stands to lose $122.9 billion in GDP and over 560,000 jobs due to climate change.

California:

  • If emissions continue on the high-end of projections, the state could see sea level rise of 22 to 30 inches. Protecting the area around San Francisco Bay alone could cost up to $30 billion each year.
  • Ozone and particulate pollution already causes 8,800 deaths and costs the state $71 billion annually, numbers that are expected to rise with temperature.

 

Farmers to Clinton: Slow Down on Pipeline Project

| Mon Apr. 18, 2011 9:43 AM PDT

It's been a few weeks since we checked in on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would carry oil from Canada's tar sands down to refineries in Texas. Farmers and landowners in the states along the 1,661-mile pipeline's proposed route have raised concerns about the impact of potential spills or leaks to the Ogallala aquifer, which provides irrigation water to much of the Great Plains.

Last week, the National Farmer's Union, the second-largest organization representing farmers in the United States, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her to delay approval of the pipeline until there are assurances that the land and water in the region will be adequately protected. The group's president, Roger Johnson, wrote in a letter obtained by Mother Jones:

The protection of our groundwater resources is critical not only to continuing farm operations, but as a source of drinking water for the vast majority of rural residents. NFU opposes any infrastructure or resource development that jeopardizes the health, safety and quality of the Ogallala and other freshwater aquifer resources. Given the inherent corrosiveness of the type of petroleum that the Keystone XL pipeline is intended to transport, the health of groundwater resources in the Ogallala and many other freshwater aquifers could be placed in jeopardy.
Because of these environmental and health risks, we urge you to delay approval of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline until farmers and ranchers are guaranteed adequate environmental protection. NFU supports an understandable process that clarifies when and how eminent domain can be used and who has what liability when there are damages from pipeline failure. We urge you to utilize every resource available to you to safeguard the natural resources upon which our nation and our family farmers, ranchers and rural residents depend.

Last month, the State Department granted more time for consideration of the project, and last week the agency issued a supplemental environmental impact statement (though enviro groups argue that it still does not thoroughly examine the potential dangers of the pipeline). There will now be a 45-day public comment period and a 90-day comment period for other federal agencies, like the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, to weigh in on the pipeline project.

Why Are Toxic Skin Lighteners Still Legal?

| Mon Apr. 18, 2011 12:00 AM PDT
Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel, who mentions how cute his bleached skin looks in a recent song.

A Washington Post piece about the growing skin-lightening trend in Jamaica caught my eye last week. Apparently, bleaching is so popular on the island that dancehall stars even sing about it. The Post quotes some great lyrics from singer Vybz Kartel: "Di girl dem love off mi brown cute face, di girl dem love off mi bleach-out face."

But cute as Vybz's face might be, public health officials are not pleased. Skin-lightening products aren't well regulated in Jamaica, and some can contain dangerous ingredients like mercury. Many are made with hydroquinone, an organic compound that can cause ochronosis, a condition where skin becomes tough and, ironically, dark.

The health risks posed by hydroquinone are well known. In fact, it's banned in Japan, the EU, and Australia. But here in the US, it's still available over the counter, and it's on the FDA's list of "generally regarded as safe and effective" (GRASE) ingredients. Strange, considering that the FDA acknowledges that hydroquinone causes ochronosis and even that it's a potential carcinogen. In light of these concerns, the agency proposed taking it off the GRASE list in 2006, but little has happened since then. (Sound familiar?) "In the interim," says the FDA on its hydroquinone website, "we believe that hydroquinone should remain available as an OTC drug product." Naturally, industry groups are downplaying the ingredient's health threat with their usual zeal. For a list of cosmetics that contain hydroquinone, check out the Environmental Working Group's guide here.

If hydroquinone weren't bad enough, some skin lighteners contain mercury. Of course, they're illegal in the US, but they're often smuggled in from other countries. In 2005, a team of NYC researchers found that women with high levels of mercury reported using skin-lightening creams. They then found 12 imported creams containing mercury for sale in NYC stores. (The city has since cracked down on these products.)

Chemical concerns aside, there's a social dimension to all this, too. Check out this Indian commercial for the popular whitener Fair and Lovely (which doesn't contain hydroquinone):

Oof. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to find a culture where messing with natural skin color isn't common practice—consider the popularity of tanning salons in the US and Europe. But what's especially weird about lightening creams is that they're often made by western companies and marketed elsewhere. In this 2008 paper, UC-Berkeley ethnic studies professor Evelyn Nakano Glenn noted that even though sales of products containing hydroquinone are banned in the EU, manufacture for export to other countries is perfectly legal. Awk-ward.

My thanks to Sonya Lunder of the Environmental Working Group for her help with this post.

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What If It Happened Here?

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 12:56 PM PDT

With the anniversary of the BP oil disaster next week, the environmental group Oceana is running an ad campaign in the Washington, DC metro system asking the question: What if the spill happened here and not somewhere down in the Gulf?

The ads superimpose the image of the exploding, leaking well in photos of cities like Washington, New York, and San Francisco. "We're trying to get the message out: oil is dirty and dangerous," says Jackie Savitz, director of pollution campaigns at Oceana. "How would we feel if it happened in our backyard?"

If you've been in the DC metro system lately, you've probably seen a whole lot of ads from the oil and gas industry talking up how they're just a bunch of friendly folks who operate cleanly and safely. They've basically plastered the entire metro station over by the Capitol, so it's nice to see a reality check, even though it's on a much smaller scale. Congress has done absolutely nothing in the last year to avert future potential oil disasters. The campaign is a good reminder that the oil spill was devastating for Gulf coast residents even if the rest of the country seems to have forgotten it happened.

But a wannabe James O'Keefe has gone after the ads and Oceana, claiming that they look too much like 9/11 to be permissible. You know, because you can't use the image of New York City now (unless of course you're a conservative organization; then it's fine). The right-wing group Accuracy in Media deployed their reporter Benjamin Johnson to stand outside the metro to try to provoke some outrage among riders for their video about why New York shouldn't be used to promote an "anti-drilling leftist agenda." Most of them appear to be confused about why he's trying to force them to make that connection. Then he tries a (failed) sting operation at Oceana complete with a hidden camera to force those awful environmentalists to admit that yes, they do hate America. Watch the attempted smear here, or below: