Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category
Two more examples, just in today’s news:
In the latest scandal to hit the automobile industry, Mitsubishi Motors said on Wednesday that it had cheated on fuel-economy tests for an ultrasmall car it produces in Japan, acknowledging its engineers had intentionally manipulated evaluations.
The cheating affected about 620,000 cars sold in the Japanese market starting in 2013, Tetsuro Aikawa, Mitsubishi’s president, said at a news conference.
But the problem could stretch beyond that make of car. Mr. Aikawa said that the same testing method, which was in violation of Japanese standards, was used on other models in the country and that Mitsubishi was investigating whether fuel-economy ratings for other lines had been exaggerated as a result. . .
It’s a tale as old as time: energy company proposes big project, energy company says it will have no effects on the local population, local population says it’ll actually poison their land, and their people, for decades.
The energy company in question here is Nalcor Energy, and the project is the multi-billion dollar Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam in Labrador, Newfoundland, which got the green light from the provincial government in 2012. Flooding the reservoir to build the dam will release toxic methylmercury into the area around nearby Lake Melville, but Nalcor argues that it will be diluted enough to have no effect on the local Inuit population.
But a new study, commissioned by the aboriginal Nunatsiavut Government and completed by scientists from Memorial University, Harvard, and the University of Manitoba, says that the toxic mercury released during the dam’s construction will have highly detrimental effects on the area’s wildlife and the aboriginal people who live off of it.
More than 200 individuals (and their children and grandchildren) could be affected by the toxic mercury, the study’s authors concluded. Additionally, 66 percent of the community in nearby Rigolet will be pushed above acceptable mercury levels, per the most conservative US Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, according to the report. . . .
Nathan Halverson reports for the Center for Investigative Journalism:
Secret conversations between American diplomats show how a growing water crisis in the Middle East destabilized the region, helping spark civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and how those water shortages are spreading to the United States.
Classified U.S. cables reviewed by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting show a mounting concern by global political and business leaders that water shortages could spark unrest across the world, with dire consequences.
Many of the cables read like diary entries from an apocalyptic sci-fi novel.
“Water shortages have led desperate people to take desperate measures with equally desperate consequences,” according to a 2009 cable sent by U.S. Ambassador Stephen Seche in Yemen as water riots erupted across the country.
On Sept. 22 of that year, Seche sent a stark message to the U.S. State Department in Washington relaying the details of a conversation with Yemen’s minister of water, who “described Yemen’s water shortage as the ‘biggest threat to social stability in the near future.’ He noted that 70 percent of unofficial roadblocks stood up by angry citizens are due to water shortages, which are increasingly a cause of violent conflict.”
Seche soon cabled again, stating that 14 of the country’s 16 aquifers had run dry. At the time, Yemen wasn’t getting much news coverage, and there was little public mention that the country’s groundwater was running out.
These communications, along with similar cables sent from Syria, now seem eerily prescient, given the violent meltdowns in both countries that resulted in a flood of refugees to Europe.
Groundwater, which comes from deeply buried aquifers, supplies the bulk of freshwater in many regions, including Syria, Yemen and drought-plagued California. It is essential for agricultural production, especially in arid regions with little rainwater. When wells run dry, farmers are forced to fallow fields, and some people get hungry, thirsty and often very angry.
The classified diplomatic cables, made public years ago by Wikileaks, now are providing fresh perspective on how water shortages have helped push Syria and Yemen into civil war, and prompted the king of neighboring Saudi Arabia to direct his country’s food companies to scour the globe for farmland. Since then, concerns about the world’s freshwater supplies have only accelerated.
It’s not just government officials who are worried. In 2009, U.S. Embassy officers visited Nestle’s headquarters in Switzerland, where company executives, who run the world’s largest food company and are dependent on freshwater to grow ingredients, provided a grim outlook of the coming years. An embassy official cabled Washington with the subject line, “Tour D’Horizon with Nestle: Forget the Global Financial Crisis, the World Is Running Out of Fresh Water.”
“Nestle thinks one-third of the world’s population will be affected by fresh water scarcity by 2025, with the situation only becoming more dire thereafter and potentially catastrophic by 2050,” according to a March 24, 2009, cable. “Problems will be severest in the Middle East, northern India, northern China, and the western United States.”
At the time of that meeting, government officials from Syria and Yemen already had started warning U.S. officials that their countries were slipping into chaos as a result of water scarcity.
By September 2009, Yemen’s water minister told the U.S. ambassador that the water riots in his country were a “sign of the future” and predicted “that conflict between urban and rural areas over water will lead to violence,” according to the cables.
Less than two years later, rural tribesmen fought their way into Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and seized two buildings: the headquarters of the ruling General People’s Congress and the main offices of the water utility. The president was forced to resign, and a new government was formed. Butwater issues continued to amplify long-simmering tensions between various religious groups and tribesmen, which eventually led to a full-fledged civil war.
Reveal reviewed a cache of water-related documents that included Yemen, Nestle and Saudi Arabia among the diplomatic documents made public by Wikileaks in 2010. Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, found similar classified U.S. cables sent from Syria. Those cables also describe how water scarcity destabilized the country and helped spark a war that has sent more than 1 million refugees fleeing into Europe, a connection Friedman has continued to report.
The water-fueled conflicts in the Middle East paint a dark picture of a future that many governments now worry could spread around the world as freshwater supplies become increasingly scarce. The CIA, the State Department and similar agencies in other countries are monitoring the situation.
In the past, global grain shortages have led to rapidly increasing food prices, which analysts have attributed to sparking the Arab Spring revolution in several countries, and in 2008 pushed about 150 million people into poverty, according to the World Bank.
Water scarcity increasingly is driven by three major factors: Global warming is forecast to create more severe droughts around the world. Meat consumption, which requires significantly more water than a vegetarian or low-meat diet, is spiking as a growing middle class in countries such as China and India can afford to eat more pork, chicken and beef. And the world’s population continues to grow, with an expected 2 billion more stomachs to feed by 2050.
The most troubling signs of the looming threat first appeared . . .
Sharon Lerner reports in The Intercept:
For decades 3M was the primary producer of C8, or PFOA, and was the sole producer of a related chemical known as PFOS. But while DuPont was caught up in amassive class action suit over C8, 3M has largely avoided public scrutiny and serious legal or financial consequences for its role in developing and selling these industrial pollutants.
In February, however, a state court in Minnesota, where the company is headquartered, allowed a class-action suit against 3M to move forward. And late last year lawyers filed another class action suit in Decatur, Alabama, home to one of 3M’s biggest plants. Both lawsuits charge that 3M knew about the health hazards posed by the perfluorinated chemicals it was manufacturing and using to make carpet coating, Scotchgard,firefighting foam, and other products — and that the company knew the chemicals were spreading beyond its sites. With PFCs cropping up in drinking water around the country and all over the world, the two lawsuits raise the possibility that 3M may finally be held accountable in a court of law.
State Attorney General Lori Swanson first filed the class action lawsuit against 3M on behalf of the people of Minnesota in 2010, claiming that the company polluted more than 100 square miles of groundwater near its plant in Cottage Grove Minnesota as well as four aquifers serving as drinking water for some 125,000 people in the Twin Cities. The suit charges that the company piped PFC-polluted wastewater into a stream that flows into the Mississippi River and disposed of it on land near the river, which allowed it to leach into the river.
Based on the company’s own research, the complaint argues, 3M “knew or should have known” that PFCs harm human health and the environment and that the chemicals would leach from their disposal sites into and “result in injury, destruction, and loss of natural resources of the State.”
William A. Brewer III, a partner in the firm representing 3M in PFC-related litigation, said that 3M “absolutely and vigorously” denies all charges in that suit — and any others that “describe what 3M did as polluting.” While the complaint says that 3M’s emissions of the chemicals into water was “not authorized or permitted by the state,” Brewer disagreed, arguing that “100 percent of 3M’s conduct has been permitted by the state,” which he told me undermines the idea that 3M is responsible for any leakage that might have resulted. “When you take your waste or some of it and you deliver it some place that the state tells you you can bring it and then they turn around and tell you it wasn’t properly managed, we just deny that we have responsibility for other people’s conduct.”
After the initial discovery of PFCs in drinking water near the Cottage Grove plant, 3M installed filtration systems on the water supply for the nearby community of Oakdale, provided bottled water for residents with private wells, and remediated three of its former dump sites. However, the most recent water tests, released by the EPA in January, still showed 25 detections of PFCs in wells that provide drinking water to Woodbury, Oakdale, and Hastings — which all are near 3M headquarters — as well as in the Cottage Grove water utility, which serves more than 33,000 people.
In two wells in Oakdale, Minnesota, PFOS contamination detected by EPA tests released in January exceeded the provisional health levels set by the agency. And several Oakdale wells had PFOA levels higher than those that qualified residents to participate in a class action suit against DuPont in West Virginia and Ohio.
Since 2012, lawyers on both sides of the case have been caught up with a technical question. 3M had tried to have Covington & Burling LLC, the firm representing the state, disqualified on the grounds that it had a conflict of interest because it had at one point represented 3M on other PFC-related issues. In February, a judge ruled that the firm could represent the state and that the suit could move forward.
An Early Exit Strategy
In part, 3M escaped blame for PFC contamination because it opted to stop producing both PFOA and PFOS in 2002, while DuPont and other companies didn’t phase out PFOA until 2013 or later. At the time, the decision brought the company praise for its foresight and good judgment. “3M deserves great credit for identifying this problem and coming forward voluntarily,” said EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner.
Brewer, 3M’s attorney, continues to argue that the company’s early exit from the C8 business places it in a separate category from DuPont. “3M has acted appropriately and on the principled path,” he told me. “They immediately reported it, investigated it and frankly decided to exit the C8 chemistries in their entirety well more than a decade before anyone else who was a competitor.”
But Gary Davis, a partner in Davis & Whitlock, which filed the 2015 case against 3M in Decatur, said the company had evidence of the dangers of PFCs well before it stopped making them. “We’ve found out that they knew it was toxic. They have the knowledge even more deeply than DuPont about the toxicity of the chemicals,” said Davis. “We believe it is absolutely parallel.” . . .
Tim Flannery reviews two books on fracking in the NY Review of Books:
Exxon: The Road Not Taken
by Neela Banerjee, John H. Cushman Jr., David Hasemyer, and Lisa Song<
InsideClimate News, 81 pp., $5.99 (paper)
The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight Over Fracking, and the Future of Energy
by Gary Sernovitz
St. Martin’s, 280 pp., $27.99
What should we think of a corporation that undertakes research on one of its products only to discover that its use could be damaging—and then tries to conceal the potential dangers of that product’s use? An investigation underway by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman promises to shed light on one such alleged case—concerning ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, and the possibility that it misled investors and the public about the dangers of climate change.
The story begins in mid-1977, when ExxonMobil’s powerful Management Committee was briefed by James Black, a company scientist, on the potential dangers of climate change. Two years earlier, Syukuro Manabe of the US Weather Bureau and his collaborator Richard Wetherald had published the first computer model that estimated how a doubling of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would affect Earth’s surface temperature. Their results revealed a “somewhat larger” warming of the lower atmosphere—around 4.3 degrees Fahrenheit—than had been anticipated. It also revealed that the polar regions were likely to warm two to three times faster than lower latitudes, and that worrisome disruptions to the global water cycle might result. The impetus for this landmark study came from the activities of the fossil fuels industry itself: in their introduction Manabe and Wetherald quoted a 1971 estimate by Lester Machta, director of the Air Resources Laboratory, that owing to the burning of fossil fuels, CO2 concentrations would rise by 20 percent by the end of the century.
In his briefing Black warned ExxonMobil’s managers that the ongoing use of fossil fuels would cause Earth’s surface to warm, and that the warming might eventually endanger humanity. A year later Black took up the same theme with his research colleagues at ExxonMobil, emphasizing some of the major uncertainties underlying the scientific projections, including how rapidly, and to what extent, the oceans could absorb the excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Within months Exxon had launched its own climate research program, including climate modeling and CO2 sampling aimed at reducing the uncertainties in climate science that Black had identified.
In order to further its research aims, Exxon formed partnerships with some of the world’s most respected climate scientists, including the Columbia-based researchers Wallace Broecker and Taro Takahashi. Their work took place in part in a sophisticated lab set up aboard the supertanker Esso Atlantic, where researchers analyzed the CO2content of samples from air and water taken around the world from the Gulf of Mexico to the Persian Gulf. The research was aimed specifically at gaining a better understanding of the rate at which the oceans absorbed CO2, which is a key determinant of how fast greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere and thereby push up air temperatures.
Exxon’s stated objective was “to understand where global carbon production would end up and then make forecasts of how the system would react in the future”; this had implications for how quickly “global carbon production” from the burning of fossil fuels might become a major environmental and political issue. The research results took years to publish, but by 1990 a study drawing on the data collected aboard the Esso Atlantic revealed that land-based ecosystems absorbed more CO2 than the oceans. By 2009 it had become clear that the oceans absorb only 20 percent of the annual emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels: CO2 absorption by the oceans, therefore, could not be relied upon to substantially delay the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Other research questions of concern to ExxonMobil involved the nature and extent of the impacts on the climate of increasing CO2 concentrations. By 1979 it had become evident to ExxonMobil that computer modeling was required to investigate this. So the company’s researchers began collaborating with researchers in universities and government laboratories in order to generate highly sophisticated climate models, the forerunners of the models still in use today. It was a lauded initiative. David Slade of the US Department of Energy congratulated ExxonMobil in 1979 for initiating a research program that he hoped “will serve as a model for research contributions from the corporate sector.”
ExxonMobil’s research helped confirm the emerging scientific consensus about the severe risks of climate change. On November 12, 1982, the results were presented in the form of a thirty-nine-page climate change “primer.” Restricted to internal ExxonMobil use only, the primer warned of potentially severe impacts on climate, saying that “once the effects are measurable, they might not be reversible” and that combating the threat “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”
Despite ExxonMobil’s promising start in climate research, David Hasemyer and John Cushman show in their section of Exxon: The Road Not Taken, the new report from InsideClimate News, that subsequently the company and the scientific community have been saying very different things about climate change. In the scientific community, there was less and less uncertainty, and a consensus was forming. But Exxon has worked to convince the public that climate science is highly uncertain. In 2002, the company’s position was summarized by Michael MacCracken, the federal government’s chief scientist for global warming research:
To call ExxonMobil’s position out of the mainstream is…a gross understatement…. To be in opposition to the key scientific findings is rather appalling for such an established and scientific organization.
Since then, ExxonMobil’s management team has gone even further in trying to discredit the scientific consensus. In 2006 Britain’s Royal Society accused the company of funding “lobby groups that seek to misrepresent the scientific evidence relating to climate change.” In 1997 ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond falsely claimed that “the earth is cooler today than it was twenty years ago.” He also repudiated the climate models ExxonMobil researchers had helped build, saying that “1990s models were predicting temperature increases of two to five degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Last year’s models say one to three degrees. Where to next year?”
Perhaps most damagingly wrong was Raymond’s assertion that “it is highly unlikely that the temperature in the middle of the next century will be significantly affected whether policies are enacted now or twenty years from now.” What in fact was to follow that statement was nearly two decades of global, worst-case-scenario emissions of greenhouse gases. So vast was the volume emitted that the impact of those gases will be felt for many decades to come, regardless of what humanity does to reduce emissions now.
Gary Sernovitz, author of The Green and the Black: The Complete Story of the Shale Revolution, the Fight Over Fracking, and the Future of Energy, has been working in the investment side of the oil industry since 1995, when he started with Goldman Sachs. He knows the attitudes of managers of companies like ExxonMobil well, and his book takes account of their most egregious obfuscations. In many ways The Green and the Black is well balanced, reporting accurately and entertainingly on the attitudes and beliefs of oilmen and environmentalists about fracking and the oil industry in general. Strikingly, however, Sernovitz believes that the oil and gas business has changed fundamentally over the past two decades, and mostly in ways that benefit the fight against climate change. The reason, he argues, is fracking.
Sernovitz describes clearly the fracking process, which involves breaking up oil- and gas-bearing rock (typically shale) in ways that allow hydrocarbons to be extracted from it. The process is almost as old as the oil industry itself, beginning in 1866 when drillers dropped dynamite torpedoes down wells to fracture oil reservoirs and so enhance the oil flow. Over the following century acid, nitroglycerin, napalm—and in the 1950s even nuclear weapons—were experimented with to try to get at the oil. As early as the 1940s, however, it was known that water pressure provided a comparatively safe and effective means of fracking shales. When water was combined with small particles known as proppants—often sand but sometimes ceramic fragments—the flow of oil and gas was greatly enhanced because proppants keep tiny cracks in the shale open. The basic elements of modern fracking were in place.
Sernovitz traces the origins of the contemporary fracking boom to . . .
Kevin Drum blogs at Mother Jones:
A team of researchers has released a new study investigating the association between childhood lead exposure and later crime rates in St. Louis. Unlike most previous studies, it uses census tracts in order to get the most detailed possiblelook at subpopulations within the city. Their conclusion: “We uncovered a relatively strong effect of lead on behavior, especially violent behavior.” This was true even aftercontrolling for other variables that affect crime rates:
It is important to recognize that for the current analyses, the effect of lead remained a robust predictor of crime using methods capable of accounting for spatial correlations, and above and beyond the possible confounding influence of concentrated disadvantage.
….Because sociologists (as well as other macro-level scholars) have continued to highlight the primacy of concentrated disadvantage (as well as other macro-level variables) in predicting societal adversities (including crime), other relevant predictors such as lead often receive short shrift in the literature as well as less consideration when the topic shifts to policy initiatives. This is less than ideal because lead has emerged consistently, both in the current sample as well as others, and at the macro- and individual-level, as an apparent potent predictor of adverse behavior.Continuing to myopically focus on traditional forms of “social” adversity such as poverty runs the risk of downplaying more important behavioral predictors.
The authors are appropriately cautious about interpreting their findings. This is yet another ecological study, which compares populations across time, and that means it’s hard to assess causality. That said, there are now a lot of ecological studies at different levels (census tract, city, state, nation) showing the same result, as well as a smaller number of prospective and medical studies showing the same thing. There are still some unanswered questions about the lead-crime hypothesis— . . .
A feel-good conservation story by William Yardley in the Washington Post:
The United States is expanding.
That was not among the goals when the Elwha River was set free. With the removal of two concrete dams that blocked the river for a century, the Elwha has released a wave of sand that has pushed the shoreline here north toward Canada.
Acres of new land stand between surfers and the chilly shore break. Eagles feed in a growing estuary at the mouth of the river. Families and their dogs stroll where not long ago they would have been submerged in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Across the water, Vancouver Island is not quite as far away as it used to be.
“You can see it a little bit better now,” said Andy Ritchie, a hydrologist with Olympic National Park here on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
When the largest dam-removal project in American history — and maybe world history — began here nearly five years ago, the principal beneficiaries were expected to be the salmon that would once again be able to spawn in the Elwha’s headwaters. That is proving true, with more fish and wildlife filling the river and surrounding forest.
But along the way, a beach was born, too.
“See all that?” asked Dan Callahan, a 34-year-old surfer, as he pointed to the wide ribbons of sand that have formed where the Elwha meets the strait. “Wasn’t there before. Used to be nothing but rocks. When you were surfing, you’d hit rocks. Now you hit sand.”
A century’s worth of sediment — about 21 million cubic feet — was trapped behind the two dams that blocked the river. One, Elwha Dam, was just five miles from its mouth. The other, Glines Canyon, was further up the 45-mile stream and more than 200 feet tall.
Built in the early 1900s, the two dams once were viewed as essential to the growing population of the peninsula’s northern coast. But over time, the relatively modest amount of electricity they produced — enough to power about 14,000 homes — no longer seemed to justify the cost of maintaining them. And unlike many other dams in the region, they provided no way for fish to pass, blocking one of the nation’s richest historical salmon runs.
The push to remove the dams gathered momentum in the 1980s, and in 1992, Congress passed the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act, allowing for their removal. Two decades passed before stimulus funds approved under President Obama helped pay the $325-million cost. . .
You’d think, given the clear evidence of neurological damage from small amounts of lead consumed by children, which results in violent behavior in later life, that everyone would be strongly motivated to make sure that our drinking water, foods, and general environment are lead-free, but that is clearly not the case. City, state, and federal officials really do not give lead abatement a high priority at all, and are quite accepting of its presence in (for example) schools’ drinking water.
It’s stunning to me—and an example of why I’m sort of losing hope for the US—but the evidence is quite clear, and it goes WAY beyond Flint (though that is quite clear as well). Look at what’s happening.
Here’s a report in the NY Times by Michael Wines, Patrick McGeehan, and John Schwartz of how agencies don’t actually respond to lead in drinking water even though they know about it: they simply don’t care:
Anxious parents may wonder how a major school system like Newark’s could overlook lead in the drinking water of 30 schools and 17,000 students. The answer: It was easy. They had to look only a few miles away, at the century-old classrooms of the schools here, across the Hackensack River.
The Jersey City Public Schools district discovered lead contamination in eight schools’ drinking fountains in 2006, and in more schools in 2008, 2010 and 2012. But not until 2013 did officials finally chart a comprehensive attack on lead, which by then had struck all but six schools.
This winter’s crisis in Flint, Mich., has cast new attention on lead in water supplies. But problems with lead in school water supplies have dragged on for years — aggravated by ancient buildings and plumbing, prolonged by official neglect and tight budgets, and enabled by a gaping loophole in federal rules that largely exempts schools from responsibility for the purity of their water.
Children are at greatest risk from lead exposure, and school is where they spend much of their early lives. But cash-starved school administrators may see a choice between spending money on teachers or on plumbing as no choice at all.
“They feel it’s almost better not to sample, because you’re better off not knowing,” Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech University civil engineering professor who has fought for lead safety nationwide, said in an interview.
The problem is persistent and widespread. Baltimore’s public schools switched entirely to bottled water in 2007 because ripping out the lead plumbing would have been impractical. Sebring, Ohio, found elevated lead levels in August after workers had stopped adding an anti-corrosion chemical to the water supply.
The Los Angeles Unified School District allotted $19.8 million in September to retrofit or remove its 48,000 drinking fountains to erase a small but tenacious lead threat. Ithaca, N.Y., schools switched temporarily to bottled water in January after water tests found elevated lead levels at two schools.
Congress could easily have cracked down on lead in schools. In fact, it once did. The 1988 Lead Contamination Control Act required schools to scrap lead-lined water coolers, test drinking water and remedy any contamination they found. But a federal appeals court struck down part of the law affecting schools in 1996. And while some states have devised their own lead-testing rules, federal lawmakers have yet to revisit the issue.
The only regulation left is a 1991 rule by the federal Environmental Protection Agency requiring periodic tests for lead and copper by most public water systems, whether the supplier is a big utility or a well in a trailer park or campground.
But although schools and day care centers are the main sources of water for children on most weekdays, only the few schools that operate their own wells fall under the rule. The vast majority of schools use treated water from utilities.
And while the utilities test their water, virtually all lead contamination occurs inside schools — in lead pipes, water-cooler coils and linings, and in leaded-metal fountains and taps.
“If you’re a mom-and-pop coffee shop in Sparta, New Jersey, and have a private well, you’re required to certify every quarter,” said Robert Barrett, the chief executive of Aqua Pro-Tech Laboratories, a New Jersey environmental testing laboratory. “But if you’re a school, you don’t have to do anything.”
Mr. Barrett, whose firm tests water in 13 states, said the Newark and Flint revelations prompted reassessments by schools and other institutions that had not scrutinized their plumbing in years, if ever. . .
The system is breaking down. That seems obvious.