Blue Marble - October 2011

EPA: For the Love of God, We're Not Regulating Farm Dust

| Mon Oct. 17, 2011 12:35 PM EDT

For months now, the tea-party right and allies in Congress have been preoccupied with the myth that the Environmental Protection Agency is going to start imposing massive fines on farm dust. It's a conspiracy theory that Herman Cain repeated at one of the recent GOP debates. Unfortunately, it's not true, and the EPA said so again on Monday with a statement and a letter to Congress:

Particulate matter in the air we breathe can cause Americans to get sick, and can even cause premature death. For more than two decades, EPA has been working to reduce this pollution to improve our health while growing our economy. In progressing this work, some have raised the common myth that we are planning to tighten standards of dust from farms. EPA has repeatedly said that it has no plans to tighten this regulation. As further proof and upon careful consideration of the scientific record, analysis by Agency scientists, and advice from the independent Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, EPA today wrote Congress that it is prepared to propose to keep the current standard for PM10 when it is sent to OMB for interagency review. EPA hopes that this action finally puts an end to the myth that the Agency is planning to tighten this regulation which has been place since 1987.

The email from the EPA spokesman claimed that this is the "final" statement on the subject, which is probably a little optimistic. I'm guessing that even this won't kill the myth.

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Climate Change: Bad for Women

| Fri Oct. 14, 2011 5:31 PM EDT

Population Action International has a new short film looking at how climate change disproportionately affects women around the world. It features women in Nepal, Ethiopia and Peru who are dealing with drought and other agricultural troubles, as they try to give their children better lives than their own.

The stories are moving, of course. But the film also looks at how education, improved agricultural practices, and access to family planning can make the future more promising. So it's not all doom and gloom. Here's the film:

Image-of-the-Week: Life Support Systems

| Fri Oct. 14, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Life Support Systems. Left to right: From Earth; Ether; View From Tomorrow.: Jennifer Targett.Life Support Systems. Left to right: From Earth; Ether; View From Tomorrow. Jasmine Targett.

Australian artist Jasmine Targett's new triptych Life Support Systems, currently on display in Melbourne, depicts the invisible ecological wounds to our atmosphere. The glass sphere on the left represents the view we see From Earth: "The sky appears blue, the atmosphere majestic. The unseen danger that looms above appears only as a flickering to those aware of the impending situation." The center piece, Ether, depicts the 2006 Antarctic ozone hole, the largest yet measured: "Like a bubble whose structural integrity has been compromised, the Earth’s life support system is tethered to an ecosystem of universal proportions from which no part is immune from the changes of its counterparts." On the right, View From Tomorrow, represents a forecast for the future, as the ozone hole closes and toxic greenhouse gases are trapped: "Vast amounts of scientific data produced to comprehend changing environmental conditions challenge the way we make sense of the world. The forecast for tomorrow is reliant on our perception of today." My favorite part about these works: they're made of dichroic glass, originally engineered in the 1950s by NASA et al for spacesuit visors. "NASA's further atmospheric observations have revealed the ecological crisis today," writes Targett.

 

Exxon Aims to Bail on Payments for Valdez Damage

| Thu Oct. 13, 2011 9:34 AM EDT

It's been more than 22 years since the Exxon Valdez dumped 10 million gallons of crude into Alaska's Prince William Sound, but you don't have to look very hard to find lingering impacts from the spill. You can actually still find oil on the shore there, the fisheries are still struggling, and some bird species haven't recovered. But now Exxon is saying it won't pay up, despite an agreement to cover those additional cleanup costs.

Five years ago, the US government asked Exxon for money to continue the cleanup effort there. In its latest court filing, Exxon appears to be trying to shirk its obligation to pay for additional damages. In its filing to the US District Court in Alaska on September 30, the company argues that the agreement it reached with the government only covers "restoration" work—not additional "clean-up."

Before we get furter into the details, a quick recap: In 1991, Exxon struck a deal with the government to pay just $900 million in damages over 10 years for cleanup costs. The deal allowed the government to reopen the case, if it could prove that there were remaining problems that had not been adequately addressed. That "reopener" clause only extended until September 2006. So when that date rolled around and there was still evidence of that habitat and species were directly impacted by the spill, the Department of Justice and the State of Alaska filed a claim asking Exxon for an additional $92 million payment.

Exxon has so far rebuffed their claim. In the company's latest court filing, it argues that the original agreement "makes clear that the parties limited the Reopener to 'restoration projects,' that 'restoration' is something separate from and in addition to 'clean-up.'" The agreement, the company argues, "ended Exxon's further obligations for 'clean-up' once and for all."

"Diversity Bake Sale" at UC Berkeley Misses the Point

| Thu Oct. 13, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
A corner store in San Francisco's Tenderloin

The Young Republicans chapter at U.C. Berkeley managed to drum up a lot of media coverage recently with their "diversity bake sale," an event intended to demonstrate the oppression of white students enrolled at institutions that consider race during the admissions process. To make their point, the group sold baked goods at varying prices to depending on the race or ethnicity of the customer; whites were charged the most. "The purpose of the pricing structure is to cause people to disagree with this kind of preferential treatment," said one YR member.

Funnily enough, these Young Repubs don't realize that racially preferential food prices already exist—but in reality, they cut the other way.

I'm a white person living in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood, home to a disproportionate number of the city's non-white residents. Liquor stores, bars and restaurants abound—but there isn't a proper grocery store in my neighborhood. The Japantown Safeway is probably the closest to me, but it's no small distance if you don't own a car. Bicycling can work, but after an unfortunate encounter with a rogue taxi on the return trip I have opted to get my groceries delivered instead of schlepping a lot of heavy food on my bike.

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Babies Hate Air Pollution

| Tue Oct. 11, 2011 9:29 AM EDT

Here are a few more reasons why those who identify as "pro-life" might want to reconsider siding with environmental foes in Congress. New research in Los Angeles has found that women exposed to air pollution from automobiles are more likely to have children born at low birth-weights. Meanwhile, researchers in Spain have found that extremely high temperatures make women more likely to give birth early.

The first study, published in the Environmental Health Perspectives, looked at women who lived within five miles of air quality monitoring stations in Los Angeles County over the period of June 2004 to March 2006. Babies are usually described as having a low birth rate if they are born full-term but weigh less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces.

The researchers found that exposure to air pollutants like nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) made women 5 percent more likely to give birth to lower weight babies. Women exposed to fuel-combustion byproducts like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were up to 3 percent more likely to have smaller babies. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the California Air Resources Board provided support for the research, which shows "additional evidence of the potential impact of traffic-related air pollution on fetal growth" and merits further study, according to the authors.

New Zealand Oil Spill Blackout?

| Mon Oct. 10, 2011 7:37 PM EDT

Front page image: Dudley Clemens/DPA/Zuma

Mayday Call from Stricken New Zealand Tanker

| Mon Oct. 10, 2011 6:16 PM EDT

TVNZ reports a full mayday call has gone out from the stricken tanker MV Rena, requesting an immediate helicopter rescue of all crew remaining aboard.

The ship—grounded on a reef off the coast of New Zealand since last Wednesday—is now believed to be breaking up in heavy weather. The Rena carries 1,700 cubic meters/450,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil (see my earlier post). From TVNZ:

'The ship has spilled between 10 and 50 tonnes of oil so far and more has been seen leaking from the vessel and heading south-west. The barge which is being used to pump oil off the ship was damaged overnight and has returned to the port for repairs. It will sail again once it is fixed and the weather improves.'

Check out this The Guardian slideshow for more images of the worsening spill.

Dept. of State's Keystone Conflict

| Mon Oct. 10, 2011 1:38 PM EDT
Construction on the existing Keystone pipeline.

Already under fire for emails that show a cozy relationship between a TransCanada lobbyist and government officials, the State Department is now getting hammered for what appears to be a clear conflict of interest in the environmental review process for the proposed pipeline.

It turns out that Cardno Entrix, the environmental contractor that State hired to conduct its environmental impact analysis, has also done quite a bit of work for TransCanada, the Canadian energy company seeking to build the massive pipeline. TransCanada is listed as a "major client" for Cardno Entrix, and had employed the contractor in the past. The New York Times had the story over the weekend:

The department allowed TransCanada, the company seeking permission to build the 1,700-mile pipeline from the oil sands of northern Alberta to the Gulf Coast in Texas, to solicit and screen bids for the environmental study. At TransCanada’s recommendation, the department hired Cardno Entrix, an environmental contractor based in Houston, even though it had previously worked on projects with TransCanada and describes the pipeline company as a “major client” in its marketing materials.
While it is common for federal agencies to farm out environmental impact studies, legal experts said they were surprised the State Department was not more circumspect about the potential for real and perceived conflicts of interest on such a large and controversial project.

Perhaps this makes it less surprising, then, that the State Department's final environmental impact statement, released at the end of August, found "limited adverse environmental impacts" related to the pipeline. Cardno Entrix has also played a role in coordinating the public comment sessions on the pipeline, maintains the State Department's website for the project, and has even collected public comments about the project via email.