Two interesting papers in the science lit today on home-brewed solutions to industrial-strength problems. The first: contaminated water can clean itself if simple organic chemicals such as vinegar are added. The second: chicken manure cleans soil that's been contaminated by crude oil.

The vinegar solution was tested on groundwater tainted by former textiles factories, smelters, and tanneries. The leftovers of these industries produced harmful chromium compounds that cause cancers and all kinds of kidney, liver, lung and skin troubles. But add dilute acetic acid, aka vinegar, and—presto!—the oxidized chromate became non-soluble. That means it's no longer bio-available and can be left safely in the ground without risk to the surrounding ecosystem. The vinegar feeds and grows naturally-occurring bacteria which then alter the chemistry of the chromium compounds, rendering them harmless.

Good job bacteria!

The chicken guano solution was used on soil contaminated by crude oil spills. Conventional clean-up bears a heavy environmental cost since detergents become pollutants themselves and persist in the environment for a long time. Better to bioremediate: use natural or engineered microbes to metabolize the organic components of crude oil. But too often that requires expensive nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers with their own hefty environmental price tags (decreased soil quality). But when chicken manure was added to the soil—presto!—nearly 75 percent of the oil was broken down after two weeks. At least 12 different species of oil-munching bacteria liked the chickenshit menu and responded by metabolizing the oil.

Let's dig back through our great-grandmothers housekeeping diaries and find out what else they (probably) knew that we've forgotten?

President Obama issued a memorandum Tuesday requesting the heads of all federal agencies consult with scientists and other experts to determine if their actions could harm threatened and endangered species.

Consulting with experts at either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was required by law under the Endangered Species Act until December, when the Bush Administration issued a midnight ruling allowing agencies to skip scientific review.

Ah, the party planner's problem. You send out an invitation, and what happens if they all say yes? 

I'm just back from today's magnificent civil disobedience outside the Capitol power plant. It began around 1 p.m., with the morning's snow still swirling—and out of the snow hundreds and then thousands of people arriving, signs in hand, many wearing green hardhats, all ready to go for a march. And what a march—down a few blocks off Capitol Hill into a strange semi-wasteland of overpasses, newly built luxury condos now unoccupied in the housing bust—and a big ugly power plant.

We marched a lap around the complex, dropping off color-coded contingents at each of the five gates—green flags with several hundred people at the first, red at the second. The mass of us gathered outside the main gate, before a small stage, and then listened to half the most important folk in the environmental movement, from Gus Speth to Wendell Berry to young indigenous activists to some guy named Jim Hansen. Cheering, singing, dancing, shivering.

The only problem was, too many people. We simply overwhelmed the police, who were prepared to arrest 500 but not ten times that many. And so they simply refused. Short of actually assaulting cops, which no one had the slightest interest in, it was simply impossible to get arrested. We were all risking it—we were standing where we weren't supposed to for hours on end. And we shut down the plant for the afternoon.

Not only that, of course, but since Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid had actually caved in last week, announcing they'd end 103 years of burning coal in the plant and convert it to natural gas, there was no obstacle to declaring victory, utter and complete. 

I was the slightest bit disappointed, because I'd looked forward to eating out for a long time on the story of sharing a cell with Berry and Hansen and Terry Tempest Williams and Janisse Ray and Kathy Mattea and all the other good folks who were out there standing their ground. It would have been one hell of a stretch behind bars, and we could have written some kind of great letter from jail. 

But much better to see the wide smiles on the faces of the thousands of college kids who made up much of the crowd. The kind of wide smiles that come with saying: 'so this is how it works.' It's not impossible. All it takes is a movement, which now we've got to build.

It's also a global economy that affects millions. Notably, millions of little shorebirds known as red knots, whose numbers have declined 75 percent since the horseshoe crab fishery in Delaware Bay exploded. Prior to 1992, 100,000 crabs a year were caught. In 1997, more than 2 million. The result: 90 percent fewer crab eggs for visiting shorebirds to eat.

Here's the background: A lot of migrating shorebirds depend on Delaware Bay as a feeding stop. Red knots can't live without it. Until 1992 the Bay was a dependable fuel station on their annual 18,600-mile migration between the Arctic and the southern tip of South America and back. That's right, 18,600 miles a year. Fifty percent more flying than the average American drives per year. All from a bird weighing 6 ounces.

Now a new study has found the proportion of red knots visiting Delaware Bay who manage to pack on enough weight to survive the winter in Tierra del Fuego dropped along with the crab eggs. In fact the proportion of birds who made their target weight by their target departure date declined between 50 and 75 percent between 1997 and 2007.

This despite fisheries restrictions enacted in 1997 to help red knots recover. But, tell me, what kind of restrictions allow a 2007 horseshoe crab hunt bigger than the 1990 hunt?

Idiot restrictions. I wrote about other amazing long-distance fliers in Diet for a Warm Planet: how their thriftiness equals their prosperity. We all need to learn from these extraordinary feathered economists. Especially those who practice idiot economics.

Still want to drink it? Because the truth is that bottle of water is up to 2,000 times more energy intensive than just turning on the tap. No one really knew that until now.

Researchers at the Pacific Institute in Oakland California ran the numbers and found that bottle production alone wastes 50 million barrels of oil a year (that's 2.5 days of US oil consumption). Add to that energy the energy needed to process the water, label the bottles, fill the bottles, seal the bottles, transport the bottles, cool them prior to sale… well, you get the idea.

Bottom line: Bottled-water drinkers in the US alone in 2007 squandered the equivalent of 32 to 54 million barrels of oil. Triple that number for worldwide use. For perspective, imagine each bottle is one-quarter full of oil.

As reported at Treehugger: Bottled-water drinkers are the new smokers.

Since oil and water don't mix, turn on the tap. Still want a container? Try reusable Nalgene or stainless steel. Not without impact but durable at least. Traveling overseas to the lands-of-unclean waters? Pony up for a Katadyn bottle/filter combination. I can personally attest that this all-in-one system is a miracle worker of good intestinal and environmental health.

Concerned about the one in six humans who must live in the lands-of-unclean waters? Consider tossing a doubloon or two at the LifeStraw people who've found a nifty and inexpensive way to survive deadly water supplies.
Boy, what a reversal of fortune for the Environmental Protection Agency. After suffering years of neglect, staff cuts, and intimidation, it now stands to see its budget increased by 34 percent--among the largest bump for any federal agency in percentage terms. Much of the increase would fund clean water projects and restore the Superfund Tax, which expired in 1995, raising an estimated $6.6 billion by 2014 for hazardous waste cleanup. As if to underscore the EPA's return to favored agency status, Michelle Obama spoke at agency HQ while her husband was unveiling his budget yesterday. "Your work will not only save our planet and clean up our environment," she said. "It's going to transform our economy and create millions of well-paying jobs." Her optimism reminds me of Bush's love for his faith-based initiatives, but at least this time around there's a bit more evidence behind the hope.

Obama's 2010 budget overview is out, and rest assured the religious right will make hay from certain HHS family planning provisions. Says RH Reality Check:

While the overview is generally non-specific, it does make clear that the Medicaid family planning expansion—which would extend Medicaid coverage for family planning services to non-pregnant women–is included (see page 127). The expansion, which would enable states to extend coverage to non-pregnant women without first seeking a waiver from the federal government, was first included in the economic stimulus package

Will the feds also drop their finger-wagging insistence on abstinence-only sex-ed? It's possible, since the budget outlines "fund[ing] models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have become sexually active."

It's a start. And even though Tay Wiles' latest reproductive health legislation updates are freaking me out, at least Obama's HHS Secretary isn't blogging about how anti-abortion he is, yes?

View the full 2010 Budget overview here. (pdf)

In fact ships pollute nearly half as much as all the world’s cars. We're talking smog-type pollution. The kind that causes premature deaths from heart disease and asthma. A new study [pdf] estimates the total contribution of commercial maritime shipping and it adds up to about 2.2 million pounds of particle pollution a year.

Since more than 70 percent of shipping traffic takes place within 250 miles of the coastline, ship spew is a serious health issue for nearly half the people of the world—the number who live near the coast [pdf]

The problem starts with sulfates, the same gunk emitted by diesel engines on land. Sulfates already have some measure of regulations attached to them. But more than half of shipping pollution comes from organic pollutants and sooty black carbon. These aren't targeted by today’s regulations.

When you consider that our world is a giant fluid dynamics experiment, then it makes sense that what happens at sea flows ashore. And vice versa. There are all kinds of ways to address this problem. Kevin Drum talks cap and trade and that could work for shipping too. But keep in mind that one upside to the global downturn in the economy is decreased shipping and therefore cleaner air. So why not recast the recession as a long-overdue refreshment for our weary planet?

The consensus among economists these days is that the economic cost of curbing climate change in the short-term will run between 0.5 and one percent of U.S. GDP—about $143 billion if we use 2008's GDP as a reference.

But Grist's Gar Lipow doesn't think curbing climate change will cost the GDP a dime:

The Coen brothers + environmental advocacy equals this:

Take that, "clean" coal! You're never going win the battle for the hearts and minds of America's movie-going hipster minority now! (No, seriously, "clean" coal is a hoax and needs to be stopped. Kudos to the Coen brothers for joining the effort.)