Recent News

Report: Wood pellet mills threaten public health in North Carolina

An environmental group’s report says state permits allow pellet factories to violate the intent of the Clean Air Act.

The U.S. South has fast become the world’s largest supplier of wood pellets, a rising source of fuel for power plants primarily in Europe.

An environmental group’s new report says the rapidly growing industry is threatening public health on this side of the Atlantic, with enormous pellet plants using regulatory loopholes to spew substantially more pollution into the air than the law intends — a charge the industry vehemently rejects.

The problem is particularly acute in North Carolina, where pellet giant Enviva Biomass has cornered the market and runs the nation’s dirtiest pellet mill, according to the report. None of the state’s four plants deploy pollution-control devices common elsewhere, it says.

The hundreds of tons of toxic and smog-forming chemical releases are legal, at least insofar as they are spelled out in operating licenses from the state. But report author Environmental Integrity Project contends these permits skirt the nation’s Clean Air Act, and that the resulting pollution disproportionately harms poor people and communities of color in the eastern part of state. 05-22-18

Read more at Energy News Network

What the Failure of the House Farm Bill Means for Good Food Advocates

Last week’s collapse of the bill surprised many, but it’s too soon to declare it a win.

“It’s not a fatal blow, it’s just a reorganize,” said Freedom Caucus leader Mark Meadows. “I think at this point we just really need to deal with immigration in an effective way.” | Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the House Farm Bill failed to pass in a 198-213 vote last Friday, many food and farm advocates declared victory.

And it’s easy to see why. Dozens of local and national food movement groups—and their members—had spent the weeks prior urging members of Congress to vote against the bill, which, with its cuts to conservation programs and dramatic changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program, they saw as antithetical to the work they do.

“When we’re looking at sustainable agriculture and food systems broadly—nutrition, economic development, rural communities, healthy food access, and conservation—the House bill is deeply flawed,” says Greg Fogel policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), one of a handful of groups pushing for food system change at the national level.

Meanwhile, most news outlets framed the bill as a casualty of a larger immigration battle between the House Freedom Caucus and GOP moderates—a battle that is far from over. In fact, within hours of Friday’s vote, Republicans lawmakers on both sides of the divide made it clear that they intended to revisit the bill. Then, on Monday, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) announced plans for a second vote on June 22—after a House vote on the ultra-conservative Goodlatte-McCaul immigration bill.

“It harkens back to the Affordable Care Act repeal episode in the House [last year],” says Andrew Bahrenburg, national policy director at the National Young Farmers Coalition. “The first iteration did not have the votes to pass. And I think a lot of progressive groups that opposed those efforts were caught off-guard when, just mere weeks later, the bill became slightly more conservative and they had the votes to pass it.” 05-23-18

Read more at Civil Eats

This common contaminant is hurting America’s fertility rates

Researchers have found a link between a substance in our water, soil and air and fewer babies being born

Lead in water is a well-known health hazard, but now there’s evidence of a link between lead in soil and air and humans’ ability to have babies.

Reductions in airborne lead increased fertility rates, while higher amounts of lead in topsoil decreased fertility, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found in a new study. “The latter finding is particularly concerning, because it suggests that lead may continue to impair fertility today, both in the United States and in other countries that have significant amounts of lead in topsoil,” wrote the co-authors of the study, circulated this week by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The paper’s authors analyzed county-level data on airborne lead between 1978 and 1988 and looked at lead in soil in the 2000s. “In both periods, the effects of lead on fertility are meaningful,” researchers wrote.

When airborne lead decreased between 1978 and 1988 after the federal Clean Air Act went into effect, there was a 6.7% increase in the fertility rate, or 4.5 births per 1,000 women per year, the study found. In the mid-2000s, fertility in “high lead counties” — meaning counties where the level of lead in topsoil was above the national median — decreased by 11%, or 7.8 births per 1,000 women, researchers said.

“We kind of knew that very high levels of lead exposure would impact fertility, but what we didn’t know was that at more moderate levels, it would impact fertility,” study co-author Karen Clay, an economics and public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon, told MarketWatch. “The other thing that’s important to recognize is that this is not just a historical issue.” 05-23-18

Read more at Market Watch

Officials tried to censor a report on national parks.
Here’s what was in it

Acadia National Park

Roughly 25 percent of U.S. national parks are vulnerable to rising sea levels because they’re situated in coastal areas. For years, the National Parks Service has had a report in the works to quantify how higher ocean tides and storm surges could impact its sites. But in April, Reveal found that in drafts of the publication, park officials had censored all mentions of human-caused climate change as an explanation for the encroaching waters.

The story prompted Democrats on the House Committee on Natural Resources to write a letter to the Department of the Interior requesting an investigation into the scientific integrity of the Parks Service. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has said that he never changes reports before they go out.

In a follow-up, Reveal reported that when Maria Caffrey, a University of Colorado research assistant and the study’s lead author, fought the changes, officials said they could take her name off the paper or potentially not release it at all. “The fight probably destroyed my career with the (National Park Service) but it will be worth it if we can uphold the truth and ensure that scientific integrity of other scientists won’t be challenged so easily in the future,” she said. 05-21-18

Read more at Grist

Assessing the Global Climate in April 2018

April was third warmest on record for the globe

The global land and ocean temperature departure from average for April 2018 was the third highest for April in the NOAA global temperature dataset record, which dates back to 1880. The year-to-date (January-April) global temperature was the fifth warmest such period in the 139-year record.

his monthly summary, developed by scientists at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, is part of the suite of climate services NOAA provides to government, business, academia and the public to support informed decision-making.

* The April temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.49°F above the 20th century average of 56.7°F and the third highest for April in the 1880-2018 record. Only April 2016 (+1.94°F) and 2017 (+1.60°F) were warmer. Nine of the 10 warmest Aprils have occurred since 2005. April 2018 also marks the 42nd consecutive April and the 400th consecutive month with temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th century average.

* The April globally averaged land surface temperature was 2.36°F above the 20th century average of 46.5°F. This was the ninth highest April land global temperature in the 139-year record. 05-17-18

Read more at National Centers for Environmental Information

Look! A federal agency is pushing for urgent climate action.

Hoover Dam 1978 (left) and 2007 (right) shows drop in lake height as viewed around water intake towers. Photo: Ross Feldner

It’s well-understood at this point that the Trump Administration is no friend to science-based governance. But there’s one federal agency bucking that trend.

The Bureau of Reclamation, a division of the Department of Interior, raised fresh alarm in a press release this week about the dire drought in the Southwest.

“We need action and we need it now,” said Trump appointee Brenda Burman, who runs the bureau, in the release. “We can’t afford to wait for a crisis before we implement drought contingency plans.”

Looking at the data that Burman’s agency supplied, though, it’s clear that the crisis is already here. Runoff from the Rocky Mountains into the Colorado River is expected to be just 42 percent of normal this year, which would continue a 19-year dry spell that ranks as the driest on record for the region. Such clear-eyed focus on the urgency of climate action has been almost unheard of for a Trump-era official.

“Dating back to 2000, this current period is one of the worst drought cycles over the past 1,200 plus years,” the bureau’s statement said. 05-10-18

Read more at Grist

Giant Hog Farms Are Fighting for the Right to Keep Polluting. The Trump Administration Is on Their Side.

“This industry in particular has incredible influence over all levels of government.”

If you enjoy bacon or ham, chances are you’ve eaten pork from North Carolina, where about 16 million hogs—10 percent of the US total—are raised each year. The great bulk of that production takes place in a handful of counties on the state’s coastal plain—places like Baden County, home to more than 750,000 hogs but only 35,000 humans. Recently, a federal jury awarded more than $50 million in damages to 10 plaintiffs who live near one of the factory-scale hog operations.

The hog facility in the case, which raises hogs under contract for Murphy Brown, a subsidiary of China-owned pork giant Smithfield, is called Kinlaw Farm. (right)

Those white buildings in three clumps of four are hog barns. A typical barn holds around 1,000 hogs. The brownish splotches are open-air cesspools known as lagoons, which store manure from all those animals before it’s sprayed on surrounding fields. I’ve been near operations like this, and the stench is blinding—pungent gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide permeate the air. In addition to revulsion, these gases can trigger ill health effects in neighboring communities, including eye irritation, chronic lung disease, and olfactory neuron loss.

As Leah Douglas recently noted in a Mother Jones piece, all 10 of the plaintiffs in the case are black. This isn’t surprising, because in North Carolina, “people of color are 1.5 times more likely to live near a hog CAFO than white people.” 05-05-18

Read more at Mother Jones

In The South, A New Environmental Movement Seeks To Put Justice First

“The voices of resistance of those most directly impacted are not always being heard.”

Dogwood Alliance South Carolina environmental justice leader and pastor, Rev. Leo Woodberry, speaks at a 2017 news conference with the Concerned Citizens of Richmond County to oppose the wood pellet manufacturer Enviva’s plans to build a new mill in North Carolina.

When Danna Smith spots an old, gnarled tree in the forest wetlands of the South, she sees a plant that gives life. But she says the wood pellet industry doesn’t see it that way and that for them these twisted trees are “waste wood” and fair game to harvest.

Wood pellets are generally made with the scraps of industrial waste, like sawdust; utility companies burn this material to produce electricity. But environmentalists say the material that the wood pellet industry uses also comes directly from hardwood trees and not just waste.

Whether it’s a tree cavity that provides squirrels a nest or a standing dead wood tree that offers a bald eagle a perch to hunt prey, the ecological value is clear to Smith, the executive director and founder of the Dogwood Alliance in Asheville, North Carolina.

Smith has worked to protect forests across the South for more than two decades, and in the last five years, she has spoken out forcefully against the rapidly expanding wood pellet industry. This work led the Dogwood Alliance to realize that it is marginalized communities who most often bear the brunt of the impacts of wood pellet mills, deforestation and the impact of climate change, yet their voices weren’t being heard.

That’s the same conclusion that longtime environmentalist and South Carolina faith leader Rev. Leo Woodberry had drawn. In a region where forest cover loss from industrial logging has been four times greater than the loss of South American rainforests, the lives of residents have been devalued in the name of profit. 05-11-18

Read more at Huffington Post

The Energy 202: Scott Pruitt’s ‘red team-blue team’ debate prep largely left out mainstream climate scientists

When Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt wanted to set up opposing teams to debate the science of climate change, his staff sought advice primarily from well-known climate doubters at conservative think tanks.

Those largely left out: Researchers, both inside and outside the agency, who study climate change for a living.

A new cache of emails show Pruitt’s schedulers, press aides and other political appointees collecting information from outside conservative advocates who have worked for years at the fringes of mainstream climate science in preparations for the “red team-blue team” exercise, I reported Wednesday.

In interviews with news outlets, Pruitt had pitched the two-side, military-style exercise as a way to suss out the truth of scientific claims that the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are pumping greenhouse gases into the air and are warming the planet.

Yet multiple scientific assessments at home and abroad have concluded man-made climate change is real and poses substantial risk. Many within the climate science community countered that staging such an exercise was unnecessary because scientists have plenty of forums, such as academic journals and scientific conferences, where ideas are debated. 05-10-18

Read more at The Washington Post

Weedkiller products more toxic than their active ingredient, tests show

After more than 40 years of widespread use, new scientific tests show formulated weedkillers have higher rates of toxicity to human cells

US government researchers have uncovered evidence that some popular weedkilling products, like Monsanto’s widely-used Roundup, are potentially more toxic to human cells than their active ingredient is by itself.

These “formulated” weedkillers are commonly used in agriculture, leaving residues in food and water, as well as public spaces such as golf courses, parks and children’s playgrounds.

The tests are part of the US National Toxicology Program’s (NTP) first-ever examination of herbicide formulations made with the active ingredient glyphosate, but that also include other chemicals. While regulators have previously required extensive testing of glyphosate in isolation, government scientists have not fully examined the toxicity of the more complex products sold to consumers, farmers and others.

Monsanto introduced its glyphosate-based Roundup brand in 1974. But it is only now, after more than 40 years of widespread use, that the government is investigating the toxicity of “glyphosate-based herbicides” on human cells.

The NTP tests were requested by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. The IARC also highlighted concerns about formulations which combine glyphosate with other ingredients to enhance weed killing effectiveness. Monsanto and rivals sell hundreds of these products around the world in a market valued at roughly $9bn. 05-08-18

Read more at the Guardian

Environmental justice groups reach settlement with DEQ over federal complaint, hog farms

This post has been updated with comments from the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

The NC Department of Environmental Quality has settled a long-standing federal civil rights complaint that environmental and community groups had filed with the EPA.

The Waterkeeper Alliance, NC Environmental Justice Network and REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help) filed the complaint in September 2014, the complaint alleged that the state’s general permitting process for swine farms disproportionately burdens communities of color.

By allowing those facilities to operate with “grossly inadequate and outdated systems of controlling animal waste” the complaint alleged, there was an “unjustified disproportionate impact on the basis of race and national origin against African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.”

Elizabeth Haddix and Mark Dorosin, attorneys with the Julius C. Chambers Center for Civil Rights, represented the complainants.

DEQ’s Title VI coordinator, Sarah Rice, could not be reached for comment. Update: NC DEQ issued a press release with a statement on Thursday afternoon:

“The agreement underscores DEQ’s commitment to strengthening environmental protection and public engagement in communities that are impacted by industrial swine facilities,” said DEQ Secretary Michal Regan.” 05-03-18

Read more at NC Policy Watch

Humans didn’t exist the last time there was this much CO2 in the air

The last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were this high, millions of years ago, the planet was very different. For one, humans didn’t exist.

On Wednesday, scientists at the University of California in San Diego confirmed that April’s monthly average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration breached 410 parts per million for the first time in our history.

We know a lot about how to track these changes. The Earth’s carbon dioxide levels peak around this time every year for a pretty straightforward reason. There’s more landmass in the northern hemisphere, and plants grow in a seasonal cycle. During the summer, they suck down CO2, during the winter, they let it back out. The measurements were made at Mauna Loa, Hawaii — a site chosen for its pristine location far away from the polluting influence of a major city.

Increasingly though, pollution from the world’s cities is making its way to Mauna Loa — and everywhere else on Earth.

In little more than a century of frenzied fossil-fuel burning, we humans have altered our planet’s atmosphere at a rate dozens of times faster than natural climate change. Carbon dioxide is now more than 100 ppm higher than any direct measurements from Antarctic ice cores over the past 800,000 years, and probably significantly higher than anything the planet has experienced for at least 15 million years. That includes eras when Earth was largely ice-free. 05-03-18

Read more at Grist

With 250 babies born each minute, how many people can the Earth sustain

UN data suggests that the world’s population will hit 11 billion by 2100, with the fastest rises being recorded in Africa and Asia

How many people are there in the world?

We don’t know for sure as all figures are estimates, but UN data suggests there were about a billion people in 1800, 2 billion in 1927, 5 billion in 1987 and just over 7.5 billion today.

There are on average about 250 babies born every minute – more than 130 million in a year. It is projected that there will be 11 billion people by 2100. New UN figures are due out in June.

Most national governments make their own population projections. The United Nations and the World Bank figures are the most widely used globally.

Since the 1960s, more boys than girls have been born every year. About 117 million women are believed to be “missing” in Asia and eastern Europe – due to discriminatory son preference and gender-biased sex selection.

Over the last 30 years, some regions have seen up to 25% more male births than female births, reflecting the persistent low status of women and girls. The consequent gender imbalance can have damaging social effects such as increased sexual violence and trafficking.

Where is the population rising fastest – and slowest?

Broadly speaking, the fastest population rises are being recorded in Africa and Asia, which will have 15 of the 20 most populous nations by 2050. By that year, there will be more Nigerians than Americans. By 2100, it is projected that as many as one-third of all people – almost 4 billion – will be African. 04-23-18

Read more at The Guardian

Mosquito season could get longer and more hazardous to your health — especially in Miami

Maria Ramírez de Mendoza got the Zika virus while she was vacationing in Venezuela during the first trimester of her pregnancy. Her baby girl, Micaela Milagros Mendoza, was born with complications stemming from the virus. Emily [email protected]

Mosquito season has officially arrived in Florida, although many would argue it never left.

That perception may soon become reality, according to new studies that show the higher temperatures brought on by climate change are already increasing the range and biting season for many mosquitoes, including the Aedes aegypti — the infamous carriers of viruses like dengue and Zika, which hit Miami hard enough in 2016 to scare off many tourists.

Researchers believe the climate shifts will also raise the risks that other mosquito-borne diseases considered largely eliminated as public health threats in the mainland United States could return. Yellow fever tops that list.

Nationally, illnesses from insects like mosquitoes, ticks and fleas have already tripled from 2004 to 2016, according to a report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control. In that time, nine new germs spread by mosquitoes and ticks were found or introduced into the U.S. The report noted an “accelerating trend of mosquito-borne diseases introduced from other parts of the world.”

That trend will be felt most acutely in South Florida, where experts say the region’s warm and wet climate — as well as its reputation as an international travel hub — make it the perfect spot for mosquito-borne viruses to flourish. Most travelers to the Magic City come from countries in South America and the Caribbean where diseases spread by the insects are prevalent.

Dengue, Zika and chikungunya aren’t unusual in South Florida, but a new study suggests climate change and an increase in international travel could revive long dormant threats. 05-01-18

Read more at the Miami Herald

Fracking chemicals “imbalance” the immune system

Mice exposed to fracking chemicals during pregnancy were less able to fend off diseases; scientists say this could have major implications for people near oil and gas sites

Chemicals commonly found in groundwater near fracked oil and gas wells appear to impair the proper functioning of the immune system, according to a lab study released today.

The study, published today in the journal Toxicological Sciences, is the first to find a link between fracking chemicals and immune system problems and suggests that baby girls born to mothers near fracking wells may not fight diseases later in life as well as they could have with a pollution-free pregnancy.

“This is a really important study, especially since the work started with the idea of identifying what’s out there in the environment, how much people are exposed to,” Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology in the College of Pharmacy at the University of Texas at Austin, told EHN.

“So it’s all based on this model that has been determined by a real world situation,” said Gore, who was not involved in the study.

The implications are far-reaching: More than 17 million people in the U.S live within a mile of an oil or gas well. Hydraulic fractured wells now account for about half of U.S. oil and two-thirds of the nation’s natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. 05-01-18

Read more at Environmental Health News

Our View: Maine PUC should not sink ocean wind project

A rendering of an “Aqua Ventus” floating wind turbine.

Saving customers a few cents would not be worth further damaging the state’s credibility as a business partner.

The Maine Public Utilities Commission usually sets prices for electricity, natural gas, telecommunications and water systems. It’s not every day that it also regulates the state’s credibility.

But that’s what will be happening when the PUC reconsiders a power purchase agreement it signed in 2013 with Maine Aqua Ventus, a public-private partnership involving the University of Maine that is trying to develop the nation’s first deep-water wind power generator.

The three PUC commissioners, all appointed by Gov. LePage since the power purchase agreement was signed, question whether Maine ratepayers should have to pay higher-than-market prices for electricity that’s produced by the demonstration project, and they’ve hinted that they could pull Maine out of the contract.

They say they would be looking out for Maine consumers, who could save as much as 73 cents a month on their electric bills. But those savings would come at a tremendous cost.


Ripping up the contract would probably kill the project. In addition to losing the money from the energy sales, it would almost certainly result in the loss of $87 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy aimed at getting this technology ready to market commercially. 04-29-18

Read more at the Portland Press Herald

Jury hits pork giant for $50M for hog operation’s nuisance

— A federal jury on Thursday awarded more than $50 million in damages to neighbors of an industrial hog operation found responsible for intense smells, noise and other disturbances so bad people couldn’t enjoy their rural homes.

Jurors on Thursday awarded the 10 neighbors of a 15,000-head swine operation a total of $750,000 in compensation, plus $50 million in damages designed to punish the corporation that owns the animals.

Lawyers didn’t sue the Bladen County farm’s owner, instead targeting Murphy-Brown LLC, the hog-production division of Virginia-based Smithfield Foods. The Chinese-owned company uses strict contracts to dictate how farm operators raise livestock that Smithfield owns.

The decision is the first in dozens of lawsuits filed by more than 500 neighbors complaining about hog operations.

Jurors decided that “the defendant owed them (neighbors) a standard of care in terms of trying to minimize the odors and other undesirable fallout from their processes,” said Wake Forest University law professor Sidney Shapiro, who has followed the cases. “Apparently, the jury decided they (Smithfield) knew about and disregarded all this fallout, even though they could do something positive to reduce it.”

Rural residents have complained about smells, clouds of flies and excessive spraying for decades. But local and state politicians have either supported or backed down in the face of a politically powerful industry. 04-26-18


The military paid for a study on sea level rise. The results were scary.

More than a thousand low-lying tropical islands risk becoming “uninhabitable” by the middle of the century — or possibly sooner — because of rising sea levels, upending the populations of some island nations and endangering key U.S. military assets, according to new research published Wednesday.

The threats to the islands are twofold. In the long term, the rising seas threaten to inundate the islands entirely. More immediately, as seas rise, the islands will more frequently deal with large waves that crash farther onto the shore, contaminating their drinkable water supplies with ocean saltwater, according to the research.

The islands face climate-change-driven threats to their water supplies “in the very near future,” according to the study, published in the journal Science Advances.

The study focused on a part of the Marshall Islands in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Hilda Heine, president of the Marshall Islands, said in an interview that Wednesday’s journal article “brings home the seriousness” of the predicament facing her island nation.

“It’s a scary scenario for us,” she said. 04-25-18

Read more at The Washington Post

The Geography of Health in America

A new county-by-county report finds that blacks and Native Americans have the most dire health statistics in the United States.
In 2016, a greater percentage of babies were born at low birthweight in Jackson County, Colorado, than anywhere else in the country.That might not seem like such a big deal these days, with modern technology powerful enough to nurse babies who are born months premature back to health. But according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual County Health Rankings Report, we should think twice before dismissing the importance of underweight babies. Indeed, the 2018 Key Findings Report cautions that low birthweight (LBW) is an important signifier of long-lasting health discrepancies.The context surrounding health problems like these is the focus of the 2018 annual County Health Rankings Report: After eight years of focusing largely on place-based health discrepancies, this year’s report seeks to highlight the disparities that exist between different communities in America. To do this, the researchers dig into the lines along which various health discrepancies fall, such as birth weight, child poverty, teen pregnancy, educational attainment, unemployment, and residential segregation. What they find is that these health measures are the worst in the Southwest, Southeast, Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, and the Plains regions. Within these places, communities of color are disproportionately affected across all measures. 04-23-18Read more at City Lab

Giant Chicken Houses Overrun Delmarva, and Neighbors Fear It’s Making Them Sick

Even families who work in the industry worry about the air blowing out of the barns, some packed with 40,000 birds. But Big Poultry has the political clout here.

After a local company built four hulking poultry barns across the street from April Ferrell’s farmhouse on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, thousands of chickens were trucked in and giant exhaust fans on the outside of the barns began to whir.

Almost immediately, Ferrell noticed a sickly stench and the sting of ammonia in the air. A dusty, mustard-colored film started coating some trees near the fans, and Farrell started to wonder: Is the air blowing out of the barns toxic? And what will happen this coming summer, when it gets warmer and all 64 of those fans across the road start turning?

“As bad as it is now,” she said on a late winter afternoon in the kitchen of the house where she grew up, “this summer it’s going to be horrible.”

The Delmarva Peninsula, an area along the Chesapeake Bay that encompasses most of Delaware, Maryland’s Eastern Shore and a spit of eastern Virginia, hosts one of the nation’s highest concentrations of poultry producers. The peninsula is the birthplace of modern American chicken production, where the poultry business—including heavyweights Perdue Farms, Mountaire Farms and Tyson Foods—is entrenched in the local economy, politics and culture. 04-23-18

Read more at Inside Climate News

Across the U.S., Climate Change Lawsuits Are Gaining Steam

The scandal-plagued head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says he’s not sure whether “human activity … is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.” The president has moved to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris climate agreement. And climate-science deniers and skeptics control Congress.

But that still leaves environmental advocates with one branch of government: the judiciary.

Greens are trying to use the courts to establish accountability for the damages associated with global climate change; a couple of new lawsuits and one important court ruling from just the last week show that the strategy has real promise.

On Tuesday, the city of Boulder, Colorado, along with Boulder County and San Miguel County filed a lawsuit in state court against ExxonMobil and Suncor (Canada’s largest oil firm), seeking to recover some of the costs associated with climate change impacts. The lawsuit says the Colorado communities are already bearing the costs of climate-change-related problems such as extreme rainstorms and flooding, more frequent and intense wildfires, and a declining snowpack. Big oil companies, the lawsuit contends, contributed to those impacts.

“By hiding what they knew about, and affirmatively misrepresenting the dangers of unabated fossil fuel use, the Defendants protected fossil fuel demand and obstructed the changes needed to prevent or at least minimize the impacts of climate change,” according to the lawsuit. 04-20-18

Read more at EcoWatch

‘Sick Joke’: House Agriculture Committee Advances Farm Bill Attacking Environment, Endangered Species

Disco-Dan / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The House Agriculture Committee passed H.R. 2, the 2018 Farm Bill, Wednesday on a party-line basis. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), includes dozens of poison-pill riders that would gut fundamental environmental safeguards.

Most significantly it would completely exempt the use of pesticides from the Endangered Species Act, effectively dooming hundreds of endangered species to extinction and making it legal to kill any endangered species with a pesticide at almost any time.

“This Farm Bill is a sick joke. It gives polluters and special interests the keys to the castle, while environmental safeguards are thrown in the ditch,” said Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Farmers don’t want to poison our waters, kill our wildlife, and reduce our national forests to clearcuts. This is another low for this Congress, which is already the most anti-conservation in history.”

The next step for this legislation is consideration by the full U.S. House of Representatives in the following weeks.

In addition to the broadest attack on the Endangered Species Act in 40 years, the legislation weakens Clean Water Act protections from pesticides and includes a sweeping forestry title that would gut protections for forests and eliminate many safeguards within the National Environmental Policy Act. 04-19-18

Read more at EcoWatch

The Energy 202: NAACP joins environmental groups in calling for Scott Pruitt’s ouster

Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy and policy, speaks at a news conference in 2014 to oppose Agriculture Department changes to poultry plant line speeds (Congressional Black Caucus)

Environmental organizations have made themselves hoarse calling for Scott Pruitt’s ouster from the Environmental Protection Agency over his controversial spending and personnel decisions, as well as his deregulatory agenda.

Now a number of other nonprofit outfits not usually known for environmental advocacy, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, are also calling for the EPA administrator to resign or be fired.

In an advertisement running in three newspapers Wednesday, a coalition of labor and civil rights organizations joined green groups in calling for Pruitt “to resign, or be removed” from office.

“We’re probably better known for traditional civil rights issues” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy and policy. “But in many ways we see environmental protection as an issue that falls under equal protection under the law.”

“If you look at the most dangerous environmental dumps throughout our country,” he added, “they’re disproportionately in poor communities.”

In addition to the usual suspects like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, signatories to the newspaper ad calling for Pruitt’s removal include Physicians for Social Responsibility, a doctors’ group that works on social issues; the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s largest union of healthcare workers; and Latino Victory Project, a group that trains and recruits Latino candidates for political office. 04-18-18

Read more at The Washington Post

Solar power’s new look: more landscape-friendly siting

Workers erect frames for solar panels (stacked in foreground) at the Annapolis solar utility on the closed landfill

Will Annapolis landfill’s panels light the way to alternatives for rural farmland sites?

For decades, the old municipal landfill west of Annapolis, MD, sat — closed, capped and carefully monitored to ensure that the buried refuse wasn’t generating air or water pollution. Now, the once-grassy hilltop is covered with row upon row of thousands of shiny photovoltaic panels. In April, they’re scheduled to begin generating power — up to 16.8 megawatts on each sunny day.

The Annapolis Renewable Energy Park, as it’s known, stands out because of its location: The project’s developers say it’s the largest landfill-based solar electricity project in the United States. Some say it’s a model for resolving a growing conflict over how to transition to a more climate-friendly energy future without sacrificing precious farmland and scenic rural vistas. Whether it’s the first of many such installations, or an anomaly, remains to be seen.

It’s an important issue for the future of the Chesapeake Bay, which is polluted by nitrogen. Roughly a third of the nitrogen reaching the Bay stems from burning fossil fuels, so the switch to renewable energy sources such as solar indirectly helps to clean up the ailing estuary while also fighting climate change. But if many cornfields turn into solar fields, it could have unforeseen consequences on land use, local economies, wildlife habitat and maybe even water quality. 04-16-18

Read more at the Bay Journal

Commentary: Lawmakers want the EPA to ignore impacts of pesticides on endangered species

It would be hard to overstate the dangers of this Farm Bill rider

According to the latest push by House Republicans, pesticides — all of them — are so safe there’s no longer any need to bother asking experts to determine their harm to our most endangered species before approving them.

It’s not true, of course — not even vaguely. It’s such an outrageously anti-science statement it’s laughable.

But not surprisingly, that’s what pesticide makers like Dow Chemical would have us believe.

And now that’s what Republicans in Congress would have us believe.

This week some of the biggest agriculture and pesticide players in Washington, D.C. — including Croplife and Dow Chemical — succeeded in getting Republicans to include a rider in the 2018 Farm Bill that would exempt the Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide-registration program from the most important parts of the Endangered Species Act: The provisions requiring that a pesticide’s harm to endangered species be assessed and addressed before it can be approved, and the provisions that prohibit a pesticide’s killing of endangered species.

That’s right: If the rider remains in place, consideration for impacts on endangered species would be written out of the process of registering pesticides.

Shortly after President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt took power last year, they made it clear how little they cared about science, public health and wildlife when Pruitt reversed an EPA plan to ban Dow’s chlorpyrifos from use on crops, despite troves of evidence showing that this chemical causes brain damage in children and is likely to harm imperiled species. 04-13-18

Read more at Environmental Health News

Nukes of Hazard

There’s something wrong with every source of energy. How do our nuclear nightmares compare?

Crushed rock from a uranium mill in Moab, Utah. U.S. Department of Energy

Is it any wonder that nuclear power scares people? The word nuclear alone conjures up a parade of terrors: the sinister radiation, the whiff of apocalypse, and the tendency to go boom.

Those are the obvious sci-fi horrors. But nuclear power comes with plenty of other risks that aren’t so obvious: the hazards of uranium mining, the fouled water, and the radioactive waste.

So do these horrors mean nuclear power shouldn’t be part of our tool kit for fighting climate change? After all, it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. That’s why some have pushed to keep existing nuclear power plants open, and even build more. Often, nuclear nightmares are considered in isolation rather than weighed against the alternatives. Nobody, for instance, wants to get stuck with nuclear waste that stays radioactive for 10,000 years — but perhaps some would prefer that to coal waste, which contains mercury and lead and remains toxic forever.

When it comes to nuclear power, the risks appear right from the beginning of the process with uranium mining. And they continue to pop up throughout the nuclear life cycle, from enrichment and reactor operation to the radioactive waste at the end. It’s a process fraught with hazards. 04-11-18

Read more at Grist

Native Shrimp Must Be Saved From Neonics, Washington State Rules

Monday, the Washington Department of Ecology sided with Center for Food Safety and numerous other community and conservation groups, and denied shellfish growers a permit to spray imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid, on shellfish beds on Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, in southwest Washington. The requested permit would have allowed shellfish growers from Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association to spray this neurotoxic insecticide into water for the first time, in order to kill native burrowing shrimp.

“Center for Food Safety applauds the Washington Department of Ecology for making the right decision this time around and saying ‘no’ to the use of neonicotinoids in Washington bay waters,” said Amy van Saun, staff attorney in Center for Food Safety’s Pacific Northwest office.”The state followed the laws requiring protection of this crucial aquatic ecosystem, the wildlife that depend on it, and the public from a dangerous plan to continue the chemical legacy of the industrial shellfish industry.”

“We are pleased to see that after taking a hard look at the science that Ecology reached the inescapable conclusion that there must be a better way to find a balance within Willapa Bay that will allow oyster growers thrive while protecting this unique and fragile place,” said Andrew Hawley with the Western Environmental Law Center. 04-10-18

Read more at EcoWatch

This All-Electric Plane Could Change Everything About Regional Air Travel

Eviation’s Alice Commuter plane–the winner of the transportation category of Fast Company’s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards–seats nine people and is entirely battery powered.

Image: Eviation

In five years, if you want to take a trip from San Francisco to San Diego, it may be possible to do it on a small electric plane–and with a ticket that costs less than driving or taking the train. The Israel-based startup Eviation, which is building a new all-electric, nine-seat airplane, called the Alice Commuter expects to begin making its first commercial flights in 2021 and scale up to hundreds of routes across the U.S. over the next few years.

The timing is right, the founders say, because of the current state of technology. “There is a revolution happening in aviation, and it’s happening because of lightweight materials, energy density of batteries, the power of electric propulsion, and the computer power of managing this together,” says Omer Bar-Yohay, co-founder and CEO of Eviation, the winner of the transportation category of Fast Company‘s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards.

While some other startups in the space (including Zunum Aero, which has the backing of the VC arms of JetBlue and Boeing) are focusing first on hybrid planes,  Eviation chose to go all-electric for its first plane because it thinks that’s what will make flights as affordable as possible. “This will really be available to all, and [it will] make sense to take our aircraft and not drive,” he says. 04-09-18

Read more at Fast Company

Solar soars: Renewable energy, by the numbers

Global investment climbs to $280 billion in 2017—and the economies leading the charge may surprise you.

Here’s some material for your next trivia night or cocktail party.

1. The leading location by far for renewable energy investment last year was ____, with $126 billion invested—45 percent of the global total.

a) China

b) Europe

c) Saudi Arabia

(Note that the United States isn’t even an option.)

2. Who saw the bigger decline in renewable energy investment in 2017:_____

a) Europe

b) United States

c) Japan

3. Of the top 10 countries investing in renewable energy, the biggest jump—810 percent, to $6 billion—was made by:_____

a) Australia

b) Mexico

c) Sweden

We’ll get to the answers in a minute. For now, know that 2017 saw a record 157 gigawatts of renewable power commissioned, far outstripping the 70 GW of net fossil fuel generating power added. 04-06-18

Read more at The Daily Climate

EPA Violated the Law by Failing to Investigate Civil Rights Complaints, Court Rules

A court ruled today that the Environmental Protection Agency violated its duty to respond to civil rights complaints in a timely way. The case involved five organizations that had waited years for the EPA to respond to complaints filed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color.

The law requires the EPA to respond to parties that file civil rights complaints within 20 days, letting them know whether the agency plans to conduct an investigation. After opening an investigation, the EPA has 180 days to either dismiss a complaint or issue preliminary findings and recommendations based on what it finds in the investigation. But in each of the five cases, the groups waited years — in some cases, decades — for responses from the agency.

Among the groups suing Scott Pruitt and the EPA were Citizens for Alternatives to Radioactive Dumping, a nonprofit in Albuquerque, which filed a complaint in 2002 over a hazardous waste facility in a mostly poor, Hispanic area of southeastern New Mexico; and Californians for Renewable Energy, which in 2000 challenged state permitting decisions that allowed two gas-fired power plants to be located in a mostly nonwhite, low-income community in Pittsburg, California. 04-03-18

Read more at The Intercept

EPA To Gut The Only Major Federal Rule To Cut Climate Pollution From Vehicles

The decision could divide automakers and set the Trump administration up for a series of legal battles.

A man in California inserts a probe into the tailpipe of a car while performing an emission test. Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency said Monday it plans to undo a landmark Obama-era rule tightening fuel standards for vehicles, weakening the only major federal policy to reduce planet-warming emissions from the nation’s top source of greenhouse gas pollution.

The decision, announced in a press release, hands a victory to automakers who lobbied the Trump administration to declare the previous standard too strict.

“The Obama administration’s determination was wrong,” EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said in a statement, adding that the standards were “too high.”

The federal rule required vehicles to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, nearly double today’s standard. The new standard provided significant environmental and financial benefits if fully implemented. Under those rules, oil consumption would fall by 12 billion barrels, tailpipe emissions would halve and fuel efficiency would nearly double, saving consumers $3,200 to $5,700 in gasoline costs over a vehicle’s lifetime. The regulation would have prevented 6 billion metric tons of planet-warming gases ― equivalent to a year’s worth of pollution from 150 power plants ― from ever entering the atmosphere.

In its 38-page finding, the EPA cited lower gas prices and changes to “consumer acceptance of advanced technology vehicles” as reasons the original determinations “no longer represent realistic assumptions.” The agency also said it planned to reconsider how climate change factored in to regulation, noting that “the social cost of carbon” and “energy security valuation … should also be updated to be consistent with the literature and empirical evidence.” The memo made no mention of climate change. 04-02-18

Read more at the Huffington Post

Effort to build offshore wind industry in Maine may hinge on 73 cents

Pending action at the PUC could imperil a 2014 power contract for floating turbines off Monhegan Island that would raise electric bills less than $1 a month

A rendering of an “Aqua Ventus” floating wind turbine. The proposed demonstration project would moor a pair of these turbines two miles south of Monhegan Island to generate up to 12 megawatts of electricity at at time.

A decadelong effort to establish an offshore wind energy industry in Maine is at a turning point, its future hinging on whether state utility regulators vote to reopen a power contract to test a patented technology for deep-water floating wind farms.

Supporters of the University of Maine-led Maine Aqua Ventus project fear that a vote by the Public Utilities Commission to alter the power-rate terms could doom the venture, just as it reaches critical stages for financing and permits. The project involves two floating wind turbines that the university and its partners are preparing to test off Monhegan Island.

If the project stays on schedule, it likely will be the first full-scale floating wind project in North America. Testing the platform technology is considered key to deploying cost-effective wind farms in deep waters off the East Coast. The 2014 power contract, which would increase consumer electric bills by less than a dollar per month, also is crucial because both public and private investment is tied to it.

The immediate risk, advocates say, is $87 million in federal funding, thousands of hours of research and development and Maine’s reputation as a place to make renewable energy investments.

He noted that it would be well above current market prices, adding between $172 million and $187 million to Central Maine Power customer electric bills over the 20-year contract period.

For an average CMP home customer, that works out to roughly 73 cents a month in the first year of the project.

This premium had been approved four years ago by the PUC. But at a meeting in January to vote on approving the long-term contract, the terms came under new scrutiny. The three commissioners – each appointed by LePage – voiced concerns that changing economic factors, including lower prices for natural gas and oil prices, warranted another look at the above-market rate.

“We were blindsided by the commission’s deliberations in January,” said Jeff Thaler, UMaine’s associate counsel. It has always been clear, Thaler said, that power from a one-off, 12-megawatt demonstration project would cost way more than electricity from conventional power plants rated at hundreds of megawatts. It’s like comparing the cost of building one custom truck to mass-producing thousands of pickups at an assembly plant.


Read more at Press Herald