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ALEC-Tied Politicians Push North Carolina To Gut Its Environmental Protection Act

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Samantha Page reports at ThinkProgress:

It only took two weeks for the Republican-led House in North Carolina to introduce and pass a bill gutting the state’s environmental law.

The House passed the SEPA Reform Act on Wednesday after allowing total of one minute of public comment. Two of the three bill sponsors have ties to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

The bill will largely dismantle the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), opponents say. Under SEPA, a 1971 law to “encourage the wise, productive, and beneficial use of the natural resources of the State without damage to the environment,” any project that uses state funds or state land is subject to an environmental assessment progress. The SEPA Reform Act changes the trigger for review at $10 million of state funds.

But environmental advocates say a $10-million threshold still effectively wipes SEPA off the books, and state representatives know that.

“It was stated on the floor that $10 million would rarely if ever be triggered,” Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Mary Maclean Asbill told ThinkProgress.

The proposed bill originally set the threshold at $20 million but was amended to the lower number and the review process for public parks was exempted. Lawmakers also clarified a section that would have created uncertainty for federal grant-funded water programs.

“I still feel that this is a near repeal of SEPA,” Maclean Asbill said in an email.

The bill was sponsored by three Republicans, Rep. John Torbett, Rep. Mike Hager, and Rep. Chris Millis. Both Torbett and Hager have attended ALEC’s Annual Meeting, and Hager was paid $1,000 to speak at an ALEC event. Nationwide, including in Congress, Republicans have introduced a number of bills recently that would repeal environmental protection laws or defund environmental agencies.

Opponents of the bill also said the House process lacked transparency and the bill was not adequately justified. In addition to the rapid progression of the bill through the House, it came with little to no supporting evidence.

There was “no report, no evaluation, no assessment of the [SEPA] program,” Molly Diggins, director of the North Carolina Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. “Where are the stories of how SEPA has caused a problem? Who has been harmed?”

Diggins said her group is not opposed to the state doing analysis on the effectiveness of the more than 30-year-old law. But, “that’s what should have happened before it was brought to the committee.”

Diggins was the only person who was given time to speak against the bill at a meeting of House Environment Committee last week. She was allowed one minute, and the Committee went on to approve the bill 8-0. No supporters of the bill testified. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2015 at 2:16 pm

Environmental lead and Freddie Gray

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Kevin Drum has an interesting point:

The Washington Post features a simple headline today that encompasses decades of personal tragedy and public policy disaster:

Freddie Gray’s life a study in the sad effects of lead paint on poor blacks

When Freddie Gray was 22 months old, he had a tested blood lead level of 37 micrograms per deciliter. This is an absolutely astronomical amount. Freddie never even had the slightest chance of growing up normally. Lead poisoning doomed him from the start to a life of heightened aggression, poor learning abilities, and weak impulse control. His life was a tragedy set in motion the day he was born.

But even from the midst of my chemo haze, I want to make a short, sharp point about this that goes far beyond just Gray’s personal tragedy. It’s this: thanks both to lead paint and leaded gasoline, there were lots of teenagers like Freddie Gray in the 90s. This created a huge and genuinely scary wave of violent crime, and in response we turned many of our urban police forces into occupying armies. This may have been wrong even then, but it was hardly inexplicable. Decades of lead poisoning really had created huge numbers of scarily violent teenagers, and a massive, militaristic response may have seemed like the only way to even begin to hold the line.

But here’s the thing: that era is over. Individual tragedies like Freddie Gray are still too common, but overall lead poisoning has plummeted. As a result, our cities are safer because our kids are fundamentally less dangerous. To a large extent, they are now normal teenagers, not lead-poisoned predators.

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This is important, because even if you’re a hard-ass law-and-order type, you should understand that we no longer need urban police departments to act like occupying armies. The 90s are gone, and today’s teenagers are just ordinary teenagers. They still act stupid and some of them are still violent, but they can be dealt with using ordinary urban policing tactics. We don’t need to constantly harass and bully them; we don’t need to haul them in for every petty infraction; we don’t need to beat them senseless; and we don’t need to incarcerate them by the millions.

We just don’t. We live in a different, safer era, and it’s time for all of us—voters, politicians, cops, parents—to get this through our collective heads. Generation Lead is over, thank God. Let’s stop pretending it’s always and forever 1993. Reform is way overdue.

Be sure to read the Washington Post article. Astonishing what we have done to ourselves. From the article:

. . . It wasn’t long after that he was given the first of many blood tests, court records show. The test came in May of 1990, when the family was living in a home on Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore. Even at such a young age, his blood contained more than 10 micrograms of lead per decileter of blood — double the level in which the Center for Disease Control urges additional testing. Three months later, his blood had nearly 30 micrograms. And then, in June of 1991 when Gray was 22 months old, his blood carried 37 micrograms.

“Jesus,” gasped Dan Levy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the effects of lead poisoning on youths, when told of Gray’s levels. “The fact that Mr. Gray had these high levels of lead in all likelihood affected his ability to think and to self-regulate, and profoundly affect his cognitive ability to process information.” He added: “And the real tragedy of lead is that the damage it does is irreparable.”

By the time Gray and his family moved into the hovel on North Carey Street, which became the subject of the subsequent litigation, the amount of lead in his system had lowered. But he and his sisters began developing problems.

His sister, Fredericka, developed issues with aggression, Gray said in a 2009 deposition. “She still got problems like that,” he said. “She still do. She always was the aggressive one. She liked to fight all the time and all of that.”

Equally troubling was the children’s performance in the classroom. All three of them were diagnosed with either ADHD or ADD, and Fredericka’s academic career was “riddled with suspensions,” court records say. . .

 

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2015 at 10:06 am

There are landslides, and then there is earthflow

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Watch this earthflow in western Russia that occurred on 1 April 2015—and I don’t believe it’s an April Fool’s joke:

Apparently it’s a mine-waste failure. The US has had several bad failures regarding mine waste, but nothing on this scale, so far as I know. Yet.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 April 2015 at 10:30 am

Posted in Business, Environment

The US government is not doing its job, Part MCCCXLVIII: Regulating the oil industry

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Kevin Drum points out another instance of Congress and the Obama administration failing to do their basic job of protecting the public interest:

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, an event that triggered the nation’s worst-ever oil spill. The well leaked for three months and dumped over 200 million gallons of oil into the sea. The explosion itself killed eleven men; the resulting pollution killed a stupefying amount of wildlife, including 800,000 some birds. And despite billions paid out by BP in fines and restoration costs, the economic impact of the disaster remains wide-reaching and ongoing.

But possibly even more outrageous than the spill itself is how little has been done by government to prevent a similar disaster. The oil and gas industry has stayed active in Washington, and managed to fend off serious efforts to curb drilling: Congress has passed zero new laws—not one—to restrict offshore drilling or force it to be safer. The Obama administration has approved over 1,500 offshore drilling permits since the spill. And back in January the administration announced a plan to open new areas in the Atlantic and Arctic for offshore drilling. As my colleague Tim Murphy noted today, Louisiana’s oversight of the oil industry is rife with ludicrous conflicts of interest that raise serious doubts about the state’s ability to make drilling safer.

In other words, the wounds from BP are scarcely healed, but we’re pushing deeper and deeper into offshore drilling.

In fact, well construction in the Gulf is literally pushing into deeper water, where the risks of a spill are even greater. From an AP investigation pegged to the anniversary: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 April 2015 at 1:15 pm

Oklahoma state government makes a deliberate decision in favor of ignorance

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Tim McDonnell writes at Mother Jones:

Over the last few years, Oklahoma has experienced an insane uptick in earthquakes. As we reported in 2013, the count exploded from just a couple per year back in the mid-2000s to over a thousand in 2010, growing alongside a boom in the state’s natural gas drilling industry.

There is now a heap of peer-reviewed research finding that Oklahoma’s earthquake “swarm” is directly linked to fracking—not the gas drilling itself, but a follow-up step where brackish wastewater is re-injected into disposal wells deep underground. It’s a troubling trend in an industry that thrives under notoriously lax regulations, especially when the risk to property and public safety is so obvious.

If those numbers weren’t dramatic enough, here’s another: This year, Oklahoma has experienced an average of two quakes per day of magnitude 3.0—enough to be felt and inflict damage to structures—or greater. That’s according to a deep, comprehensive report on the subject out in this week’s New Yorker.

But even freakier than the earthquakes themselves, according to the story, is the pervasive denial of science coming from state agencies like the Oklahoma Geological Survey, whose job it is to oversee the oil and gas industry:

The official position of the O.G.S. is that the Prague [Oklahoma] earthquakes were likely a natural event and that there is insufficient evidence to say that most earthquakes in Oklahoma are the result of disposal wells. That position, however, has no published research to support it, and there are at least twenty-three peer-reviewed, published papers that conclude otherwise.

The story goes on to detail super-cozy relationships between top regulators and drilling company executives; the state’s ongoing and systemic habit of dismissing or ignoring the rapidly accumulating pile of evidence about the quakes; and a failure by regulators and the state legislature to take any meaningful steps to address the crisis. It’s really quite damning.

As a reporter covering the fracking industry, I’ve found that a lot of the problems associated with the technique aren’t necessarily inherent to it, and could be resolved with more pressure on companies to behave responsibly, or laws requiring them to. Better zoning regulations could keep wells out of neighborhoods. Stricter well construction standards could cut down on the leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and help ensure that gas or chemicals don’t contaminate groundwater. In other words, while industry may resist them, there are ready solutions at hand to many of the most cited drawbacks. And the same could be true in the case of earthquakes: while many geologists have now found that drilling wells into deep “basement” rock can set off temblors, there still isn’t a law in Oklahoma that simply requires locating disposal wells elsewhere. . .

Continue reading.

Rivka Galchen’s article in the New Yorker:

In the fall of 2011, students in Katie Keranen’s seismology course at the University of Oklahoma buried portable seismograph stations around the campus, in anticipation of a football game between the Sooners and the Texas A. & M. Aggies. The plan was to see if the students could, by reading the instruments, detect the rumble of eighty-two thousand fans cheering for a touchdown. “To see if they can figure out if a signal is a passing train or a cheering crowd—that’s much more interesting for them than discussing data in theory,” Keranen, an assistant professor of geophysics, told me.

But at 2:12 A.M. on November 5th, the day of the game, people in seventeen states felt an earthquake of 4.8 magnitude, centered near Prague, Oklahoma, a town of roughly twenty-five hundred, which is about an hour’s drive from Norman, where O.U. is situated. The students quickly packed up the seismographs and headed to Prague, hoping to measure the aftershocks. “Obviously, this was more worthwhile than a game,” Keranen said.

Outside homes around Prague and nearby Meeker, Keranen and her students, along with Austin Holland, the head seismologist of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, buried their equipment. Portable seismographs look like mini-kegs, or time capsules, and they need to be placed underground and on a level. The researchers wanted to install them quickly, since the ground was still shaking.

Shortly before 11 P.M., people in Prague heard what sounded like a jet plane crashing. It was another earthquake, this time a 5.6, followed, two days later, by a 4.7. (The earthquake scale is logarithmic, so a 5.0 earthquake shakes the ground ten times more than a 4.0, and a hundred times more than a 3.0.) No one was killed, but at least sixteen houses were destroyed and a spire on the historic Benedictine Hall at St. Gregory’s University, in nearby Shawnee, collapsed. Very few people had earthquake insurance; the five million dollars needed for the repairs at St. Gregory’s was raised through crowdfunding.

The earthquakes were big news, but the victory of the Sooners—the name comes from the term for those who broke the rules of the 1889 land run and staked claims in advance—was followed more closely. Few noticed that Keranen and her team had gathered likely the best data we have on a new phenomenon in Oklahoma: man-made earthquakes.

At the time, earthquakes were a relatively rare event for Oklahomans. Now they’re reported on daily, like the weather, and generally by the weatherman. Driving outside Oklahoma City one evening last November, I ended up stopped in traffic next to an electronic billboard that displayed, in rotation, an advertisement for one per cent cash back at the Thunderbird Casino, an advertisement for a Cash N Gold pawnshop, a three-day weather forecast, and an announcement of a 3.0 earthquake, in Noble County. Driving by the next evening, I saw that the display was the same, except that the earthquake was a 3.4, near Pawnee.

Until 2008, Oklahoma experienced an average of one to two earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or greater each year. (Magnitude-3.0 earthquakes tend to be felt, while smaller earthquakes may be noticed only by scientific equipment or by people close to the epicenter.) In 2009, there were twenty. The next year, there were forty-two. In 2014, there were five hundred and eighty-five, nearly triple the rate of California. Including smaller earthquakes in the count, there were more than five thousand. This year, there has been an average of two earthquakes a day of magnitude 3.0 or greater.

William Ellsworth, a research geologist at the United States Geological Survey, told me, “We can say with virtual certainty that the increased seismicity in Oklahoma has to do with recent changes in the way that oil and gas are being produced.” Many of the larger earthquakes are caused by disposal wells, where the billions of barrels of brackish water brought up by drilling for oil and gas are pumped back into the ground. (Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—in which chemically treated water is injected into the earth to fracture rocks in order to access oil and gas reserves—causes smaller earthquakes, almost always less than 3.0.) Disposal wells trigger earthquakes when they are dug too deep, near or into basement rock, or when the wells impinge on a fault line. Ellsworth said, “Scientifically, it’s really quite clear.”

The first case of earthquakes caused by fluid injection came in the nineteen-sixties. Engineers at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a chemical-weapons manufacturing center near Commerce City, Colorado, disposed of waste fluids by injecting them down a twelve-thousand-foot well. More than a thousand earthquakes resulted, several of magnitudes close to 5.0. “Unintentionally, it was a great experiment,” Justin Rubinstein, who researches induced seismicity for the U.S.G.S., told me.

In recent years, other states with oil and gas exploration have also seen an unusual number of earthquakes. State authorities quickly suspected that the earthquakes were linked to disposal wells. In Youngstown, Ohio, in 2011, after dozens of smaller quakes culminated in a 4.0, a nearby disposal well was shut down, and the earthquakes stopped. Around the same time, in Arkansas, a series of earthquakes associated with four disposal wells in the Fayetteville Shale led to a ban on disposal wells near related faults. Earthquakes were also noted in Colorado, Kansas, and Texas. There, too, relevant disposal wells were shut down or the volume of fluid injected was reduced and the earthquakes abated.

But in Oklahoma, which has had more and stronger earthquakes than the other states, it was late 2013 before an owner of a disposal well was asked by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates oil and gas exploration, to temporarily reduce its operations—and that was because the well operator himself contacted the O.C.C. and the O.G.S., asking them to look into whether his well was causing problems. So far, there have been only eleven instances in which an owner has, by order, stopped injecting fluids or repositioned a well that was drilled into basement rock.

Driving through Oklahoma’s countryside, you see . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 April 2015 at 2:52 pm

Denmark’s Drug-Free Pigs

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Barry Estabrook writes in the NY Times:

PRESIDENT OBAMA didn’t need to issue a $1.2 billion National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, which he did last week, to figure out how the United States could reduce the antibiotic-resistant bacteria created by the country’s agriculture industry. He could have simply spent a day with Kaj Munck, a Danish hog farmer.

Mr. Munck is a husky, loquacious man who lives about an hour south of Copenhagen. His operation looks and smells a lot like the factory pig farms I have visited in the American Midwest. The 12,000 pigs he raises each year — making his operation larger than the average American producer — live in cramped stalls with hard floors inside low-slung warehouselike structures. Mr. Munck can produce pork at prices low enough to compete in the same international markets as American pork. In fact, a large number of the popular baby back ribs served in the United States are imported from Danish farms like his.

But there is one big difference between Danish hog farms and those in the United States that does meet the eye (or nose). Since 2000, Danish farmers have raised pigs without relying on regular doses of antibiotics — while in the United States, perfectly healthy pigs and other livestock are frequently given low levels of antibiotics in their food or water to prevent disease, a practice that also enhances their growth.

Such regular doses of antibiotics contribute to the development of drug-resistant “superbugs,” of the type that kill 23,000 Americans a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One goal of the National Action Plan is to “eliminate the use of medically important antibiotics for growth promotion in food producing animals and bring other in-feed uses of antibiotics, for treatment and disease control and prevention of disease, under veterinary oversight” by 2020.

But even if the goal is met, American livestock farmers will still face far less stringent antibiotics regulations than their Danish counterparts already follow.

Leading me inside his barn, Mr. Munck unlocked a medicine cabinet that contained a dozen or so bottles of antibiotics. He said that he usually administered antibiotics to sick animals individually, but he could add medication to feed if an entire pen became infected. He told me that he could get the antibiotics only when they were prescribed by a veterinarian, and that he had to purchase them from a pharmacy.

Danish veterinarians cannot dispense antibiotics except in emergencies, removing any financial incentives to overprescribe. The pharmacy that Mr. Munck buys his drugs from enters information about his purchases into a national database that allows the government to track exactly how much of which antibiotics each vet prescribes and each farmer uses. And any antibiotics Mr. Munck acquires have to be administered or destroyed within 35 days.

Once a year, Danish veterinarians meet with government officials to . . .

Continue reading. The article concludes:

The Danish pork industry did have some early problems with mortality among young pigs. But it overcame those by allowing piglets to nurse longer, by feeding them more nourishing rations and by receiving monthly preventive visits to farms by vets. Overall use of antibiotics in livestock has fallen by 50 percent in Denmark, even as the hog herd has increased significantly in size. Levels of resistant bacteria on farms tumbled. Mr. Munck said his animals experienced no more bacterial infections than they used to. And despite predictions to the contrary, pigs in Denmark gain weight as efficiently as they did before the introduction of the antibiotic controls.

Farmers still use antibiotics frequently, mostly to cure diarrhea and treat infected wounds, Mr. Munck said. But that’s the purpose of antibiotics. “The idea is to use as little antibiotic as possible but as much as needed,” he said.

Researchers at Iowa State University ran numbers to determine what it would cost American pork producers to put a Danish-style control system in place. The total was only $4.50 per animal, less than three cents more for a pound of pork — a pittance if it means keeping antibiotics that save human lives effective.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2015 at 1:54 pm

Famous scientific illiterates: Jonathan Franzen edition

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David Roberts reports at Grist.org:

Jonathan Franzen, noted author of depressing literary fiction, has taken to the pages of The New Yorker to lament that no one cares about saving birds any more because all anyone cares about is climate change, and anyway, maybe we should just let humanity burn from climate change and save the birds because birds aren’t big jerks like people.

The essay is … not good. Just qua essay, really not good. I can’t imagine The New Yorker publishing it under any other byline. It is odd to read in the pages of that august magazine, for instance, criticism of a peer-reviewed study the author admits he has not seen but has judged “from the Web site’s graphics.”

More to the point, the essay pivots on several misconceptions: that climate mitigation is in fundamental tension with conservation and biodiversity; that aggressive deployment of renewable energy would be “disfiguring” to the earth; that continuation of current energy trends would be palliative and sympathetic to ecosystems. To see the essay beat about the head and shoulders with facts, readJoe Romm, Karl Mathiesen, and Adam Siegel.

Despite the many valid criticisms, I find myself nursing some small ember of sympathy for Franzen. His essay reminds me of lots of conversations I’ve had over the years. I’ll be talking with someone — a smart, well-read person — and when they find out I write about climate change, they’ll kind of hesitate, and I’ll prod, and they’ll tell me their Climate Thing.

Most people haven’t taken the time to get familiar with all the ins and outs of climate change. It’s an incredibly complex and politically charged subject with all sorts of contradictory and fragmentary information bouncing around various info-channels. It takes some dedication and a thick skin to get a well-rounded understanding of it and most people have no particular incentive to do so.

So lots of people have a Climate Thing, that one tidbit of info or argument that they read somewhere, or heard somewhere, the thing that somehow resonated with their own concerns and beliefs. It’s the thing they latched onto, the thing they know about climate, like the proverbial blind people surrounding the elephant. They build on it and it becomes their Climate Thing.

A Climate Thing is not always wrong, though it frequently is. Just as often, it’s a kind of distortion, a lens that magnifies one aspect of the issue at the expense of all others. For some people it’s nuclear power. For some people it’s about models, how there was no warming when the models said there would be. For some people it’s Al Gore, or solar power, or consumerism, or population, or “I heard that we’re basically fucked no matter what,” which I’ve heard more times than I can count.

For Franzen it’s birds. His experience of climate change, in his social circles and intellectual orbit, is that it seems to be eclipsing bird-habitat conservation in the minds of environmentalists. And that bugs him.

So that’s his Climate Thing. And as with most people’s Climate Thing, it’s a little eccentric and a little myopic. Take one step back and you see that birds are far more threatened by the combination of fossil fuels and climate change than they are by any other threat, including cats and wind turbines combined. Times a thousand. (If Franzen truly thinks “North America’s avifauna may well becomemore diverse” if global average temperatures rise 4 or 5 degrees, he needs to sit and have a long talk with, oh, a New Yorker fact checker. Or read that report he claims he couldn’t find.)

Take another step back and you see that the phenomenon of environmentalists prioritizing climate change over bird habitat is very, very low on the list of threats to the world’s birds. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2015 at 1:20 pm

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