In a major setback for the people and wildlife of southern Alaska, the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 today that the Coeur d’Alene Mines Corporation can legally under the Clean Water Act dump more than 4.5 million tons of “slurry”—a mining waste byproduct that’s a mixture of crushed rock and water—in the Lower Slate Lake in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest. The ruling overturned a May 2007 decision by a lower appeals court denying Coeur d’Alene’s permit, which applies to its Kensington Gold Mine north of Juneau, Alaska's capital city.

But isn’t the Clean Water Act supposed to protect our lakes and rivers and other water sources? Well, yes. For nearly 30 years, the CWA expressly prohibited pumping harmful waste materials into waters, allowing only "fill material" for building structures like seawalls and levees to be dumped, and only then with permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. But in 2002, the Bush Administration tweaked the definition of "fill" to include dangerous waste products with an EPA memo that the public never saw. The memo's expansion of the "fill" definition permitted harmful slurry dumping into lakes and other water sources. In making its decision today, the Supreme Court relied on this memo.
 

Last week's cute endangered animal, the Hawaiian Monk Seal, was an ocean creature, so this week's pick is from the land: the ocelot. The ocelot is a nocturnal wildcat known for its strikingly beautiful coat. The 4'-long, 24 to 35lb animals used to roam from Texas through Louisiana and Arkansas but due to habitat destruction by roads and agriculture, today there are fewer than 100 of the cats in the wild left in the US.

One obstacle to conservation is that like many wild cats, ocelots are solitary and need a large range, 500 acres for a single adult. Ocelots are also picky about what kind of land they will call home: they prefer dense brush with trees (so they can hide and sleep during the day) and need a steady supply of small mammals, rodents, lizards, or other prey to live on. Fun fact: ocelots will pluck all the feathers and fur off their prey before eating it.

Although ocelots are endangered, some people apparently keep them as pets, and they are popular as zoo exhibits. Ocelots seem to do fine in captivity, living up to 20 years: their lifespan in the wild is only seven to 10 years. Though ocelots are endangered in the US, they can be found wild in various parts of Central and South America. The US population, however, has a peculiar enemy: cars. The animals seem to have little concern for traffic running through the nature preserves on which they generally live, and being hit by a car kills 2% of the ocelot population in a given year.

Though the ocelot seems to have little chance for recovery in the US, there is news of a feral population in Florida. Spanish painter Salvador Dali had a pet ocelot named Ozzie, but in general the cats are known to make poor pets. However, those desiring the ocelot's distinctive coat can settle for the "ocicat": an entirely domestic cat that looks like an ocelot, but doesn't have the loudly yowling, aggressively affectionate, spray-happy attributes of its wild cousin. (To hear the growls of an ocelot in heat, click here.)

 

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A study of 4,000 "eco-friendly" consumer products found on supermarket shelves found that 98 percent of them make false or misleading claims. The study, presented to Congress earlier this month by the environmental consulting firm TerraChoice, found rampant greenwashing in every product category. Twenty-two percent of the products it evaluated featured an environmental badge, or "green label," that was actually meaningless.

Congress is now debating better ways clamp down on greenwashing. The Federal Trade Comission, which is supposed to prevent the practice, has taken almost no enforcement action against greenwashers over the past decade. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) is contemplating introducing a bill that would boost federal oversight of eco-marketing, including product lablels.  While one third of conumers rely on labels to decide if a product is environmentally friendly, there is a confusing jumble of 300 competing environmental certification programs that bombards them with competing and misleading claims.

UPDATE: Check out the interview I did on the subject with Green Patriot Radio.

Nine years ago, Mother Jones reported on the damage done to the town of Libby, Montana, and its inhabitants by the asbestos in W.R. Grace's nearby mine. In 2008, Grace settled with the people sickened and killed and their families for some $3 billion. Last Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency finally declared an environmental emergency in Libby, invoking a clause of the 1980 Superfund law for the first time in the agency's history. The EPA will spend over $100 million trying to clean up the town. 

The EPA declaration represents some long-delayed good news for the people of Libby. But if they were hoping for accountability for Grace's executives, they're out of luck. Federal prosecutors brought charges against four Grace employees for criminal conspiracy to cover up the risks from the asbestos contamination from the company's mine. But three execs were acquitted, and charges against the final Grace defendant, O. Mario Favorito, were dismissed last week. It now seems that no one will go to jail for the conduct that has been linked to the deaths of over 200 people and the sickening of thousands more.

Yesterday marked the summer solstice. What better way to usher in the warm weather than with the environment, science, and health news from our other blogs?

Yours, for the low, low price of $70: Republicans estimated the cap-and-trade provision in the Waxman-Markey bill would cost each American thousands. The real price tag? About $70 per person.

The VAT came back: Kevin Drum's glad to see value-added tax (similar to a national sales tax) back on the table as a possible way to partially fund national healthcare. Meanwhile, James Ridgeway explains why health co-ops would be a cop out

Dubious survey of the day: That new poll that says Americans want to be able to choose between private and public plans? Meh. 

 

 

 

If you know anything about Siberia, it is that Siberia is cold . You may also associate it with gulags, Stalin, or the USSR's forced relocation of various ethnic groups, but even if you don't, the cold you've heard about. In fact, Siberia is home to Oymyakon, a hamlet of 800, and the coldest continuously inhabited place on the planet.

This past winter, Oymyakon hosted droves of Russian reporters in huge fur jackets who had come to report on an especially cold winter. Twice, temperatures dropped to -60.2 C, or nearly -86 F, marking one of the coldest winters the village of once-nomadic reindeer herders has suffered in nearly a century.  It was so cold, Russia Today reported, that human life virtually ground to a halt. 

 

But not these days. Today (which is really tomorrow there) , and yesterday, and for the past two weeks, Oymyakon has been in the grips of an unprecedented heatwave. On Thursday, temperatures were recorded at just under 32 C, or nearly 90 degrees. (32.6 C is the highest ever recorded temperature), with weekend temperatues in the high 80s.

What does it mean? This past Tuesday, the White House released a report saying that global warming has already begun to affect Americans . Could climate change be altering Siberia's famous frigidity too?

Last night I had the opportunity to attend the California Academy of Sciences weekly nightlife gathering. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that at the event was a special screening of a documentary film titled Frogs: The Thin Green Line.

Whereas I thought that human development was the only major problem causing frogs' rapid worldwide decline, the film made me aware of the many other threats facing frogs, their critical importance in the food chain, and steps that humans are taking to prevent further extinction of frog populations.

Fortunately, even if you missed the documentary on the big screen, you can watch it in its entirety online (click here!).

Sidenote: Our Mother Jones office frog, Mudraker, is doing very well. He spends his days in and around his castle and he is most active in the evenings. Also, all 7 of our fish are still alive and the community is thriving.

Lots of Blue Marble-ish news afoot on this Friday. Here's a sampling:

Side deals! Side deals! Who wants a side deal?: Word has it that Waxman and Markey are desperately chasing after midwestern Dem support for their climate bill. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Kevin Drum.

Photo of the Day: We're still at war.

Most CO2 ever: Well, practically. Earth has reached its highest concentration in 2.1 million years. So that means people will probably pay attention to Times Square's new 70-foot greenhouse gas ticker, right? Not so much.

Excuse me, waiter, there's a cow in my KFC: Since when is beef a spice?

New Yorkers (actually, more like throngs of tourists) will be able to see exactly how many metric tons of greenhouse gases are in our atmosphere in real time, thanks to the new 70-foot-tall carbon ticker that Deutsche Bank unveiled in Times Square today. Deutsche Bank says the ticker itself is carbon neutral: It's made of LEDs, and is offset with carbon credits. (Wonder what kind...)

MoJo contributor Joel Makower, who runs the site GreenBiz. com, points out that the ticker could be overwhelming:

“It’s good to get this information constantly in front of them [people]," says Joel Makower executive editor of GreenBiz.com. At the same time, however, he says that such a huge number could be intimating to some people, who might question whether they could actually make a reduction in those numbers. "Big numbers are impressive, but they make us feel impotent," adds Makower.

The other problem: Metric tons can be hard to wrap your mind around. I guess the point of the ticker is to show how quickly we're dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but a more concrete measure (cars on the road? Power plants? How close we're getting to some kind of tipping point?) might make it all more fathomable, and hence more effective.

HT @makower.

Note to humans: We've got some unusual competition in the battle for intellectual superiority, from an unlikely opponent: a 1.5" long fish called the nine-spined stickleback.

If you thought that animals could only learn by Pavlovian methods (just hearing the bell still makes me salivate, due to all of the psychology classes I slept through in college), think again. Earlier this year the stickleback proved itself to be a uniquely intelligent species, as researchers learned that these little fish are "much more willing to take risks in search of food in pairs than alone." But by golly, the little fellows aren't done yet.

DiscoveryNews reports that the nine-spined stickleback (try saying that 10 times fast), "possesses an unusually sophisticated capacity for learning not yet documented in any other animal, aside from humans." These creatures have learned to watch the mistakes of their peers so they don't repeat them, an achievement humans could learn from. This new knowledge was the result of a study done by University of St. Andrews research fellow Jeremy Kendal and his colleagues, who published their findings in Oxford University's Behavioral Ecology journal.

With this significant scientific breakthrough, who knows what else we will learn about our underestimation of animal intelligence in the near future?