Blue Marble - March 2013

EPA to Study Flame Retardant Chemicals. Finally.

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 12:46 PM EDT

The EPA announced this week that it will study the health and environmental risks of 23 chemicals, with an emphasis on chemical flame retardants that are found in many common products.

Even though they were phased out of baby clothes back in the 1970s due to health concerns, flame retardants are still used in baby cribs and car seats, couches, and electronics. Many have been linked to cancer and neurological and developmental problems, particularly in children. And we use so much of them that they're turning up in our food, too.

The EPA's announcement came just as a new study found extremely high levels of flame retardant chemicals on airplanes—"some of the highest measurements I've ever seen," according to the paper's co-author. This is less of a concern for airline passengers than it is for the pilots and flight attendants, but it does raise questions about yet another way we're being exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals.

The EPA plans to evaluate four common flame retardants—TBB, TBPH, TCEP, and HBCD—under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the 37-year-old law governing chemical regulation. As we've reported here before, that law is both weak and outdated, an issue that the EPA noted in its announcement on Wednesday:

"EPA is committed to more fully understanding the potential risks of flame retardant chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible," said James J. Jones, Acting assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. "Though today’s announcement represents a significant step forward on chemical safety, it's important to remember that TSCA, this country’s chemicals management legislation, remains in dire need of reform in order to ensure that all Americans are protected from toxic chemicals in their environment."

TSCA reform advocates point to flame retardants as an example of why current chemical regulations are a total failure. EPA is just now evaluating their safety, after decades of human exposure to these chemicals. "Flame retardants have become exhibit A for our nation's failed chemical policy," said Andy Igrejas, executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. "Many have have turned out to be very toxic, and yet they have found their way into our homes and our bodies through their use in consumer products."

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How Many Cinnabons is 2,000 Calories? How Many Almonds?

Fri Mar. 29, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Here's one for the picky eaters in the crowd: The FDA recommends consuming 2,000 calories a day. You probably eat a variety of different foods to get to that total. But what if you were to eat only one? How much would you need to eat of a given food to get to 2,000? Buzzfeed has the answer:

HT Grist.

82 Percent of Americans Think We Should Do More To Prepare for Climate Change

| Fri Mar. 29, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Hamilton Beach, NY after Superstorm Sandy.

Eighty-two percent of Americans think that we should be doing more to prepare for sea level rise and extreme weather caused by global warming, according to new survey data released by researchers from Stanford University on Thursday. The survey, taken in the wake of the $70 billion in damage caused by Superstorm Sandy, shows strong support for doing more before disasters strike.

The study was conducted by Jon Krosnick, a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Among the other findings:

  • 62 percent support strengthening building codes for new structures along the coast
  • 51 percent support barring new buildings from being built near the coast
  • 48 percent support sand dune restoration
  • 33 percent support efforts to maintain beaches with sand replenishment
  • 37 percent support relocating structures away from the coast
  • 33 percent support constructing sea walls

"People are least supportive of policies that try to hold back Mother Nature," Krosnick said. "They think it makes more sense to recognize risk and reduce exposure."

The survey also found that most respondents felt that coastal homeowners and businesses located in high-risk areas should pay for these measures, rather than the government. Most interesting, however, is that they found that even 60 percent of the respondents who don't think that climate change is real supported adaptation measures. Adaptation to … whatever it is they think is causing these rising seas and extreme storms, I guess.

Train Derailment Spills Oil, Ignites Keystone Debate

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 4:16 PM EDT

A mile-long Canadian Pacific Railway train derailed in Minnesota on Wednesday, spilling 15,000 gallons. Reuters reports that 11 of the 94 train cars came off the tracks about 150 miles northwest of Minneapolis. 

Officials did not say whether the oil was from Canada's tar sands, but the derailment is sparking still more debate over the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry tar sands oil into the US. Here's a relevant excerpt from another Reuters piece:

Some experts have argued oil-by-rail carries a higher risk of accidents and spills.
"It is good business for the rails and bad safety for the public," said Jim Hall, a transportation consultant and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Railroads travel through population centers. The safest form of transport for this type of product is a pipeline. This accident could—and ought to—raise the issue for discussion," he added.
Others note that spills from rail cars are rare, and that delivering crude by rail has opened up opportunities in recent years for producers to develop huge volumes of oil production in areas of the United States that are not connected to markets by pipeline.
"It's not very good publicity, but railroads are incredibly safe, they don't spill often," said Tony Hatch, independent transportation analyst with ABH Consulting in New York who has done work for major railroads. "It should not change the opportunity railroads have to make us more energy independent."

We import more oil from Canada than any other country, so it's worth noting that with or without the pipeline, we're already moving oil into the US and there is a potential for spills.

How Fracking Causes Earthquakes, the Animated GIF

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 4:00 PM EDT

Contributing writer Michael Behar has an intriguing feature today that details the science behind the link between injection wells and earthquakes. For a visual rundown of the fascinating process, check out the GIF below.

Drillers inject high-pressure fluids into a hydraulic fracturing well, making slight fissures in the shale that release natural gas. The resulting briny wastewater flows back up to the surface, where it is transported by truck or pipeline to nearby injection wells. The liquid is then pumped down the injection wells to a layer of deep, porous rock, often sandstone. Once there, it can flow in every direction, including into and around faults. Added pressure and lubrication can cause normally stable faults to slip, unleashing earthquakes.

how fracking causes earthquakes

Illustration: Leanne Kroll. Animation: Brett Brownell

How Much Is a Beachfront Home in the Sandy-Ravaged Rockaways Worth?

| Thu Mar. 28, 2013 1:05 PM EDT

257 Beach 140th Street, a modest four-bedroom house blocks from the beach in Rockaways, Queens, is fairly unremarkable, but it put up a hell of a fight during Hurricane Sandy. While other houses just down the street were being ripped off their foundations, 257, which had been up for sale since before the storm, suffered only a little flooding in the basement. It's otherwise unscathed, but even that damage was enough to knock a solid 10 percent off its list price (down to $799,000 from $890,000), enough to make first-time homebuyers Matthew and Jenny Daly take a closer look.

"There are more opportunities because of everything that's happened in the last six months," Matthew says.

In New York City alone, Sandy racked up $3.1 billion worth of damage to homes. Many of those properties in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways and the south shore of Staten Island are still empty, awaiting repairs, government buyouts, resident squatters, or like in the case of 257, a new owner ready to tackle a fixer-upper. Damaged homes are now on the market for as much as 60 percent off their pre-storm value, and local realtors say there's a ready contingent of bargain-hunters waiting to pounce—sometimes, to the detriment of sellers.

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Biggest Oklahoma Earthquake in Memory Linked to Oil Industry

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 6:01 PM EDT
Wastewater left over from fracking wells eventually ends up deep underground, where it can cause earthquakes.

In November 2011, a destructive 5.7-magnitude earthquake rocked the grasslands outside the small town of Prague, Oklahoma. The shaking leveled 14 homes, shut down schools for repairs, and was felt across 17 states. It also troubled seismologists, who'd never expected an event so large to hit an area that was supposed to be seismically safe.

According to the results of a new study published online yesterday in the journal Geology, the temblor was potentially linked to the underground injection of wastewater from local oil operations. In fact, the fault that triggered the event ruptured just about 200 meters from active injection wells. Changes in water volumes deep underground may have reduced the stress on the rock, allowing the fault to slip. 

The underground disposal of wastewater has skyrocketed due to the recent uptick in hydrofracking operations across the country. Other studies have linked wastewater injection wells to earthquakes in otherwise seismically quiet areas of Arkansas, Texas, Ohio, and Colorado. The Oklahoma quake, however, was the most powerful. 

For the current issue of Mother Jones, contributing writer Michael Behar followed Katie Keranen, the lead author of the Geology study, into the fields of the Sooner State for an elegant look at the science behind the link between earthquakes and the oil and fracking industries. Behar also interviewed seismologists and government officials who are increasingly concerned that loose regulations on wastewater injection could cause the next big one in a region unprepared for seismic activity. And he details the shadowy ties between industry and science that may complicate meaningful regulatory change.

Catch the full story here.

Arctic Sea Ice Reaches Winter Max and It's Dismally Low

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 2:06 PM EDT
Arctic sea ice:

The Arctic Ocean reached the most frozen it's going to get this year on 13 March. Now the melt season begins, predicts the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The seasonal stats were gloomy. The max sea ice area of 2013 was was 5.84 million square miles (15.13 million square kilometers). That's the sixth lowest extent on record and a whopping 283,000 square miles (733,000 square kilometers) below the 1979 to 2000 average maximum. 

Interestingly this year's max fell five days later than the 1979 to 2000 average date of March 10. NSIDC says the date's highly variable, with the earliest max in the satellite record falling on 24 February 1996 and the latest on 2 April 2010.

Arctic sea ice extent as of March 24, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. The 1979 to 2000 average is in dark gray
Arctic sea ice extent on March 24, 2013, along with daily ice extent data for the previous five years. The 1979 to 2000 average is in dark gray: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Keep in mind that the Arctic Ocean froze a bigger extent of water than ever before this past autumn—a record 4.53 million square miles (11.72 million square kilometers). But that's only because it had to make up for the insane lack of sea ice that beset the Arctic (and all its ice-dependent flora and fauna) last summer. I wrote about that during my October cruise through the Arctic Ocean aboard the US Coast Guard icebreaker Healy (Arctic Ocean Diaries). 

So what the past 12 months add up to is a wild pendulum: the lowest ever summer ice followed by the biggest ever winter freeze-over, which still only managed a dismally low winter cover, composed of thin one-year-old ice destined to melt super fast this summer. Everything has become more extreme. 

So even though this year was *only* the sixth lowest winter max, the Arctic is likely on course for another epically low summer ice-scape, because almost all its frozen ocean is now newborn baby ice. 

First Dead Pigs. Now Dead Ducks. China, What's Next?

| Wed Mar. 27, 2013 11:49 AM EDT
RIP, Ping of the Yangtze.

At least 1000 dead ducks were found floating in a river in Sichuan, China, Chinese media reported Monday.

Like the 16,000 pigs that were recently found in a different river in Sichuan, how the ducks died and why they were in the river is a mystery. They were fished out of the Nanhe river "then buried in plastic bags three meters underground," according to Agence Free Press. The Chinese government says that the ducks have been disinfected, and water in the area is safe to drink.

As The Guardian noted earlier this week, the hogs may be a consequence of the Chinese government attempting to better manage its livestock practices in its large-and-fast growing meat industry. Until recently, illegal butcher shops would buy dead pigs from farmers on the cheap, but after the government cracked down on the practice farmers began dumping deceased pigs in the river. Water contamination from livestock manure is also a major issue:

"The dead pigs weren't a big problem in the past, it was pollution from the farming," said Wang Yubing, deputy at the Pinghu Environmental Protection Bureau. Pinghu borders the Shanghai district of Jinshan and is upriver of the city, and pollution from pig farms further upriver in Nanhu and Haiyan damage water quality.

"The biggest pollution problem for Shaoxing is poultry and livestock farming," said Xu Luzhong, an inspector with the Zhejiang environmental authorities, when he visited the city. Pig excrement, slurry and the corpses dumped all over mean that the beautiful water town is giving off a bit of a stink.

"There are 130,000 farmers raising over 7 million pigs. Each pig excretes as much as 6 or 7 adult humans," said Yu Hongwei, deputy of the city's environmental bureau.

Yet when it comes to pollution from large-and-growing factory farms, the US and China aren't so different. We can scoff at the horror of thousands of pigs and ducks washing up in a river, Tom Philipott recently broke down the pollution running off of Iowa waterways and that isn't so pretty either: There are 18 million hogs in Iowa, and the 1 million hogs in Sioux City alone give off as much untreated manure as the Los Angeles and Atlanta metro areas combined.

VIDEO: Can We 3D Print Our Way Out of Climate Change?

| Mon Mar. 25, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

Tech optimists' crush of the decade is surely 3D printing. It has been heralded as disruptive, democratizing, and revolutionary for its non-discriminatory ability to make almost anything: dresses, guns, even houses. The process—also known as "additive manufacturing"—is still expensive and slow, confined to boutique objets d'art or lab-driven medical prototyping. But scaled up, and put in the hands of ordinary consumers via plummeting prices, 3D printing has the potential to slash energy and material costs. Climate Desk asks: can 3D printing be deployed in the ongoing battle against climate change?