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October Costa Rica Gardening Guide: Planting in the Rain

October Costa Rica Gardening Guide: Planting in the Rain

October 4, 2022

The weather in most of Costa Rica will remain much the same for October: more rain and then more rain. For gardeners, the heavy rains represent an added challenge when growing food crops. Torrential rains and high humidity place heavy stress on plants and cause numerous plant ailments. Here are some suggestions to help you […] The post October Costa Rica Gardening Guide: Planting in the Rain appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

The weather in most of Costa Rica will remain much the same for October: more rain and then more rain. For gardeners, the heavy rains represent an added challenge when growing food crops. Torrential rains and high humidity place heavy stress on plants and cause numerous plant ailments. Here are some suggestions to help you continue gardening successfully during these rainy months. Perhaps the most ecological solution to gardening in the rainy season is to select crops that do well in rainy weather. A number of hardy garden vegetables, as well as shrubs and wild plants, can provide an abundance of food for the table at this time of the year. Squashes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, kale, collards, endive, chives, mustard and New Zealand spinach are my favorite rainy-season food crops. Perennial bushes can also provide a steady source of leafy greens for salads. The popular hedgerow hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), known as amapola in Spanish, provides nutritious edible leaves and flowers. The hardy Asian perennial bush known as katuk also provides a year-round supply of green leaves for salads or can be prepared as a steamed spinach-like dish. The second best solution for growing food crops now is to try planting leafy green vegetables and tomatoes in pots and recycled containers around the house in sunny areas. Eastern and southern exposures in the home often get plenty of sunlight for growing vegetables. The area directly under the eave of the roof is protected from rain and provides an ideal location for tables on which to grow food crops. A recycled 5-gallon plastic bucket, with several holes drilled in the bottom and filled with fertile organic compost soil, can serve as an ideal container for growing cherry tomatoes, cucumbers or green peppers. Smaller recycled containers are good for lettuce, cilantro and parsley. Here’s a trick that rarely fails. When shopping at the market, look for onions that are beginning to sprout. Vendors often will practically give them away. These onion bulbs can be planted in 10- to 15-centimeter-diameter containers, and in one month will provide green onions for salads and other dishes. The same goes for celery brought home from the market. If you save the base of the plant and plant it in a container, it will root and grow to provide tender green celery shoots. Garlic cloves also can be planted superficially in containers and will sprout and grow rapidly to provide garlic greens. Some gardeners opt to build greenhouses and use hydroponic gardening to control the environmental conditions. However, this solution has a price. The cost of the construction materials often makes the vegetables you harvest more expensive than those you buy at the market. The plastic roofing creates a dependency on plastics unfriendly to the environment. Many of the hydroponic designs depend on chemical fertilizers and substrates, such as charcoal, which contribute to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus global warming. The healthier option for the family and the planet is to recycle organic waste at home and turn it into valuable organic fertilizer, which can be used to grow your own food. This solves part of the solid waste disposal problem without additional costs to the family. We need to carefully think out each step on our way back to sustainable and harmonious living. Our love for technology often leads us astray when we try to solve problems or find solutions in our modern world. The idea is to look for solutions that improve quality of life without degrading the environment. The post October Costa Rica Gardening Guide: Planting in the Rain appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.
How to ensure the world's largest pumped-hydro dam isn't a disaster for Queensland's environment

How to ensure the world's largest pumped-hydro dam isn't a disaster for Queensland's environment

October 4, 2022

Pumped hydro offers us large scale energy storage. If we do it carefully, we can make sure these dams don’t cause the damage of the past.

Jamie Pittock, Author providedTo quit coal and move to renewables, we need large-scale energy storage. That’s where pumped hydro comes in. Queensland’s ambitious new plan involves shifting from a coal-dominated electricity grid to 80% renewables within 13 years, using 22 gigawatts of new wind and solar. The plan relies on two massive new pumped hydro developments to store electricity, including the biggest proposed in the world. While it sounds high-tech, it’s very simple: take two dams at different elevations. Pump water to the top dam when cheap renewables are flooding the grid. Run the water down the slope and through turbines to make power at night or when the wind isn’t blowing. When dams are built badly, however, they can trash the environment. For two decades, I’ve pointed out the environmental destruction conventional dams can cause. But now we urgently need more pumped hydro dams to enable Australia’s transition to fully renewable power. The campaign to save Lake Pedder (pictured in 1954) from being flooded for hydroelectricity failed - but made new large scale hydro dams less viable. Janette Asch/Flickr, CC BY Queensland is getting pumped Queensland’s huge new renewable energy plan relies heavily on two massive pumped hydro projects. Inland from the Sunshine Coast is Borumba Dam, which could deliver two gigawatts of 24-hour storage by 2030. This was first proposed last year. The new proposal is Pioneer-Burdekin, west of Mackay, which is intended to store five gigawatts of 24-hour storage from the 2030s. It would involve relocating residents of the small town of Netherdale, which would be inundated. For consumers, this means energy reliability. Each gigawatt of stored power could supply around two million homes – and Queensland has around two million households. Environmentally, the good news is we can learn from previous mistakes and build this vital infrastructure carefully to minimise local environmental damage and maximise the broader environmental benefit of quitting coal power. The world’s largest pumped hydro facility is planned for the Pioneer Valley, west of Mackay. Steven Penton/Flickr, CC BY Why is pumped hydro so important to the energy transition? Solar and wind power can produce vast quantities of cheap power – but not all the time. Pumped hydro is one way to store renewable energy when it’s being generated and releasing it later when needed. While grid-scale batteries such as Victoria’s Big Battery have drawn plenty of media coverage, they are better at storing smaller amounts of electricity and releasing it quickly. Pumped hydro is slightly slower to start feeding back to the grid, but big facilities can keep generating power for days. Read more: The hydropower industry is talking the talk. But fine words won't save our last wild rivers Renewable fuels such as green hydrogen and ammonia may be available in the future, but not now. Nuclear energy is very expensive and would take decades to build. Batteries cannot meet supply gaps longer than a few hours, and come with environmental costs from the mining of raw materials, manufacture, and recycling and disposal of toxic materials. That leaves pumped hydro as a vital option – especially on cold, still and overcast days in winter when solar and wind produce very little electricity. So why is pumped hydro a better environmental prospect? Conventional hydropower dams destroy river ecosystems and flood forests, towns and prime farm land. Globally, the hydropower industry anticipates expanding by 60% by 2050 to provide renewable electricity and storage. I’m less worried about pumped hydro, for three reasons. First, the two reservoirs can be built away from rivers. This alone greatly reduces the damage done by damming rivers and flooding fertile valleys. Second, the area flooded is generally an order of magnitude smaller than conventional hydropower. This is because the great elevation difference between the two reservoirs may enable more power to be generated from limited water. And third, pumped hydro doesn’t need much extra water once filled, as the water cycles around. A little topping up to replace losses from evaporation and seepage is all that’s needed. More than 3,000 potential sites for pumped hydro have been identified in Australia. Importantly, these are all outside formal nature reserves and mostly located along the Great Dividing Range. We’d only need around 20 of these sites to be developed to store power for the nation. That’s around the same number currently planned, built or under construction in Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Nearly all large renewable energy developments meet local opposition based on non-financial values. Opponents of big pumped hydro developments such as Snowy 2.0 have called for other sites to be developed instead. If we took this approach, however, we could multiply the environmental disruption. That’s because Snowy 2.0, as well as the proposed Borumba and Pioneer-Burdekin projects in Queensland are huge. They could each generate up to ten times more power than most of the other projects being planned elsewhere. Shifting elsewhere could mean many more smaller projects, which means more roads, transmission lines and reservoirs. Pumped hydro relies on two reservoirs at different elevations, as visible in the Turlough Hill pumped hydro scheme in Ireland. Shutterstock Avoiding the mistakes of the past Environmental disruption from pumped hydro differs greatly depending on the site. At the site selection stage, it’s vital to avoid areas of high conservation and Indigenous cultural value. We can limit environmental damage by using existing dams, as we’re seeing at Snowy 2.0. Old mines in the right locations can have a second life as pumped hydro, as the Kidston project in Queensland demonstrates. By using existing dams or mines, we can actually begin repairing past damage, such as by improving old dams to boost environmental flows. That’s not to say damage won’t be done. Pumped hydro has been linked to the introduction of diseases affecting wildlife, as well as invasive plant and animal species. Roads and transmission lines are one of the biggest impacts on the natural world. By my calculations, much more habitat will be cleared for the Snowy 2.0 overhead transmission lines (around 9,600 hectares) than the new hydro scheme road and pipeline access and waste rock disposal (around 1,000 hectares). We could dramatically reduce environmental damage and visual clutter by putting the lines underground, or building close to existing power lines. So, the choice is ours. While pumped hydro is a lot less damaging than traditional hydroelectricity, it will cause some environmental damage. That’s why pumped hydro developers must choose sites and build carefully, to minimise environmental damage and maximise the benefits of storage. After all, this technology offers the enormous environmental good of freeing ourselves from the need to burn coal, gas and oil every hour of every day. Read more: Batteries get hyped, but pumped hydro provides the vast majority of long-term energy storage essential for renewable power – here’s how it works Jamie Pittock receives funding from the Australian Water Partnership and leads a project from Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation concerning pumped storage hydropower in the Asia - Pacific region. He is a member and advises a number of non-government environmental organizations, including WWF Australia.
Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake

Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake

October 4, 2022

This story and video are a co-production of Civil Eats and Edible Communities.  Noriko Kamei, her husband, Jake Myrick, and their daughter Olivia Kamei Myrick, 26, make sake together by hand in the first New World brewery to produce a second-generation heir. Kamei and Myrick share head brewer duties, and Kamei Myrick has already produced […] The post Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake appeared first on Civil Eats.

This story and video are a co-production of Civil Eats and Edible Communities.  Craft sake making—both in Japan and abroad—is still a very male-dominated world; for now, there are only three women brewers in the U.S., and two of them happen to work at Sequoia Sake in San Francisco. Noriko Kamei, her husband, Jake Myrick, and their daughter Olivia Kamei Myrick, 26, make sake together by hand in the first New World brewery to produce a second-generation heir. Kamei and Myrick share head brewer duties, and Kamei Myrick has already produced several sakes of her own. Instead of feeling outnumbered that two-thirds of his business is made up of women, Myrick says, “I’m proud that both of the women in my life are making sake.” Noriko Kamei, Jake Myrick, and Olivia Kamei Myrick at Sequioa Sake. During the 10 years they lived in Japan as tech entrepreneurs, Myrick and Kamei discovered the unique appeal of nama, or unpasteurized sakes, which tend to be brighter and fresher tasting because of the living microbes they contain. Myrick was fascinated by sake brewers’ ability to produce a wide range of flavor profiles from just rice, water, and yeast. When they returned to the U.S., they missed those fresh sakes and decided to make sake brewing their next start-up business, launching Sequoia in 2014. Sake is the more-than-2,000-year-old national drink of Japan, an agricultural product with roots in mythology and the Japanese Shinto religion. From their 2,500-square-foot brewery in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, the three make 12 different kinds of sake, most of them unpasteurized and all with organic rice. Kamei handles the most difficult aspect of the work, which is making the koji, the fungus-inoculated steamed rice that is the blueprint for the sake she envisions in her head. The koji spores are added to the yeast starter, or shubo, which touches off the conversion of starch to fermentable sugars. To this base, they add three rounds of steamed rice, water, and yeast then they filter the sake, sometimes pasteurize it, and bottle it. Kamei loves the trial and error aspect of her work, as she spends hours noticing and responding to minute changes in the koji. She compares the careful attention it takes to “watching a newborn baby.” Kamei Myrick considers herself someone who “performs best in jobs that are more physical than mental,” so sake making has been a good match for her. From 2016 to 2018, she spent time in Fukushima Prefecture working as a kurabito, or sake brewery worker, at Miyaizumi Meijo Brewery and Akebono Brewery. As the first female foreign apprentice, and part of a family that runs a brewery in the U.S., she says that the head brewers “did teach me more than they would to some of their own kurabito; they knew I was going back to Sequoia and was committed to making sake.” Kamei Myrick returned to California, where—to encourage her interest—her dad gave her a 500-liter (132-gallon) fermentation tank to experiment with. Though she likes the flexibility of working in a family business, she is also pursuing studies in food science at San Francisco City College, and her future career path is still taking shape. Sake’s Origins Sake is the more-than-2,000-year-old national drink of Japan, an agricultural product with roots in mythology and the Japanese Shinto religion. From about the 10th Century, its brewing was controlled by Buddhist monks; during the Edo Period (1603-1868), production was put in the hands of large landowners and merchant families that served and provided for the ruling Tokugawa clan and its lords. After reaching peak sales in the early 1970s, domestic sake consumption has continually dropped in Japan. Due to government restrictions on sales and the long shutdown of restaurants in Japan, breweries have also suffered during the pandemic. But loss of interest in the drink in its birthplace has been offset by growing global interest. There are more than two dozen craft sake breweries in the U.S., and a half-dozen breweries in California alone. New Global Sake Makers Spur Innovation International sake brewers, unfettered by generations of tradition and societal expectations, are taking sake in new directions. For Kamei Myrick, that means a distinctly San Francisco-leaning direction. In 2020, she created her own sake, Hazy Delight, which is a soft-textured and refreshing usu nigori, or lightly filtered sake. She selected its name due to its slightly cloudy texture, but also to evoke—through the vibrating neon image of a purple daisy on the label—the early cannabis culture of the 1960s Haight-Ashbury district. The nigori’s more-savory-than-usual quality means it pairs well with goat cheese from the Marin Headlands or North Beach pesto pizza. Hazy Delight proved so popular that it has become part of the regular lineup of Sequoia sakes. Now, Kamei Myrick, who loved the developing and marketing aspect of that project, is thinking about two more bottles she can brew to form a trio of San Francisco-themed sakes. One will be a hiyaoroshi summer-aged sake that she hopes will express the cool San Francisco summer through an added savory quality. The other is a more labor-intensive kimoto-style sake, which relies on native yeast and lactic acid. Noriko Kamei sampling a Sequoia Sake. She envisions its high acidity and robust flavor as a good expression of the city’s own fermentation culture, which ranges from sourdough bread to third-wave coffee. “I’m a huge fan of fermentation,” says Kamei Myrick. “It’s really beautiful to live and work with microorganisms to create something like sake that brings people together.” Sake Rice Growing in California, Questions of Sustainability As interest in sake making and drinking in the U.S. has grown, so has the need to source sakamai, or sake rice. Myrick and Kamei work with fifth-generation Sacramento Valley organic rice farmer Michael Van Dyke, who grows five acres of Calrose M105—a hybrid bred both for its early maturing quality and high stable milling rate—for them. Its shorter growing season requires less water, an important quality in a state now suffering its third year of a historic drought. Calrose is a table rice rather than a sakamai, one of 115 or so varieties grown specifically for sake making. This is not necessarily a negative. Even in Japan, more craft brewers are featuring sakes brewed with less expensive table rice as advances in brewing technology and know-how have helped offset differences between the two types of rice. This season, the local irrigation board has limited Van Dyke’s water use to only 600 of his 2,000 acres of rice fields, well below his 50 to 60 percent planting rate per year. “Normally there are ups and downs in the water supply, and if you’re down a year, then you experience two or three good ones. But when you start stacking those [bad years] back to back, it’s tight. You have to look for every opportunity to cut costs,” he says. Although many view rice as one of the worst water guzzling crops the state, Van Dyke notes that this perception—partially formed by the image of flooded rice fields—is not wholly accurate. Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at U.C. Davis, explains this perception gap. “The soils rice are grown on—very heavy clay soils—in California are not suited to a lot of other crops.” Rice “will rank very high” in water use if only the total amount of applied water is taken into account,” he explains, “but so much of that water is returned to groundwater or streams.” Of 60 inches of water applied to a rice field, the “evapotranspiration,” or total loss of water from land surface to the atmosphere, is 34 inches, which he estimates places the crop in about the middle of California agriculture products ranked by water usage. Van Dyke’s soil is composed of light red clay with a layer of hard pan (compacted sandstone that prevent drainage). Unfit for most other crops because of its poor drainage, hard pan can result in natural water tables well suited to rice farming. Left: Michael Van Dyke, Jake Myrick, and Noriko Kamei inspecting rice; right: finished Calrose rice. Yet some who see flooded rice fields might still wonder whether this is a sustainable crop for a drought-plagued state. Bruce Linquist, a U.C. Davis cooperative extension professor and rice expert, says, “I’m sure that’s on a lot of people’s minds, but there’s not a lot of data supporting this. The soils rice are grown on—very heavy clay soils—in California are not suited to a lot of other crops.” And he points to the valuable ecosystem services the fields provide, most importantly winter habitats for migrating birds. “You need a certain amount of rice land to support that kind of habitat,” Linquist adds. The heavy black adobe clay Linquist is referring to, says Van Dyke, “is technically a better soil [for rice growing],” but he prefers the red clay of his farm because it allows him to practice a drill seeding method that minimizes both water use and topsoil disturbance. Both Van Dyke and Myrick point to the vast tracts of California farmland devoted to nut and pomegranate trees, which they consider far less sustainable than rice. Tree planting “almost always affects the groundwater,” says Van Dyke, because of the trees’ thirsty and deep roots, which tap underground sources of water in addition to benefitting from irrigation from drip lines and micro sprinklers. And they point to the fact that the flooding of rice fields can help replenish groundwater. Myrick adds of nut tree farmers: “They want fields to be dry, and we want them to be wet. Wet is a better ecological environment. Pumping water out changes the ecosystem. Look at Houston, [Texas]; it used to be a big rice producer because the clay soil of those delta wetlands are meant to hold water.” Now drained and converted to housing, the land has lost its ability to act like a sponge and absorb excess storm water, leading to catastrophic flooding and loss of property and life. Although rice may be better for flood mitigation than nut and pomegranate trees, Lund says that in measurements of evapotranspiration, the three crops’ water usage is similar. Sequoia’s legacy may ultimately be cemented by such ground-breaking work, yet Myrick and Kamei still don’t know for sure if their daughter will choose to carry on the family business. Water rights play a role in farm viability during drought, but Van Dyke says it’s not so much an issue for his farm, which does not have access to generous historic water rights, but can use some surface water from the nearby Bear River as well as groundwater. Linquist points out that water rights don’t mean a lot “if you don’t have the water” to dole out. This year, in particular, more than half of California’s rice fields are estimated to be left barren without harvest. In the end, what disturbs Van Dyke’s sleep the most is not drought or climate change, but the encroachment of well-funded developers. Urban development spreading north from Sacramento is “taking us over,” he says. “That’s all high-dollar per acre compared to farming,” he says; that difference in land valuation often results in farmland being paved over. Planning for the Future In the face of an uncertain future for California rice farming as climate change advances, Jake Myrick has been working on what he hopes will be his own legacy, a project with Dr. Thomas Tai, a research geneticist at USDA-ARS Crops Pathology and Genetics Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Japanese rice experts from the sprawling Iida Group Holdings conglomerate, which includes a Northern California-based rice milling subsidiary. Their goal: to breed a drought-tolerant, heat-resistant rice, just as agronomists and farmers in Japan are attempting to do. Their efforts center on reviving an older strain of the Wataribune variety that Japanese immigrants brought to California in 1906. Today’s ubiquitous Calrose variety is a descendent of this heirloom Japanese rice, but it has been modified over the years to focus on qualities such as yield and pure white color over flavor. Myrick’s hope is that by recovering an older strain of Wataribune, he’ll be able to bring back some of its lost flavor and aroma. At the same time, Myrick has been working with U.C. Davis to include sake brewing in their master brewing classes. Stalled by the pandemic, he hopes the program will get back on track to create a “cross-pollination, a wine and sake exchange” that could bring more innovation to the U.S. sake-making and -marketing landscape. Sequoia’s legacy may ultimately be cemented by such ground-breaking work, yet Myrick and Kamei still don’t know for sure if their daughter will choose to carry on the family business. Though she watched her parents launch the business as a teenager and began helping out when she was 17, Myrick concedes that making sake is not the most secure vocation to envision for one’s child. Kamei Myrick’s food science studies could end up exerting a bigger pull. Juggling her school work and brewing “has been difficult” for the family, Myrick admits. But he adds, with the hard-won optimism of a parent determined not to curtail their child’s freedom, “I’m loving this while it lasts.” Photos and video credit: Mizzica Films. The post Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake appeared first on Civil Eats.
The magnificent Lake Eyre Basin is threatened by 831 oil and gas wells – and more are planned. Is that what Australians really want?

The magnificent Lake Eyre Basin is threatened by 831 oil and gas wells – and more are planned. Is that what Australians really want?

October 3, 2022

Lake Eyre Basin contains one of the few pristine river systems left in the world. But new research shows oil and gas activity is extending its tentacles into these fragile environments.

The heart-shaped Lake Eyre Basin covers about one-sixth of Australia. It contains one of the few remaining pristine river systems in the world. But new research shows oil and gas activity is extending its tentacles into these fragile environments. Its wells, pads, roads and dams threaten to change water flows and pollute this magnificent ecosystem. The study, by myself and colleague Amy Walburn, investigated current and future oil and gas production and exploration on the floodplains of the Lake Eyre Basin. We found 831 oil and gas wells across the basin – and this number is set to grow. What’s more, state and Commonwealth legislation has largely failed to control this development. State and national governments are promoting massive gas development to kickstart Australia’s economy. But as we show, this risks significant damage to the Lake Eyre Basin and its rivers. Mining infrastructure in the Lake Eyre Basin, here recently flooded, threatens the pristine natural wonder. Doug Gimesy A precious natural wonder The Lake Eyre Basin is probably the last major free-flowing river system on Earth – meaning no major dams or irrigation diversions stem the rivers’ flow. This country has been looked after for tens of thousands of year by First Nations people, including the Arrernte, Dieri, Mithaka and Wangkangurru. This care continues today. The biggest rivers feeding the basin – the Diamantina, Georgina and Cooper – originate in western Queensland and flow to South Australia where they pour into Kathi Thanda-Lake Eyre. As they wind south, the rivers dissect deserts and inundate floodplains, lakes and wetlands – including 33 wetlands of national importance. This natural phenomenon has happened for millennia. It supports incredible natural booms of plants, fish and birds, as well as tourism and livestock grazing. But our new research shows oil and gas development threatens this precious natural wonder. Read more: Unknown wonders: Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Massive industrial creep Our analysis used satellite imagery to map the locations of oil and gas development in the Lake Eyre Basin since the first oil wells were established in late 1950s. We found 831 oil and gas production and exploration wells exist on the floodplains of the Lake Eyre Basin – almost 99% of them on the Cooper Creek floodplains. The wells go under the river and its floodplains into the geological Cooper Basin, considered to have the most important onshore petroleum and natural gas deposits in Australia. Our research also shows how quickly oil and gas mining in the Lake Eyre Basin is set to grow. We identified licensing approvals or applications covering 4.5 million hectares of floodplains in the Lake Eyre Basin, across South Australia and Queensland. The CSIRO recently examined likely scenarios of 1,000 to 1,500 additional unconventional gas wells in the Cooper Basin in the next 50 years. It predicted these wells would built be on “pads” – areas occupied by mining equipment or facilities – about 4 kilometres apart. They would typically access gas using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Read more: Protecting Australia's Lake Eyre basin means getting our priorities right Fracking is the process of extracting so-called “unconventional gas”. It involves using water and chemicals to fracture deep rocks to extract the gas. This polluted water, known to be toxic to fish, is brought back to the surface and stored in dams. Two locations we focused on were in South Australia at the protected, Ramsar-listed Coongie Lakes site, which was recognised as internationally significant in 1987. The other site was in Queensland’s channel country, also on the Cooper floodplain. In total across the Coongie Lakes sites, we found a three-fold increase in wells: from 95 in 1987 to 296 last year. We also identified 869 kilometres of roads and 316 hectares of storage pits, such as those that hold water. Some of these dams could potentially hold polluted fracking water and become submerged by flooding, particularly at Coongie Lakes. A disaster waiting to happen? Examples from around the world already show oil and gas exploration and development can reduce water quality by interrupting sediments and leading to elevated chemical concentrations. Production waste can also degrade floodplain vegetation. The CSIRO says risks associated with oil and gas development in the Cooper Basin include: dust and emissions from machinery that may cause habitat loss, including changes to air quality, noise and light pollution disposal and storage of site materials that may contaminate soil, surface water and/or groundwater through accidental spills, leaks and leaching unplanned fracking and drilling into underground faults, unintended geological layers or abandoned wells gas and fluids contaminating soil, surface water, groundwater and air changes to groundwater pressures could potentially reactivate underground faults and induce earthquakes. Fracking for unconventional gas also requires drawing large amounts of water from rivers and groundwater. Read more: 1 in 5 fossil fuel projects overshoot their original estimations for emissions. Why are there such significant errors? The laws have failed Our findings raise significant questions for Australian governments and the community. Are we prepared to accept industrialisation of the Lake Eyre Basin, and the associated risk of pollution and other environmental damage? Have the companies involved earned a social licence for these activities? Where do the profits end up, and who will bear the social, environmental and financial costs of such intense development? Clearly, state and federal environmental protections have failed to stop unfettered development of the basin. These policies include the Lake Eyre Basin Agreement, signed by the states, the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory, which has been in place since 2000. Australia’s federal environment law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is supposed to protect nationally important areas such as Ramsar wetlands. Yet our research identified that just eight developments in the basin were referred to the Commonwealth government for approval and with only one deemed significant enough for assessment. This legislation does not deal adequately with the cumulative impacts of development. And finally, gas extraction and production is associated with substantial “fugitive” emissions - greenhouse gases which escape into the atmosphere. This undermines Australia’s emissions reduction efforts under the Paris Agreement. The governments of South Australia and Queensland should restrict mining development in the Lake Eyre Basin. And stronger federal oversight of this nationally significant natural treasure is urgently needed. In response to this article, Chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, Samantha McCulloch, said in a statement: The oil and gas industry takes its responsibilities to the environment and to local communities seriously and it is one of the most heavily regulated sectors in Australia. The industry has been operating in Queensland for more than a decade and the gas produced in Queensland plays an important role in Australia’s energy security. Richard Kingsford received part funding for this work from The Pew Charitable Trusts as well as the Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Sydney. It was also written as part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant on Ramsar Sites. He also receives funding from state and Commonwealth governments, non-government organisations, including Bush Heritage Australia, the Ian Potter Foundation and Nari Nari Tribal Council. He is affiliated with the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania, Ecological Society of Australia and Birdlife Australia.

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Unstable Ground

Unstable Ground

October 3, 2022

How thawing permafrost threatens a Biden-supported plan to drill in Alaska's Arctic

This article was produced in partnership with Type Investigations, where Adam Federman is a reporting fellow. Along an open stretch of tundra far above the Arctic Circle, a gas flare burns bright against the early morning sky. The oil production facility, about eight miles north of the Alaska Native Village of Nuiqsut, sits like a ship on the horizon. Known as CD1, it is ground zero for ConocoPhillips’ Alpine Field, a sprawling network of gravel roads, pipelines, and well pads that covers about 165 acres of land. The CD1 pad houses hundreds of employees and has its own airstrip to receive direct flights from Anchorage. ConocoPhillips refers to it as “our town.”  On March 4, the fossil fuel company reported an uncontrolled gas leak at the facility. According to ConocoPhillips’ own analysis, an estimated 7.2 million cubic feet of natural gas was released into the atmosphere during the first five days of the leak, equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of over 3,000 cars. Residents in Nuiqsut complained of headaches and nausea. ConocoPhillips brought in industry specialists from Texas with experience fighting oil well fires in Iraq and Kuwait. Then, around noon on March 7, the company decided to evacuate 300 employees from the pad out of “an abundance of caution.” It would take nearly a month before the leak was fully plugged.   Nuiqsut’s mayor, Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, had been getting little sleep during those first few weeks and was anxious about the village’s air quality — an ongoing concern for residents of Nuiqsut, which is surrounded by oil and gas development. ConocoPhillips had reached out to the community to provide updates, but information was hard to come by, in part because it took several weeks for the company to fully understand what had happened. Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak looks out on the village of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder More than a week passed before the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that regulates drilling on both state and federal land, had someone on the ground at CD1. The state’s spill response division, known as the Prevention, Preparedness, and Response program, or PPR, was frustrated with ConocoPhillips’ response, according to dozens of emails obtained by Grist and Type Investigations. “I’m having difficulty getting the information PPR needs regarding the situation at CD 1,” the northern region manager wrote in an email to ConocoPhillips nearly a week into the event.  While some questions remain unanswered more than six months later, it’s clear now that the gas leak at Alpine illuminated the ways that climate change is amplifying the risks associated with oil and gas drilling in the Arctic — and even creating new ones. Permafrost thaw, which is accelerated by drilling and new construction, played an important role in the leak: In its incident report submitted to the state, ConocoPhillips explained that the heat generated by the injection of drilling fluids deep underground had thawed the permafrost layer — ground that had been frozen for thousands of years — to a depth of about 1,000 feet, which ultimately allowed the gas to reach the surface. Sandhill Cranes stand near the Alpine development area north of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder But the problem didn’t end there. This same thawing process had affected some of the neighboring wells — there are about 50 wells on the CD1 pad, each about 10 feet apart — forming what Steve Lewis, a retired petroleum engineer who worked in the region for 20 years, described as a “gas highway,” creating multiple pathways for the gas to migrate. In its report, ConocoPhillips called this phenomenon a “thaw bulb.” A similar phenomenon is being replicated across Alaska’s North Slope region at a time when the Arctic is warming two to four times faster than the rest of the planet. According to an analysis by researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, more than half of the near-surface permafrost on the North Slope could disappear by 2100 if emissions aren’t curbed. Soil temperatures at Prudhoe Bay, which is about 60 miles east of Nuiqsut, have already warmed by about 6 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 1970s.  Permafrost thaw can cause the ground to buckle and in some cases collapse. Roads, pipelines, and well pads could all potentially be compromised and even in some cases rendered unusable, according to Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost expert and emeritus professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Portions of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the 800-mile conduit that runs from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, have already been damaged due to thawing permafrost. Pipes curve near the CD1 pad at Alpine oil development area northwest of Nuiqsut, left. Windblown signs, right, stand long the road in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Nathaniel Wilder According to interviews with former petroleum engineers and geologists who have worked on the North Slope, state and federal oversight of oil and gas drilling has not kept pace with the changes wrought by a warming climate. The Alpine leak exposed deep flaws in ConocoPhillips’ understanding of the region’s geology, but regulators at the Department of the Interior and the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or AOGCC, continue to rely largely on the company’s assurances and proprietary data as it embarks on major new development projects. Despite the risks, Alaska’s political leaders remain determined to expand oil and gas development on the North Slope, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In Alaska, the fossil fuel industry is deeply intertwined with the state officials who regulate it: Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy’s former chief of staff, Ben Stevens, is now vice president of external affairs at ConocoPhillips Alaska. Dunleavy also appointed Jeremy Price, another top aide and a former lobbyist with the American Petroleum Institute, to head the AOGCC, which is overseeing the investigation into the Alpine leak and has not yet released its findings. (Price stepped down in late September to work for an oil refinery out of state.)   The company’s own preliminary analysis revealed several missteps that led to the leak. “ConocoPhillips screwed up in a number of different ways,” said Mark Myers, a retired petroleum geologist who served as director of Alaska’s Division of Oil and Gas from 2001 to 2005. In a written statement, an AOGCC spokesperson said that the agency is aware of problems created by thawing permafrost and has addressed the issue in the past by modifying its drilling requirements. “AOGCC has some of the strongest regulations in the country in terms of drilling and well construction,” the spokesperson wrote. The commission would not comment on whether it plans to make additional changes because of the Alpine leak but said it “continuously evaluates the adequacy of our regulations.” Am aerial view of the MT-7 pad near Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder The Department of the Interior says it has collected permafrost temperature data from unplugged legacy wells on the North Slope for more than 20 years, in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, and continues to monitor the changes closely. “Preliminary data supports temperatures warming at approximately 0.1°C/year,” the department said in a written statement, “though additional data is needed to better characterize the changes spatially.”  But long-held assumptions about oil and gas drilling on the North Slope may no longer apply. Scientists and engineers who spoke to Grist and Type Investigations were far less certain about the future of development in an area experiencing such rapid warming.  “The assumed structural integrity of the permafrost is basic to the design of both surface facilities and well construction,” Lewis said. “If that premise is questionable, the entire design philosophy of North Slope development becomes suspect.” As ConocoPhillips struggled to control the leak during those first few days in March, Nuiqsut residents were worried that a single spark could lead to a far more dangerous situation. If just one well had caught fire, according to Lewis, it could have led to a series of explosions. Terza Hopson, a young mother who is expecting a second child in October, drove her family and their two dogs and cat to Anchorage, more than 800 miles away. Hopson said that she grew alarmed when she heard of ConocoPhillips’ decision to evacuate its own employees, as well as rumors that the company was bringing in buses to prepare for a larger emergency. At least 20 other families left the village during that first week, according to Ahtuangaruak. Terza Hopson poses for a photo in the Nuiqsut community center. After the gas leak in March, she drove 25 hours to Anchorage with her family. Nathaniel Wilder “We were scared,” Hopson told me. “My concern was my unborn child. I wasn’t going to try to endanger my child.”  Nevertheless, oil and gas development continues nearby. As Mayor Ahtuangaruak focused on keeping her town safe during the leak, she was also preparing for the next big battle on the North Slope. ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, one of the largest proposed onshore oil and gas developments in the United States, lies about 30 miles west of Alpine in the government-managed National Petroleum Reserve. The Department of the Interior approved the project during the final months of the Trump administration. In August of last year, however, a federal judge ruled that the legally required environmental analysis did not sufficiently address the project’s anticipated greenhouse gas emissions, among other flaws, and ordered the department to redo portions of its environmental impact statement. If the Willow project is approved, it would allow for more than 250 wells, dozens of new gravel roads, and up to two airstrips. The project would produce an estimated 284 million metric tons of carbon dioxide over its 30-year lifetime, according to the most recent environmental impact statement. The Center for American Progress, a Democrat-aligned think tank, has described the project as a “carbon disaster.” Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak drives by the location of the recent gas leak. Nathaniel Wilder Nevertheless, the Biden administration has supported Willow since the president took office, even though it threatens to derail the White House’s climate goals by locking in decades of fossil fuel drilling. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has squeezed global energy supplies, has only strengthened calls to boost oil and gas production on the North Slope. In early July, the Interior Department released a new draft of the environmental analysis providing a wider range of possible development scenarios, including one that would reduce the project’s overall footprint. The department has sent mixed signals in its rollout of the document. It originally posted an obsolete version, which included language suggesting that the agency was legally obligated to greenlight the project. This draft was later removed and replaced with one that did not indicate a preferred development scenario. The department also initially promised Nuiqsut a longer comment period, but it later reversed course without explanation and ultimately gave the public just 45 days, the minimum required by law. A final decision is expected later this year. This has all served to heighten tensions in Nuiqsut, where Willow has been a source of controversy for several years. In 2019, tribal leadership passed resolutions opposing the project and urging federal and state agencies to undertake baseline environmental studies before approving any new development. “The Tribal Council of the Native Village of Nuiqsut objects to the continued practice of approving oil and gas exploration and development activities in a piecemeal fashion and without [a] thorough understanding of how these activities are affecting our lands, waters, and air,” the council wrote. An aerial of the village of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder Snow covers houses in the village of Nuiqsuit. Nathaniel Wilder Photographs of elders hang in the community hall in Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder Children play near the Nuiqsuit community center, left. Photographs of elders hang in the community hall in Nuiqsut, right. Nathaniel Wilder Nathaniel Wilder That same year, the village filed its first-ever lawsuit challenging the Interior Department’s approval of ConocoPhillips’ winter exploration work. A court ultimately decided in the company’s favor, but it marked a turning point in relations between Nuiqsut and the fossil fuel industry on the North Slope. Ahtuangaruak, a former physician’s assistant and public health aid, was elected mayor in November 2021, and she attributes her victory in part to growing opposition to new oil and gas development.  Nearly 100 percent of Nuiqsut households depend on subsistence hunting and fishing, which has already been affected by decades of industrial development. According to the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Interior Department, oil and gas activity has made it more difficult for residents to access traditional use areas. Willow’s footprint would overlap with some of the most important hunting and fishing grounds in the region. Under ConocoPhillips’ preferred development scenario, there would be an estimated 3.2 million vehicle trips over the lifetime of the project, many of them in areas currently used by subsistence hunters. “We don’t know what’s going to happen once they get that project going,” said Gordon Brown, a member of the village corporation’s subsistence oversight panel. “Are we going to lose our caribou, or are we not? That’s the big thing.” Caribou move north toward calving grounds along the Dalton Highway, which leads to the oil camp of Prudhoe Bay. Nathaniel Wilder Some of the development, including gravel roads and pipelines, would be built within a special conservation area around Teshekpuk Lake, the largest body of water on the North Slope and critical calving grounds for the Teshekpuk caribou herd. And, just as it did with Alpine, ConocoPhillips has plans to expand its development further west, designs it refers to as “greater Willow 1 and 2.” Ultimately, the final decision on Willow will be made not in Nuiqsut but well over 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. In April, Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland traveled to Alaska, fulfilling a promise she’d made to Alaska’s two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, during her confirmation hearings. Her trip included a stop in Utqiagvik, the North Slope borough seat, where she sat down with local leadership and representatives from Native corporations, including Kuukpik and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, according to a Department of the Interior employee who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the event. Kuukpik and the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation have voiced their support for the Willow project. Haaland’s trip came just two months after Russia invaded Ukraine and threw the world into an energy crisis. A few days before she arrived, Senator Sullivan and North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower published an op-ed urging the secretary to quickly complete the Willow environmental impact statement and invoke emergency measures to expand oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve. A rearview mirror shows a pipeline south of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Nathaniel Wilder “Roughly the size of Indiana, the [National Petroleum Reserve] was set aside in 1923 specifically for oil production in case of emergencies,” they wrote. “We believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the disruption this is causing energy markets, and the astronomical prices Americans are paying at the pump, all constitute an emergency.” The new draft environmental impact statement published in July includes a brief, two-paragraph discussion of the events at Alpine and notes that the same shallow layer of sandstone, known as the Halo formation, that was the source of the leak is also present at Willow. But key questions related to the leak remain unanswered, scientists say, raising concerns about the potential for similar accidents if Willow moves forward. In particular, experts who spoke to Grist and Type Investigations say they were surprised that ConocoPhillips, despite decades of drilling in the Arctic, was unable to detect the presence of significant amounts of natural gas in the area where the leak occurred. The company, which has since conducted new three-dimensional seismic surveys of the area, has not explained the anomaly. Read Next Don’t Look Down Lois Parshley In a written statement, Dennis Nuss, a ConocoPhillips spokesperson, said the company took federal guidelines and environmental concerns into account when designing the Willow project. “Arctic engineering principles are present throughout Willow’s design, and they include practices that are widely used and designed to promote safe, environmentally sound operations,” Nuss said. Meanwhile, the draft environmental impact statement for Willow has only a few pages devoted to permafrost thaw, an issue that will continue to complicate drilling on the North Slope. The Interior Department said it would not comment on any questions related to the Alpine leak, which occurred on state land, including whether it has had access to the new seismic data.  According to ConocoPhillips, human error was the immediate cause of the leak: Pressure limits exceeded during a routine drilling operation damaged a portion of the well known as the casing shoe about a half-mile underground, creating the initial pathway for gas to escape. Poor cement bonding, which adds another layer of protection between the casing and the surrounding rock, also compromised the integrity of the well. Between March 1 and March 3, before the leak was reported, warning signs were also missed or left unaddressed, ConocoPhillips has acknowledged. Boxes of supplies sit on the Kuukpik Corporation staging grounds in the Alpine oil development region just north of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder In an April letter to the Department of the Interior, a coalition of environmental groups urged the agency to undertake a more rigorous analysis of potential impacts from gas leaks, blowouts, oil spills, and other accidents. “The leak demonstrates that ConocoPhillips cannot guarantee the safe operation of oil development projects in the region,” they wrote. In a written statement, ConocoPhillips defended its safety record on the North Slope and said that the permitting process and design principles used at Willow account for the future effects of a rapidly warming climate.  “ConocoPhillips recognizes that it is a privilege to operate on the North Slope and in Alaska, and we have done so safely and responsibly for more than 50 years,” Nuss said. “When planning and permitting projects like Willow, the company works with regulatory agencies, local communities, and other stakeholders to assess and mitigate community concerns and potential impacts related to air emissions, subsistence activities, surface disturbance, water use, wildlife, and people.” The company also said the Willow project would come with significant benefits for the public — and that there is no reason to further delay construction. Depending on when the Interior Department issues its final decision, ConocoPhillips says it could break ground on the project as soon as this winter. Just over a week after the court ruling vacating the Willow environmental impact statement in August 2021, ConocoPhillips sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management’s Alaska office describing the flaws in the document as “discrete and fixable” and asking to work with the agency to “expeditiously move the permitting process forward.” That’s exactly what they did. According to public records obtained by Grist and Type Investigations through a Freedom of Information Act request, ConocoPhillips and the bureau had their first meeting a few days later.  Trucks carry equipment staged in the village for use in nearby oil development projects. Nathaniel Wilder “It shows the depth of influence ConocoPhillips has no matter which party is in office,” said Bridget Psarianos, a former Interior Department employee who now works as a staff attorney at Trustees for Alaska, an environmental organization representing groups who have filed suit against the department over the Willow project. The draft environmental statement also reveals how the Interior Department and other regulatory agencies depend on assurances from the oil and gas industry that may not always turn out to be reliable, especially in a rapidly warming environment. The statement echoes some of the same assumptions that led to the leak at ConocoPhillips’ Alpine site. According to the incident report, ConocoPhillips’ decision to forgo the use of cement casing around the portion of the well where the leak occurred was based on the assumption that there was little to no gas present in the 3,000-to-4,000-foot deep formation. (In ConocoPhillips’ words, it was not considered a “significant hydrocarbon zone.”) This turned out to be wrong. But Lewis, the former petroleum engineer, said that Interior appears to have reached a similar conclusion for Willow, where the same geological formation is found, without providing much evidence to support it. In a written statement, the Interior Department said it made its determination after reviewing seismic studies and proprietary data from wells drilled in the project area, which cannot be released to the public.  Layers of dirt and snow pile up in the village of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder Lewis said that the paragraphs in the draft environmental impact statement devoted to the leak rely almost entirely on information provided by ConocoPhillips and “read like industry-supplied text.” (The Interior Department declined to comment on Lewis’ assertion.) Because the geological formation in the Willow project occurs at a shallower depth than it does at Alpine, the Interior Department says planned wells would be fully cemented, providing additional protection in the event of an accident. “This would further reduce the already very low risk of a shallow-gas leak,” the environmental impact statement reads.      But Mark Myers, the retired petroleum geologist and former director of the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas, said that the agency needs to do more to ensure that leaks like the one at Alpine don’t happen again. Myers argued that the agency should incorporate whatever ConocoPhillips has learned about the underlying geology through newly conducted seismic surveys at Alpine into its planning for the Willow project. In addition, he said there should be a more robust permafrost monitoring program at the Willow site in order to evaluate changes and possibly modify standards for pad construction.   The Department of the Interior said that the current design of the Willow project “accounts for the expected conditions” over the project’s anticipated 30-year lifespan. Meanwhile, ConocoPhillips continues to expand its footprint in and around Nuiqsut. In May, the company announced that it had successfully tested a new Alpine rig dubbed “The Beast” capable of drilling up to 7.5 miles in any direction. It’s often noted that Nuiqsut is encircled by oil and gas development. That circle is growing closer.  Late one evening in May, Ahtuangaruak drove me out along the road that runs south of the village. The sun was still bright, and snow geese angled overhead. We passed a lake that provides Nuiqsut’s drinking water and eventually came to a bluff overlooking the Colville River, not far from where the original inhabitants of the village had settled in the early 1970s. Mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak drives along an oil development road west of Nuiqsut. Nathaniel Wilder Ahtuangaruak pointed out seismic tracks on the surface of the river, still covered in snow, running in a grid-like pattern toward the village. Kuukpik, Nuiqsut’s village corporation, had recently completed new seismic surveys covering 59 square miles of land as part of another project, known as Narwhal, including areas in and around the village. These surveys will be used to provide the location and estimates of oil and gas reserves in the area. “We fought it,” said Ahtuangaruak. “They did it anyway.”  Looking out at a landscape that had undergone profound changes in the last 40 years, Ahtuangaruak explained that Nuiqsut is an Iñupiat word meaning “beautiful place on the horizon.” She still believes that to be true, but doesn’t know how much more development the village can endure. Part of the area surveyed this winter and spring includes leases directly underneath the village that have already been sold. The buyer? ConocoPhillips. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Unstable Ground on Oct 3, 2022.
Will the Farm Bill be the next big climate package? It depends on the midterm elections

Will the Farm Bill be the next big climate package? It depends on the midterm elections

October 3, 2022

Republicans have already vowed to strip climate funding from the bill.

This year’s midterm elections will decide the direction of a massive legislative package meant to tackle the nation’s agricultural problems. Republican Senate and House members are already vowing they won’t pack it with climate “buzzwords.” Roughly every five years, lawmakers pass The Farm Bill, a spending bill that addresses the agriculture industry, food systems, nutrition programs, and more. This legislation is up for reauthorization next year. The political fighting comes on the heels of both the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law including billions of dollars for climate provisions. John Boozman, a Republican Senator from Arkansas who is a high-ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, is among a growing number of Republicans who have said they will not allow additional climate provisions into the upcoming Farm Bill. If Republicans win back the House this November, which is still a possible outcome despite tightening Democratic races across the country, GOP members will be in control of drafting next year’s Farm Bill.  “In their zeal to pass their reckless tax-and-spend agenda, they (Democrats) have undermined one of the last successful bipartisan processes in the Senate,” said Boozman in a Senate floor hearing this past August. Boozman said the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act without bipartisan support threatens the future of the Farm Bill, a generally bipartisan omnibus bill. The next bill needs to be authorized before September 2023. Over a dozen members of the House Agriculture Committee, which steers the Farm Bill draft process, are up for reelection this November. For example, Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Congresswoman whose district is near the nation’s capital, and a committee member and subcommittee chair, currently faces a contested election in her state, with inflation’s impact on farming communities a key point in the race. Glenn Thompson, a Congressman who represents a western Pennsylvania district, is slated to be the Chair of the House Agriculture Committee if Republicans win the House. After the passage of the historic climate bill this August, the Pennsylvania Republican said the Inflation Reduction Act “only complicates the pathway to a Farm Bill and creates even greater uncertainty for farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.” Thompson has expressed interest in conservation efforts in the past, but in a September hearing, he said he won’t allow unnecessary climate items into next year’s bill. “I will not sit idly by as we let decades of real bipartisan progress be turned on its head to satisfy people that at their core think agriculture is a blight on the landscape,” Thompson said in the hearing. “I have been leaning into the climate discussion, but I will not have us suddenly incorporate buzzwords like regenerative agriculture into the Farm Bill or overemphasize climate.” Ahead of the November elections, House Republicans have already released insight into their priorities for this upcoming legislation. The Republican Study Committee, whose members make up 80 percent of all Republican members of Congress, released its draft budget in July. This draft document outlines a plan that completely defunds federal programs that support conservation efforts, as well as slashes federal food stamp and crop insurance programs. The draft document heralds the preliminary budget as “ undeniably pro-farmer.” As Farm Bill debates continue, a group of over 150 progressive, agriculture, and environmental groups, from the nation’s largest federation of labor unions to the Sierra Club environmental group, have urged President Joe Biden to add climate reforms in the upcoming legislative package. In a letter to Biden, organizations urged the President to pass a Farm Bill that would help mend economic and racial divides in the industry, increase access to nutrition, support fair labor conditions in farming communities labor conditions, as well as tackle the climate crisis with a focus on agriculture.  Sarah Carden, policy advocate for Farm Action, a progressive agriculture advocacy nonprofit that signed the letter, said that no farmer will deny the industry has been plagued by increased extreme weather events and the Farm Bill needs to address climate change as much as it does other problems in the industry. She said the organization has urged federal agencies to push more funding into programs that help conservation efforts, promote soil health, and mandate the use of climate-smart solutions, instead of contributing to a band-aid funding cycle. “Farmers who are receiving federal support in the wake of increased extreme weather events and disasters should be practicing practices that contribute to resiliency,” Carden told Grist. Carden said that the United States Department of Agriculture, or USDA, has created more climate-focused solutions in recent years, such as the recently announced Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities which directs $3 billion to small growers into the supply chain, but it’s important that sustainable solutions are written into the Farm Bill this upcoming cycle as administration changes could upend individual agency efforts. Since its creation in the 1930s, the Farm Bill has provided direct, federal funding to farmers to address the evolving agricultural industry, from land management to economic development. What was created as a way to infuse cash into an industry decimated by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, by 1973 the farm bill turned into a massive set of legislation that addresses everything from soil erosion to federal food stamp programs. Farmers and growers need to address the changing climate, said Margaret Krome, the policy program director for Wisconsin and Midwest agriculture nonprofit research group Michael Fields Agricultural Institute. Krome said the industry is running out of time to address ongoing problems. “We have got climate change at our doorstep,” she said. Krome, who works with state and federal officials on legislation about agriculture, said the Farm Bill has always been a way to have farmers focus on their current needs. As discussions and draft legislation begin, she said three issues are likely to be at the top of the debates; climate change, the future of farming and addressing historic racial injustices in the industry, and the intersection of nutrition and agriculture.  With increasing polarization in politics and the upcoming midterm elections, she said it is important for those working on the bill to remember that farming touches everyone in the country and should, hopefully, remain bipartisan. Despite political differences at the state level across the country, a nonpartisan coalition of state agriculture department officials recently issued a letter declaring their desire for the Farm Bill to include increased disaster relief, nutrition programs, and subsidies for regional food production. As farming adapts to warming crops and increased droughts, federal agencies are increasing funding and focusing on addressing the industry’s role in spurring a warming world. According to the USDA, the nation’s agriculture sector accounted for 11 percent of the country’s carbon emissions in 2020.  Congressman David Scott of Georgia, center, speaks at a press conference in 2009. Scott is currently seeking re-election and is the Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images The Farm Bill already includes language outlining two top USDA environmentally focused programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, and the Conservation Stewardship Program. Both of these programs are normally funded through the Farm Bill, but the Inflation Reduction Act added billions of funding to them, with $8.45 billion for EQIP and $3.25 billion for the conservation program. The infusion was praised by environmental groups and Democrats who hope the increased funding will help farmers implement climate-smart solutions like cover crops to help to increase crop resiliency or create wildlife habitats on farmland. Key agricultural leaders on Capitol Hill also predict that, alongside the addition of climate provisions, fights over Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, will stall next year’s Farm Bill. In both 2014 and 2018, efforts from House GOP members to cut SNAP funding slowed the bill’s passage. Earlier this year, Georgia Democratic Congressman David Scott, who is currently seeking re-election and is the Chair of the House Committee on Agriculture and represents a district just outside of Atlanta, warned that fights over SNAP could derail Farm Bill conservations. Given the Biden administration’s recent announcement of plans to end hunger by 2030, debates over nutrition funding are likely to flare up.   The fight will boil down to the program’s funding as from 2024 to 2028, SNAP is estimated to cost roughly $531 billion, an increase caused by droves of new users coming to the program due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In comparison, all nutritional programs, not just SNAP, were estimated to cost $326 billion in the 2018 Farm Bill. Recently passed landmark climate legislation may also interfere with what makes it into the Farm Bill, as Conservative House and Senate members have said funding from the Inflation Reduction Act could decrease the budget for climate proposals inside the Farm Bill. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Will the Farm Bill be the next big climate package? It depends on the midterm elections on Oct 3, 2022.

Chemicals

The magnificent Lake Eyre Basin is threatened by 831 oil and gas wells – and more are planned. Is that what Australians really want?

The magnificent Lake Eyre Basin is threatened by 831 oil and gas wells – and more are planned. Is that what Australians really want?

October 3, 2022

Lake Eyre Basin contains one of the few pristine river systems left in the world. But new research shows oil and gas activity is extending its tentacles into these fragile environments.

The heart-shaped Lake Eyre Basin covers about one-sixth of Australia. It contains one of the few remaining pristine river systems in the world. But new research shows oil and gas activity is extending its tentacles into these fragile environments. Its wells, pads, roads and dams threaten to change water flows and pollute this magnificent ecosystem. The study, by myself and colleague Amy Walburn, investigated current and future oil and gas production and exploration on the floodplains of the Lake Eyre Basin. We found 831 oil and gas wells across the basin – and this number is set to grow. What’s more, state and Commonwealth legislation has largely failed to control this development. State and national governments are promoting massive gas development to kickstart Australia’s economy. But as we show, this risks significant damage to the Lake Eyre Basin and its rivers. Mining infrastructure in the Lake Eyre Basin, here recently flooded, threatens the pristine natural wonder. Doug Gimesy A precious natural wonder The Lake Eyre Basin is probably the last major free-flowing river system on Earth – meaning no major dams or irrigation diversions stem the rivers’ flow. This country has been looked after for tens of thousands of year by First Nations people, including the Arrernte, Dieri, Mithaka and Wangkangurru. This care continues today. The biggest rivers feeding the basin – the Diamantina, Georgina and Cooper – originate in western Queensland and flow to South Australia where they pour into Kathi Thanda-Lake Eyre. As they wind south, the rivers dissect deserts and inundate floodplains, lakes and wetlands – including 33 wetlands of national importance. This natural phenomenon has happened for millennia. It supports incredible natural booms of plants, fish and birds, as well as tourism and livestock grazing. But our new research shows oil and gas development threatens this precious natural wonder. Read more: Unknown wonders: Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre Massive industrial creep Our analysis used satellite imagery to map the locations of oil and gas development in the Lake Eyre Basin since the first oil wells were established in late 1950s. We found 831 oil and gas production and exploration wells exist on the floodplains of the Lake Eyre Basin – almost 99% of them on the Cooper Creek floodplains. The wells go under the river and its floodplains into the geological Cooper Basin, considered to have the most important onshore petroleum and natural gas deposits in Australia. Our research also shows how quickly oil and gas mining in the Lake Eyre Basin is set to grow. We identified licensing approvals or applications covering 4.5 million hectares of floodplains in the Lake Eyre Basin, across South Australia and Queensland. The CSIRO recently examined likely scenarios of 1,000 to 1,500 additional unconventional gas wells in the Cooper Basin in the next 50 years. It predicted these wells would built be on “pads” – areas occupied by mining equipment or facilities – about 4 kilometres apart. They would typically access gas using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Read more: Protecting Australia's Lake Eyre basin means getting our priorities right Fracking is the process of extracting so-called “unconventional gas”. It involves using water and chemicals to fracture deep rocks to extract the gas. This polluted water, known to be toxic to fish, is brought back to the surface and stored in dams. Two locations we focused on were in South Australia at the protected, Ramsar-listed Coongie Lakes site, which was recognised as internationally significant in 1987. The other site was in Queensland’s channel country, also on the Cooper floodplain. In total across the Coongie Lakes sites, we found a three-fold increase in wells: from 95 in 1987 to 296 last year. We also identified 869 kilometres of roads and 316 hectares of storage pits, such as those that hold water. Some of these dams could potentially hold polluted fracking water and become submerged by flooding, particularly at Coongie Lakes. A disaster waiting to happen? Examples from around the world already show oil and gas exploration and development can reduce water quality by interrupting sediments and leading to elevated chemical concentrations. Production waste can also degrade floodplain vegetation. The CSIRO says risks associated with oil and gas development in the Cooper Basin include: dust and emissions from machinery that may cause habitat loss, including changes to air quality, noise and light pollution disposal and storage of site materials that may contaminate soil, surface water and/or groundwater through accidental spills, leaks and leaching unplanned fracking and drilling into underground faults, unintended geological layers or abandoned wells gas and fluids contaminating soil, surface water, groundwater and air changes to groundwater pressures could potentially reactivate underground faults and induce earthquakes. Fracking for unconventional gas also requires drawing large amounts of water from rivers and groundwater. Read more: 1 in 5 fossil fuel projects overshoot their original estimations for emissions. Why are there such significant errors? The laws have failed Our findings raise significant questions for Australian governments and the community. Are we prepared to accept industrialisation of the Lake Eyre Basin, and the associated risk of pollution and other environmental damage? Have the companies involved earned a social licence for these activities? Where do the profits end up, and who will bear the social, environmental and financial costs of such intense development? Clearly, state and federal environmental protections have failed to stop unfettered development of the basin. These policies include the Lake Eyre Basin Agreement, signed by the states, the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory, which has been in place since 2000. Australia’s federal environment law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – is supposed to protect nationally important areas such as Ramsar wetlands. Yet our research identified that just eight developments in the basin were referred to the Commonwealth government for approval and with only one deemed significant enough for assessment. This legislation does not deal adequately with the cumulative impacts of development. And finally, gas extraction and production is associated with substantial “fugitive” emissions - greenhouse gases which escape into the atmosphere. This undermines Australia’s emissions reduction efforts under the Paris Agreement. The governments of South Australia and Queensland should restrict mining development in the Lake Eyre Basin. And stronger federal oversight of this nationally significant natural treasure is urgently needed. In response to this article, Chief executive of the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, Samantha McCulloch, said in a statement: The oil and gas industry takes its responsibilities to the environment and to local communities seriously and it is one of the most heavily regulated sectors in Australia. The industry has been operating in Queensland for more than a decade and the gas produced in Queensland plays an important role in Australia’s energy security. Richard Kingsford received part funding for this work from The Pew Charitable Trusts as well as the Centre for Ecosystem Science, UNSW Sydney. It was also written as part of an Australian Research Council Linkage Grant on Ramsar Sites. He also receives funding from state and Commonwealth governments, non-government organisations, including Bush Heritage Australia, the Ian Potter Foundation and Nari Nari Tribal Council. He is affiliated with the Society for Conservation Biology Oceania, Ecological Society of Australia and Birdlife Australia.
‘We can’t recycle our way out’

‘We can’t recycle our way out’

October 1, 2022

From chemical recycling to plant-based alternatives, scientists size up the most promising solutions to plastic pollution.

This piece was originally published by InvestigateWest. When dealing with the life cycle of plastic, hundreds of solutions await, from alternative bioplastics that might be able to degrade themselves through the magic of fungus, to complex chemical recycling that can break plastics down to become other petroleum products or to be rebuilt good as new But as promising as chemical recycling and next-generation plastics may sound, experts also say some of the most realistic solutions to plastic pollution involve eliminating it from packaging as much as possible. Decision-makers are asking: How can manufacturers design their plastic packaging to be recycled more easily after consumers are done with it? Should packaging all be the same color of plastic to avoid dye-based contamination in recycling processes? Could markers on different types of plastic help imaging robots at sorting facilities do their jobs better when diverting containers by type? Which products could avoid using plastic altogether? Currently, the vast majority of plastic recycling is done by mechanical methods. First, post-consumer plastics are divided by number; for example, the PET plastic or polyethylene terephthalate commonly used for beverage bottles needs to be separated from the HDPE plastic (high-density polyethylene) that’s often used for laundry detergent containers. Each group is then often shredded and melted into pellets that can get remelted and formed into new packaging. Or different plastics can be repurposed into boards for outdoor decks or processed into fibers for carpets and clothing.  But because heat can degrade the polymer chains (strings of repeating molecules) in plastic, there are limits to the number of times plastic can be “recycled” in the truest sense of being made into a new product. With those limitations in mind, many people, from those working for the largest oil and chemical manufacturers (think BP and Dow) down to individual entrepreneurs, are experimenting with chemical recycling as a potential way to recycle even more plastic. Less than 10 percent of the stuff actually gets recycled, but chemical recycling offers the promise of rebuilding the molecule chains that are broken down with heat, as well as the possibility of converting plastics into fuels and other compounds. Whether some of the newer chemical recycling proposals will actually succeed is a question. Common constraints include the high costs of building and powering processing facilities, the purchase of expensive chemicals, and the challenge of reliably sourcing materials uncontaminated with food scraps, dyes, or other types of plastic or garbage. Other concerns center on the greenhouse gas emissions of the chemical recycling process and, in the case of turning plastics into fuels, burning the end products, and whether those climate costs are less than those caused by creating virgin plastic. Meanwhile, innovators of all ages are developing plastic alternatives made from things like fish skin, vegetable starches and other biodegradable substances that offer the promise of rapid decomposition when disposed of properly, a sharp contrast with the thousands of years that traditional plastics may linger in the environment.  As people figure out whether chemical recycling or plastic alternatives can prevent plastic pollution — which has already tainted air, water, and land around the globe — local governments around the country are still getting a grasp on the recycling options that already exist. Washington state’s wakeup call came about five years ago when China stopped accepting highly contaminated bales of recycled materials from around the world. Washington lawmakers, responding to the loss of a market that took upwards of 60 percent of the state’s recycled materials, created the Recycling Development Center in 2019. Lawmakers instructed the state Department of Ecology, via the new center, to help create domestic markets for the state’s recyclable materials.  Washington was on course to lead the way in tackling big recycling problems surrounding plastics and other materials, but the Recycling Development Center got off to a slow start as the COVID-19 pandemic caused agencies to shift to remote work and Governor Jay Inslee froze unnecessary hiring. The center’s 14-member advisory board, made up of scientists, manufacturers, environmentalists and more, started meeting virtually in 2020, later offering grants to pilot recycling projects and funding studies that identified recycling options and issues. Presort Lead Jameel Henricksen, right, and Sorter Jerome Thomas remove plastic bags at Waste Management’s SMaRT Center in Spokane, Wash., on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. Young Kwak / Inlander “We had resources from the Legislature that we couldn’t use to hire a consultant, so we set up a little grant program for local governments and universities,” says Kara Steward, director of the Recycling Development Center.  Recently, the center has been able to support business accelerator competitions, such as NextCycle Washington, which aims to identify innovative ideas that can create a circular economy for materials like plastic. People with promising ideas will get help pitching to investors and connecting with groups that have far deeper pockets than a state program, Steward says.  “We’re really excited because this is not the kind of thing the Department of Ecology does,” Steward says. “We’re about keeping human health and the environment clean, and I’m over here going, ‘But wait, I want to give money to businesses!’ Everybody around me is like, ‘You can’t do that.’ ‘Yeah, actually, I think I can.’” New ideas that focus on solutions outside of the recycling system are also welcomed, as packaging innovations may better reduce the waste we create. “We can’t recycle our way out of the plastic problem,” Steward says. “We’ve recycled 8 percent of the plastic manufactured since the beginning of plastic. We’ve got to think outside the box, do new things, and NextCycle Washington is a great way to try and give a boost to those innovations that just need a little bit of help.”  In a 2021 report funded by the Recycling Development Center, research professor Karl Englund and a civil and environmental engineering team at Washington State University outlined existing chemical and thermal recycling options for plastic — such as heat-intensive solutions like pyrolysis and gasification, or catalyst-based solutions like glycolysis — and assessed their viability to operate in the Pacific Northwest. Chemical recycling can create new plastics, syngas (made from hydrogen and carbon monoxide from wood, plastics or other sources), bio oils, and other products. The report found there could be enough post-consumer plastics in either eastern Washington or the Puget Sound region to support a chemical recycler on either side of the state if consumer recycling rates were to increase significantly — from a current rate of about 8 percent to 50 percent. But the report also notes that the costs to open a new facility can be prohibitive, especially as the market prices for end products can vary. “There is a definite need to secure investment dollars to make any recycling process a success,” the report states. “Having investors that are educated and informed about the recycling supply chain is a must for them to be comfortable to invest in what can be a somewhat risky venture. Without sufficient investment management, smaller companies and start-ups will have a difficult time securing investments and mitigating risks.” The research team also compiled a database of hundreds of existing recyclers. Though it was updated in spring 2022, the list could already be updated with 100 new companies trying to work on plastic recycling, Englund says. Maintaining a reliable list is a challenge, as companies often make a big splash when they announce their promising new recycling process, but some fade away if their process doesn’t pencil out or get funding, Englund says.  Massive multinational companies such as Dow or BASF, which make additives that help in the more popular mechanical recycling processes, are more likely to stick around, as their products are readily available and backed with more finances, Englund explains.  Even when new facilities do open, they don’t always work as intended. One company in recent years offered Boise, Idaho, the ability to recycle its plastic films like bags and peel-back container tops into diesel fuel, but much of what was collected ultimately ended up getting burned for energy rather than converted to fuel, Reuters reported last year. The company said the switch was due to high levels of contamination in Boise’s recycling stream, but Reuters noted that multiple other “advanced recycling” projects around the world had also failed or been significantly delayed in recent years, largely due to high costs.  However, Englund says that while many news outlets may focus on the recycling failures, scientists and businesses are making significant progress to advance chemical recycling. “The guys in the plastics world are busting their butt to make this happen,” Englund says. “Do we all need to do more? Yeah. But at least we’re taking steps in the right direction, and I am cautiously optimistic.” New alternatives need to be assessed to ensure they’re a better option than continuing to churn out new plastic. For example, say that a store switches to glass bottles that can be returned for a deposit, washed, refilled and put back on the shelf. Does the weight of transporting those glass containers in vehicles contribute to worse gas mileage and a larger carbon footprint than lightweight, recyclable plastic containers? How much water is needed to clean the containers versus produce new ones?  For advanced recycling, companies have to calculate whether the energy needed to chemically break down and rebuild plastics is higher than the greenhouse gas emissions of creating new plastics. Upstream, packaging design decisions can also help make products more recyclable. Take a plastic container that holds bleach wipes. If the body of the container is white, the top of the container is another color, and the label is printed directly onto the plastic, those dyes can “contaminate” the process when recyclers are trying to achieve one homogenous color, Englund says. “When we develop that plastic at the very beginning, we’ve got to look and say, ‘How can I get this back to this form at the end of its life?’” Englund says.  A better design for that container of wipes might be as simple as using one color for the entire container and printing the label on paper, which is far easier to remove before the chemical recycling process and also could be separately recycled, he says. Englund also wonders whether other design features such as symbols imprinted with infrared ink could help materials recovery facilities more easily sort the different materials.  There may also need to be changes on the consumer side, he says, as a lot of design is based around consumer preferences for package appearance. “How do we as a society learn to accept things not in a million different colors [with] all these cool things added to it?” Englund asks. “You know, hey, it’s just milk.” Some states are helping tip the scale in favor of circular systems by requiring higher percentages of post-consumer recycled materials in packaging in coming years. Some are also passing “extended producer responsibility” rules that require manufacturers to pay for the recycling of their products at the end of their life cycle. Those policies could make some plastic recycling methods pencil out, as manufacturers will be more inclined to buy the recycled products to meet state mandates. Western Washington University freshman Anna Armstrong, 18, on campus Tuesday morning Sept. 20, 2022, in Bellingham, Wash. Armstrong is planning to major in environmental science and minor in environmental justice. Paul Conrad / InvestigateWest Amazingly, you don’t need to work in a multimillion-dollar lab backed by a massive corporation to design a plastic alternative.  For 18-year-old Anna Armstrong, the desire to help solve the world’s plastic problem started particularly young. Early in her freshman and sophomore science classes at Ferris High School in Spokane, Armstrong studied the potential of fungus to enhance composting. As she saw how difficult it was to compost bioplastics that are already available in the grocery store, she wondered if she could invent an alternative. She researched some of the options being explored, such as using the skin of invasive fish species to make bioplastics, which tackles two environmental problems at once. But working with smelly fish skins wasn’t exactly appealing. Her compost work led her to a specific fungus, Aspergillus oryzae, and she wondered if it could be used to break down the types of plant starch-based plastics, such as compostable trash can liners, that are becoming more popular in the plastic-alternatives field. “Aspergillus oryzae is found in Asia a lot of the time in food management because it is used for fermenting rice,” Armstrong says. “I was looking into what it does, and it kind of links to the starch and starts to eat away at it, which helps the fermentation process. So I cross applied that to plastic degradation to see how I could fix a separate problem.” During the last two years of her high school biomedical innovation classes — much of the time working remotely due to the pandemic — she researched sustainable sources for arrowroot powder, vinegar and vegetable glycerin that could create thin sheets of plastic similar to those found wrapped around products on store shelves, and set to work creating her own prototypes.  “I tried probably 30 or 40 recipes before I actually landed on one that I could use,” Armstrong says. “The ratios can be pretty tricky.” She also tried to adjust her methods to make the prototypes more transparent and with as few visible imperfections as possible, because consumers can be picky.  Armstrong took her bioplastic to the Eastern Washington Regional Science and Engineering Fair, where she took first place for her invention and went on to compete virtually in the International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, Georgia, where she placed fourth in the world in the environmental engineering category this year. Judges there helped her talk through how to reduce water usage when creating the bioplastic film and coached her on how to describe her work. This fall, she’s starting college at Western Washington University, where she plans to major in environmental science and minor in environmental justice. Ultimately, she wants to get her PhD in mycology (the study of fungi, such as mushrooms) as she continues developing her product, which she hopes to see on store shelves one day. “I want to prove that it isn’t impossible to make a plastic that actually works and is environmentally friendly,” Armstrong says. “If I can do it at 17, then scientists who have been working forever in the environmental engineering field should be capable of making it with years of experience.” Part of her passion also stems from growing up with fears of how climate change will impact the planet in her lifetime. She says scientists are trying everything they can to get the world to heed their warnings, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is taking action. “I really want to live in a world [where] I don’t have to worry about what the future generations can look like, and not even future generations of humans, I’m talking about all the flora and fauna that lives in the world and depends on the environment around us,” Armstrong says. “Fear isn’t an excuse to be complacent. Because other people haven’t done it doesn’t mean you can’t.”  InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit invw.org/newsletters to sign up for weekly updates. This story was made possible with support from the Sustainable Path Foundation. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline ‘We can’t recycle our way out’ on Oct 1, 2022.
Boston bans artificial turf in parks due to toxic ‘forever chemicals’

Boston bans artificial turf in parks due to toxic ‘forever chemicals’

September 30, 2022

The city joins a growing number across the US in limiting the use of artificial turf made with dangerous PFAS compoundsBoston’s mayor, Michelle Wu, has ordered no new artificial turf to be installed in city parks, making Boston the largest municipality in a small but growing number around the nation to limit use of the product because it contains dangerous chemicals.All artificial turf is made with toxic PFAS compounds and some is still produced with ground-up tires that can contain heavy metals, benzene, VOCs and other carcinogens that can present a health threat. The material also emits high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and sheds microplastics and other chemicals into waterways. Continue reading...

The city joins a growing number across the US in limiting the use of artificial turf made with dangerous PFAS compoundsBoston’s mayor, Michelle Wu, has ordered no new artificial turf to be installed in city parks, making Boston the largest municipality in a small but growing number around the nation to limit use of the product because it contains dangerous chemicals.All artificial turf is made with toxic PFAS compounds and some is still produced with ground-up tires that can contain heavy metals, benzene, VOCs and other carcinogens that can present a health threat. The material also emits high levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and sheds microplastics and other chemicals into waterways. Continue reading...
Chemicals linked to birth defects are being dumped in Pittsburgh’s rivers: Report

Chemicals linked to birth defects are being dumped in Pittsburgh’s rivers: Report

September 28, 2022

PITTSBURGH—More than 50 years after the passage of the national Clean Water Act, industrial polluters still regularly dump toxic chemicals linked to birth defects and cancer into local waterways, according to a new report.Among major watershed regions nationwide, the Ohio River basin received the largest volume of toxic chemical discharges by weight in 2020, according to the report, published today by the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. Other heavily polluted watersheds included the Mid-Atlantic watershed, which encompasses parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland Delaware and New York; and the South Atlantic-Gulf, which encompasses Florida and parts of surrounding states.The report looked at data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxic Release Inventory, which documents self-reported emissions of toxic chemicals from industrial sources across the country. It found that western Pennsylvania’s waterways see particularly large releases of chemicals like compounds of nickel and chromium, which are linked to reproductive harm, including reduced sperm count, birth defects, miscarriages and premature births. The lower Monongahela watershed, which encompasses much of southwestern Pennsylvania (and falls within the Ohio River basin), ranks 4th nationally for releases of chemicals that cause reproductive harm into waterways. Around 7,364 pounds of these chemicals were dumped into the watershed’s rivers and streams in 2020, according to the report.“Pennsylvania’s waterways should be clean — for swimming, fishing, providing drinking water and supporting wildlife,” Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director with the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, said in a statement. “But all too often, polluters use our rivers as open sewers with no repercussions.”Under the Clean Water Act, pollution released into waterways is regulated and monitored in various ways. Most of the pollutants reported under the Toxic Release Inventory are released into waterways legally, but some environmental advocates argue that pollution allowances under the law are too high, given the health harms of these chemicals and improved availability of better pollution control technology in recent years.The polluters of U.S. watersheds In the Pittsburgh area, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, about 15 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, dumped more than 2.1 million pounds of toxic chemicals into local waterways, making it the top industrial water polluter in Pennsylvania. The Clairton Coke Works ranks 17th on a list in the report of the top 50 industrial water polluters by volume in the country (it’s also a top air polluter). The report also ranks U.S. Steel among the top 20 parent companies for total releases of toxic chemicals into waterways nationwide in 2020, along with companies like Tyson Foods, Koch Industries, BASF Corp., Dupont De Nemours Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp. Statewide, the report found that more than 5.8 million pounds of toxic substances were dumped into waterways by industrial sites across the Commonwealth in 2020, including chemicals like nitrates from farming and byproducts from petroleum, steel and coal-related industries that are linked to cancer, reproductive harm and developmental issues in children. A total of 22,621 pounds of chemicals linked specifically to reproductive harm were released into the state’s waterways in 2020. Those figures make the Commonwealth the third worst in the country for chemical releases of chemicals linked to reproductive harm, the 12th worst state in the nation for toxic chemicals released into waterways by volume and the ninth worst for chemicals dumped into waterways by total toxicity. At the national level, the report found that 193.6 million pounds of toxic substances were dumped into U.S. waterways in 2020. The report found that the Cleveland-Cliffs Steel Corp.’s plant in Rockport, Indiana, dumped more than 11.9 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Lower Ohio-Little Pigeon watershed, which encompasses parts of Indiana and Kentucky, making it the worst industrial water polluter in the country. Necessary changesTo lower those releases and reduce related health effects, the report’s authors recommend requiring polluting industries to systematically reduce their use of toxic chemicals, and updating pollution control standards to eliminate the direct release of toxic chemicals into waterways. “The Clean Water Act has drastically improved our waterways since its signing nearly 50 years ago,” Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said in a statement. “Nevertheless, due to loopholes, deregulations and lack of enforcement, our waterways are nowhere near where they should be.” “There needs to be stricter regulations on what can be discharged into our waters,” she added. “We need to close the loopholes, and we need to enforce our clean water laws.”

PITTSBURGH—More than 50 years after the passage of the national Clean Water Act, industrial polluters still regularly dump toxic chemicals linked to birth defects and cancer into local waterways, according to a new report.Among major watershed regions nationwide, the Ohio River basin received the largest volume of toxic chemical discharges by weight in 2020, according to the report, published today by the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center. Other heavily polluted watersheds included the Mid-Atlantic watershed, which encompasses parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland Delaware and New York; and the South Atlantic-Gulf, which encompasses Florida and parts of surrounding states.The report looked at data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Toxic Release Inventory, which documents self-reported emissions of toxic chemicals from industrial sources across the country. It found that western Pennsylvania’s waterways see particularly large releases of chemicals like compounds of nickel and chromium, which are linked to reproductive harm, including reduced sperm count, birth defects, miscarriages and premature births. The lower Monongahela watershed, which encompasses much of southwestern Pennsylvania (and falls within the Ohio River basin), ranks 4th nationally for releases of chemicals that cause reproductive harm into waterways. Around 7,364 pounds of these chemicals were dumped into the watershed’s rivers and streams in 2020, according to the report.“Pennsylvania’s waterways should be clean — for swimming, fishing, providing drinking water and supporting wildlife,” Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director with the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, said in a statement. “But all too often, polluters use our rivers as open sewers with no repercussions.”Under the Clean Water Act, pollution released into waterways is regulated and monitored in various ways. Most of the pollutants reported under the Toxic Release Inventory are released into waterways legally, but some environmental advocates argue that pollution allowances under the law are too high, given the health harms of these chemicals and improved availability of better pollution control technology in recent years.The polluters of U.S. watersheds In the Pittsburgh area, U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, about 15 miles south of downtown Pittsburgh, dumped more than 2.1 million pounds of toxic chemicals into local waterways, making it the top industrial water polluter in Pennsylvania. The Clairton Coke Works ranks 17th on a list in the report of the top 50 industrial water polluters by volume in the country (it’s also a top air polluter). The report also ranks U.S. Steel among the top 20 parent companies for total releases of toxic chemicals into waterways nationwide in 2020, along with companies like Tyson Foods, Koch Industries, BASF Corp., Dupont De Nemours Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp. Statewide, the report found that more than 5.8 million pounds of toxic substances were dumped into waterways by industrial sites across the Commonwealth in 2020, including chemicals like nitrates from farming and byproducts from petroleum, steel and coal-related industries that are linked to cancer, reproductive harm and developmental issues in children. A total of 22,621 pounds of chemicals linked specifically to reproductive harm were released into the state’s waterways in 2020. Those figures make the Commonwealth the third worst in the country for chemical releases of chemicals linked to reproductive harm, the 12th worst state in the nation for toxic chemicals released into waterways by volume and the ninth worst for chemicals dumped into waterways by total toxicity. At the national level, the report found that 193.6 million pounds of toxic substances were dumped into U.S. waterways in 2020. The report found that the Cleveland-Cliffs Steel Corp.’s plant in Rockport, Indiana, dumped more than 11.9 million pounds of toxic chemicals into the Lower Ohio-Little Pigeon watershed, which encompasses parts of Indiana and Kentucky, making it the worst industrial water polluter in the country. Necessary changesTo lower those releases and reduce related health effects, the report’s authors recommend requiring polluting industries to systematically reduce their use of toxic chemicals, and updating pollution control standards to eliminate the direct release of toxic chemicals into waterways. “The Clean Water Act has drastically improved our waterways since its signing nearly 50 years ago,” Heather Hulton VanTassel, executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper, said in a statement. “Nevertheless, due to loopholes, deregulations and lack of enforcement, our waterways are nowhere near where they should be.” “There needs to be stricter regulations on what can be discharged into our waters,” she added. “We need to close the loopholes, and we need to enforce our clean water laws.”
Chips are the new oil. There are no reserves.

Chips are the new oil. There are no reserves.

September 28, 2022

Getty Images/iStockphoto Computer chips are ubiquitous, but they’re only made in a few places. In a single day, we interact with hundreds of computer chips, most no larger than a penny. These tiny circuits power everything from smartphones and laptops to medical devices and electric vehicles, and they’re largely responsible for our increasingly computerized lives. But in recent months, the world’s dependence on these chips has also put them at the center of mounting tensions between the United States and mainland China over Taiwan. Taiwan is located just 100 miles from China’s eastern coast, and it produces the vast majority of the advanced chips used in today’s electronics. The island is a democracy with its own government, and is home to more than 20 million people. Officials in Beijing, however, claim Taiwan as part of China and have repeatedly threatened to invade and “reunify” the island with the mainland. The US does not officially recognize Taiwan’s independence, though President Joe Biden has suggested that he would send American troops to defend the island against an invasion. As a result, there’s fear that a blockade around Taiwan could create a humanitarian and trade crisis, ultimately cutting off the world’s access to tons of critical technology. “If Taiwan chipmaking were to be knocked offline, there wouldn’t be enough capacity anywhere else in the world to make up for the loss,” explains Chris Miller, an international history professor at Tufts and the author of Chip War. “Even simple chips will become difficult to access, just because our demand outstrips supply.” The world is so reliant on chips produced by Taiwan that they’ve become the new oil, according to Miller. Recent military exercises along the Taiwan Strait, the critical waterway that separates Taiwan and mainland China, have raised the possibility that China might eventually block exports out of the island, which would disrupt all sorts of technology production, though some experts say there are plenty of reasons to think that a war won’t actually happen. The chair of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which makes nearly all of the world’s most advanced chips, has already warned that a war would leave its factories “not operable.” The US is trying to get a few steps ahead of this scenario. Earlier this summer, Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, a massive package that invests tens of billions of dollars to build new semiconductor factories across the US. Other countries with a history of chip manufacturing, including South Korea, Japan, and some European Union member states, have started scaling up their production capacity, too. An Apple supplier even said in February that it would start using semiconductors made in India, which is also developing its own chip industry. Still, Miller argues that these efforts won’t be enough to dull the impact of a war — a war the US and Taiwan aren’t guaranteed to win. As the past few years have painfully demonstrated, depending on a single region for critical supplies can backfire. Amid the war in Ukraine, Russia has cut off much of Europe’s access to gas, creating an energy crisis that has forced countries to restart coal plants and abandon their renewable energy goals. In the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, China — which was home to half of the world’s mask manufacturing capacity — limited exports of medical equipment. And when the vaccine was first rolled out, the US and other rich nations prioritized inoculating their own citizens before sending supplies to other countries. As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues, the world is slowly transitioning away from oil. But the same isn’t true for chips, which will only become more critical as new technologies become more popular and require even more computing power. Electric vehicles, for example, require twice the number of chips used by traditional internal combustion vehicles, and the rise of 5G — the technology that could make remote surgeries and self-driving cars a reality — will create a surge in demand for semiconductors, too. That means the stakes are only getting higher. Recode spoke with Miller recently about the growing importance of chips in global politics. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Rebecca Heilweil You argue that chips are the new oil. How ubiquitous are chips today, and to what extent do we depend on them in our daily lives? Chris Miller Almost anything with an on-off switch today has a chip inside. That’s true not only for things like smartphones or computers, but also for dishwashers and microwaves and cars. As we put more computing power in all sorts of devices, that requires more chips to convert signals from the real world into digits that can be processed and remembered. The typical person in the US will end up touching several hundred chips a day. The typical person hardly ever sees a chip in their entire life unless they take apart a computer, but the reality is we touch them and rely on them more than ever before. Rebecca Heilweil The computer chip was invented in the US. Taiwan now manufactures much of the world’s semiconductors and almost all of the advanced chips that governments are most interested in. How did that happen? Chris Miller Over the course of the past 50 years, but especially over the past couple of decades, the semiconductor supply chain has gotten much more specialized. So when the first chips were made by Texas Instruments, for example, or Fairchild Semiconductor in Silicon Valley, these companies did almost everything in-house. They designed chips. They produced them. They produced the machines that were needed to design chips. As chips have gotten more complex — and as the engineering needed to produce ever more semiconductors has become more specialized — you had firms emerge that focus on a specific part of the production process. Japanese firms, for example, play a major role in chemicals. US firms are particularly influential in the design of chips, as well as the production of machine tools that produce chips. Taiwan has specialized in the manufacturing of chips themselves. Companies will take a design and send it to a Taiwanese firm for production. Contract manufacturing is not unique to chips, but several decades ago, the biggest Taiwanese chipmaker, TSMC, realized that there was a potentially huge market for contract and manufacturing services. It began investing very, very heavily in trying to attract customers from Silicon Valley and offered to produce chips for them. That combination of scale investment in R&D has proven just impossible to compete with. Rebecca Heilweil So how does that play into the risks regarding China and the world’s supply of chips? Chris Miller Today, Taiwan produces, depending on how you calculate, 90 percent of processor chips. In aggregate, Taiwan is one of the biggest producers of chips in the world, so companies like Apple, for example, rely fundamentally on TSMC to produce the chips that power iPhones, iPads, or PCs because no one else can produce the chips that they need. It’s not as though they have second sources in most cases. It’s TSMC or else, which means that they’re highly reliant on peace in the Taiwan Strait. Over the past couple of years, as the military balance has shifted really dramatically in China’s direction, I think the assumption of peace going forward is being tested. The entire world economy would be dramatically hit if China were to attack Taiwan for a whole number of reasons, chips being just one of them. It’s easy to look at the biggest customers of TSMC and say the companies are most exposed — and maybe that’s true. But whether it’s autos or aviation or even chips in a dishwasher or microwave, many of these are also produced in Taiwan. Rebecca Heilweil The recent CHIPS and Science package allocates tens of billions of dollars to produce more chips in the US partly because of the risks you’re talking about with China. Will that be enough for an American chip comeback? Chris Miller It’s certainly going to have an impact in terms of getting more leading-edge production of the most advanced processor memory chips in the US. But it’s not nearly enough to dramatically reduce our reliance on Taiwan. Part of the reason why there’s more concern today — justifiably — is that unlike in prior decades, it’s now much less clear who would win a war on the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, we’re now much less certain than we were in the past that China wouldn’t attack because it’d be too costly for China to do so. Now, that’s an open question. Rebecca Heilweil Is this risk set to get worse because of the rise of 5G and electric vehicles and other emerging technology? The world is going to need more chips in the coming years and decades. Chris Miller Our reliance on Taiwan is not going to decrease. It will be a little bit less than it otherwise would have been thanks to the CHIPS Act, but the reality is we’re going to be dependent on Taiwan. The Chinese government is pouring many tens of billions of dollars — far more than CHIPS Act funding — into its own chip industry. Although the Chinese remain far behind the leading edge in terms of the technological level of chips they can produce, they’re going to vastly increase the capacity in producing what’s called lagging-edge chips: the types of chips you might find in a car or a consumer device. We’re going to continue to be reliant on chips from Taiwan, but also there’s a risk that we might rely more on chips from China in the future, too. Rebecca Heilweil Chipmaking isn’t exactly the most environmentally friendly production process. How should we be thinking about the environmental impacts of chip manufacturing, especially as companies try to scale up? Chris Miller One of the factors that led to the shifting of chipmaking offshore of the US was actually that the US imposed stricter environmental rules over time. There are a lot of really toxic chemicals that you use in chipmaking, and mitigating that is expensive. The bigger challenge is electricity and water consumption, because chipmaking requires a ton of both. On top of that, the more chips you have, the more devices you have that require electricity as well. Rebecca Heilweil For decades, we’ve seen chips getting more advanced. Is Moore’s Law — loosely, the idea that transistors’ chips will keep getting smaller and smaller, which allows chips to become more and more powerful over time — coming to an end? And what would that mean for the future of tech? Chris Miller What we can say is that Moore’s Law faces cost pressures that it hasn’t faced in a long time. It’s got at least a half-decade, probably a decade, to run in terms of further transistors shrinkage before we hit real, potential physical limits as to how small transistors can get. But then in terms of how much computing power you can get out of the individual piece of silicon, there are things you can do besides shrinking transistors to get more computing. There are all sorts of innovations in how you package chips together that will make them faster and more energy intensive, without necessarily relying solely on transistor shrinkage. Right now, there are so many people who have built up their careers and expertise around how to make silicon chips work really, really well. There are a couple of places where you could say there’s change happening. The big cloud computing firms like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google are all designing their own chips now, which they hadn’t previously done. Because so much of computing today is hosted on Amazon’s or Google’s cloud, the reality is that now everyone is becoming a user in some way of Amazon chips or Google chips. The second shift that’s underway is electric vehicles. If you look at a Tesla, for example, they’ve got a lot of chips in the car and a lot of complicated, cutting-edge chips. We’re gonna see more and more cars with more and more cutting-edge chips, doing more and more things in the future. Rebecca Heilweil We keep hearing about semiconductors and technology in the news. What should people understand about this industry? Chris Miller Making chips is an extraordinary manufacturing process that requires lots and lots of really complicated machine tools to actually move atoms around in a way that lays out a billion or ten billion transistors on a chip. Most of us don’t think enough about the materiality of the manufacturing behind the digital world. Some of the tooling here is really, really extraordinary and doesn’t fit into our mental model of how the digital world works. But in fact, the digital world works only because we’ve got this extraordinary control over the material world, at least as it relates to silica. This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!
Chemical recycling grows — along with concerns about its environmental impacts

Chemical recycling grows — along with concerns about its environmental impacts

September 28, 2022

St. James Parish, located on a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans dubbed “Cancer Alley” due to the high concentration of petrochemical plants, is home to the country’s largest producer of polystyrene — the foam commonly found in soft drink and takeout containers. Now, the owner of that plant wants to build a new facility in the same area that would break down used foam cups and containers into raw materials that can be turned into other kinds of plastic. While there’s limited data on what kinds of emissions this type of facility creates, environmental advocates are concerned that the new plant could represent a new source of carcinogens like dioxin and benzene in the already polluted area.The proposed plant comes as the U.S. federal and state governments and private companies pour billions into “chemical recycling” research, which is touted as a potential solution to anemic plastics recycling rates. Proponents say that, despite mounting restrictions on single-use packaging, plastics aren’t going away anytime soon, and that chemical recycling is needed to keep growing amounts of plastic waste out of landfills and oceans. But questions abound about whether the plants are economically viable — and how chemical recycling contributes to local air pollution, perpetuating a history of environmental injustices and climate change. Skeptics argue that chemical recycling is an unproven technology that amounts to little more than the latest PR effort from the plastics industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is deciding whether or not to continue regulating the plants as incinerators, with some lawmakers expressing concerns last month about toxic emissions from these facilities. “They’re going to be managing toxic chemicals…and they’re going to be putting our communities at risk for either air pollution or something worse,” Jane Patton, a Baton Rouge native and manager of the Center for International Environmental Law’s plastics and petrochemicals campaign, told EHN of the proposed new plant in Louisiana.The air of St. James Parish, where the new plant will be located, has among the highest pollution levels along the Mississippi River corridor dubbed “Cancer Alley.” A joint investigation in 2019 by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate found that most of the new petrochemical facilities in the parish –including the recycling plant– will be located near the mostly Black 5th District.What is chemical recycling?When most of us picture recycling, we picture what industry insiders call “mechanical recycling:” plastics are sorted, cleaned, crushed or shredded and then melted to be made into new goods. In the U.S., though, less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled due to challenges ranging from contamination to variability in plastic types and coloring. “No flexible plastic packaging can be recycled with mechanical recycling — the only real plastic that can be recycled are number one and number two water bottles and milk jugs,” George Huber, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin and head of the multi-university research center for Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics, told EHN. Enter chemical recycling –– processes that use high heat, chemicals, or both to break used plastic goods down into their chemical building blocks to, in theory, make more plastics. Proponents say that chemical recycling can complement more traditional recycling by handling mixed and harder-to-recycle plastics. “An advantage of advanced recycling is that it can take more of the 90% of plastics that aren’t recycled today, including the hard-to-recycle films, pouches and other mixed plastics, and remake them into virgin-quality new plastics approved for medical and food contact applications,” Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, told EHN. A long and winding historyThe technology has actually been around for decades, with an initial wave of plants built in the 1990s, but it didn’t take off then because of operational and economic challenges. Huber said some factors have changed, like a significant increase in plastic use and China’s refusal to accept other countries’ waste, that make chemical recycling more viable this time around. Yet a 2021 Reuters investigation found that commercial viability remains a major challenge for chemical recyclers due to difficulties like contamination of the incoming plastic, high energy costs, and the need to further clean the outputs before they can become plastic. “It's one thing in theory to design something on paper — it's a whole huge challenge to build a plant, get it operational, get the permits and for it to perform like you think it would,” Huber said. Tracking down just how many chemical recycling plants operate today in the U.S. is tricky — and depends in part on what one counts as “recycling.” Potential climate impacts Most of the plants in the U.S. are pyrolysis facilities, which use huge amounts of energy to heat plastics up enough to break their chemical bonds, raising concerns about their climate impacts if that energy comes from burning fossil fuels. An analysis from Closed Loop Partners found that, depending on the technology, carbon emissions from chemical recycling ranged from 22% higher to 45% lower than virgin plastics production. “It's a very promising technology to tackle the problem of (plastic) waste, but if you don't concurrently tackle the challenge of where the energy is coming from, there's a problem,” Rebecca Furlong, a chemistry PhD candidate at the University of Bath who has conducted life cycle assessments of plastics recycling technologies, told EHN. A life cycle assessment study prepared for a British chemical recycling company found that chemical recycling has a significantly lower climate impact than waste-to-energy incineration — but produced almost four times as many greenhouse gas emissions as landfilling the plastic. The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, says that there are at least seven plants in the U.S. doing plastics-to-plastics recycling, although many of those facilities also turn plastics into industrial fuel. For example, according to records reviewed by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, in 2018 a facility located in Oregon and owned by one of the companies planning to build the Louisiana plant, converted 216.82 pounds of polystyrene into the plastics building block styrene, sending roughly the same amount to be burned at a cement kiln. The ACC, European Union regulators and Furlong and her advisor, Matthew Davidson, say plastics to fuel shouldn’t count as recycling. “Clearly digging oil out of the ground, using it as a plastic, and then burning it is not hugely different from digging it out of the ground and burning it,” Davidson, director of the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies at the University of Bath, told EHN.Unknowns about environmental health impacts Chemical recycling saw a boost under the Trump administration, including a formal partnership between the federal Department of Energy and the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies on behalf of the plastics industry, to scale up chemical recycling technologies. There’s limited information, however, on the environmental health impacts of chemical recycling plants. Furlong said she had not included hazardous waste generation in her life cycle assessments because of a lack of data. Tangri said there have been few studies outside the lab, in part because there are relatively few chemical recycling plants out there. Additionally, the ones that do exist are either too small to meet the EPA’s pollution reporting threshold, or are housed within a larger petrochemical complex and so don’t separately report out their air pollution emissions. Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report looking at eight facilities in the U.S. The environmental group found that one facility in Oregon sent around half a million pounds of hazardous waste, including benzene and lead, to incinerators in Washington, Colorado, Missouri and three other states. Hazardous waste incinerators can release toxic air pollution to nearby communities. Additionally, some hazardous waste incinerators in the U.S. have repeatedly violated air pollution standards and the EPA has recently raised serious concerns about a backlog of hazardous waste piling up due to limited incineration capacity. The Oregon facility, which is supposed to break down polystyrene into styrene, also sent more than 100,000 pounds of styrene in 2020 to be burned in waste to energy plants rather than recycled back into new plastics, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s report. Plastics contain a range of additives, like phthalates and bisphenols, that have serious health concerns. The European Chemicals Agency expressed concerns in a 2021 report about the extent to which chemical recycling could eliminate these chemicals, especially “legacy” additives like lead-stabilized PVC that the EU no longer allows, and prevent them from showing up in new plastic products. The agency also cautioned that, depending on the type of plastic waste the facilities are processing, pyrolysis and gasification plants can generate hazardous compounds such as dioxins, volatile organic compounds and PCBs. Dioxins are considered “highly toxic” by the EPA as they can cause cancer, reproductive issues, immune system damage and other health issues. Volatile organic compounds can cause breathing difficulties and harm the nervous system; and some, like benzene, are also carcinogens. The agency noted that companies are required to take measures, like installing flue gas cleaning systems and pre-treatment of wastewater, to limit emissions. Additionally, experts interviewed by the EU highlighted an overall lack of transparency about the kinds of chemicals used in some of the chemical recycling processes. The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, says that emissions from most chemical recycling plants are too low to trigger Clean Air Act permits, citing a recent report from consultant Good Company and sponsored by the ACC that found that emissions from four plants in the U.S. were on par with those from a hospital and food manufacturing plant. The trade group claims the plants are “designed to avoid dioxin formation with many interventions, the primary one being that the plastic material is heated in a closed, oxygen-deprived environment that is not combustion,” and that the facilities would be subject to violations or operating restrictions if dioxins were formed. Policy debateAs the EPA decides what to do about chemical recycling plants, 20 states — including Louisiana, where the new plant could be built — have already passed laws that would regulate the facilities as manufacturers rather than solid waste facilities, according to the American Chemistry Council — a move that environmental advocates say could lead to less oversight and more pollution. “Whenever I see a big push for exemptions from environmental statutes, I get a little concerned,” Judith Enck, director of the anti-plastics advocacy group Beyond Plastics, told EHN. Advocates in Louisiana fear the new law will exempt the new facility from being regulated by the state Department of Environmental Quality, something the ACC says won’t happen. However, it is unclear in the text of the law which state agency will oversee its environmental impacts (the state Department of Environmental Quality didn’t respond to our question). In a recent letter to the EPA, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and more than 30 other lawmakers requested that the agency continue to regulate pyrolysis and gasification plants as incinerators. Additionally, they also urged the EPA to request more information from these facilities on their air pollution and climate impacts. “Communities located near these facilities need to know what chemicals they are being exposed to, and they need the full protection that Congress intended the Clean Air Act’s incinerator standards to provide,” wrote the lawmakers. The American Chemistry Council contends that chemical recycling plants take in plastics waste that is already sorted, and that regulating these facilities as solid waste facilities, with measures like odor and rodent controls, does not make sense. The ACC adds that, like other manufacturing facilities, chemical recycling plants would still be subject to air and water pollution and hazardous waste regulations. Tangri, from GAIA, said that the U.S. should also follow in the footsteps of the EU and not count plastics to fuel as chemical recycling. Overall, environmental advocates would prefer to see stronger measures taken to reduce plastic use and require that manufacturers take more responsibility for plastic packaging — a concept known as “extended producer responsibility.” Enck suggested that there be mandatory environmental standards for packaging similar to auto efficiency standards. “We really need to move to a refillable, reusable economy,” she said. “Do we need all these layers of packaging on a product? Do we need multi-material packaging?”

St. James Parish, located on a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans dubbed “Cancer Alley” due to the high concentration of petrochemical plants, is home to the country’s largest producer of polystyrene — the foam commonly found in soft drink and takeout containers. Now, the owner of that plant wants to build a new facility in the same area that would break down used foam cups and containers into raw materials that can be turned into other kinds of plastic. While there’s limited data on what kinds of emissions this type of facility creates, environmental advocates are concerned that the new plant could represent a new source of carcinogens like dioxin and benzene in the already polluted area.The proposed plant comes as the U.S. federal and state governments and private companies pour billions into “chemical recycling” research, which is touted as a potential solution to anemic plastics recycling rates. Proponents say that, despite mounting restrictions on single-use packaging, plastics aren’t going away anytime soon, and that chemical recycling is needed to keep growing amounts of plastic waste out of landfills and oceans. But questions abound about whether the plants are economically viable — and how chemical recycling contributes to local air pollution, perpetuating a history of environmental injustices and climate change. Skeptics argue that chemical recycling is an unproven technology that amounts to little more than the latest PR effort from the plastics industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is deciding whether or not to continue regulating the plants as incinerators, with some lawmakers expressing concerns last month about toxic emissions from these facilities. “They’re going to be managing toxic chemicals…and they’re going to be putting our communities at risk for either air pollution or something worse,” Jane Patton, a Baton Rouge native and manager of the Center for International Environmental Law’s plastics and petrochemicals campaign, told EHN of the proposed new plant in Louisiana.The air of St. James Parish, where the new plant will be located, has among the highest pollution levels along the Mississippi River corridor dubbed “Cancer Alley.” A joint investigation in 2019 by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate found that most of the new petrochemical facilities in the parish –including the recycling plant– will be located near the mostly Black 5th District.What is chemical recycling?When most of us picture recycling, we picture what industry insiders call “mechanical recycling:” plastics are sorted, cleaned, crushed or shredded and then melted to be made into new goods. In the U.S., though, less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled due to challenges ranging from contamination to variability in plastic types and coloring. “No flexible plastic packaging can be recycled with mechanical recycling — the only real plastic that can be recycled are number one and number two water bottles and milk jugs,” George Huber, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin and head of the multi-university research center for Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics, told EHN. Enter chemical recycling –– processes that use high heat, chemicals, or both to break used plastic goods down into their chemical building blocks to, in theory, make more plastics. Proponents say that chemical recycling can complement more traditional recycling by handling mixed and harder-to-recycle plastics. “An advantage of advanced recycling is that it can take more of the 90% of plastics that aren’t recycled today, including the hard-to-recycle films, pouches and other mixed plastics, and remake them into virgin-quality new plastics approved for medical and food contact applications,” Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, told EHN. A long and winding historyThe technology has actually been around for decades, with an initial wave of plants built in the 1990s, but it didn’t take off then because of operational and economic challenges. Huber said some factors have changed, like a significant increase in plastic use and China’s refusal to accept other countries’ waste, that make chemical recycling more viable this time around. Yet a 2021 Reuters investigation found that commercial viability remains a major challenge for chemical recyclers due to difficulties like contamination of the incoming plastic, high energy costs, and the need to further clean the outputs before they can become plastic. “It's one thing in theory to design something on paper — it's a whole huge challenge to build a plant, get it operational, get the permits and for it to perform like you think it would,” Huber said. Tracking down just how many chemical recycling plants operate today in the U.S. is tricky — and depends in part on what one counts as “recycling.” Potential climate impacts Most of the plants in the U.S. are pyrolysis facilities, which use huge amounts of energy to heat plastics up enough to break their chemical bonds, raising concerns about their climate impacts if that energy comes from burning fossil fuels. An analysis from Closed Loop Partners found that, depending on the technology, carbon emissions from chemical recycling ranged from 22% higher to 45% lower than virgin plastics production. “It's a very promising technology to tackle the problem of (plastic) waste, but if you don't concurrently tackle the challenge of where the energy is coming from, there's a problem,” Rebecca Furlong, a chemistry PhD candidate at the University of Bath who has conducted life cycle assessments of plastics recycling technologies, told EHN. A life cycle assessment study prepared for a British chemical recycling company found that chemical recycling has a significantly lower climate impact than waste-to-energy incineration — but produced almost four times as many greenhouse gas emissions as landfilling the plastic. The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, says that there are at least seven plants in the U.S. doing plastics-to-plastics recycling, although many of those facilities also turn plastics into industrial fuel. For example, according to records reviewed by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, in 2018 a facility located in Oregon and owned by one of the companies planning to build the Louisiana plant, converted 216.82 pounds of polystyrene into the plastics building block styrene, sending roughly the same amount to be burned at a cement kiln. The ACC, European Union regulators and Furlong and her advisor, Matthew Davidson, say plastics to fuel shouldn’t count as recycling. “Clearly digging oil out of the ground, using it as a plastic, and then burning it is not hugely different from digging it out of the ground and burning it,” Davidson, director of the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies at the University of Bath, told EHN.Unknowns about environmental health impacts Chemical recycling saw a boost under the Trump administration, including a formal partnership between the federal Department of Energy and the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies on behalf of the plastics industry, to scale up chemical recycling technologies. There’s limited information, however, on the environmental health impacts of chemical recycling plants. Furlong said she had not included hazardous waste generation in her life cycle assessments because of a lack of data. Tangri said there have been few studies outside the lab, in part because there are relatively few chemical recycling plants out there. Additionally, the ones that do exist are either too small to meet the EPA’s pollution reporting threshold, or are housed within a larger petrochemical complex and so don’t separately report out their air pollution emissions. Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report looking at eight facilities in the U.S. The environmental group found that one facility in Oregon sent around half a million pounds of hazardous waste, including benzene and lead, to incinerators in Washington, Colorado, Missouri and three other states. Hazardous waste incinerators can release toxic air pollution to nearby communities. Additionally, some hazardous waste incinerators in the U.S. have repeatedly violated air pollution standards and the EPA has recently raised serious concerns about a backlog of hazardous waste piling up due to limited incineration capacity. The Oregon facility, which is supposed to break down polystyrene into styrene, also sent more than 100,000 pounds of styrene in 2020 to be burned in waste to energy plants rather than recycled back into new plastics, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s report. Plastics contain a range of additives, like phthalates and bisphenols, that have serious health concerns. The European Chemicals Agency expressed concerns in a 2021 report about the extent to which chemical recycling could eliminate these chemicals, especially “legacy” additives like lead-stabilized PVC that the EU no longer allows, and prevent them from showing up in new plastic products. The agency also cautioned that, depending on the type of plastic waste the facilities are processing, pyrolysis and gasification plants can generate hazardous compounds such as dioxins, volatile organic compounds and PCBs. Dioxins are considered “highly toxic” by the EPA as they can cause cancer, reproductive issues, immune system damage and other health issues. Volatile organic compounds can cause breathing difficulties and harm the nervous system; and some, like benzene, are also carcinogens. The agency noted that companies are required to take measures, like installing flue gas cleaning systems and pre-treatment of wastewater, to limit emissions. Additionally, experts interviewed by the EU highlighted an overall lack of transparency about the kinds of chemicals used in some of the chemical recycling processes. The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, says that emissions from most chemical recycling plants are too low to trigger Clean Air Act permits, citing a recent report from consultant Good Company and sponsored by the ACC that found that emissions from four plants in the U.S. were on par with those from a hospital and food manufacturing plant. The trade group claims the plants are “designed to avoid dioxin formation with many interventions, the primary one being that the plastic material is heated in a closed, oxygen-deprived environment that is not combustion,” and that the facilities would be subject to violations or operating restrictions if dioxins were formed. Policy debateAs the EPA decides what to do about chemical recycling plants, 20 states — including Louisiana, where the new plant could be built — have already passed laws that would regulate the facilities as manufacturers rather than solid waste facilities, according to the American Chemistry Council — a move that environmental advocates say could lead to less oversight and more pollution. “Whenever I see a big push for exemptions from environmental statutes, I get a little concerned,” Judith Enck, director of the anti-plastics advocacy group Beyond Plastics, told EHN. Advocates in Louisiana fear the new law will exempt the new facility from being regulated by the state Department of Environmental Quality, something the ACC says won’t happen. However, it is unclear in the text of the law which state agency will oversee its environmental impacts (the state Department of Environmental Quality didn’t respond to our question). In a recent letter to the EPA, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and more than 30 other lawmakers requested that the agency continue to regulate pyrolysis and gasification plants as incinerators. Additionally, they also urged the EPA to request more information from these facilities on their air pollution and climate impacts. “Communities located near these facilities need to know what chemicals they are being exposed to, and they need the full protection that Congress intended the Clean Air Act’s incinerator standards to provide,” wrote the lawmakers. The American Chemistry Council contends that chemical recycling plants take in plastics waste that is already sorted, and that regulating these facilities as solid waste facilities, with measures like odor and rodent controls, does not make sense. The ACC adds that, like other manufacturing facilities, chemical recycling plants would still be subject to air and water pollution and hazardous waste regulations. Tangri, from GAIA, said that the U.S. should also follow in the footsteps of the EU and not count plastics to fuel as chemical recycling. Overall, environmental advocates would prefer to see stronger measures taken to reduce plastic use and require that manufacturers take more responsibility for plastic packaging — a concept known as “extended producer responsibility.” Enck suggested that there be mandatory environmental standards for packaging similar to auto efficiency standards. “We really need to move to a refillable, reusable economy,” she said. “Do we need all these layers of packaging on a product? Do we need multi-material packaging?”

Government

Investment zones could be allowed in England’s national parks

Investment zones could be allowed in England’s national parks

October 3, 2022

Documents show zones with ‘liberalised’ planning laws could get go-ahead even in the most environmentally protected areasInvestment zones with “liberalised” planning laws to accelerate development could be designated within national parks and in the most environmentally protected areas of the UK, government documents reveal.Details of the government’s new zones to increase housebuilding and commercial development reveal councils can apply for zones in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, (AONBs) sites of special scientific interest, (SSSIs) and green belt land.A national park.An area of outstanding natural beauty.A site of special scientific interest, or equivalent designation.The buffer zone of a world heritage site.Designated green belt. Continue reading...

Documents show zones with ‘liberalised’ planning laws could get go-ahead even in the most environmentally protected areasInvestment zones with “liberalised” planning laws to accelerate development could be designated within national parks and in the most environmentally protected areas of the UK, government documents reveal.Details of the government’s new zones to increase housebuilding and commercial development reveal councils can apply for zones in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, (AONBs) sites of special scientific interest, (SSSIs) and green belt land.A national park.An area of outstanding natural beauty.A site of special scientific interest, or equivalent designation.The buffer zone of a world heritage site.Designated green belt. Continue reading...
Feds warn Ontario falling short on Highway 413 consultations with Six Nations, Mississaugas of the Credit

Feds warn Ontario falling short on Highway 413 consultations with Six Nations, Mississaugas of the Credit

September 29, 2022

By Emma McIntosh The federal government warned Ontario it could stall Highway 413 if the province doesn’t do a better job of consulting Indigenous communities

By Emma McIntosh The federal government has warned Ontario that it’s willing to stall Highway 413 if the province doesn’t do a better job of consulting First Nations, internal documents show. Highway 413, which would loop around suburbs in the northwestern Greater Toronto Area, is a signature project for Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives. But the highway hasn’t moved forward very much since May 2021, when the federal government decided to step in and subject it to another layer of review.  As part of that review, Ontario has spent the last year working on a preliminary report that the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, which oversees the process, will use to decide whether a full-blown federal impact assessment is necessary. Feedback from Indigenous communities is one of the factors the federal agency must consider.  Early on in the process, some of that feedback raised red flags, new documents obtained by The Narwhal show. Two First Nations, Mississaugas of the Credit and Six Nations of the Grand River, have expressed dissatisfaction with the level of consultation so far. Ontario’s transportation ministry had also, as of June 2021, failed to incorporate traditional Indigenous Knowledge into highway plans or to consider the impact of the project on Indigenous communities, two other federal requirements.  We’re breaking news in Ontario The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism. We’re breaking news in Ontario The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism. Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation has long lived on a territory stretching from the Rouge Valley, at the east end of what is now Toronto, to the eastern shore of Lake Erie and the Niagara area. The nation, which has a reserve south of Brantford, Ont., told the Impact Assessment Agency that its dealings with Ontario on Highway 413 “felt more like information sharing than a two way dialogue,” according to minutes from a June 2021 meeting between the Ontario Ministry of Transportation and the agency. Six Nations of the Grand River “noted similar concerns… regarding engagement to date,” the minutes said. The community’s territory is on land surrounding the Grand River west of Toronto, an area of land known as the Haldimand Tract, which the Crown granted to Six Nations in 1784. Six Nations also has a reserve south of Brantford. Those “consultation issues” may be enough grounds for Ottawa to launch a full federal intervention, the agency warned, according to the minutes. That would subject Highway 413 to a more rigorous process that could delay it for years to come.  If the province wants to avoid a full impact assessment, the agency would want to get the “impression from the Indigenous Groups that they feel that their concerns will be addressed,” the minutes read. “There is no expectation that every problem is resolved… However, it needs to be clear to [the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada] that there is a good relationship with stakeholders and Indigenous Groups in order to resolve issues moving forward.” Highway 413 is currently moving through the federal government’s impact assessment process. Graphic: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal Concerns about the Ontario government’s consultation process persisted until at least last fall, when the Impact Assessment Agency again critiqued the province’s engagement with Indigenous communities.  In October 2021, the province submitted a draft of its preliminary report to the Impact Assessment Agency, which was obtained by The Narwhal through access to information legislation. In feedback for the Ontario government contained in that access to information request, the Impact Assessment Agency said the province’s work failed to include “specific concerns” raised by Indigenous communities and didn’t demonstrate “how their input was considered in the design” of Highway 413. Both things are required under federal rules. Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and Six Nations of the Grand River did not answer questions from The Narwhal by deadline. In an emailed statement, the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada did not dispute the province’s minutes of the meeting, but said it can’t determine whether Ontario has resolved issues with Highway 413 until the Ministry of Transportation submits a final report. Dakota Brasier, a spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, did not answer when asked what the province has done since 2021 to allay concerns from the First Nations and the Impact Assessment Agency. In an email, Brasier said the province is continuing to work on its final report. “This is a complex process, and we are working diligently to meet the requirements so that we can deliver on our plan to build Highway 413 as soon as possible,” Brasier said.  The proposed routes of Highway 413 and its sister highway, the Bradford Bypass. Both would run through Ontario’s protected Greenbelt, and the 413 would also cut through the Nashville Conservation Reserve. Map: Jeannie Phan / The Narwhal Federal government has also raised red flags about species at risk around Highway 413  Highway 413, also called the GTA West Corridor, would run a 60-kilometre route between the Toronto suburbs of Vaughan and Milton. Opposition to the project has mainly centred on its environmental impact.  The highway would cut through Ontario’s protected Greenbelt and prime farmland. New highways tend to attract more traffic, which contributes to carbon emissions that fuel climate change. The highway would also go over 95 waterways, three conservation properties, five aquifers and 65 archaeological sites, according to documents reported by The Narwhal in June.  The same month, reporting by The Narwhal and the Toronto Star showed the province has quietly confirmed that 11 species at risk are living along the 413’s route. Two of those species — the western chorus frog and the rapids clubtail dragonfly — are federally-protected but not included in Ontario’s endangered species law, part of then-federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson’s rationale for intervening in the project in the first place. (Wilkinson also had concerns about a third species, the red-headed woodpecker, which the Ontario government hasn’t yet located along the highway’s path.)  The presence of the western chorus frog and the rapids clubtail already raises questions about whether Ottawa might be compelled to conduct a full assessment of the project. The problems with Indigenous consultation may also present a significant stumbling block for the 413, which is already behind the timeline the Ford government had pushed for. In 2020, Ontario proposed to begin early construction work before finishing its own environmental assessment, which was expected at the time to be done in 2022.  The 11 species at risk confirmed to be living along the route of Highway 413 include seven birds, a frog, a minnow, a dragonfly and a tree. Graphic: Shawn Parkinson / The Narwhal Another problem raised in the June 2021 meeting, according to the Ministry of Transportation’s agenda: by its own admission, the provincial government had not done work by that point to fulfill federal requirements to incorporate traditional Indigenous knowledge into its plans, and consider how Highway 413 might impact Indigenous communities. “No traditional knowledge has been provided/gathered to date and no consideration of how the Indigenous communities may use the land in the future,” the ministry’s meeting agenda said.  In her email, Brasier did not directly answer when asked whether Ontario is concerned that consultation issues could hold up Highway 413.  “To be clear – the principal elements of concern raised about this project by the federal government specifically relate to the potential adverse effects on the western chorus frog, red-headed woodpecker and rapids clubtail dragonfly,” Brasier said.  Farmland outside of Milton, Ont., near where Highway 413 will end. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal Highway 413 isn’t the first Ontario government project to stir concerns around consultation with Indigenous communities. In the Far North, Neskantaga First Nation has said Ontario’s consultation on proposals to build roads to the Ring of Fire region are “inadequate.” And in 2020, Chapleau Cree, Missanabie Cree and Brunswick House First Nations filed a lawsuit alleging the Ontario government didn’t properly consult them on its plans to manage forests in their territories.  Canadian courts have affirmed again and again that governments have the duty to consult Indigenous people on projects affecting their rights or on their territories. But it would be very unusual for a government acting on its own to put the brakes on a project over Indigenous consultation concerns. And the federal government’s impact assessment law is still fairly new, so there’s not a lot of precedent for what happens next.  In its email, the Impact Assessment Agency confirmed that it has not received another draft of Ontario’s report. It’s not clear how long it might take for the province to file a final version.
Northern Territory government was warned raising industry water allocation could threaten major river

Northern Territory government was warned raising industry water allocation could threaten major river

September 29, 2022

Conservationists say memorandum should prompt the government to be cautious as it drafts water allocation plans for Beetaloo BasinFollow our Australia news live blog for the latest updatesGet our free news app, morning email briefing or daily news podcastThe Northern Territory government was warned that increasing water allocations for industry could change the flow to a major Top End river.Conservationists say a confidential government memorandum, released under freedom of information laws to the Environment Centre NT, should prompt the territory government to be cautious as it drafts water allocation plans for the Beetaloo Basin.Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning Continue reading...

Conservationists say memorandum should prompt the government to be cautious as it drafts water allocation plans for Beetaloo BasinFollow our Australia news live blog for the latest updatesGet our free news app, morning email briefing or daily news podcastThe Northern Territory government was warned that increasing water allocations for industry could change the flow to a major Top End river.Conservationists say a confidential government memorandum, released under freedom of information laws to the Environment Centre NT, should prompt the territory government to be cautious as it drafts water allocation plans for the Beetaloo Basin.Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning Continue reading...
Truss-favoured thinktank attacks ‘massive transfer of wealth’ to landowners

Truss-favoured thinktank attacks ‘massive transfer of wealth’ to landowners

September 27, 2022

UK government criticised for reviewing plan to pay farmers for environmental protectionOne of Liz Truss’s favourite rightwing thinktanks has criticised the government for considering ditching a much-vaunted new funding structure for farmers, calling the existing subsidy system “a massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to landowners”.Truss has announced plans to review the Environmental Land Management Scheme (Elms), where farmers would be paid for environmental protection, in order potentially to go back to largely area-based payments. The plans were criticised as being “deeply economically inefficient” and for encouraging “laziness” by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Continue reading...

UK government criticised for reviewing plan to pay farmers for environmental protectionOne of Liz Truss’s favourite rightwing thinktanks has criticised the government for considering ditching a much-vaunted new funding structure for farmers, calling the existing subsidy system “a massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to landowners”.Truss has announced plans to review the Environmental Land Management Scheme (Elms), where farmers would be paid for environmental protection, in order potentially to go back to largely area-based payments. The plans were criticised as being “deeply economically inefficient” and for encouraging “laziness” by the Institute of Economic Affairs. Continue reading...
Democrats urge Biden administration to back EPA union in contract negotiations

Democrats urge Biden administration to back EPA union in contract negotiations

September 26, 2022

More than 80 congressional Democrats on Monday called on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan to back the agency’s union in contract negotiations. The American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, the biggest union representing EPA members, is in negotiations with agency management for a new contract, with its current contract set to expire...

More than 80 congressional Democrats on Monday called on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan to back the agency’s union in contract negotiations.  The American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, the biggest union representing EPA members, is in negotiations with agency management for a new contract, with its current contract set to expire in 2024.  Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, led a letter to Regan, which was first reported by The Washington Post. Among their demands is the addition of so-called blind hiring practices, or the removal of personal information from applicant resumes. Advocates say the practice prevents any unconscious biases from affecting the hiring process.  It also backs EPA employees’ call for wages to match their workloads.  “For example, according to several of our constituents who are currently EPA employees, they are stagnating at the GS-12 level, while completing the work of a GS-13,” they wrote. “The practice of keeping employees at a GS-12, with pay and benefits of a GS-12, will only risk draining the EPA’s workforce as employees seek better opportunities with room for growth in the private sector.”  Signers of the letter include members of the party’s progressive wing with a history of backing labor rights, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). However, it was also signed by moderate Democrats such as Reps. Tim Ryan and Shontel Brown of Ohio.  President Biden has vowed to be the “most pro-union president” in history, and organized labor has frequently pressed him to hold to the promise. Earlier this month, the administration mediated negotiations with rail carriers and railroad worker unions, who reached a tentative agreement the day before they were set to strike.   In February, Biden signed an executive order aimed at making it easier for construction workers to unionize by increasing the federal use of project labor agreements, or collective bargaining agreements between federal contractors and unions.   The Hill has reached out to the EPA for comment. 

Health

Neurodegenerative disease can progress in newly identified patterns

Neurodegenerative disease can progress in newly identified patterns

September 27, 2022

A machine-learning method finds patterns of health decline in ALS, informing future clinical trial designs and mechanism discovery. The technique also extends to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Neurodegenerative diseases — like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease), Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s — are complicated, chronic ailments that can present with a variety of symptoms, worsen at different rates, and have many underlying genetic and environmental causes, some of which are unknown. ALS, in particular, affects voluntary muscle movement and is always fatal, but while most people survive for only a few years after diagnosis, others live with the disease for decades. Manifestations of ALS can also vary significantly; often slower disease development correlates with onset in the limbs and affecting fine motor skills, while the more serious, bulbar ALS impacts swallowing, speaking, breathing, and mobility. Therefore, understanding the progression of diseases like ALS is critical to enrollment in clinical trials, analysis of potential interventions, and discovery of root causes. However, assessing disease evolution is far from straightforward. Current clinical studies typically assume that health declines on a downward linear trajectory on a symptom rating scale, and use these linear models to evaluate whether drugs are slowing disease progression. However, data indicate that ALS often follows nonlinear trajectories, with periods where symptoms are stable alternating with periods when they are rapidly changing. Since data can be sparse, and health assessments often rely on subjective rating metrics measured at uneven time intervals, comparisons across patient populations are difficult. These heterogenous data and progression, in turn, complicate analyses of invention effectiveness and potentially mask disease origin. Now, a new machine-learning method developed by researchers from MIT, IBM Research, and elsewhere aims to better characterize ALS disease progression patterns to inform clinical trial design. “There are groups of individuals that share progression patterns. For example, some seem to have really fast-progressing ALS and others that have slow-progressing ALS that varies over time,” says Divya Ramamoorthy PhD ’22, a research specialist at MIT and lead author of a new paper on the work that was published this month in Nature Computational Science. “The question we were asking is: can we use machine learning to identify if, and to what extent, those types of consistent patterns across individuals exist?” Their technique, indeed, identified discrete and robust clinical patterns in ALS progression, many of which are non-linear. Further, these disease progression subtypes were consistent across patient populations and disease metrics. The team additionally found that their method can be applied to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases as well. Joining Ramamoorthy on the paper are MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab members Ernest Fraenkel, a professor in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering; Research Scientist Soumya Ghosh of IBM Research; and Principal Research Scientist Kenney Ng, also of IBM Research. Additional authors include Kristen Severson PhD ’18, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and former member of the Watson Lab and of IBM Research; Karen Sachs PhD ’06 of Next Generation Analytics; a team of researchers with Answer ALS; Jonathan D. Glass and Christina N. Fournier of the Emory University School of Medicine; the Pooled Resource Open-Access ALS Clinical Trials Consortium; ALS/MND Natural History Consortium; Todd M. Herrington of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard Medical School; and James D. Berry of MGH. Reshaping health decline After consulting with clinicians, the team of machine learning researchers and neurologists let the data speak for itself. They designed an unsupervised machine-learning model that employed two methods: Gaussian process regression and Dirichlet process clustering. These inferred the health trajectories directly from patient data and automatically grouped similar trajectories together without prescribing the number of clusters or the shape of the curves, forming ALS progression “subtypes.” Their method incorporated prior clinical knowledge in the way of a bias for negative trajectories — consistent with expectations for neurodegenerative disease progressions — but did not assume any linearity. “We know that linearity is not reflective of what's actually observed,” says Ng. “The methods and models that we use here were more flexible, in the sense that, they capture what was seen in the data,” without the need for expensive labeled data and prescription of parameters. Primarily, they applied the model to five longitudinal datasets from ALS clinical trials and observational studies. These used the gold standard to measure symptom development: the ALS functional rating scale revised (ALSFRS-R), which captures a global picture of patient neurological impairment but can be a bit of a “messy metric.” Additionally, performance on survivability probabilities, forced vital capacity (a measurement of respiratory function), and subscores of ALSFRS-R, which looks at individual bodily functions, were incorporated. New regimes of progression and utility When their population-level model was trained and tested on these metrics, four dominant patterns of disease popped out of the many trajectories — sigmoidal fast progression, stable slow progression, unstable slow progression, and unstable moderate progression — many with strong nonlinear characteristics. Notably, it captured trajectories where patients experienced a sudden loss of ability, called a functional cliff, which would significantly impact treatments, enrollment in clinical trials, and quality of life. The researchers compared their method against other commonly used linear and nonlinear approaches in the field to separate the contribution of clustering and linearity to the model’s accuracy. The new work outperformed them, even patient-specific models, and found that subtype patterns were consistent across measures. Impressively, when data were withheld, the model was able to interpolate missing values, and, critically, could forecast future health measures. The model could also be trained on one ALSFRS-R dataset and predict cluster membership in others, making it robust, generalizable, and accurate with scarce data. So long as 6-12 months of data were available, health trajectories could be inferred with higher confidence than conventional methods. The researchers’ approach also provided insights into Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, both of which can have a range of symptom presentations and progression. For Alzheimer’s, the new technique could identify distinct disease patterns, in particular variations in the rates of conversion of mild to severe disease. The Parkinson’s analysis demonstrated a relationship between progression trajectories for off-medication scores and disease phenotypes, such as the tremor-dominant or postural instability/gait difficulty forms of Parkinson’s disease. The work makes significant strides to find the signal amongst the noise in the time-series of complex neurodegenerative disease. “The patterns that we see are reproducible across studies, which I don't believe had been shown before, and that may have implications for how we subtype the [ALS] disease,” says Fraenkel. As the FDA has been considering the impact of non-linearity in clinical trial designs, the team notes that their work is particularly pertinent. As new ways to understand disease mechanisms come online, this model provides another tool to pick apart illnesses like ALS, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s from a systems biology perspective. “We have a lot of molecular data from the same patients, and so our long-term goal is to see whether there are subtypes of the disease,” says Fraenkel, whose lab looks at cellular changes to understand the etiology of diseases and possible targets for cures. “One approach is to start with the symptoms … and see if people with different patterns of disease progression are also different at the molecular level. That might lead you to a therapy. Then there's the bottom-up approach, where you start with the molecules” and try to reconstruct biological pathways that might be affected. “We're going [to be tackling this] from both ends … and finding if something meets in the middle.” This research was supported, in part, by the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Department of Veterans Affairs of Research and Development, the Department of Defense, NSF Gradate Research Fellowship Program, Siebel Scholars Fellowship, Answer ALS, the United States Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity, National Institutes of Health, and the NIH/NINDS.
How Cities Are Preparing for the ‘Silent Killer’ of Extreme Heat

How Cities Are Preparing for the ‘Silent Killer’ of Extreme Heat

September 26, 2022

New solutions are being tested to combat health risks from heat waves, particularly in urban “heat islands.” The post How Cities Are Preparing for the ‘Silent Killer’ of Extreme Heat appeared first on The Revelator.

In the northern United States, weatherizing programs have historically focused on the colder months of the year, and the word itself likely conjures thoughts of long and frigid winters. But warming temperatures from climate change mean the concept increasingly pertains to the other end of the calendar too: the summer months, which are getting hotter and putting more people at risk of potentially deadly heat-related illnesses. With even New England cities like Boston expected to see as many as 42 days a year when temperatures crest 90 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, it and others around the world are developing new approaches and adapting old ones to help people cope. The need is great. Extreme heat kills more people each year than any other type of weather-related event. Last year when the Biden administration launched a federal plan to address the problem, White House climate advisor Gina McCarthy called extreme heat a “silent killer.” Statistics show that annual heat-related deaths in the United States surpass mortalities from tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, and cold winter weather combined, though the problem gets much less attention. Those risks can be amplified in “heat islands” — urban areas where temperatures can be 10 or 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than in other parts of the same city. Disasters of our own design, they occur in places with few shade-supplying trees and a lot of buildings and pavement. Climate change is making heat islands worse. And it’s a problem that extends well beyond Boston and the Northeast. “Urban heat islands are a phenomenon that we’re seeing occurring pretty much in every city across the globe,” says to Yusuf Jameel, research manager at Project Drawdown, an international organization working on solutions to climate change. The Danger Heat waves — and the concentrated effects of heat islands — pose grave health risks like dehydration, mental stress and even death. Last summer about 800 people died in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia when a heatwave hit the Pacific Northwest. Experts say the true death rate associated with heat emergencies may in fact be even higher than reported, since exposure to heat extremes can precipitate medical emergencies in people with conditions including diabetes and heart, respiratory and kidney ailments. These health events aren’t always included in official statistics of heat-induced emergencies. The very young and very old, pregnant women, and people who spend a lot of time in the heat — such as people who work outdoors, the unhoused, and people who can’t afford to cool their homes — also face higher risks than people who spend all their time in air-conditioned homes, offices and cars whenever temperatures spike. “We have to take little breaks to get out of the sun,” says a building custodian in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood — one of the hottest places in the city — who asked to remain anonymous. “I get dizzy,” she adds. “Sometimes I feel like I’m going to vomit,” due to exposure to too much heat. Some medications can also increase heat sensitivity, and extreme heat can amplify drug side effects. Exposure to heat can also diminish cognitive function, even in healthy young adults, according to researchers, which could cause life-long consequences by limiting academic and professional achievement and earnings potential. It’s also an environmental justice issue. Rowhouses are hit by direct afternoon sunlight in East Baltimore. Photo: Will Parson/ Chesapeake Bay Program A growing body of research shows worldwide urban heat islands are predominantly located in low-income neighborhoods. In the United States, those neighborhoods are overwhelmingly home to people of color and immigrants. Compounding matters, these same low-income areas tend to have higher percentages of people with medical conditions that make them particularly susceptible to heat-related illness. Research has also linked heat islands to the country’s history of discriminatory lending practices and a past federal housing policy known as “redlining,” which led to much less public and private investment and access to home loans in many communities of color over the last century. While redlining was outlawed in 1968, the past policies, experts say, continue have negative consequences in these communities today. In the past few years, scientists have published multiple studies documenting the heat islands that exist today in formerly redlined areas of more than 100 U.S. cities, even while adjacent neighborhoods remain much cooler. A Global Issue It’s not just communities in the United States that are feeling the heat — or the inequity. Poorer countries, says Jameel, have huge challenges for people living in heat islands, particularly those who work outdoors. “The stakes are very, very high,” he says. For example, heat waves in India and Pakistan earlier this year saw temperatures as high as 122 degrees Fahrenheit and claimed at least 90 lives. “People were unable to work. There was a higher incidence of people being hospitalized. Kids were unable to go to school.” He also notes that children going to school in consistently hot indoor spaces can end up with both health problems and long-term economic impacts if the heat impairs their ability to learn and function. A Singapore street with air conditioning units. Photo: Schezar (CC BY 2.0) As heatwaves become more severe and more frequent with climate warming, the economic toll can be high, as well. “Right now, it’s happening maybe two weeks a year, where the temperatures are so high that people are unable to work outside,” he says. “But in five to 10 years, if it becomes a month [per year], that will affect the economic growth of the country.” Those days, however, may already be here. In Delhi, the heatwave this spring resulted in nearly 100 days with temperatures breaking 100 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why climate change — and the associated heat risks — are “fundamentally an issue of justice and equality,” he says. “Children born in sub-Saharan African countries in 2020 are projected to experience six times more extreme climate events compared to those born in the 1960s.” The countries that will be hardest hit by climate change are also among those that have contributed least to the problem. Finding Solutions Work has begun in some places to tackle the heat. Ahmedabad, India has been leading this work in South Asia, with the first Heat Action Plan established in 2013. It includes a citywide Cool Roof program that uses light-colored roofing materials or paints to reflect the sun’s rays rather than absorb them. Retrofitting solutions are good. But longer term, Jameel says, cities need to prioritize green space, not just more buildings. Such urban-planning solutions are challenging in developing countries, he says, where new urban neighborhoods often spring up spontaneously, without formal planning. Nevertheless, the Global South has one advantage over the North: long experience with the heat. One place to look for solutions, Jameel says, is local knowledge passed down for generations. For example, traditional building designs strategically placed windows to allow indoor heat to escape outdoors and encourage cross ventilation. But while these types of traditional building designs may continue to get built one at a time, Jameel said such projects are not being built “at scale” by real estate developers, who could have a greater impact. He and other experts say much more needs to be done to raise general awareness about heat and health, help vulnerable residents, and spark building-code changes to address the leading cause of weather-related deaths. The U.S. Response In the United States, the federal government and some cities have begun to act, too. In Boston’s Heat Resilience Solutions Plan, 90% of respondents to the city’s online survey said it’s too hot in their homes during very hot summer days. The plan, published in April after more than a year of citywide public consultations, also found that 42% of Black and 36% of Latino residents reported that it was “always” too hot at home, compared to 24% of white residents. In response to these risks, government authorities are adapting programs originally created to help low-income residents keep the heat on during the winter months. The Mayor’s Office on Housing is considering providing “income-qualified residents” not just with air-conditioning units, but with summer utility bill subsidies, too — similar to what’s already available to help heat homes in the winter. That proposal is an acknowledgment that paying the higher monthly bills for running those ACs has become a bigger barrier to household cooling than just acquiring an air conditioner. Boston is not alone. After deadly heat waves last year in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon passed new legislation that will direct $5 million toward purchasing air-conditioning units for vulnerable residents. At the national level, the Department of Health and Human Services this spring announced plans to send states an infusion of $385 million in new funds from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. A portion of the funds were to cover utility payments, “including summer cooling” for households that need help catching up on unpaid bills. Berkeley Lab’s Heat Island Group has converted a portion of a new temporary parking lot into a cool pavement exhibit. Photo: Berkeley Lab (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) City, state and federal governments are also starting to roll out new weatherizing assistance and interest-free home-improvement loan programs to help residents pay for adding or upgrading air conditioning. A Comprehensive Approach More air conditioning, however, is hardly a long-term solution, since the exhaust from indoor climate control heats up the air outside and the electricity needed to run them fuels more climate change. Experts say we need to redesign our homes, offices and entire cities, a costly undertaking that is still in its incipient stages even in the resource-rich Global North. Some of that work is underway. Many U.S. cities, such as New York, Chicago, Portland and Los Angeles, are adding “cool roof” or “green roof” programs to bring down indoor temperatures and decrease air-conditioning costs by using reflective roofing materials or planting vegetation on roofs. Some cities are going even further. In 2018 Washington, D.C., passed tougher new standards to increase building energy performance in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption by 50% by 2032. Meanwhile Boston is spending $20 million on a retrofit pilot that focuses on providing owners of multifamily buildings with affordable help to upgrade their cooling and heating systems. The program is expected to fund “deep energy retrofits” designed to improve efficiency for about 300 “housing units” in public housing buildings or those otherwise deemed “affordable” by the city. The city’s heat plan also calls for the formation of a task force to address the immediate problem, as well as developing “the broader heat relief strategy,” with long-term solutions. Working with nonprofit partners, it’s providing households and small businesses in the city’s low-income areas with help paying for equipment upgrades and retrofits. The plan details 26 strategies it plans to implement, working through community organizations and directly with city residents. The strategies include grant programs to help building owners afford energy efficient heat pumps and cool roofs, as well as planting trees and adding awnings to provide shade at bus stops. Assisted by new data analysis and mapping technology, many cities are homing in on urban heat islands to better understand the history and historic discrimination that has led to dramatically higher temperatures from neighborhood to neighborhood — and to tailor solutions to local realities. King County Metro Transit, in the Seattle area, is using heat-mapping data to guide bus stop design and amenities with consideration to extreme weather — especially in communities most acutely affected by climate change. And Chelsea, Massachusetts, has launched a “Cool Block” project that involves planting trees, repaving dark asphalt streets in lighter gray material, and revamping sidewalks with white concrete, porous pavers and planters. It’s possible to address climate-related health threats and historic wrongs at the same time, says Jeremy Hoffman, the David and Jane Cohn scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia, who has lead heat islands studies in several U.S. cities and worked on research studies linking redlining and historic discrimination with the locations of today’s heat islands in cities across the country. “These decisions that were made a century ago by a few people have affected a ton of people in the present day,” he says. “Collectively we still have a long way to go, but if communities and local governments work together, we can make decisions that will have positive impact for the next century or beyond.” Learn more about urban heat islands from “The Climate Divide,” a 9-episode heat islands podcast from Hola Cultura. Get more from The Revelator. Subscribe to our newsletter, or follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Previously in The Revelator: Closing the Tree Equity Divide The post How Cities Are Preparing for the ‘Silent Killer’ of Extreme Heat appeared first on The Revelator.

Business

Fight escalates between Newsom, oil industry

Fight escalates between Newsom, oil industry

October 3, 2022

Gov. Gavin Newsom hadn’t even finished dispensing with all of the bills on his desk ahead of Friday’s midnight deadline before he issued a call for new legislation. “We’re not going to stand by while greedy oil companies fleece Californians,” the governor said in a stern Twitter video, citing a lopsided surge in gas prices […]

Gov. Gavin Newsom hadn’t even finished dispensing with all of the bills on his desk ahead of Friday’s midnight deadline before he issued a call for new legislation. “We’re not going to stand by while greedy oil companies fleece Californians,” the governor said in a stern Twitter video, citing a lopsided surge in gas prices that has resulted in Californians paying about $2.50 more per gallon at the pump than the national average. Newsom asked state lawmakers to introduce a windfall tax that would cap oil companies’ profits, tax at a higher rate any earnings above that ceiling and return the money to taxpayers via rebates — potentially similar to those the state is set to begin depositing in millions of residents’ accounts this week. Democratic State Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins of San Diego and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon of Lakewood said in a statement: “We’ll look at every option to end the oil industry profiteering off the backs of hard working Californians.” (Democratic Assemblymember Alex Lee of San Jose proposed enacting a windfall profits tax on oil companies earlier this year, but it failed to advance.) Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher of Yuba City said in a statement: “The Governor just doesn’t get it. … The problem in California is policy. We need major action on these prices, starting with suspending the gas tax and additional fees that make our gas so much more expensive here.” Newsom on Friday also directed the state’s air regulators to allow refineries to begin producing winter-blend gasoline immediately, rather than waiting until after Oct. 31 as required by law. Winter-blend gasoline is easier and cheaper to make than summer-blend gasoline — which refineries are required to produce in hotter months — but it also emits more pollutants, the latest example of Newsom contradicting his own climate goals in order to address kitchen-table issues. Meanwhile, the California Energy Commission sent a letter to five refinery executives, demanding they respond by today to a series of questions, including: “Why have gasoline prices risen so dramatically in the past 10 days despite a sharp downturn in global crude prices, no significant unplanned refinery outages in the state, and no increases in state taxes or fees?” The oil industry is taking actions of its own: On Thursday, Secretary of State Shirley Weber cleared for signature-gathering a proposed referendum to overturn a law Newsom signed last month to prohibit new or extensively retrofitted oil or gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes and hospitals. It’s the latest example of industry turning to the ballot box to challenge laws coming out of Sacramento: A proposed referendum has already been filed against a law Newsom recently signed to create a state-run council to regulate working conditions for the fast food industry while setting workers’ minimum wage as much as $22 per hour next year. The coalition behind the referendum has already raised nearly $13 million, with Starbucks, In-N-Out Burger and Chipotle each contributing $2 million, the Wall Street Journal reported Saturday. Even more business-backed referenda could be on the way, given that Newsom signed many of organized labor’s priority bills into law: “Every loose end I had in the legislature when I left (unsigned, or unpassed bill) is now law. Except legislative staff unionization,” tweeted Lorena Gonzalez, leader of the California Labor Federation and former state Assemblymember. However, as CalMatters higher-education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn noted to me, private-sector unions appeared to fare better than public-sector unions — at least when it comes to the California State University system, whose staff and faculty unions saw two pretty big vetoes. One possible reason: Students, not shareholders, would bear the budgetary brunt of higher labor costs. “I do want us to be mindful, there isn’t some magic solution, this money isn’t just going to appear from somewhere, it’s going to have real consequences on students, and unfortunately, probably on our most vulnerable students,” Democratic Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel of Van Nuys said at an August committee hearing on one of the bills that was ultimately vetoed. (Gabriel voted to support the bill.) If labor won big, Newsom’s bill signings and vetoes sent a more mixed message on criminal justice, another progressive priority. Many of his vetoes also struck a moderate tone by urging fiscal constraint ahead of a possible economic downturn: “The Governor vetoed 169 bills, saving the state billions in taxpayer dollars,” Newsom’s office said in a Sunday press release. Some political observers suggested this balancing act could reflect Newsom’s possible national ambitions. Political analyst Dan Schnur told the Mercury News: “He’s trying to sign everything he can to make the left happy unless it would also frighten swing voters in purple states. If he goes hard left enough on environmental and social issues, it gives him cover for sticking with the center on crime and spending bills.” A message from our sponsor Join CalMatters and the Milken Institute on Tuesday from 12-1:30 p.m. for a free, virtual event exploring California’s path to creating more climate-friendly job opportunities and helping underserved communities access them. Register here. A message from our sponsor Other Stories You Should Know 1 A look at Newsom’s last bill signings Katie Duberg, left, and Jennifer Richard, right, chief of staff for state Sen. Maria Durazo, embrace in front of the state Capitol after hearing that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a paid family leave bill on Sept. 30, 2022. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters Let’s take a closer look at Newsom’s bill signings and vetoes: Before the legislative session ended in August, state lawmakers sent Newsom 1,166 bills, of which he signed 997 and vetoed 169, according to his office. That makes for a veto rate of 14.5%, slightly lower than the 16.5% he notched in 2019, his first year in office, but higher than in the pandemic-impacted years of 2020 and 2021, when he vetoed 13% and 7.9% of bills, respectively, according to veteran Sacramento lobbyist Chris Micheli. That’s more or less in line with Newsom’s predecessor, fellow Democrat Jerry Brown, who vetoed between 10% and 15% of bills that reached his desk during his second eight-year term as governor, according to Micheli. Here are the outcomes of some key bills included in the six batches on which Newsom took action Friday: A bill to make it easier for low-income Californians to take paid family leave to care for a new baby or sick family member. The law will, starting in 2025, allow lower-income workers to recoup 90% of their wages while on leave and all other workers to receive 70%. Larger payroll tax contributions from higher earners will pay for the expanded benefits, CalMatters’ Jeanne Kuang reports. A bill to make it harder for prosecutors to include rap lyrics as evidence in criminal cases. “The whole music industry uses violence in their songs, you know? But my son is not violent. Those lyrics don’t portray who he is,” Denise Holdman told CalMatters’ Nigel Duara. Holdman’s son, Gary Bryant Jr., was convicted with first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison in a case that cited his rap lyrics as evidence of his “criminal mindset.” Bryant is set to have a hearing for a new trial. A bill to limit law enforcement officers’ ability to stop a pedestrian for jaywalking, permitting it only when “a reasonably careful person would realize there is an immediate danger of a collision.” A bill to make it easier for the Medical Board of California to punish doctors who deliberately spread false information about COVID-19, vaccines and treatments by classifying disinformation as “unprofessional conduct.” Newsom noted in a signing statement that the “narrowly tailored” law “does not apply to any speech outside of discussions directly related to COVID-19 treatment within a direct physician patient relationship.” He added that he’s “concerned about the chilling effect other potential laws may have on physicians and surgeons who need to be able to effectively talk to their patients about the risks and benefits of treatments for a disease that appeared in just the last few years.” A bill to limit conservatorships following pop star Britney Spears’ high-profile lawsuit to emerge from the legal arrangement that for years governed nearly every aspect of her life. A bill to limit remedial courses at community colleges by ensuring more students enroll in classes required to transfer to a UC or Cal State campus. The new law comes as UC prepares this spring to launch a dual-admission pilot program in which high school seniors rejected from the UC can enroll at a California community college with a conditional offer of admission to one of six UC campuses, Megan Tagami reports for CalMatters’ College Journalism Network. “It really creates this incentive for students to be like, ‘I’m not getting rejected because I’m not good enough for the school, I’m being deferred to admission later,’” said Abeeha Hussain, a fourth-year UCLA student and the transfer student affairs officer for the UC Student Association. “‘Of course I’ll go to my community college if it means that I’ll eventually get to go to the UC of my dreams.’”  2 Inside the Catholic Church’s campaign to defeat abortion measure The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento on Sept. 12, 2022. Photo by Rahul Lal, CalMatters No later than one week from today, county elections offices will begin mailing ballots for the Nov. 8 general election to every active, registered California voter — increasing pressure on candidates and initiative campaigns to get their message in front of voters as soon as possible. Newsom’s reelection campaign recently contributed nearly $1 million to the campaign supporting Proposition 1, which would enshrine the right to abortion and contraception in the California Constitution. That’s nearly as much as the total raised to date by the opposition campaign, which faces an uphill battle in a state where voters consistently express support for abortion rights. Another challenging statistic: As of Sept. 9, about 47% of California’s nearly 22 million registered voters — representing 81.4% of eligible voters — were Democrats, compared to 24% Republican and 23% no party preference, according to a Friday report from Secretary of State Shirley Weber. At the same point ahead of the 2018 gubernatorial general election, less than 44% of registered voters were Democrats, compared to nearly 25% Republican and 27% no party preference. Given these stark figures, the fate of the long-shot campaign to defeat Prop. 1 may largely depend on the effectiveness of strategies stemming from the Catholic Church. Over the summer, the church started training clergy and parishioners, registering voters and developing educational resources about Prop. 1, which it says would usher in the “most egregious expansion of abortion this country has ever seen” by legalizing the procedure up until the moment of birth, CalMatters’ Alexei Koseff reports. The Yes on 1 campaign describes that characterization as “misinformation and fear-mongering.” Tanner DiBella, president of The American Council, which aims to bring evangelical voters into state politics: “There’s no more trusting, effective way to get that message out than from the pulpit.”John Jackson, president of William Jessup University, a private Christian institution near Sacramento: “All of life is spiritual. The proponents have mastered the media. And our hope is that we will be able to mobilize the masses.” 3 Big money enters speakership fight From left, Democratic Assemblymember Robert Rivas and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon. Photos by Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo and Miguel Gutierrez Jr./CalMatters From CalMatters political reporter Ben Christopher: The money is really starting to flow. Last week, a political action committee set up to support Salinas Democratic Assemblymember Robert Rivas’ bid to replace fellow Democrat Anthony Rendon as Speaker of the Assembly started throwing money around the state. The Democratic Leadership Coalition PAC spent more than $450,000 on campaign mailers to support 13 Democratic candidates for Assembly, with more funds on the way, said spokesperson Matthew Herdman.  Herdman: “We’re working hard to expand the Democratic majority and ensure that Rob Rivas is the next Assembly speaker.”  After Rivas’ unsuccessful May attempt to take Rendon’s job, the speaker issued a statement saying only that Rivas had secured “the support of a majority of the current Democratic Caucus” to succeed him at some point.  Emphasis on the “current” Democratic caucus. After the Nov. 8 election, there could be as many as 20 new Assembly Democrats — a potentially decisive bloc. So, as part of the continuing fight over the speakership crown, backers of Rivas and Rendon have been courting and cajoling potential members of the Democratic caucus who will take office in December.   The PAC’s beneficiaries include Esmerelda Soria of Fresno and Christy Holstege of Palm Springs, who are both facing intensely competitive races for open seats.  But most of the candidates on the PAC’s list aren’t likely to need the extra help. They include David Alvarez in San Diego and Diane Papan in San Mateo, whose fellow Democratic opponents ended their campaigns. Also on the list are Dawn Addis in San Luis Obispo and Avaleno Valencia in Anaheim, who are facing Republican opponents in overwhelmingly Democratic districts. According to campaign finance filings, all of the PAC’s money came from 17 current or departing members of the Assembly who supported Rivas’ speakership bid. The top contributors are Rivas’ own campaign, along with Democratic Assemblymembers Cecilia Aguiar-Curry of Napa and Jim Wood of Santa Rosa. Bill Wong, a political consultant who formerly worked for Rendon, said the Democratic caucus would be better served by spending money to support candidates who really need it. Wong: “We’re sacrificing supporting at-risk incumbents for what is, I would say, blatantly a power play.” CalMatters Commentary CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s ride on a dizzying economic rollercoaster may not be over. Other things worth your time Some stories may require a subscription to read Caruso cuts into Bass’ lead, poll finds, as L.A. mayoral race heads into final weeks. // Los Angeles Times Hackers release data after LAUSD refuses to pay ransom. // Los Angeles Times In Placer County, a rising movement to establish a ‘biblical worldview’ in California politics. // Sacramento Bee In tight California House race, ‘red-baiting’ mailers accuse candidate of communist ties. // Los Angeles Times Newsom said this little-known program makes him ‘more proud … than anything’ else he’s done. // San Francisco Chronicle S.F. Assemblymember Haney to co-chair California’s new opioid committee. // KQED California prison guard accused of assaulting wife, biting son got a 10% pay cut, watchdog says. // Sacramento Bee Oakland birthday party shooting: Two Berkeley teens killed, two others injured. // Mercury News Killings of 5 men in Stockton are related, police say. // Associated Press LAPD mental health teams aren’t keeping up with the number of psychiatric crisis calls. // LAist New poll shows doom and gloom in Bay Area, with one bright spot. // Mercury News Young Californians have high rates of anxiety, depression, poll says. // Los Angeles Times Los Angeles County Supervisors approve sick leave for monkeypox. // Los Angeles Blade Chula Vista, a college town? The decades-old dream of attracting a university may be gaining ground. // San Diego Union-Tribune Sea level at California’s Humboldt Bay rising fastest on West Coast. // San Francisco Chronicle Metrolink, Amtrak suspend train service to Oceanside because of unstable slope. // San Diego Union-Tribune Ruptured oil pipeline off California approved for repairs. // Associated Press The Bay Area’s two largest homeless encampments are closing. // Mercury News Did Santa Clara County violate state housing laws in Stanford’s most exclusive neighborhood? // Mercury News El Cajon may change rules for hotels with homeless after lawsuit threat. // San Diego Union-Tribune City of Santa Cruz workers will strike this week. // Santa Cruz Sentinel A $50,000 electric bill? The cost of cooling L.A.’s biggest houses in a heat wave. // Los Angeles Times We tried to ride all 27 Bay Area transit systems in a single day. Here’s what we learned. // San Francisco Chronicle CalMatters invests in engagement and development to connect with more Californians. // CalMatters
Biden administration smooths Pacific Island Summit frictions

Biden administration smooths Pacific Island Summit frictions

September 29, 2022

Antony Blinken touts partnership agreement as a “shared vision of the future.”

The Biden administration on Wednesday indicated that Solomon Islands had reversed a decision to refuse to sign on to a partnership declaration between the U.S. and Pacific Island countries, an issue that had threatened to cloud the White House’s efforts to deepen U.S. influence in the region. The Solomon Islands, which signed a controversial security pact with China this year, was refusing to sign an 11-point summit declaration “designed to provide a framework for intensified U.S. engagement in the Pacific,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Tuesday. Also late Wednesday, the administration said that another reported sticking point ahead of the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit in Washington, D.C., the Marshall Islands’ suspension of talks planned for last weekend on renewing its strategic partnership, or Compact of Free Association Agreement, was inaccurate. Ahead of the summit, which began Wednesday and will continue into Thursday, that reported dissension threatened to impede administration efforts to leverage the meeting as a symbol of U.S.-Pacific Island country unity. By defusing that discord the administration can claim victory in reinforcing regional support for the U.S. to counter China’s growing influence in the South Pacific. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the U.S. and Pacific Island leaders — apparently including those of Solomon Islands — had sealed "a declaration of partnership between the U.S." Blinken said the declaration demonstrated the two sides’ “shared vision of the future,” but didn’t provide details on specific signatories. But his announcement suggests the administration had wrangled last minute changes in the document’s wording that had prompted Solomon Islands’initial refusal to sign on. The declaration "was not done yesterday,” a senior administration official told POLITICO. "Not only [with] Solomon Islands but several others … negotiations had not been completed.” The official also disputed a report that the Marshall Islands hadsuspended talks with the U.S. on renewing its strategic partnership to protest the perceived U.S. failure to address the economic, environmental and health legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons testing around the atolls from 1946 to 1958. “There never was an interruption in COFA talks with Marshall Islands — we met with their delegation earlier this week and agreed on the dates for next discussions,” said the official. “So it was never the case that because of the nuclear issue, or because of whatever issue that we or they refused to meet, that was never the case.” The official declined to comment on the report asserting the talks’ suspension. POLITICO efforts to contact representatives of the Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands were unsuccessful. But reports of their initial public pushback marked a humbling kick-off for the two-day summit and underscores the challenges that the Biden administration faces in redeeming U.S. credibility in a region where China is filling the void created by decades of U.S. disengagement. But the administration is adamant that the two-day summit will deliver tangible benefits for Pacific Island countries that will underscore U.S. resolve to be their superpower partner of choice. “This summit is quite a while in the making and we believe it will be a substantial investment,” a different senior administration official said Tuesday. “We will talk specifically about programs and agencies and specific budget numbers.” Blinken rolled out the first of those numbers Wednesday by announcing $4.8 million in U.S. funding for the new Resilient Blue Economies initiative aimed to “strengthen marine livelihoods by supporting sustainable fisheries, aquaculture, tourism.” Detailed deliverables powered by generous U.S. funding is essential if the administration wants to counter China’s growing influence in the region. For many Pacific Islanders, the most visible symbols of U.S. engagement are the remains of former World War II battlefields such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. That influence vacuum has lubricated China’s diplomatic inroads over the past two decades in the absence of a competitive U.S. alternative. The administration is coordinating its summit outreach with its Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative with allies Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom “to add more resources, more capacity, more diplomatic engagement as a whole,” said the official. The summit will also mark the launch of the U.S. government’s first-ever Pacific Strategy, a regional-specific compliment to the administration’s China-containing Indo-Pacific Strategy launched in September 2021. “This [strategy] is specifically aimed at the concerns and the objectives in the Pacific as a whole … [and] about how to organize the disparate elements of the U.S. government toward tackling issues like climate change, training, issues associated with [over]fishing, investments in technology,” the official said Tuesday. Initiatives to address the existential threat that the climate crisis poses to Pacific Island countries will get their leaders’ attention. China has helped power its diplomatic inroads with a bespoke climate diplomacy aimed to address concerns about rising sea levels. China’s special envoy on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, earlier this month convened a “climate change dialogue and exchange meeting” in Beijing with diplomatic representatives from Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Fiji and Tonga, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported. The administration deployed Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry on Wednesday to tout the administration’s determination to improve Pacific Island countries’ links to the U.S. “We’ll have the following day a major event at the Chamber of Commerce when the leaders will have an opportunity to engage with a broad array of business groups ranging from tourism [and] travel to energy to technology, to essentially talk about how U.S. business groups can be more actively engaged,” the official said Tuesday. Special Presidential Envoy Ambassador Joseph Yun told POLITICO last week that the State Department was on track to renew COFAs with Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands by end-2022 after six months of intensive negotiations. Those agreements will effectively firewall those three countries from Beijing’s efforts to displace the U.S. as the region’s dominant superpower. But the initial resistance of Solomon Islands to sign on to the summit declaration will heighten administration concerns about the influence of the country’s security pact with Beijing on its relations with the U.S. Solomon Islands denied port access to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter last month due to unspecified “bureaucratic reasons” and subsequently imposed a temporary moratorium on all foreign naval ships.
Progressives Didn’t Kill Manchin’s Permitting Reform Deal—but It Did Deserve to Die

Progressives Didn’t Kill Manchin’s Permitting Reform Deal—but It Did Deserve to Die

September 28, 2022

On Tuesday afternoon, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin threw in the towel: Facing opposition left, right and center, the Energy Independence and Security Act he wrote will not be included in the continuing resolution that needs to pass this week in order to keep the government funded. The Energy Independence and Security Act was a vehicle for what is known as permitting reform, which speeds the federal approval of new energy projects. Manchin’s proposals had been criticized by climate progressives for being possibly too favorable to fossil fuel companies and insufficiently sensitive to environmental justice concerns, and criticized by the right for not going far enough in reducing barriers to new projects.Announcing that he had asked Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to remove the permitting language, Manchin lashed out at the bill’s critics. “The last several months,” he wrote in a statement, “we have seen firsthand the destruction that is possible as Vladimir Putin continues to weaponize energy. A failed vote on something as critical as comprehensive permitting reform only emboldens leaders like Putin who wish to see America fail.” The people who blocked his version of permitting reform from being included in this particular package, apparently, are letting America’s enemies win. It’s hard not to read his statement as a swipe at progressives, particularly as he closed it with “inaction is not a strategy for energy independence and security.” But Manchin isn’t the only person who’s gotten his feelings hurt in this process. As acrimonious as the fights were on the progressive side—some felt this version of permitting reform was critical for bringing renewables online quickly—it’s strange for anyone to focus their ire on people trying to stop their water and air from getting more polluted, like the grassroots organizations opposing Manchin’s pet Mountain Valley Pipeline.Behind closed doors, Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer brokered a deal designed to piss off just about everyone. That included the likes of Bernie Sanders, who threatened to vote against the continuing resolution, but also centrist New Democrats riled up about their votes being taken for granted. Former Hillary Clinton running-mate Tim Kaine—hardly a left-wing firebrand—didn’t love the idea of two people from outside his state speeding along infrastructure that would traverse it. And it would have been damn near impossible to find 10 Republicans willing to vote for something that didn’t pledge to light the planet on fire. Progressive forces do not control the U.S. Congress. As The American Prospect’s David Dayen observed, progressives were chided for not supporting a deal that never existed in the first place. While many climate advocates would agree that some reform is necessary if we’re to transition quickly to renewable energy, there’s a big difference between permitting reform as a broad conceptual category and the permitting reform legislation that was actually under consideration. Manchin’s bill was a fossil fuel industry giveaway with some decent goodies for energy transmission grafted onto it. Significant parts of it had been previously floated by the Trump administration and were then presented in Manchin’s proposal as the cost of doing business in a divided Senate; one such provision altering the Clean Water Act was stripped out at the last minute. For the most part, the climate and environmental justice groups who rallied against Manchin’s language spent their time pointing out the obvious: that ceding so much ground so quickly to the fossil fuel industry probably wasn’t worth the cost of what good might have been done for interstate transmission lines. The costs of new fossil fuel installations are not hypothetical. New oil pipelines, a recent study from Global Energy Monitor found, are “dramatically at odds with plans to limit global warming to 1.5C or 2C.” The United States is the world leader in building those, with 1,758 miles under development. More than twice the amount of pipelines are under construction as compared to the last time GEM did the same analysis in 2019, now totaling 15,016 miles. Data is limited on how many barrels per day each of those would produce. Those that GEM did compile numbers on, about two-thirds of the total, would add another 21.8 million barrels per day to the global supply and 4.61 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of 1,000 coal plants—per year. Manchin’s pet Mountain Valley pipeline alone would add the equivalent of 26 coal plants. And all of those emissions calculations are in addition to the direct effects on neighboring communities’ health: from poisoned water to spiked rates of rare cancers near easier-to-build gas petrochemical plants and export terminals. The boost provided by Manchin’s bill would be more dramatic for gas than for oil, though both would see upsides from bypassing the kinds of legal challenges that have helped stop projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline in their tracks. GEM found that in the U.S. just a small portion of planned pipelines are currently under construction; permitting reform could offer a leg up to firms to get financing and approval. “The U.S. has its best shot in years at securing durable reforms to oil and gas pipelines permitting potentially unlocking additional U.S. gas production,”  the consultancy Energy Intelligence wrote in August. “If permitting reform squeaks by in the U.S. Senate this fall it could help to clear natural gas bottlenecks in the Northeast and the Permian. The reforms also could help insulate pipeline developers to some extent against costly green litigation.” This isn’t the time to be taking such projections lightly. Right now, there is a massive hurricane barreling through the Caribbean toward Florida and a pipeline leak belching an estimated two million cars’ worth of emissions into the atmosphere. If there’s a silver lining in the last few weeks, though, it may be the rough consensus that has formed among climate advocates of various stripes that the way the U.S. builds things could use some work. With the immediate pressure off, there might be room for a more constructive debate about what good permitting reform might look like and how to build democratic buy-in for the enormous amount of energy infrastructure that needs to be build in the coming years. Ideally, those changes won’t be written behind closed doors by a few guys getting an inordinate amount of money from the fossil fuel industry. 

On Tuesday afternoon, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin threw in the towel: Facing opposition left, right and center, the Energy Independence and Security Act he wrote will not be included in the continuing resolution that needs to pass this week in order to keep the government funded. The Energy Independence and Security Act was a vehicle for what is known as permitting reform, which speeds the federal approval of new energy projects. Manchin’s proposals had been criticized by climate progressives for being possibly too favorable to fossil fuel companies and insufficiently sensitive to environmental justice concerns, and criticized by the right for not going far enough in reducing barriers to new projects.Announcing that he had asked Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to remove the permitting language, Manchin lashed out at the bill’s critics. “The last several months,” he wrote in a statement, “we have seen firsthand the destruction that is possible as Vladimir Putin continues to weaponize energy. A failed vote on something as critical as comprehensive permitting reform only emboldens leaders like Putin who wish to see America fail.” The people who blocked his version of permitting reform from being included in this particular package, apparently, are letting America’s enemies win. It’s hard not to read his statement as a swipe at progressives, particularly as he closed it with “inaction is not a strategy for energy independence and security.” But Manchin isn’t the only person who’s gotten his feelings hurt in this process. As acrimonious as the fights were on the progressive side—some felt this version of permitting reform was critical for bringing renewables online quickly—it’s strange for anyone to focus their ire on people trying to stop their water and air from getting more polluted, like the grassroots organizations opposing Manchin’s pet Mountain Valley Pipeline.Behind closed doors, Joe Manchin and Chuck Schumer brokered a deal designed to piss off just about everyone. That included the likes of Bernie Sanders, who threatened to vote against the continuing resolution, but also centrist New Democrats riled up about their votes being taken for granted. Former Hillary Clinton running-mate Tim Kaine—hardly a left-wing firebrand—didn’t love the idea of two people from outside his state speeding along infrastructure that would traverse it. And it would have been damn near impossible to find 10 Republicans willing to vote for something that didn’t pledge to light the planet on fire. Progressive forces do not control the U.S. Congress. As The American Prospect’s David Dayen observed, progressives were chided for not supporting a deal that never existed in the first place. While many climate advocates would agree that some reform is necessary if we’re to transition quickly to renewable energy, there’s a big difference between permitting reform as a broad conceptual category and the permitting reform legislation that was actually under consideration. Manchin’s bill was a fossil fuel industry giveaway with some decent goodies for energy transmission grafted onto it. Significant parts of it had been previously floated by the Trump administration and were then presented in Manchin’s proposal as the cost of doing business in a divided Senate; one such provision altering the Clean Water Act was stripped out at the last minute. For the most part, the climate and environmental justice groups who rallied against Manchin’s language spent their time pointing out the obvious: that ceding so much ground so quickly to the fossil fuel industry probably wasn’t worth the cost of what good might have been done for interstate transmission lines. The costs of new fossil fuel installations are not hypothetical. New oil pipelines, a recent study from Global Energy Monitor found, are “dramatically at odds with plans to limit global warming to 1.5C or 2C.” The United States is the world leader in building those, with 1,758 miles under development. More than twice the amount of pipelines are under construction as compared to the last time GEM did the same analysis in 2019, now totaling 15,016 miles. Data is limited on how many barrels per day each of those would produce. Those that GEM did compile numbers on, about two-thirds of the total, would add another 21.8 million barrels per day to the global supply and 4.61 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of 1,000 coal plants—per year. Manchin’s pet Mountain Valley pipeline alone would add the equivalent of 26 coal plants. And all of those emissions calculations are in addition to the direct effects on neighboring communities’ health: from poisoned water to spiked rates of rare cancers near easier-to-build gas petrochemical plants and export terminals. The boost provided by Manchin’s bill would be more dramatic for gas than for oil, though both would see upsides from bypassing the kinds of legal challenges that have helped stop projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline in their tracks. GEM found that in the U.S. just a small portion of planned pipelines are currently under construction; permitting reform could offer a leg up to firms to get financing and approval. “The U.S. has its best shot in years at securing durable reforms to oil and gas pipelines permitting potentially unlocking additional U.S. gas production,”  the consultancy Energy Intelligence wrote in August. “If permitting reform squeaks by in the U.S. Senate this fall it could help to clear natural gas bottlenecks in the Northeast and the Permian. The reforms also could help insulate pipeline developers to some extent against costly green litigation.” This isn’t the time to be taking such projections lightly. Right now, there is a massive hurricane barreling through the Caribbean toward Florida and a pipeline leak belching an estimated two million cars’ worth of emissions into the atmosphere. If there’s a silver lining in the last few weeks, though, it may be the rough consensus that has formed among climate advocates of various stripes that the way the U.S. builds things could use some work. With the immediate pressure off, there might be room for a more constructive debate about what good permitting reform might look like and how to build democratic buy-in for the enormous amount of energy infrastructure that needs to be build in the coming years. Ideally, those changes won’t be written behind closed doors by a few guys getting an inordinate amount of money from the fossil fuel industry. 
Defiance by Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands cast shadow over Biden’s Pacific Summit

Defiance by Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands cast shadow over Biden’s Pacific Summit

September 28, 2022

The administration pledges sweeteners to boost U.S-Pacific Island country ties.

Dissension among participants of the first-ever U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit opening Wednesday in Washington, D.C., is complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to forge stronger ties with the region. Two of the summit’s participants — the Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands — are publicly resisting Biden administration efforts to deepen U.S. influence in the region. The Marshall Islands on Sept. 23 suspended talks with the U.S. on renewing its strategic partnership, or Compact of Free Association Agreement, to protest the perceived U.S. failure to address the economic, environmental and health legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons testing around the atolls from 1946 to 1958. And the Solomon Islands, which signed a controversial security pact with China earlier this year, is refusing to sign an 11-point summit declaration “designed to provide a framework for intensified U.S. engagement in the Pacific,” the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported Tuesday. “The Solomons have been actively engaged in all the efforts that we've been involved with,” a senior administration official said Tuesday, without addressing the Australian report. That public pushback marks a humbling kick-off for the two-day summit and underscores the challenges that the Biden administration faces in redeeming U.S. credibility in a region where China is filling the void created by decades of U.S. disengagement. But the administration is adamant that the two-day summit will deliver tangible benefits for Pacific Island countries that will underscore U.S. resolve to be their superpower partner of choice. “This summit is quite a while in the making and we believe it will be a substantial investment,” the senior administration official said. “We will talk specifically about programs and agencies and specific budget numbers.” Detailed deliverables powered by generous U.S. funding is essential if the administration wants to counter China’s growing influence in the region. For many Pacific Islanders, the most visible symbols of U.S. engagement are the remains of former World War II battlefields such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. That influence vacuum has lubricated China’s diplomatic inroads over the past two decades in the absence of a competitive U.S. alternative. The administration is coordinating its summit outreach with its Partners in the Blue Pacific initiative allies Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom “to add more resources, more capacity, more diplomatic engagement as a whole,” said the official. The summit will also mark the launch of the U.S. government’s first-ever Pacific Strategy, a regional-specific compliment to the administration’s China-containing Indo-Pacific Strategy launched in September 2021. “This [strategy] is specifically aimed at the concerns and the objectives in the Pacific as a whole … [and] about how to organize the disparate elements of the U.S. government toward tackling issues like climate change, training, issues associated with [over]fishing, investments in technology,” the official said. Initiatives to address the existential threat that the climate crisis poses to Pacific Island countries will get their leaders’ attention. China has helped power its diplomatic inroads with a bespoke climate diplomacy aimed to address concerns about rising sea levels. China’s special envoy on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, earlier this month convened a “climate change dialogue and exchange meeting” in Beijing with diplomatic representatives from Vanuatu, Samoa, Kiribati, Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Fiji and Tonga, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported. The administration will deploy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry on Wednesday to tout the administration’s determination to improve Pacific Island countries’ links to the U.S. “We'll have the following day a major event at the Chamber of Commerce when the leaders will have an opportunity to engage with a broad array of business groups ranging from tourism [and] travel to energy to technology, to essentially talk about how U.S. business groups can be more actively engaged,” said the official. But the Marshall Islands’ move to freeze talks on COFA renewal is a kick in the teeth to the administration just days after Special Presidential Envoy Ambassador Joseph Yun told POLITICO that the State Department was on track to renew COFAs with Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands by end-2022 after six months of intensive negotiations. And it raises questions about the Biden administration’s strategy to use those COFAs to effectively firewall those three countries from Beijing’s efforts to displace the U.S. as the region’s dominant superpower. And the resistance of Solomon Islands to signing on to the summit declaration will heighten administration concerns about the influence of the country’s security pact with Beijing on its relations with the U.S. Solomon Islands denied port access to a U.S. Coast Guard cutter last month due to unspecified “bureaucratic reasons” and subsequently imposed a temporary moratorium on all foreign naval ships. The administration is confident that the summit will demonstrate that the U.S. can deliver meaningful, long-term engagement with Pacific Island countries. “Every step along the way we’ve briefed our partners on Capitol Hill extensively on new assistance efforts, on new commitments and we have found uniform bipartisan support,” the official said. “And so, in a deeply divided, often adversarial town, we have found generally the Indo Pacific is one area where Democrats and Republicans can make common cause.”

Energy

How to ensure the world's largest pumped-hydro dam isn't a disaster for Queensland's environment

How to ensure the world's largest pumped-hydro dam isn't a disaster for Queensland's environment

October 4, 2022

Pumped hydro offers us large scale energy storage. If we do it carefully, we can make sure these dams don’t cause the damage of the past.

Jamie Pittock, Author providedTo quit coal and move to renewables, we need large-scale energy storage. That’s where pumped hydro comes in. Queensland’s ambitious new plan involves shifting from a coal-dominated electricity grid to 80% renewables within 13 years, using 22 gigawatts of new wind and solar. The plan relies on two massive new pumped hydro developments to store electricity, including the biggest proposed in the world. While it sounds high-tech, it’s very simple: take two dams at different elevations. Pump water to the top dam when cheap renewables are flooding the grid. Run the water down the slope and through turbines to make power at night or when the wind isn’t blowing. When dams are built badly, however, they can trash the environment. For two decades, I’ve pointed out the environmental destruction conventional dams can cause. But now we urgently need more pumped hydro dams to enable Australia’s transition to fully renewable power. The campaign to save Lake Pedder (pictured in 1954) from being flooded for hydroelectricity failed - but made new large scale hydro dams less viable. Janette Asch/Flickr, CC BY Queensland is getting pumped Queensland’s huge new renewable energy plan relies heavily on two massive pumped hydro projects. Inland from the Sunshine Coast is Borumba Dam, which could deliver two gigawatts of 24-hour storage by 2030. This was first proposed last year. The new proposal is Pioneer-Burdekin, west of Mackay, which is intended to store five gigawatts of 24-hour storage from the 2030s. It would involve relocating residents of the small town of Netherdale, which would be inundated. For consumers, this means energy reliability. Each gigawatt of stored power could supply around two million homes – and Queensland has around two million households. Environmentally, the good news is we can learn from previous mistakes and build this vital infrastructure carefully to minimise local environmental damage and maximise the broader environmental benefit of quitting coal power. The world’s largest pumped hydro facility is planned for the Pioneer Valley, west of Mackay. Steven Penton/Flickr, CC BY Why is pumped hydro so important to the energy transition? Solar and wind power can produce vast quantities of cheap power – but not all the time. Pumped hydro is one way to store renewable energy when it’s being generated and releasing it later when needed. While grid-scale batteries such as Victoria’s Big Battery have drawn plenty of media coverage, they are better at storing smaller amounts of electricity and releasing it quickly. Pumped hydro is slightly slower to start feeding back to the grid, but big facilities can keep generating power for days. Read more: The hydropower industry is talking the talk. But fine words won't save our last wild rivers Renewable fuels such as green hydrogen and ammonia may be available in the future, but not now. Nuclear energy is very expensive and would take decades to build. Batteries cannot meet supply gaps longer than a few hours, and come with environmental costs from the mining of raw materials, manufacture, and recycling and disposal of toxic materials. That leaves pumped hydro as a vital option – especially on cold, still and overcast days in winter when solar and wind produce very little electricity. So why is pumped hydro a better environmental prospect? Conventional hydropower dams destroy river ecosystems and flood forests, towns and prime farm land. Globally, the hydropower industry anticipates expanding by 60% by 2050 to provide renewable electricity and storage. I’m less worried about pumped hydro, for three reasons. First, the two reservoirs can be built away from rivers. This alone greatly reduces the damage done by damming rivers and flooding fertile valleys. Second, the area flooded is generally an order of magnitude smaller than conventional hydropower. This is because the great elevation difference between the two reservoirs may enable more power to be generated from limited water. And third, pumped hydro doesn’t need much extra water once filled, as the water cycles around. A little topping up to replace losses from evaporation and seepage is all that’s needed. More than 3,000 potential sites for pumped hydro have been identified in Australia. Importantly, these are all outside formal nature reserves and mostly located along the Great Dividing Range. We’d only need around 20 of these sites to be developed to store power for the nation. That’s around the same number currently planned, built or under construction in Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland. Nearly all large renewable energy developments meet local opposition based on non-financial values. Opponents of big pumped hydro developments such as Snowy 2.0 have called for other sites to be developed instead. If we took this approach, however, we could multiply the environmental disruption. That’s because Snowy 2.0, as well as the proposed Borumba and Pioneer-Burdekin projects in Queensland are huge. They could each generate up to ten times more power than most of the other projects being planned elsewhere. Shifting elsewhere could mean many more smaller projects, which means more roads, transmission lines and reservoirs. Pumped hydro relies on two reservoirs at different elevations, as visible in the Turlough Hill pumped hydro scheme in Ireland. Shutterstock Avoiding the mistakes of the past Environmental disruption from pumped hydro differs greatly depending on the site. At the site selection stage, it’s vital to avoid areas of high conservation and Indigenous cultural value. We can limit environmental damage by using existing dams, as we’re seeing at Snowy 2.0. Old mines in the right locations can have a second life as pumped hydro, as the Kidston project in Queensland demonstrates. By using existing dams or mines, we can actually begin repairing past damage, such as by improving old dams to boost environmental flows. That’s not to say damage won’t be done. Pumped hydro has been linked to the introduction of diseases affecting wildlife, as well as invasive plant and animal species. Roads and transmission lines are one of the biggest impacts on the natural world. By my calculations, much more habitat will be cleared for the Snowy 2.0 overhead transmission lines (around 9,600 hectares) than the new hydro scheme road and pipeline access and waste rock disposal (around 1,000 hectares). We could dramatically reduce environmental damage and visual clutter by putting the lines underground, or building close to existing power lines. So, the choice is ours. While pumped hydro is a lot less damaging than traditional hydroelectricity, it will cause some environmental damage. That’s why pumped hydro developers must choose sites and build carefully, to minimise environmental damage and maximise the benefits of storage. After all, this technology offers the enormous environmental good of freeing ourselves from the need to burn coal, gas and oil every hour of every day. Read more: Batteries get hyped, but pumped hydro provides the vast majority of long-term energy storage essential for renewable power – here’s how it works Jamie Pittock receives funding from the Australian Water Partnership and leads a project from Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation concerning pumped storage hydropower in the Asia - Pacific region. He is a member and advises a number of non-government environmental organizations, including WWF Australia.
The best policies to help coal towns weather the switch to renewables

The best policies to help coal towns weather the switch to renewables

October 3, 2022

In the face of competition from cheaper and cleaner sources of energy, coal mines and plants have been shutting down across the U.S. for the past decade. “We’ve lost 45,000 coal [mining] jobs since 2012,” said Jeremy Richardson, manager of the carbon-free electricity program at RMI, a clean-energy think tank. The…

In the face of competition from cheaper and cleaner sources of energy, coal mines and plants have been shutting down across the U.S. for the past decade. “We’ve lost 45,000 coal [mining] jobs since 2012,” said Jeremy Richardson, manager of the carbon-free electricity program at RMI, a clean-energy think tank. The energy transition “is already happening.” (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.) For towns living through this transition, it can be devastating. Coal workers lose well-paying jobs, and communities lose a bedrock of their economies. How communities weather these choppy seas depends on the level of support they receive, which varies from state to state. That’s one of the takeaways of a new report by RMI, which analyzed 16 bills passed by states since 2011, all aimed at easing the transition away from fossil fuels and into the clean energy economy. The report’s findings enable lawmakers to learn from what has been done before to support a just transition for coal communities, Richardson told Canary Media. Three states in particular stand out for their policies, according to Richardson: Colorado, New Mexico and Illinois. Here’s what they’re getting right. Colorado: Office of Just Transition In 2019, Colorado passed a bill to create a “groundbreaking” office dedicated solely to supporting coal communities, Richardson said. The first in the nation, the Office of Just Transition put together a roadmap, the Colorado Just Transition Action Plan, which clearly lays out the steps it would take to help communities transition their economies away from coal. This includes funding, which the office has started distributing this year, for specific economic development projects such as business parks and outdoor recreation. Proposed by Democrats, the office wasn’t a popular idea across the aisle. Republicans initially balked at the legislation and refused to support it when it passed in 2019. But with grant money going to their communities, some have since changed their minds — and their votes, with some Republicans now backing boosts to the office’s funding. The concept has gained traction, even in the top coal-producing states, West Virginia and Wyoming. However, bills in those states were significantly altered between when they were introduced to their final votes, and they ultimately failed to pass. “Those bills didn't go anywhere,” Richardson said — but it’s encouraging that even in states where talk of coal closure has historically been political poison, lawmakers are starting to have these conversations. In Colorado, a 2021 law enables the state’s Office of Just Transition to provide immediate relief to workers and their families. It can test “innovative coal transition work support programs,” which could potentially include temporary wage replacement or “differentials” (payments to make up for the difference between their current and former job salaries) for three years, according to Richardson. To shore up a town’s tax base — the majority of which may have been generated by the coal industry — the state also requires utilities to file plans that show how they’ll compensate governments in the wake of coal industry closures and lost tax revenue. Xcel Energy, for instance, will continue to pay property taxes to the city and county of Pueblo through 2040 to compensate for shutting down Comanche Generating Station in 2031, decades ahead of schedule. New Mexico: Just transition funds New Mexico passed the Energy Transition Act in 2019, which, according to Richardson, stands out for creating dedicated pools of funding. These are allocated for the economic development of impacted communities, assistance for displaced workers and support for tribal communities, totaling $40 million. As the RMI report states, recognizing tribal communities is important because they “must recover from not only coal plant closure but also a historical legacy of dispossession and disinvestment.” Richardson said that New Mexico was “one of the first states really to say, ‘Look, we're going to actually try to invest in the places that are going to be harmed by the shift away from coal.’” The state’s legislation also authorized $30 million for coal plant decommissioning and reclamation costs, though the timeline for implementing the law is unclear. However, when the funds do materialize, they will come from the financial wizardry of securitization — a process akin to refinancing a mortgage such that early closure of expensive coal plants results in savings. That savings can be passed on to workers, communities and utility customers. When the New Mexico legislation was enacted, securitization proposals had to be authorized at the state level. But the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act has essentially made the tool available nationally, according to Richardson. The climate law creates the new Energy Infrastructure Reinvestment Program in the Department of Energy Loan Programs Office. The new program allows utilities to apply for low-interest loans, guaranteed by the Loan Programs Office, to retire fossil plants early and invest in clean energy. The program can also finance coal site remediation, bolstering an area where state legislation has often been weak, according to RMI’s report. Illinois: Centering workers and environmental justice communities In September 2021, Illinois passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, a law backed by labor and climate justice groups. It included especially powerful provisions for displaced workers and what the state classifies as “environmental justice communities” that have borne the brunt of fossil fuel pollution. The Illinois legislation created an $80-million-a-year program for clean-energy job training hubs that prioritize displaced energy workers, residents of environmental justice communities, and underserved or disadvantaged individuals, including people who have been incarcerated or in the foster care system. To help ensure the programs lead to employment, the law requires that developers of renewable energy projects hire a workforce that consists of at least 10 percent displaced coal workers and underserved groups. It increases that proportion up to 30 percent by 2030. Moreover, the law stipulates that workers at utility-scale renewables projects be paid prevailing wages and have protections under project labor agreements. The law also calls for the state to partner with community-based organizations to get the word out and recruit for these clean energy worker-training programs. The act includes other just-transition policies that hit common pain points. It stipulates that coal plant owners give more notice of mass layoffs, raising the federally required minimum of 60 days to two years. That’s meant to give workers and communities more time to seek assistance. Illinois is also the only state so far that has tried to address the cultural dislocation of the energy transition, according to the report. Its legislation created a grant program that can be used, for example, for counseling services or projects that commemorate a community’s coal legacy — a source of pride that can span generations. “Illinois is probably the most comprehensive of any of the states” in its just-transition policy measures, said Richardson. A high bar for just transition policy Besides comparing existing transition policies, the RMI team also laid out what an ideal policy could look like, proposing a three-part strategy that tackles the problems that transitioning coal communities face over time — immediately in the wake of coal closures, in the short term and in the long term. Immediately, workers and their families need relief, including temporary wage replacement and stopgap benefits, for example. “We don't have a strong safety net in the United States; you lose your health insurance and your retirement benefits when you lose your job,” Richardson said. Local governments similarly need support to recover tax revenue lost when coal operations shut down. In the short term, coal sites need to be cleaned up and reclaimed so that they can support future economic development, said Richardson. Coal ash ponds contaminated with toxic heavy metals can leach into groundwater if they’re unlined, abandoned or otherwise mismanaged, presenting a health hazard that’s also a liability for developers. “Who wants to invest in a community where the drinking water is poisoned? Why would you buy the property and try to do something with it?” said Richardson. “You need comprehensive cleanup to set your community up for success.” And in the long term, communities need well-coordinated, sustained funding to revitalize their economies post-coal. “Economic development and diversification, to be successful, take decades,” Richardson said. “It just really takes committed and robust funding.” Ambitious policy that truly supports coal communities isn’t necessarily politically palatable in every state. But lawmakers can still take small steps and build momentum for these measures over time, Richardson said. He again cited the example of Colorado, where the Office of Just Transition garnered increasing bipartisan buy-in over the course of just a couple of years, he said. For state lawmakers looking to help their own communities transition, Richardson said, “Start at the place where the politics of your legislature will let you start.” It could be the seed that impacted workers and communities need.
Community solar can help revitalize communities. Here’s how

Community solar can help revitalize communities. Here’s how

October 3, 2022

What does community solar mean for low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods where residents are struggling to pay their electric bills or are looking to clean energy as a pathway to a good career? Government agencies, environmental-justice advocates and equity-focused solar developers all have their ideas for…

What does community solar mean for low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods where residents are struggling to pay their electric bills or are looking to clean energy as a pathway to a good career? Government agencies, environmental-justice advocates and equity-focused solar developers all have their ideas for how to answer that question. Last week, the World Resources Institute brought together representatives of these groups to explain how they’re working to build community solar projects that can deliver not just carbon-free electrons but also community revitalization. “A number of years ago, when folks were talking about community solar, they were really talking about a premium product,” said Nicole Steele, senior advisor for equity and workforce at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. “They were saying, ‘I want to make sure my energy is coming from clean energy — I’m willing to pay more for that.’” “We’re trying to flip that script and say, actually, community solar can be like rooftop solar and reduce your overall utility bill on a monthly basis,” she said, “really ensuring there are greater household or business savings.” Steele runs DOE’s National Community Solar Partnership, the Biden administration’s chief conduit for achieving its goal for community solar to power the equivalent of 5 million households and create $1 billion in energy savings for subscribers by 2025. Hitting that target would require roughly 20 gigawatts of community solar deployment, compared to the approximately 5.1 gigawatts installed as of the third quarter of 2022. But the sheer scale of gigawatts deployed isn’t the only measure of success, Steele said. NCSP is also one of the Biden administration’s pilot programs for its Justice40 Initiative, its pledge to direct 40 percent of federal climate-related funds to historically disadvantaged communities. Meeting that goal will require the development of community solar projects that adhere to a number of tenets, Steele said. The first two are fairly obvious — “is it accessible by low- and moderate-income households?” and “is it ensuring household savings?” But it also means building projects that offer “equitable workforce development” and giving community organizations options to own solar projects themselves, as a way to cement the employment and wealth-building value of these multimillion-dollar investments in the communities they serve. Breaking the financial barriers The first challenge is designing community solar programs that are open to lower-income people who’ve largely been locked out of the option of installing solar on their own rooftops. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated that about half of U.S. households aren’t suited for cost-effective rooftop solar, either because they’re renters or because their roofs aren’t a good match for solar panels due to shading, orientation or construction type. But according to Solstice Power Technologies, a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based company that works with solar developers to connect them to customers in disadvantaged communities, the true number is much higher, approaching four-fifths of all U.S. households. That’s because the biggest factor barring households from getting rooftop solar is that they can’t afford it — or, more precisely, they lack the debt-to-income ratios or high credit ratings to meet borrowing criteria for most solar installers and lenders. A significant number of U.S. households earn less than $50,000 per year, but only 14 percent of the country’s rooftop solar owners come from this group. For the 40 percent of households that earn less than $40,000 a year, rooftop solar ownership is even rarer — only 5 percent of solar owners fall into this category. Solstice co-founder and COO Sandhya Murali noted that some of the same income and credit barriers to rooftop solar access have plagued community solar. When Solstice launched six years ago, “the community-solar products looked like rooftop-solar products,” she said. “You needed to sign a 20-year contract; you needed a really high FICO score to participate; there were sometimes four-digit cancellation fees.” While things are improving on that front, community solar developers still have trouble getting financiers to back projects that are targeting lower-income customers and customers with poor credit scores, she said. Solstice is working with its Solstice Initiative nonprofit arm on an alternative for the nearly half of Americans who either lack a credit score or have one in the subprime range. It’s called an EnergyScore, and it tracks not only credit history but also a customer’s history of paying their utility bills. Studies have shown that utility-bill history is an effective proxy for how likely customers are to stay current on their solar payments, and similar metrics are being used by solar developers such as PosiGen and some state and local green banks. While Solstice hasn’t yet put the EnergyScore to use with its community-solar developer partners, it’s hoping to start using it soon, Murali said. “Financing can always be a barrier,” she said. “If there are restrictions placed on the projects where they require a FICO credit requirement, or they require a certain offtake mix” of subscribers like commercial entities that limits participation from low or moderate-income customers, “that’s kind of defeating what we want to achieve in making community solar the most affordable and accessible form of solar out there.” To overcome that, “financiers have to change how they think about the risk of these projects,” she said. Lifting the energy burden Opening the door to lower-income community subscribers is just the first step, Steele said. For the Biden administration to hit its target of $1 billion in savings from community solar, savings for individual subscribers will have to fall from a current average of 10 percent compared to standard utility bills today to closer to 20 percent. Savings of about 20 percent on electrical bills are typical for people who have rooftop solar systems in states with supportive net-metering policies. State governments create the rules and regulations for community solar within their borders, and no two states have precisely the same approach. NREL reports that 22 states and Washington, D.C. have policies that support community solar, but the majority of the sector’s growth has come in a handful of states, including Colorado, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York. These states are among those with policies that incentivize or require community solar developers to seek out and enroll people in lower-income or disadvantaged communities. This NREL chart shows how different state policies have led to different rates of installations and projected deployments serving low- and moderate-income customers as of the end of 2020. “There is definitely a wave of [low- and moderate-income]-friendly policy in the states,” Murali said. The Inflation Reduction Act passed in August could help even more: It offers an additional 20 percent federal tax credit for community solar installations that provide at least half of their financial benefits to low- and moderate-income customers, she said, which will come on top of a 30 percent tax credit that’s offered for all solar projects. Structuring projects to help customers improve energy efficiency and access solar power can also help, said Mary Shearer, executive director of Kentucky Habitat for Humanity. Her state chapter of the nationwide homebuilding charity partnered with Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities to gift shares of a utility-developed community solar project to 10 low-income homeowners, with the target of cutting their electric bills by 30 percent per month. But even deeper savings were realized by a combination of utility-funded efficiency upgrades like LED light bulbs and insulation and Habitat for Humanity’s “deeper home repairs” such as new windows, doors and HVAC systems, she said. Altogether, these multilayered interventions reduced home energy costs by 50 percent per month — a “massive” help to those families, she said. Customer acquisition — the industry term for finding willing customers — can be a significant cost for community solar developers, and processes that make it easier for them to find, vet and approve low-income customers as subscribers are helpful, Murali noted. That’s the goal of a new federal digital platform that will help the more than 5 million recipients of federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program funds connect with community solar programs in their region, set to launch next year in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Washington, D.C. Community jobs and community ownership Jobs are another important part of the Biden administration’s community-solar goals, Steele said. As part of its Justice40 guidelines, NCSP is looking for partners that have plans for “the creation of a workforce that’s inclusive and intentional, and has a pathway for workers to unionize.” That’s one of the primary goals of Reactivate, a recently launched energy asset developer with $500 million in backing from impact investment firm Lafayette Square and independent power producer Invenergy. “We are really focusing on a holistic view,” said Utopia Hill, the company’s head of engineering, procurement and construction. Reactivate partners with local community and government groups to find workers and contractors for its projects, she said. It contracts with woman- and minority-owned businesses, and offers 16-week paid training programs that include “wraparound services” such as transportation to and from job sites. The company also plans to conduct follow-on interviews with workers for years after those projects are complete, she noted. “We’re looking at not just jobs, but sustainable careers, so that people have living wages so they can support their families.” These kinds of commitments help gain community buy-in for projects, Hill said. It’s also important to build trust in communities that may become the targets of less-than-scrupulous developers chasing federal and state incentives, she added. “Underrepresented communities may get this influx of people coming in and promising things that aren’t true,” she said. “They’ve been flat-out lied to before. If certain actors come in there and are not following through on what they say, they’re hurting the industry at large.” Then there’s the question of whether community groups ought to take on the role of owning community solar projects themselves, Steele said. The Inflation Reduction Act makes solar and other clean energy tax credits more easily accessible to municipalities, nonprofit groups and other tax-exempt entities. Previously those credits were available only to private companies because you had to have tax liability to defray in order to apply them, but now not-for-profit entities can receive the incentives in the form of direct payments from the federal government. That’s a major shift that could expand community ownership options in the years to come. Carla Walker, WRI’s director of environmental justice and equity, noted that community ownership can be an important way for communities that have suffered from generations of disinvestment to begin “building equity and rebuilding wealth.” “Ownership is a huge topic of conversation,” Steele said. “It’s the same with rooftop solar. Do you want to own the solar on your roof, or do you want to rent or lease it, enter into a power-purchase agreement? We want it to be the same with community solar. You have the choice of either owning and building wealth through that business model, or being a subscriber. Again, it’s about choice.”
Energy & Environment — Supreme Court to hear Clean Water Act case

Energy & Environment — Supreme Court to hear Clean Water Act case

September 30, 2022

The Supreme Court is set to review water regulations, the Federal Reserve will pilot an analysis of climate risks and California enacts a ban on "forever chemicals" in cosmetics. This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. Not on...

The Supreme Court is set to review water regulations, the Federal Reserve will pilot an analysis of climate risks and California enacts a ban on "forever chemicals" in cosmetics. This is Overnight Energy & Environment, your source for the latest news focused on energy, the environment and beyond. For The Hill, we’re Rachel Frazin and Zack Budryk. Not on the list? Subscribe here.  High-stakes case for water regulations The Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments of a case between Idaho landowners and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a dispute that could redefine the scope of the country’s clean water regulations. The first case of the justices’ new term, landing just ahead of the Clean Water Act’s 50th anniversary, will feature arguments about wetlands and when they can or cannot be regulated by the federal government.Although technical in nature, the legal dispute could have broad implications for the country’s water quality if the 6-3 conservative majority court uses the case to narrow the EPA’s regulatory reach.   “If that's what the Supreme Court should decide, we're basically rolling back the clock 50 years,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs a House panel on water resources and the environment. “That would remove 50 percent of our critical wetlands, and 70 percent of our rivers and streams from federal protection.”  Background: The case began in 2007 when Michael and Chantell Sackett were told they needed a federal permit to build a home on land they owned because it contained wetlands, prompting the Sacketts to sue. A federal court, siding with the U.S. government, ruled that the wetlands on the Sacketts’ property contained a “significant nexus” with other regulated waters, meaning the couple would need authorization to build there.The Sacketts are now urging the Supreme Court to discard the “significant nexus” threshold. Instead, their petition favors a separate test from former Justice Antonin Scalia that called for the waters to have a “continuous surface water connection” — a higher threshold that would apply to fewer wetlands.  The stakes of this case, however, go far beyond one property dispute. It attracted briefs from environmental groups, who argue that it would hamper the government's ability to keep people safe from pollution, as well as industries like farming, mining, construction and oil and gas, which support the deregulatory effort. Read more on what experts say about the case at TheHill.com this weekend. Fed to pilot climate risk program with major banks The Federal Reserve Board will enlist six major U.S. banks in a pilot climate-risk analysis program, officials announced Thursday.   Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo will participate in the pilot as part of the Federal Reserve’s attempt to determine the financial risk associated with natural disasters and climate change.The exercise will have no consequences to capital, and while data from its findings will be published, none of the banks will be identified by name.   The analysis, set to begin in 2023, will be distinct from the “stress tests” the central bank uses to determine whether financial institutions have sufficient capital to loan during major recessions, according to the announcement.   “The climate scenario analysis exercise, on the other hand, is exploratory in nature and does not have capital consequences. By considering a range of possible future climate pathways and associated economic and financial developments, scenario analysis can assist firms and supervisors in understanding how climate-related financial risks may manifest and differ from historical experience,” the Board said in its announcement.   Although international financial institutions are in broad agreement on the need for such analysis, it has caught the ire of congressional Republicans, who have accused the Fed of exceeding its mandate.  Read more about the exercise here. CALIFORNIA BANS 'FOREVER CHEMICALS' IN COSMETICS, CLOTHES California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) late Thursday night signed two bills that will ban cancer-linked “forever chemicals” from cosmetic products and textiles in the state beginning in 2025. The same evening, however, the governor vetoed a third bill that would have created a publicly accessible database of consumer items that contain these toxic compounds.  The first bill signed into law, AB 2771, will prohibit the manufacture, sale and delivery of cosmetic products that contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). This legislation builds upon an existing law that had banned select types of PFAS by that same deadline. “Toxic PFAS have no place in our consumer products,” state Assemblymember Laura Friedman (D), who authored the bill, said in a statement. “Californians won’t have to worry that they’re putting their health, or the health of their loved ones, at risk by doing something as routine as applying lotion or wearing makeup,” she added. The second bill, AB 1817, will bar the manufacture, distribution and sale of “any new, not previously owned” textiles that contain PFAS, with a few exceptions. The bill will also require manufacturers to provide a certificate of compliance indicating that their products do not contain PFAS.  “This is a first-in-the nation law to stop the use of these ‘forever chemicals’ in this product category, setting up a national model on the efforts to mitigate PFAS pollution,” Assemblymember Phil Ting (D), who authored the bill, said in a statement.  These new requirements follow up on two other product bans signed into law last October. Those bills, proposed by Friedman and Ting respectively, prohibit the sale and distribution of both food packaging and children’s products that contain PFAS, beginning next year.  Read more from The Hill’s Sharon Udasin. Russia is the prime suspect in pipeline sabotage  Russia is the prime suspect in the apparent sabotage of pipelines transporting natural gas to Europe, which has left foul methane gas spewing into the Baltic Sea.  Experts say damage to the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines is a cynical use of a “gray zone” aggression that leaves few good options for retribution.   “We have war-gamed this for years, we’ve always been a bit afraid that this is something that the Russians could do if they wanted to,” said Jim Townsend, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration.“I think all of us have got to know that Putin has other cards that he can play besides conventional or nuclear, he’s got something in between — this critical infrastructure that can be a target.”   National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Friday about protecting critical infrastructure in the wake of the “apparent sabotage” of the pipelines. Explosions on the pipelines, which were not in use, released the trapped gas, first discovered in Danish waters early Monday.    Top European and NATO officials are bluntly assigning sabotage, even as they stop short of directly blaming Putin ahead of an investigation.    “The sabotage of the Nordstream pipelines is of deep concern. NATO is committed to deter and defend against hybrid attacks,” Stoltenberg earlier tweeted. “Any deliberate attack against Allies’ critical infrastructure would be met with a united and determined response.”  Read more here, from The Hill’s Laura Kelly.   GRANHOLM, EXXON SPAR OVER FUEL EXPORTS ExxonMobil and the Biden administration are feuding over fuel exports after Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm asked industry to limit its shipments abroad.   This week, Exxon CEO Darren Woods wrote a letter to the administration, apparently disagreeing with its position that limiting exports would help consumers.   “Continuing current Gulf Coast exports is essential to efficiently rebalance markets—particularly with diverted Russian supplies,” said the letter, according to The Wall Street Journal. “Reducing global supply by limiting U.S. exports to build region-specific inventory will only aggravate the global supply shortfall.” ,  Granholm on Friday released a statement criticizing the company’s profits, and saying that it company “misreads” the current situation   “This week’s letter from a company that made nearly $200M in profit every single day last quarter, misreads the moment we are in. The fact is this: Energy companies are making record profits, with refiners and retailers also posting margins that are well above average — while passing the costs on to consumers,” she said.   “This is a time for American energy companies to take action to lower prices for consumers and to rebuild inventories of gasoline and diesel in this country that are below the five-year range,” she added.   Read more about their comments here. WHAT WE'RE READING Hurricane Ian was a powerful storm. Real estate developers made it a catastrophe (Grist) Meet the People Who Want to Stop the Next Hurricane by Hacking the Ocean (The Daily Beast) Even as Oil Prices Ease, U.S. Keeps Tapping Strategic Reserve (The New York Times) FERC policy chief frets about agency’s staff openings (E&E News) The Climate Movement Wanted More Than the IRA. Now What? (The Atlantic)  🌵 Lighter click: Prickly perch That’s it for today, thanks for reading. Check out The Hill’s Energy & Environment page for the latest news and coverage. We’ll see you next week.  

Nature

Cop15 is an opportunity to save nature. We can’t afford another decade of failure | Phoebe Weston

Cop15 is an opportunity to save nature. We can’t afford another decade of failure | Phoebe Weston

October 1, 2022

Ahead of the UN biodiversity conference, our reporter reflects on lessons of hope and change in three years reporting with the Guardian’s age of extinction teamSaying you’re a biodiversity reporter doesn’t mean much to a lot of people. “What do you actually write about?” they ask. And this is exactly why there should be more journalists on this beat. The nature crisis continues to fly under the radar.In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, there was a wave of enthusiasm about tackling the great environmental problems, and so governments set up three UN conventions to deal with climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification. Since then, the climate crisis has been treated as separate to the biodiversity crisis, yet there is huge overlap between the two. Continue reading...

Ahead of the UN biodiversity conference, our reporter reflects on lessons of hope and change in three years reporting with the Guardian’s age of extinction teamSaying you’re a biodiversity reporter doesn’t mean much to a lot of people. “What do you actually write about?” they ask. And this is exactly why there should be more journalists on this beat. The nature crisis continues to fly under the radar.In 1992, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, there was a wave of enthusiasm about tackling the great environmental problems, and so governments set up three UN conventions to deal with climate change, biodiversity loss and desertification. Since then, the climate crisis has been treated as separate to the biodiversity crisis, yet there is huge overlap between the two. Continue reading...
Worrying Increase in Poaching of SA’s Succulents. CapeNature Takes Action

Worrying Increase in Poaching of SA’s Succulents. CapeNature Takes Action

September 23, 2022

CapeNature is taking proactive steps to ensure the Western Cape’s precious biodiversity is protected, following the shocking escalation in succulent and other plant poaching, which has seen hundreds of thousands of plants being stolen. The poaching has increased hugely since 2018, with most of these plants being destined for the Asian market. In the Vredendal […] The post Worrying Increase in Poaching of SA’s Succulents. CapeNature Takes Action appeared first on SAPeople - Worldwide South African News.

CapeNature is taking proactive steps to ensure the Western Cape’s precious biodiversity is protected, following the shocking escalation in succulent and other plant poaching, which has seen hundreds of thousands of plants being stolen. The poaching has increased hugely since 2018, with most of these plants being destined for the Asian market. In the Vredendal area alone there are currently 48 cases related to poaching before the courts, according to the Andricus van der Westhuizen, DA Western Cape Spokesperson on Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Development Planning. During an oversight visit to Knersvlakte Nature Reserve, CapeNature revealed that the average number of plants being seized by authorities per month over the last four years is around 12 000. That’s 144,000 per year. And those are only the plants that are seized. “This indicates that it is not simply petty crime, but rather large-scale theft of our natural heritage,” Van der Westhuizen said in a statement today. ”Even more tragically, local youth are often enlisted to steal the plants.” He said the DA in the Western Cape welcomes the proactive steps taken by CapeNature. CapeNature has been working with the SAPS and the NPA to ensure that successful prosecutions take place where culprits are identified and arrested. In one example, CapeNature recently hosted a number of prosecutors and magistrates to provide training on this problem. Van der Westhuizen says: “The DA in the Western Cape is very concerned about the increase in biodiversity crime over the last few years. This is a criminal issue and we urge anyone with knowledge of such activity to come forward. ”I am glad to see that CapeNature is taking a proactive approach to try and make sure that there are consequences for those that make themselves guilty of stealing our natural heritage, and hope that they receive adequate support from National government to continue to stamp out this attack on our province’s beauty.” Do you have an illegally-sourced succulent in your home? You may have an illegally-sourced succulent in your home… In an illicit trade rivalling that of rhino horn and perlemoen poaching, massive hauls of succulents are being stripped from delicate ecosystems in South Africa’s outermost corners by rare plant collectors with the help of local guides. Last year Carte Blanche investigated the trend that is posing a threat to the survival of the succulents. According to a New York Times investigation, the poaching of conophytums started in 2018 as an obsession for ‘trendy’ houseplants had been growing. This trend unfortunately escalated during the Pandemic when people were stuck at home. “The houseplant obsession that took root during lockdown globally has fuelled the desire to own the rarest, most beautiful succulents that money can buy – and showing it off on social media is part of the charm,” says Carte Blanche. You can watch Carte Blanche if you’re overseas in most countries The post Worrying Increase in Poaching of SA’s Succulents. CapeNature Takes Action appeared first on SAPeople - Worldwide South African News.
Australia signs global nature pledge committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030

Australia signs global nature pledge committing to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030

September 21, 2022

Morrison government refused to sign Leaders’ Pledge for Nature in 2020 but Anthony Albanese signals environment is back as priorityFollow our Australia news live blog for the latest updatesGet our free news app, morning email briefing or daily news podcastThe Australian government has signed a global pledge endorsed by more than 90 countries committing them to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030.The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, announced Australia had joined the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature at an event taking place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning Continue reading...

Morrison government refused to sign Leaders’ Pledge for Nature in 2020 but Anthony Albanese signals environment is back as priorityFollow our Australia news live blog for the latest updatesGet our free news app, morning email briefing or daily news podcastThe Australian government has signed a global pledge endorsed by more than 90 countries committing them to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030.The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, announced Australia had joined the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature at an event taking place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning Continue reading...

Water

Supreme Court weighs redefining clean water regulations

Supreme Court weighs redefining clean water regulations

October 3, 2022

The Supreme Court on Monday weighed whether to limit the scope of the country’s clean water regulations in a case that could have a far-reaching impact on the nation’s water quality. The fairly technical argument, which dealt with the Clean Water Act’s regulatory reach over wetlands, did not clearly telegraph how the court would rule....

The Supreme Court on Monday weighed whether to limit the scope of the country’s clean water regulations in a case that could have a far-reaching impact on the nation’s water quality.  The fairly technical argument, which dealt with the Clean Water Act’s regulatory reach over wetlands, did not clearly telegraph how the court would rule. Its most conservative and liberal members appeared to stake out opposite ends of the debate, however, while several other justices seemed more difficult to read. The case stems from a 2007 property dispute, in which Idaho landowners Michael and Chantell Sackett were told they needed a federal permit to build a home on land they owned because it supposedly contained regulated wetlands. Now, 15 years later, the couple is arguing that the way that the federal government views regulated wetlands is too broad.  While the court did not project a clear outcome during its questioning, the 6-3 conservative majority court has a history of looking skeptically at the federal government’s claim of regulatory authority over the environment when its powers are not clearly defined by law.  In the first argument of the court’s new term, the three most conservative justices seemed inclined to pare back the government’s environmental authority, while the court’s three more liberal members appeared to favor an expansive view. Some of the other justices sent mixed signals about how they might rule in the case.  Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked particularly tough questions of the Sacketts’s lawyer, Damien Schiff.  In arguments that at times focused on when a wetland can be considered “adjacent” to regulated waters, he took issue with the lawyer’s insistence that this referred to waters that are “touching” rather than “neighboring.” Kavanaugh described “neighboring” as the “ordinary dictionary definition of adjacent.” When Schiff responded that the statute appears to be referring to waters that are touching, Kavanaugh noted that a series of previous administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, took a broader view of adjacency.  “Why did seven straight administrations not agree with you?” he asked the lawyer.  Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett also appeared to ask tough questions of both sides.  In her debut on the bench, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who is expected to round out the court’s liberal wing, used several questions to tether the more abstract legal debate to the underlying purpose of the Clean Water Act, which turns 50 this month. She aimed a sharp line of inquiry at a lawyer for the land owners, who urged the court to narrow the government's authority over wetlands to extend only to those with a continuous surface connection to U.S. waters. "You say the question is which wetlands are covered, which I agree with," she said. "But I guess my question is, why would Congress draw the coverage line between abutting wetlands and neighboring wetlands when the objective of the statute is to ensure the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's waters?" Under the current system, many polluters are also not necessarily blocked from carrying out activities in regulated waters. Instead, they may need to either apply for a permit that contains stipulations that they follow environmental safeguards, or follow existing stipulations in a “general permit” that gives a blanket waiver to certain activities.   But environmentalists say that while pollution still occurs when permits are in place, the stipulations they offer are important for averting the worst damages.   In seeking to preserve the requirement for permits to carry out activities in certain wetlands, Justice Department lawyer Brian Fletcher argued that whether protections apply can be determined by a “significant nexus” test.  Fletcher said that this includes factors such as distance, flow, an area’s hydrology and the presence of other wetlands.  In a prior court decision, three of the court’s conservative justices, Roberts, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, previously backed a separate, more stringent test that instead said that wetlands should have a “continuous surface water connection.” But, Schiff argued in favor of a separate test that may be even more difficult to achieve — saying that waters like wetlands could also be regulated if they can support interstate commerce.  The case comes at a time of heightened liberal distrust in the court, especially following its high profile decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.  The court has also recently taken a conservative, deregulatory position  in a case where it limited the scope of the EPA’s ability to regulate power plants’ contribution to climate change. 
The Supreme Court appears determined to shrink the Clean Water Act

The Supreme Court appears determined to shrink the Clean Water Act

October 3, 2022

Jaime Sigaran, right, of American Rivers, and his sister Bethsaida attend a rally to call for protection of the Clean Water Act outside of the US Supreme Court as the Court heard arguments in the case of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency on October 3, the first day of the new term. | Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images But it isn’t sure how. Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, which the Supreme Court heard on Monday, is a devilishly difficult case. It involves the proper meaning of a vague phrase in the Clean Water Act, the principal law protecting America’s waters from a wide range of foreign substances. That 1972 act prohibits “discharge of pollutants” into “navigable waters.” But it also defines the term “navigable waters” vaguely and counterintuitively, to include all “waters of the United States, including the territorial seas.” While nearly everyone agrees that major bodies of water such as rivers and large lakes qualify as “waters of the United States,” Sackett, which involves a couple that wants to fill in wetlands on their residential lot near an Idaho lake, asks just how closely a wetland must be connected to such a larger body of water before it is also subject to the Clean Water Act’s prohibitions. A decision removing the act’s protections from even some wetlands could have significant implications for the nation’s water supply, as that nation’s water system is interconnected. A pollutant dumped in a wetland miles from a major lake can nonetheless migrate to that lake. On the eve of oral arguments in Sackett, the Court appeared likely to settle on one of two approaches suggested by two conservative justices in Rapanos v. United States (2006), the last Supreme Court case to consider how to define the term “waters of the United States.” But neither test seemed to satisfy a majority of the Court during Monday’s oral argument. At least six of the justices expressed concerns that a narrow reading of the Clean Water Act suggested by Justice Antonin Scalia (who was joined, in 2006, by three of his fellow Republican appointees) in Rapanos is at odds with the act’s text. Indeed, a majority of the justices seemed so critical of Scalia’s approach — and of conservative lawyer Damien Schiff’s advocacy for that rule — that Schiff seemed to be headed for a loss when he sat down after presenting his first round of arguments to the justices. Yet, if environmentalists thought they had reason to celebrate when Schiff left the podium halfway through Monday’s argument, those hopes were dashed not long after DOJ attorney Brian Fletcher began his oral arguments. A majority of the justices appeared concerned that the alternative test Justice Anthony Kennedy proposed in Rapanos is too vague to be manageable. Worse, for environmentalists and for the government, the Court’s Republican-appointed majority appeared equally concerned that the federal government’s reading of the statute is too vague — and that it gives landowners too little warning about whether they will have to comply with the law. The most likely result in Sackett, in other words, is that the Court will make a significant cut at the Clean Water Act, but perhaps not the deepest one that environmentalists feared before Monday’s arguments. It is less clear whether the justices will come up with a test to determine which waters are subject to the law that brings any real clarity to this difficult question. The Court appears dubious of a narrow reading of the Clean Water Act proposed by Justice Scalia Plaintiffs Chantell and Michael Sackett bought a residential lot near Priest Lake in Idaho, much of which consists of wetlands. They attempted to fill in these wetlands with sand and gravel, but the federal government told them to stop — on the theory that effectively destroying these wetlands would violate the Clean Water Act. Although sand and gravel aren’t the sorts of things that many people ordinarily think of as pollutants, the Clean Water Act prevents the destruction of at least some wetlands because of the natural role wetlands play in protecting more significant bodies of water from pollution. Wetlands act as filters that trap pollutants that could otherwise infiltrate navigable waters. They also act as sponges to absorb floodwaters. But the question of which wetlands qualify as “waters of the United States,” and therefore are protected by the Clean Water Act, turns out to be quite difficult. In Rapanos, four justices joined an opinion by Justice Scalia that would have excluded most American wetlands from the act’s scope. Under Scalia’s proposed test, a wetland is only subject to the act if it has a “continuous surface connection” with a “relatively permanent body of water” that makes it “difficult to determine where the ‘water’ ends and the ‘wetland’ begins.” According to an amicus brief filed by professional associations representing water regulators and managers, Scalia’s test would “exclude 51% (if not more) of the Nation’s wetlands” from the act’s protections. But many of the justices suggested on Monday that Scalia’s proposed rule from Rapanos is at odds with a provision of the Clean Water Act that indicates that the act does cover wetlands that are “adjacent” to navigable bodies of water. Chief Justice John Roberts, for example, argued that a train station ordinarily is considered to be “adjacent” to the train tracks, even if those tracks do not literally touch the train station physically. Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that, in 1977, the Army Corps of Engineers made it clear that a wetland may be “adjacent” to a body of water even if it is separated from that larger body by berms, dunes, dikes, or other such features. And Kavanaugh seemed to argue that Congress incorporated the Army Corps of Engineers’ understanding into the Clean Water Act itself. As Justice Amy Coney Barrett told Schiff, “the biggest problem for you, clearly,” is that the law seems to encompass wetlands that are merely nearby a larger body of water, and not just wetlands that are so integrated into that body of water that it is “difficult to determine where the ‘water’ ends and the ‘wetland’ begins.” The Court could ultimately settle on a rule that is even more restrictive than Scalia’s Yet, while a majority of the Court did seem to shy away from Scalia’s proposed rule on Monday, all of the Court’s six Republican appointees appeared concerned with what Justice Samuel Alito referred to as a “vagueness problem.” Or, as Justice Neil Gorsuch put it, how is a “reasonable landowner” supposed to determine whether their land is covered by the Clean Water Act? In Rapanos, Justice Kennedy proposed what is often referred to as the “significant nexus” test. Under this test, wetlands are subject to the act’s restrictions if they “significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’” But several of the justices fretted that this test is too vague to allow landowners to determine upfront whether they must comply with the law. Which is not to say that landowners are helpless. As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson pointed out, a landowner may ask the EPA to look at their land and determine if it is subject to the act before they begin a construction project on that land. And even if the act does apply, a landowner may still seek a permit allowing them to build despite the act’s restrictions. But it is far from clear that a majority of the Court will deem these procedures sufficient to protect landowners. Several members of the Court also seemed to have concerns that the provision of the Clean Water Act stating that “adjacent” wetlands fall within the scope of the act is also too vague. Could a wetland be “adjacent” to a lake if it was three miles away from it, Gorsuch asked at one point? What if it was just one mile away? And the government’s proposed reading of the statute — that a wetland is covered if it is “in reasonable proximity to other waters of the United States” — doesn’t really do much to clear up this vagueness problem. The ultimate problem facing the Court is that the statute itself does not draw a clear line that determines when a wetland is so far from a larger body of water that the act no longer applies. And without a clear line, the conservative Court is likely to determine that edge cases simply do not qualify. Indeed, in the worst case for the government, the Court could declare much of the act void for vagueness. As Gorsuch has written, in a somewhat hyperbolic majority opinion for the Court, “In our constitutional order, a vague law is no law at all.” In any event, it’s not yet clear that the Court will go quite that far. Most of the justices appeared to spend Monday morning struggling with how to read a law that gives them little clear guidance, at least with respect to close cases. How they resolve that remains to be seen.
Supreme Court to hear case that could have massive impact on US water quality

Supreme Court to hear case that could have massive impact on US water quality

October 2, 2022

The Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments of a case between Idaho landowners and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a dispute that could redefine the scope of the country’s clean water regulations. The first case of the justices’ new term, landing just ahead of the Clean Water Act’s 50th anniversary, will feature arguments about...

The Supreme Court on Monday will hear arguments of a case between Idaho landowners and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a dispute that could redefine the scope of the country’s clean water regulations.   The first case of the justices’ new term, landing just ahead of the Clean Water Act’s 50th anniversary, will feature arguments about wetlands and when they can or cannot be regulated by the federal government.   Although technical in nature, the legal dispute could have broad implications for the country’s water quality if the 6-3 conservative majority court uses the case to narrow the EPA’s regulatory reach.   “If that's what the Supreme Court should decide, we're basically rolling back the clock 50 years,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who chairs a House panel on water resources and the environment. “That would remove 50 percent of our critical wetlands, and 70 percent of our rivers and streams from federal protection.”  The case began in 2007 when Michael and Chantell Sackett were told they needed a federal permit to build a home on land they owned because it contained wetlands, prompting the Sacketts to sue.   A federal court, siding with the U.S. government, ruled that the wetlands on the Sacketts’ property contained a “significant nexus” with other regulated waters, meaning the couple would need authorization to build there.   The Sacketts are now urging the Supreme Court to discard the “significant nexus” threshold. Instead, their petition favors a separate test from former Justice Antonin Scalia that called for the waters to have a “continuous surface water connection” — a higher threshold that would apply to fewer wetlands.  The stakes of this case, however, go far beyond one property dispute. It attracted briefs from environmental groups, which argue that it would hamper the government's ability to keep people safe from pollution, as well as industries like farming, mining, construction and oil and gas, which support the deregulatory effort.   “This is a very, very, big deal for the Clean Water Act. It will determine, likely, whether the Clean Water Act can protect half of the water bodies in the country, and if it can’t, meeting the water quality goals of the law that we all count on will be virtually impossible,” said Jon Devine, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council’s federal water policy team.  The case appears to mirror regulatory differences between the Trump administration’s efforts to limit regulations to just wetlands with continuous surface water connections to other regulated waters, and the Obama administration’s regulations, which applied the significant nexus test.   A total of 51 percent of the country’s wetlands would not be protected under the Trump-era rule, according to a slideshow obtained by E&E News.  The Biden administration has proposed to regulate some wetlands that meet the significant nexus standard.   And while the Sacketts’ petition to the court appears to be in support of the continuous surface water test, in their opening court brief, they propose a separate test.  They say that a wetland should be “inseparably bound up” with another regulated water and also subject to Congress’s authority over interstate waters.   Damien Schiff, a lawyer representing the Sacketts said that abiding by the Clean Water Act can be significantly burdensome, both in the application process itself and in the requirements to mitigate environmental damage.   “Whenever the Clean Water Act applies, it does add a significant financial burden, not just because there is a lot of costs involved in the application process … but also just simply the cost of compensatory mitigation,” said Schiff, a senior attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation.   He said that the Army Corps of Engineers “might very well issue a permit, but typically not only is the permit issued for a much smaller project than was originally requested but it’s always accompanied by a pretty significant compensatory mitigation obligation and that can run into the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars.”  A looser test would be expected to apply to fewer wetlands, allowing individuals and corporations to act there without EPA oversight.   Under the current system, many polluters are also not necessarily blocked from carrying out activities in regulated waters.   Instead, they may need to either apply for a permit that contains stipulations that they follow environmental safeguards, or follow existing stipulations in a “general permit” that gives a blanket waiver to certain activities.   But environmentalists say that while pollution still occurs when permits are in place, the stipulations they offer are important for averting the worst damages.   “This case is not about prohibiting construction or development, it’s about what safeguards are in place when someone does so,” Devine said.   Environmentalists say that this pollution may end up in America’s drinking water and also harm fish that people catch for consumption. And while many public water systems are treated to prevent pollution, some people get their water from private wells, which may not get the same level of treatment.   “Drinking water does have standards, but that doesn’t mean that all those standards are perfect and the pollution that comes in through those sources means more cost of treatment. It means that people who live on wells or in areas where the water treatment systems aren’t as big or fancy or as expensive are going to suffer,” said Sam Sankar, senior vice president of programs at Earthjustice.   Sankar said his organization has 18 tribes as clients, and many of them will face “direct impacts.”  The court began its work Monday after an epochal term in which the six Republican-appointed justices advanced an aggressive conservative legal agenda.   The case will be the first that is heard by Ketanji Brown Jackson in her tenure as a Supreme Court justice.   Although overshadowed by the court’s overruling of Roe v. Wade, last term saw the court vote 6-3 to pare back federal agency power in West Virginia v. EPA, a case that reined in the government’s authority to regulate carbon emissions from power plants.  Court watchers believe the conservative majority court will continue its rightward trajectory this term.  "There's no reason to think this coming term, or any term in the foreseeable future, will be any different," Irv Gornstein, executive director of Georgetown Law's Supreme Court Institute said recently. "On things that matter most, get ready for a lot of 6-3s." 

Activism

Puerto Ricans were already angry about the power grid. Then came Hurricane Fiona.

Puerto Ricans were already angry about the power grid. Then came Hurricane Fiona.

September 27, 2022

“Fiona is a storm, and the privatization of the electric grid is a storm as well.“

More than a week after Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico, damage from the Category 1 storm lingers across the island: About 40 percent of residents are still without power and 212,000 don’t have access to clean running water. According to official reports, 26 hospitals have yet to come back online.  While the island struggles to recover, Fiona has moved on, hitting the Dominican Republic and colliding with Canada’s Eastern Seaboard on Saturday, leaving hundreds of thousands without power in Nova Scotia. Meanwhile, parts of the Caribbean and Florida are bracing for Hurricane Ian, which is expected to build to a Category 4 hurricane by Tuesday. The level of devastation wrought by Fiona in Puerto Rico, and the slow recovery in the days since, have fueled local anger towards the government, which many say mismanaged recovery funds after Hurricane Maria knocked out the island’s electric grid and other critical infrastructure in 2017. “We’re questioning why it’s taking so long,” said Ruth Santiago, a community and environmental lawyer based in Salinas, one of the worst-hit areas in the south of the island. “This was a Category 1 hurricane that did not hit us directly, except for a little bit in the southwest.” By comparison, Hurricane Maria was nearly a Category 5 and hit the island straight on. A centerpoint of public ire has been LUMA Energy, the private company that took over Puerto Rico’s power transmission system last year. Previously, the country had been serviced by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, or PREPA, a corruption-plagued public utility that went bankrupt months before Hurricane Maria. During the debt restructuring process, PREPA contracted with LUMA, a joint venture between American and Canadian companies, to transmit and distribute power. But like PREPA before it, the private utility’s tenure was riddled with mismanagement of the grid, delaying recovery from Maria and leaving the island vulnerable to Fiona.  “I define a storm in many ways,” said Tara Rodríguez Besosa, co-founder of El Departamento de la Comida, a grassroots farming collective that works towards food sovereignty in Puerto Rico. “Fiona is a storm, and the privatization of the electric grid is a storm as well.”  People protest outside the headquarters of LUMA Energy, the company that took over the transmission and distribution of Puerto Rico’s electric authority, after a blackout hit the island in April 2022. RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP via Getty Images Over the last several months, increasing blackouts, voltage fluctuations, and rising energy prices have led to mass protests against the private utility. Even celebrity musician Bad Bunny has repeatedly spoken out against the company.  Many viewed the LUMA takeover as part of a long trend of privatization that has hampered Puerto Rican public services and decreased democratic control, a dynamic stemming from the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, officially a U.S territory. “Right now, people are focusing on the immediate emergency, but I would not be surprised to see a big resurgence of protests against LUMA,” said Carlos Berríos Polanco, a Puerto Rican journalist currently based in Ponce who covered the demonstrations in July and August. Already he has documented at least six protests that occurred over the weekend or are planned for this week. In an effort to avert further LUMA-driven delays, town mayors across the island have been hiring their own electric brigades, often comprised of ex-PREPA workers. In some of these cases LUMA has called the police and threatened mayors with arrest.  The company’s contract is up for renewal on November 15, a deal that would lock in the utility for another 15 years; officials are now re-examining the partnership.   According to Santiago, Puerto Ricans are wondering why LUMA and PREPA have not implemented renewable energy with the historic amount of disaster funding they had at their disposal from Hurricane Maria. The country received $9 billion for electric grid reconstruction from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, but only $40 million has been spent. After damaged ports prevented imports of fossil fuels from reaching the island, energy experts and climate activists advocated for investment in locally-generated solar and wind. But the government continued to push for fossil fuel infrastructure and as of March was generating less than 5 percent of its electricity from renewables, even with a law in place to achieve 40 percent renewable energy by 2026 and 100 percent by 2050.  Beyond a transition to renewables, experts and activists have called for a decentralization of the grid. Power plants along the southern coast in Puerto Rico generate around 70 percent of the country’s energy, but the majority of demand is in the north. When storms come through running east to west, they knock out the power lines that run across the island. Santiago, who sits on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council, said that government initiatives to build large solar farms on agricultural lands have been misguided; they maintain the centralized pattern of energy generation, damage biodiverse habitats, and take up valuable agricultural land.  In the southern community of Coquí, residents have attributed record flood levels during Fiona to soil compaction from two utility-scale solar projects on nearby agricultural land zoned as specially protected soil. Indeed, the environmental impact report for the most recent project predicted changes to water flows in the area. Instead of large-scale solar farms, energy activists have called on the government to support smaller grids and more rooftop solar to create a more decentralized energy supply. Studies have shown it would be possible to cover almost all the electricity needs for the island with rooftop solar alone.  Puerto Ricans with the resources to install rooftop solar after Hurricane Maria fared well during this most recent storm. The country underwent something of a grassroots solar revolution following Maria, with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis reporting last week that over 40,000 Puerto Rican homes have installed solar panels since 2017 (most of these are hooked up to battery backup systems). The non-profit Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, a town in the mountains in central Puerto Rico, led an effort to develop a community-scale solar initiative, installing systems in over 100 homes and 30 businesses and opening its doors to those without power.  A Casa Pueblo worker installs a solar energy system at a home in Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, in 2018. AP Photo / Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo Just as with energy independence, a grassroots movement to establish food sovereignty through community farms sprung up in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Puerto Rico imports approximately 85 percent of its food supply, leaving residents vulnerable to food insecurity in the event of shipping disruptions and damaged ports. Hurricane Fiona severely damaged farms across the island, wiping out 90 percent of the eastern region’s plantain crop, as well as small farms that prioritized crop diversification after Maria. As reported in the Washington Post, many of these smaller farms will not qualify for crop insurance. Damages to domestic crops may also mean higher food prices for Puerto Ricans in the coming months.  Marissa Reyes-Díaz, who co-founded Güakiá Colectivo Agroecológico, a farm in Dorado, in the north of Puerto Rico near San Juan, said community farmers are scrambling to harvest what they can and distribute food.  “The government has not prioritized small farms, but we are doing our best without structural support,” said Reyes-Díaz, who also emphasized the connection between energy independence and food sovereignty. “It remains to be seen in the coming weeks what the situation will be.” According to Berríos Polanco, many grocery stores across the island have also had to close due to lack of diesel to run their generators. Currently, a British petroleum ship with 300,000 barrels of diesel is waiting for a Jones Act waiver to land off the southern coast of Puerto Rico; because of the Jones Act, foreign ships coming from U.S. ports cannot dock without a waiver and the act has been criticized for increasing energy costs for Puerto Rico over the years.  On Thursday, President Biden promised to cover 100 percent of recovery costs from Hurricane Fiona for a period of 30 days; FEMA has been adding municipalities to the list to receive aid as information becomes available, although certain hard-hit counties in the south and west have yet to be included in the disaster declaration.  “We know each year these things are going to continue to happen,” said Rodríguez Besosa, who is taking steps to make sure her farm can operate as off the grid as possible. She added, “It’s interesting that the same entities meant to support us are the ones that have created the largest destruction and obstacles.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Puerto Ricans were already angry about the power grid. Then came Hurricane Fiona. on Sep 27, 2022.
The rebirth of Hiware Bazar

The rebirth of Hiware Bazar

September 26, 2022

How a drought-stricken community in India became a “village of millionaires”

This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit journalism organization. As a young boy in the 1970s, Vishwanath Thange knew hunger. He usually lived on one meal a day, not enough when you’re working construction. But Thange had to take the work — or starve. He was born in Hiware Bazar, a village tucked deep inside the western Indian state of Maharashtra. Back then, the hamlet was a crime-ridden backwater, desperately poor and largely abandoned by government agencies. Thange’s family owned seven acres, but chronic drought prevented them from growing food to eat or sell. So Thange left, when he was 15, to look for work in nearby cities. About 20 years ago, he returned to Hiware Bazar, and today he is one of the 89 farmers there who have assets worth more than a million Indian rupees — a fortune in a country where 90 percent of the population makes less than 300,000 rupees a year. In the past 25 years, every farmer in Hiware Bazar has prospered, says Thange. “Today,” he says, “not a single person goes to bed hungry.” Thange recently earned around 2 million rupees from his farm, the equivalent of a bit more than $25,000. The average agricultural household in India, meanwhile, earns the equivalent of $800 as farm income annually. Thange’s income has paid for a good education for his two sons — a significant feat in rural India, where virtually no one can afford education. It also meant a sturdy, comfortable home for his family, and an increase in his land holdings, from seven acres to 25 acres. The average size of a farm in India is just 2.6 acres. Although Thange’s story is not an exception in Hiware Bazar, it is exceptional for India. Sixty-five percent of the country’s population resides in villages, where farming is the principal occupation. Farming, however, has been unprofitable in recent decades due to drought, a lack of direct integration with markets, high input costs, and low market prices.  Chirodeep Chaudhuri Vishwanath Thange holds a flower while standing in an irrigated field in Hiware Bazar. Chirodeep Chaudhuri Chirodeep Chaudhuri A motorcycle and car drive by the sign for Hiware Bazar, left. Right, painted rocks sit in a village field. Chirodeep Chaudhuri Chirodeep Chaudhuri The failure of the agriculture sector is blamed for the epidemic of farmer suicides in the country, which claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people between 1995 and 2014. According to the latest government figures, more than one agricultural worker dies by suicide every hour in the country. Maharashtra, the state where Hiware Bazar is located, reports the highest number of such suicides in the country. Last year, Maharashtra recorded more than 4000 farmer suicides, or over 11 each day. Climate change has exacerbated India’s agrarian crisis. Last year, the country lost more than 12 million acres of cropland to extreme weather. As droughts worsen, the resurrection of Hiware Bazar holds lessons for villages across the country.  Popularly known as the “village of millionaires,” Hiware Bazar’s model is now being replicated in thousands of villages across India. Through effective watershed management, the rebuilding of natural resources, and a shift to more sustainable, less water-intensive crops — all of which hinged on the participation of residents — the village turned itself into a national “model of development.” The agricultural success has driven progress across the rest of the community, including in healthcare and education.  But Hiware Bazar’s salvation took years of hard work. No one knows this better than Popatrao Pawar, the sarpanch, or head of the village, who spearheaded the village’s transformation. “When we started, it seemed impossible,” he says. “For us, it’s paradise regained.” Popatrao Pawar stands near a gate being constructed in Hiware Bazar. “The gate will survive even beyond us … as a commemoration of the work that we have all managed to do here,” he said. Chirodeep Chaudhuri Hiware Bazar lies in the drought-prone Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra, and according to the most recent government data, receives less than half of the national average of rainfall each year. Agriculture there was largely rain-fed, but villagers had traditionally produced enough to feed themselves. Every home had cattle or goats, and dairy production was the primary source of income. But in the decade starting in 1972, the village faced three severe droughts, rendering the land barren, or banjar in local parlance. Wells went dry, fodder to feed livestock disappeared, and villagers turned to the forests on surrounding hills, stripping away the trees for firewood to produce liquor, both for sale and to ease the pain as their livelihoods collapsed. By the 1980s, Hiware Bazar had lost most of its natural assets. Only a fraction of the land could be cultivated, the soil was exhausted, and there was no electricity. At first, people left the village, thinking it would be temporary. Eventually, they just stayed away. Those who remained worked on farms or at construction sites in nearby villages for low wages. The sun beats down on a dry patch of land in Hiware Bazar. Chirodeep Chaudhuri “When contractors came looking for workers in Hiware Bazar, villagers would fight for the jobs, beat each other up,” says Arjun Pawar, who was the head of the village between 1972 and 1977.  According to Arjun, alcohol production and sale became the primary source of income. Locals mixed black jaggery, a coarse sugar made from sugarcane juice, with ammonium chloride powder and rotten fruit, like orange and sweet lime, to produce a potent brand of desi daru, Hindi for “country liquor.” An increase in crime followed. Villagers would also assault government officers, such as the forestry officials who prohibited cattle grazing on what remained of the forested hills surrounding Hiware Bazar. “People would tie up the forest officials to trees, and soon our village became a ‘punishment posting,’ where government policemen, teachers, and health officials were posted only if they had to be punished,” says Arjun. Men got drunk in the local school’s empty classrooms, recollects Deepak Thange, who was a student in the 1980s. At the time, every child in his village, including him, dreamed of growing up and building a future far from the village. “There was no hope for Hiware Bazar,” he says. “There was no hope for any of us.” When Habib Sayyed, a 48-year-old farmer, was a child, he would spend most Saturdays during the monsoons gathering cow dung. He and other children in the village would use the dung to patch the school’s mud floor. Before lessons resumed on Monday, the dung would dry, holding the floor together until the following weekend, when it would have again turned to muck from rain seeping in from the ceiling.  The school was a small, dilapidated structure with a tin ceiling and two rooms that ran only through fourth grade. Today, a new school, Yashwant Vidyalaya, sits at the village entrance, a prominent symbol of Hiware Bazar’s progress. It was revamped in the early ‘90s after Popatrao Pawar, the village head, convinced 18 families to donate parts of their land for its construction. The new school was the first glimmer of hope in the village, says Subhash Thange, who as a young man donated his labor to help rebuild the village. “It promised a better future for the children and built faith in the new administration.” Habib Sayyed sits on the steps of Yashwant Vidyalaya, a new school he says symbolizes the progress Hiware Bazar has made in recent years. Chirodeep Chaudhuri And the school has delivered. The literacy rate in Hiware Bazar is 95 percent, compared to 30 percent in 1990. “Our school runs classes up to the 10th grade, and also hosts students from neighboring villages,” Sayyed says. “During the pandemic, even as schools were shut across the country, ours continued after putting a COVID-19 prevention system in place.” Pawar was initially skeptical about running for village sarpanch. As a boy, he had moved away after fourth grade to complete his schooling; in 1987, he earned a postgraduate degree in commerce. He was not only the most educated person in Hiware Bazar, but he also had a promising career as a professional cricket player if he chose to pursue it. His achievements had earned him the respect and admiration of other villagers.  “He had played cricket with some of the top players in the country at the time, and yet he was humble, always kind and soft-spoken,” says Sakharam Padir, a teacher and one of the first to volunteer with Hiware Bazar’s new village council. Pawar’s success story, he says, gave people hope. In 1989, some residents asked Pawar to run for office. His family, however, advised him to abandon the village and use his education to secure a white-collar job. As he considered what to do, Pawar’s mother left the village in protest, living at her father’s place for eight days. “She was adamant that I should worry about my own future, as the village did not have one,” says Pawar.  But residents kept pleading with him to help, and Pawar says their persistence, as well as a genuine concern for the place where he grew up, eventually persuaded him to stay. In late 1989, he was unanimously elected to a five-year term as sarpanch.  One of the first things Pawar did was invite villagers to share their concerns. The conversations left him wondering how he would raise the money necessary to begin solving the many problems. The village had all but collapsed; it lacked basic amenities like water, roads, sturdy homes, medical facilities, and toilets.  “It took us four days to prepare this list and it left me overwhelmed,” says Pawar. “All I knew then was that if we were going to emerge from this situation, the entire village would have to work together.” Together with the new village council, Pawar embraced the idea of shramdaan, or “labor donation,” as a way to get villagers invested in building a better future. He went door to door, trying to convince people to contribute. If most of the villagers were inspired by Pawar and eager to work with him, there were some who resisted. After the village council built fences around its tamarind orchards, for instance, some residents unleashed their goats inside the fences to chew up the leaves and tender branches.  A motorcyclist drives by a community mural in Hiware Bazar. The broad asphalt roads of the village are a rarity in rural Indian villages. Chirodeep Chaudhuri The council prepared a five-year development plan with education as the priority. Using donated land and labor, the village rebuilt the school. The council then started asking state agencies — like forestry, agriculture and animal husbandry — for help, using the school as evidence that Hiware Bazar was serious about changing its fortunes. The officials, still wary of the clashes they’d had with villagers over the years, were not easily convinced. “I pleaded with them,” says Pawar.  His persistence eventually paid off. In 1992, the forest department added Hiware Bazar to the Joint Forest Management program. Begun in India in 1988, the national program helped forest communities develop and manage degraded forestland in ways that helped them meet their subsistence needs. Residents replanted 170 acres in the hills around the village, sowing tamarind, mango, arjun, and Indian gooseberry trees, all of which have economic and environmental as well as social and cultural value. The bark and fruit of the arjun tree, for instance, are widely used in ayurveda, the alternative medicine practice with deep roots in India. They started rituals, like gifting plants to newlyweds and organizing tree-planting campaigns for kids. They built water holes for the wildlife and replaced firewood with biogas generated from cattle dung. Next, the villagers restored the depleted watershed. In 1994, Hiware Bazar joined the state government’s Ideal Village program. The idea was to build resiliency and sustainability by providing safe drinking water, creating jobs, and strengthening education and health care.  Watershed development was central to the program. Years of cattle grazing and clear-cutting in the hills had eroded the soil and depleted the groundwater. Now, with reforestation and a ban on cattle grazing, the soil began to improve. The tree cover slowed the rainwater runoff, holding the soil in place and allowing the water to percolate into the soil.  Villagers built small dams along the natural drainage lines on the hills to trap rainwater, increasing the groundwater and holding the excess as surface water. The same technique was used to trap rainwater within the farmers’ fields. “With the watershed infrastructure, the water table rose almost immediately and the area under irrigation increased,” says Pawar. Farmers in Hiware Bazar had traditionally grown sorghum and pearl millet, and would often plant water-intensive crops like sugarcane and banana. They extracted groundwater for irrigation through deep wells, depleting the aquifers. Now, the village council started planning crops according to water availability, while also promoting dryland crops, like pulses, and less water-intensive crops, like vegetables. They abandoned wasteful flood irrigation in favor of micro-irrigation, which efficiently delivers water to crops through drip pipes and sprinklers. Drip pipes carry water across a large field in Bhalwani village, near Hiware Bazar Chirodeep Chaudhuri Before long, farming was working again in Hiware Bazar. By the mid-aughts, the number of trees had increased from 30,000 to 900,000. The amount of irrigated land went from 154 acres in 1994 to 642 acres in 2006. The village council helped farmers get bank loans for tractors, and secured some genetically modified seeds to boost yield, use less water, and resist pests. Farming evolved from subsistence to commercial, with villagers growing and selling wheat, oilseeds, pulses, vegetables, fruits, flowers, and fodder. Incomes rose sharply, and in 1998 the government declared Hiware Bazar to be an “ideal village.” In the quarter century since this work began, Hiware Bazar has built on its water harvesting and watershed management initiatives. It has introduced “water budgeting,” which considers the total available water in the village from rainfall and conservation efforts, and then makes allocations for drinking, domestic use, and irrigation, while banking 30 percent each year for future use. Crops are planned according to the water budget, and villagers have continued to donate their labor to maintain the infrastructure. A direct benefit of the village’s agricultural revolution is dairy farming, which is once again integral to Hiware Bazar’s economy. The increased income enabled many farmers to buy more cattle. In 2003, villagers constructed a veterinary clinic to ensure animal health and provide services like artificial insemination. The efforts, in turn, have increased the village’s milk production from 39 gallons a day in 1990 to more than 1,300 gallons today.  A man drives cattle down a road in Hiware Bazar Chirodeep Chaudhuri With farming revitalized, the wealth spread throughout the community. Every home is made of concrete, as opposed to just two in 1990. The village has 87 tractors, compared to none in 1990; 368 motorcycles, compared to 10 in 1990; and 28 cars, compared to none in 1990. To ensure that the village’s development benefited its poorest citizens, most of whom did not own farmland, the village council leveraged government programs to allot land to these families, and served as guarantors for their agricultural loans. “I think what worked was that whatever plans and schemes were implemented in Hiware Bazar, villagers did not think of them as government schemes or village council schemes,” says Sakharam Padir. “They thought them to be programs for their own development, for their own family’s welfare.” Over the past two decades, Hiware Bazar has helped thousands of villages in India replicate its development model. According to a 2019 report by the national government’s policy think tank, India is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history, with 600 million people facing significant water stress and some 200,000 dying every year due to inadequate access to safe water. Agriculture accounts for 90 percent of water usage in India, and most of the irrigated land depends on groundwater sources, which are rapidly being depleted. Hiware Bazar’s development model, with watershed management and water conservation at its core, holds substantial relevance for Indian agriculture. Within three years of the implementation of Hiware Bazar’s model in Bhalwani, another drought-prone village in Maharashtra, the average income of the village’s farmers rose from 100,000 rupees in 2018 to 500,000 in 2021. In 2018, the village lost two farmers to suicide, but none in the years since. A farmer in Bhalwani, an adjoining village to Hiware Bazar, covers harvested onions in long lengths of cloth to protect them from the elements. Chirodeep Chaudhuri Ajay Dandekar, a professor with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Shiv Nadar University, calls Popatrao Pawar’s contribution to Indian agriculture “immense.” But he says India’s agrarian crisis is complex, and solving it will require fundamental changes in how agricultural commodities are priced as well as in cropping patterns, which are not in line with the rainfall patterns in the country.   “Many things can be learnt from Hiware Bazar,” says Dandekar, who in a 2017 study investigated the reasons behind farmer suicides in two of India’s hardest-hit districts. “But more importantly, along with it, the government must create macroeconomic structures within the agrarian economy that will regulate the prices and benefit farmers.” In 2020, Pawar was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian honors in India, for his work in Hiware Bazar. Today, he is the executive director of the Maharashtra government’s Model Village Program, working to transform a thousand of the state’s most depressed villages into self-sufficient communities. Meanwhile, activists, bureaucrats, and policymakers from across the country — as well as from countries like Germany, South Africa, Bangladesh, and others — have visited Hiware Bazar to study its success. “In Hiware Bazar, we’ve seen every type of scarcity,” says Pawar. “We know the pain that walks in with scarcity, but we have also tasted the fruits of unity and cooperation. And now, we’re sharing our lessons with the world.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The rebirth of Hiware Bazar on Sep 26, 2022.

Social Justice

Funding announced for drought and clean drinking water

Funding announced for drought and clean drinking water

August 18, 2022

On a tour of increasingly parched California on Thursday, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited a water recycling project in Irvine to tout her department’s allocation of more than $310 million to combat a Western “megadrought” fueled largely by climate change. Joined by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, Haaland stood before heavy equipment at the Syphon Reservoir Improvement Project and said she felt “overjoyed” to announce the funding of 25 water recycling projects, 20 of which are in California. “These projects will advance drought resilience by bolstering water reuse and recycling techniques while supporting over 850,000 people in providing clean, reliable drinking water to families throughout the West,” Haaland said.

On a tour of increasingly parched California on Thursday, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited a water recycling project in Irvine to tout her department’s allocation of more than $310 million to combat a Western “megadrought” fueled largely by climate change. Joined by Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, Haaland stood before heavy equipment at the Syphon Reservoir Improvement Project and said she felt “overjoyed” to announce the funding of 25 water recycling projects, 20 of which are in California. “These projects will advance drought resilience by bolstering water reuse and recycling techniques while supporting over 850,000 people in providing clean, reliable drinking water to families throughout the West,” Haaland said.
We Will All End Up Paying for Someone Else’s Beach House

We Will All End Up Paying for Someone Else’s Beach House

August 8, 2022

As sea level rises and storm surges grow more intense, beach towns on every coast of the United States will soon be sacrificing more real estate to Poseidon. A 2018 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that more than 300,000 coastal homes, currently worth well over $100 billion, are at risk of “chronic inundation” by 2045. The matter of large swaths of deluxe real estate erected in harm’s way is not new. But as extreme weather events compound, the obvious perils of waterfront living are growing both more obvious and more perilous. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cited 20 different “billion-dollar weather and climate disasters” in 2021. The analytics firm CoreLogic countsmore than 7.5 million homes with “direct or indirect coastal exposure and subsequent risk from coastal storm surge and damage from hurricanes.” Barrier islands in Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey are situated a few feet above sea level. In many places, including the Jersey Shore and the Texas Gulf Coast, the land is simultaneously sinking as the water rises. Sanibel Island in Florida, a multi-billion-dollar habitat for retired C.E.O.s, may be in its final decades before the Gulf of Mexico permanently moves in. The fabulous town of East Hampton on Long Island issued a report in April warning that on its current trajectory, the town will evolve into “a series of islands” over the next half-century. California beach towns from Del Mar in the south to Stinson Beach in the north are reckoning with an ocean poised to submerge them.

Animals

US appoints biodiversity envoy to tackle species issues abroad

US appoints biodiversity envoy to tackle species issues abroad

September 29, 2022

The United States appointed a new advocate for issues relating to animal and plant species conservation.  Monica Medina will serve as a special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, working on global matters related to these issues, the State Department said Wednesday. Medina is currently the State Department’s assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental...

The United States appointed a new advocate for issues relating to animal and plant species conservation.  Monica Medina will serve as a special envoy for biodiversity and water resources, working on global matters related to these issues, the State Department said Wednesday.  Medina is currently the State Department’s assistant secretary for oceans and international environmental and scientific affairs. She’ll remain in this role while also taking the envoy post. The envoy is expected to allow the State Department to play a greater role in the White House’s plan to bolster access to safe water and sanitation services around the world. She’ll also provide leadership before the United Nations Conference on Water next year, the department said. The department’s press release specifically pointed to issues including climate change, and crimes such as illegal logging, mining and wildlife trafficking, as some of the biggest biodiversity issues.  In 2019, the United Nations found that as many as 1 million animal and plant species are at risk of going extinct.  The appointment comes as the Biden administration seeks to return to the U.S. to a global leadership position on climate change and environmental issues, following Trump administration efforts to withdraw from these challenges.
Lizard in your luggage? We're using artificial intelligence to detect wildlife trafficking

Lizard in your luggage? We're using artificial intelligence to detect wildlife trafficking

September 22, 2022

The number of live animals seized by the Australian Government has tripled since 2017, with blue-tongue lizards and sulphur-crested cockatoos frequently captured.

A scanned lace monitor lizard (_Varanus varius_) image produced by using new technology. Rapiscan Systems, Author providedBlue-tongue lizards and sulphur-crested cockatoos are among the native animals frequently smuggled overseas. While the number of live animals seized by the Australian Government has tripled since 2017, the full scale of the problem eludes us as authorities don’t often know where and how wildlife is trafficked. Now, we can add a new technology to Australia’s arsenal against this cruel and inhumane industry. Our research, published today, shows the potential for new technology to detect illegal wildlife in luggage or mail. This technology uses artificial intelligence to recognise the shapes of animals when scanned at international frontlines such as airports and mail centres. Exotic species are also smuggled into the country, such as snakes, turtles and fish. This could disrupt Australia’s multi-billion dollar agricultural industries by introducing pests and diseases, and could also threaten fragile native ecosystems. Shingleback lizards are one of Australia’s most trafficked animals. Shutterstock An animal welfare problem Wildlife trafficking is driven by several factors, including purported medicinal purposes, animals having ornamental value or for the illegal pet trade. It can have fatal consequences, as it usually involves transporting individual animals in tight or cramped environments. This often results in the animals becoming stressed, dehydrated and dying. Some people have even tried to use chip packets to smuggle Australian wildlife. Read more: Conservation activists suing Indonesian zoo could inspire global action on endangered species trade Traffickers often transport several individuals in one go, in the hope one animal makes it alive. We don’t know the complete picture of which animals are being trafficked, how they’re trafficked or even when it’s occurring. But examples from seized cases in Australia suggest traffickers highly prize Aussie reptiles and birds. For example, shingleback lizards, a type of blue-tongue lizard, are considered one of Australia’s most trafficked species. Just another sulphur-crested cockatoo to you? These Australian birds are exotic in the international pet trade and have been a known victim of illegal wildlife trafficking. Dr Vanessa Pirotta Apart from being cruel and inhumane, wildlife trafficking can also facilitate the introduction of alien species into new environments. This brings significant biosecurity risks. For example, zoonosis (diseases jumping from a non-human animal to a human) involves people handling stressed, wild animals. Exotic species can also disrupt natural ecosystems, as we’ve famously seen with the damage wrought by cane toads in northern Australia. Unregulated wildlife entering the country may also harbour new diseases or destructive parasites. This could damage agricultural industries and potentially raise the prices of our fruit and vegetables. Read more: To lock out foot-and-mouth disease, Australia must help our neighbour countries bolster their biosecurity Creating an trafficking image library Our new research documents a variety of wildlife species, which have been scanned using state-of-the-art technology to help build computer algorithms using “Real Time Tomography”. Real Time Tomography is an imaging technique that uses a series of x-rays to scan an item (such as a lizard). It then produces a three dimensional image of the animal which, in turn, is used to develop algorithms. For example, mail and luggage can be scanned at the airport and, if wildlife are enclosed, the algorithms will alert operators of their presence. Our study scanned known species of trafficked Australian animals to create an image reference library. A total of 294 scans from 13 species of lizards, birds and fish were used to develop initial wildlife algorithms, with a detection rate of 82%, and a false alarm rate at just 1.6%. Wildlife algorithm successfully detecting a shingleback lizard. This is a screenshot from the user interface alerting the operator of a detected shingleback lizard (Tiliqua rugosa) via the green bounding box which has labelled this a lizard. Pirotta et al. 2022 This research is the first to document the use of 3D X-ray CT security scan technology for wildlife protection within the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It’s also the first to report results for the detection of reptiles, birds and fish within such scans. The detection tool is designed to complement existing detection measures of Australian Border Force, biosecurity officers and detection dogs, which remain crucial in our fight against wildlife crime. How else are we stopping wildlife trafficking? The tools currently helping to detect and restrict wildlife trafficking mainly rely on human detection methods. This includes cyber-crime investigations or Australian Border Force and biosecurity officers manually searching bags. Biosecurity detector dogs patrolling airports are also useful, as are smartphone reporting apps such as the Wildlife Witness App. Also crucial are efforts to dismantle illegal trade networks at the source. This is by understanding and reducing consumer demand for wildlife and wildlife products, providing alternate livelihoods for would-be poachers, and enforcing stronger governance and monitoring. Seized animals can be used as evidence to identify traffickers, with previous cases resulting in successful prosecution by environmental investigators. For example, a former rugby league player has been jailed for four years after getting caught trying to smuggle a variety of animals in and out of Australia. Read more: Elephant ivory: DNA analysis offers clearest insight yet into illegal trafficking networks Continuing the fight All these measures help fight wildlife trafficking, but there’s no single solution to predict when and where the events will likely take place. Wildlife traffickers may adapt their behaviours frequently to avoid being detected. As a result, innovative and adaptive solutions, such as our new technology, are vital to support existing detection techniques. Any effort to stamp out this terrible activity is a step in the right direction, and the potential for 3D detection enables us to adapt and evolve with how traffickers may change their behaviours. We would like to acknowledge Dr Phoebe Meagher from the Taronga Conservation Society Australia for her contribution to this research and article. Dr Vanessa Pirotta is employed by Rapiscan Systems as the chief scientist for this wildlife research project. This is a collaborative project with the Australian Federal Government (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) and the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, previously the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment) and the Taronga Conservation Society Australia. This project receives funding from DAFF.Dr Justine O'Brien is a research scientist and Manager of Conservation Science at the Taronga Conservation Society Australia. She is an Honorary Associate at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of NSW. She receives funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Great Barrier Reef Foundation, Zoo and Aquarium Association Wildlife Conservation Fund, and the Taronga Foundation.
Rescuers rush to save hundreds of pilot whales stranded on Tasmanian beach

Rescuers rush to save hundreds of pilot whales stranded on Tasmanian beach

September 21, 2022

Marine wildlife experts are assessing the scene near Strahan – the same location as Australia’s worst mass stranding exactly two years agoGet our free news app, morning email briefing or daily news podcastRescuers and marine conservationists have rushed to Tasmania’s west coast as efforts continue to save pilot whales after a mass stranding near the remote town of Strahan.On Wednesday, a pod of about 230 pilot whales became stranded on Ocean beach, west of Strahan. Some were also stranded on a sand flat inside Macquarie harbour, south of the town. At least 100 of the animals are thought to have died.Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning Continue reading...

Marine wildlife experts are assessing the scene near Strahan – the same location as Australia’s worst mass stranding exactly two years agoGet our free news app, morning email briefing or daily news podcastRescuers and marine conservationists have rushed to Tasmania’s west coast as efforts continue to save pilot whales after a mass stranding near the remote town of Strahan.On Wednesday, a pod of about 230 pilot whales became stranded on Ocean beach, west of Strahan. Some were also stranded on a sand flat inside Macquarie harbour, south of the town. At least 100 of the animals are thought to have died.Sign up to receive an email with the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning Continue reading...

Co2 and Pollution

UN: Nord Stream pipeline rupture largest single release of methane recorded

UN: Nord Stream pipeline rupture largest single release of methane recorded

October 1, 2022

The ruptures on the Nord Stream pipelines in recent days have produced likely the largest single release of methane into the atmosphere ever recorded, according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Manfredi Caltagirone, the leader of the program’s International Methane Emissions Observatory, told Reuters on Friday that an analysis of satellite imagery detected a large...

The ruptures on the Nord Stream pipelines in recent days have produced likely the largest single release of methane into the atmosphere ever recorded, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.  Manfredi Caltagirone, the leader of the program’s International Methane Emissions Observatory, told Reuters on Friday that an analysis of satellite imagery detected a large amount of highly concentrated methane coming from the pipelines.  “This is really bad, most likely the largest emission event ever detected," Caltagirone said. “This is not helpful in a moment when we absolutely need to reduce emissions.”  Multiple leaks have occurred in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, which carry natural gas from Russia to Germany to supply Europe. Some European leaders have said they believe the leaks resulted from intentional sabotage by Russia, who is trying to increase economic pressure on Europe as it continues to support Ukraine against the full-scale Russian invasion.  President Biden reportedly called the leaks a “deliberate act of sabotage,” and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said they were likely an “act by Russia.”  Reuters reported that researchers estimated the leak rate from one of the four breaches was 22,920 kilograms per hour, about equal to burning 630,000 pounds of coal every hour.  Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years in the atmosphere, although carbon dioxide has a longer lasting effect, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Western countries of sabotaging the pipelines that run under the Baltic Sea, claims the West has rejected.

Food and Agriculture

October Costa Rica Gardening Guide: Planting in the Rain

October Costa Rica Gardening Guide: Planting in the Rain

October 4, 2022

The weather in most of Costa Rica will remain much the same for October: more rain and then more rain. For gardeners, the heavy rains represent an added challenge when growing food crops. Torrential rains and high humidity place heavy stress on plants and cause numerous plant ailments. Here are some suggestions to help you […] The post October Costa Rica Gardening Guide: Planting in the Rain appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

The weather in most of Costa Rica will remain much the same for October: more rain and then more rain. For gardeners, the heavy rains represent an added challenge when growing food crops. Torrential rains and high humidity place heavy stress on plants and cause numerous plant ailments. Here are some suggestions to help you continue gardening successfully during these rainy months. Perhaps the most ecological solution to gardening in the rainy season is to select crops that do well in rainy weather. A number of hardy garden vegetables, as well as shrubs and wild plants, can provide an abundance of food for the table at this time of the year. Squashes, sweet potatoes, cabbage, kale, collards, endive, chives, mustard and New Zealand spinach are my favorite rainy-season food crops. Perennial bushes can also provide a steady source of leafy greens for salads. The popular hedgerow hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), known as amapola in Spanish, provides nutritious edible leaves and flowers. The hardy Asian perennial bush known as katuk also provides a year-round supply of green leaves for salads or can be prepared as a steamed spinach-like dish. The second best solution for growing food crops now is to try planting leafy green vegetables and tomatoes in pots and recycled containers around the house in sunny areas. Eastern and southern exposures in the home often get plenty of sunlight for growing vegetables. The area directly under the eave of the roof is protected from rain and provides an ideal location for tables on which to grow food crops. A recycled 5-gallon plastic bucket, with several holes drilled in the bottom and filled with fertile organic compost soil, can serve as an ideal container for growing cherry tomatoes, cucumbers or green peppers. Smaller recycled containers are good for lettuce, cilantro and parsley. Here’s a trick that rarely fails. When shopping at the market, look for onions that are beginning to sprout. Vendors often will practically give them away. These onion bulbs can be planted in 10- to 15-centimeter-diameter containers, and in one month will provide green onions for salads and other dishes. The same goes for celery brought home from the market. If you save the base of the plant and plant it in a container, it will root and grow to provide tender green celery shoots. Garlic cloves also can be planted superficially in containers and will sprout and grow rapidly to provide garlic greens. Some gardeners opt to build greenhouses and use hydroponic gardening to control the environmental conditions. However, this solution has a price. The cost of the construction materials often makes the vegetables you harvest more expensive than those you buy at the market. The plastic roofing creates a dependency on plastics unfriendly to the environment. Many of the hydroponic designs depend on chemical fertilizers and substrates, such as charcoal, which contribute to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and thus global warming. The healthier option for the family and the planet is to recycle organic waste at home and turn it into valuable organic fertilizer, which can be used to grow your own food. This solves part of the solid waste disposal problem without additional costs to the family. We need to carefully think out each step on our way back to sustainable and harmonious living. Our love for technology often leads us astray when we try to solve problems or find solutions in our modern world. The idea is to look for solutions that improve quality of life without degrading the environment. The post October Costa Rica Gardening Guide: Planting in the Rain appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.
Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake

Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake

October 4, 2022

This story and video are a co-production of Civil Eats and Edible Communities.  Noriko Kamei, her husband, Jake Myrick, and their daughter Olivia Kamei Myrick, 26, make sake together by hand in the first New World brewery to produce a second-generation heir. Kamei and Myrick share head brewer duties, and Kamei Myrick has already produced […] The post Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake appeared first on Civil Eats.

This story and video are a co-production of Civil Eats and Edible Communities.  Craft sake making—both in Japan and abroad—is still a very male-dominated world; for now, there are only three women brewers in the U.S., and two of them happen to work at Sequoia Sake in San Francisco. Noriko Kamei, her husband, Jake Myrick, and their daughter Olivia Kamei Myrick, 26, make sake together by hand in the first New World brewery to produce a second-generation heir. Kamei and Myrick share head brewer duties, and Kamei Myrick has already produced several sakes of her own. Instead of feeling outnumbered that two-thirds of his business is made up of women, Myrick says, “I’m proud that both of the women in my life are making sake.” Noriko Kamei, Jake Myrick, and Olivia Kamei Myrick at Sequioa Sake. During the 10 years they lived in Japan as tech entrepreneurs, Myrick and Kamei discovered the unique appeal of nama, or unpasteurized sakes, which tend to be brighter and fresher tasting because of the living microbes they contain. Myrick was fascinated by sake brewers’ ability to produce a wide range of flavor profiles from just rice, water, and yeast. When they returned to the U.S., they missed those fresh sakes and decided to make sake brewing their next start-up business, launching Sequoia in 2014. Sake is the more-than-2,000-year-old national drink of Japan, an agricultural product with roots in mythology and the Japanese Shinto religion. From their 2,500-square-foot brewery in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, the three make 12 different kinds of sake, most of them unpasteurized and all with organic rice. Kamei handles the most difficult aspect of the work, which is making the koji, the fungus-inoculated steamed rice that is the blueprint for the sake she envisions in her head. The koji spores are added to the yeast starter, or shubo, which touches off the conversion of starch to fermentable sugars. To this base, they add three rounds of steamed rice, water, and yeast then they filter the sake, sometimes pasteurize it, and bottle it. Kamei loves the trial and error aspect of her work, as she spends hours noticing and responding to minute changes in the koji. She compares the careful attention it takes to “watching a newborn baby.” Kamei Myrick considers herself someone who “performs best in jobs that are more physical than mental,” so sake making has been a good match for her. From 2016 to 2018, she spent time in Fukushima Prefecture working as a kurabito, or sake brewery worker, at Miyaizumi Meijo Brewery and Akebono Brewery. As the first female foreign apprentice, and part of a family that runs a brewery in the U.S., she says that the head brewers “did teach me more than they would to some of their own kurabito; they knew I was going back to Sequoia and was committed to making sake.” Kamei Myrick returned to California, where—to encourage her interest—her dad gave her a 500-liter (132-gallon) fermentation tank to experiment with. Though she likes the flexibility of working in a family business, she is also pursuing studies in food science at San Francisco City College, and her future career path is still taking shape. Sake’s Origins Sake is the more-than-2,000-year-old national drink of Japan, an agricultural product with roots in mythology and the Japanese Shinto religion. From about the 10th Century, its brewing was controlled by Buddhist monks; during the Edo Period (1603-1868), production was put in the hands of large landowners and merchant families that served and provided for the ruling Tokugawa clan and its lords. After reaching peak sales in the early 1970s, domestic sake consumption has continually dropped in Japan. Due to government restrictions on sales and the long shutdown of restaurants in Japan, breweries have also suffered during the pandemic. But loss of interest in the drink in its birthplace has been offset by growing global interest. There are more than two dozen craft sake breweries in the U.S., and a half-dozen breweries in California alone. New Global Sake Makers Spur Innovation International sake brewers, unfettered by generations of tradition and societal expectations, are taking sake in new directions. For Kamei Myrick, that means a distinctly San Francisco-leaning direction. In 2020, she created her own sake, Hazy Delight, which is a soft-textured and refreshing usu nigori, or lightly filtered sake. She selected its name due to its slightly cloudy texture, but also to evoke—through the vibrating neon image of a purple daisy on the label—the early cannabis culture of the 1960s Haight-Ashbury district. The nigori’s more-savory-than-usual quality means it pairs well with goat cheese from the Marin Headlands or North Beach pesto pizza. Hazy Delight proved so popular that it has become part of the regular lineup of Sequoia sakes. Now, Kamei Myrick, who loved the developing and marketing aspect of that project, is thinking about two more bottles she can brew to form a trio of San Francisco-themed sakes. One will be a hiyaoroshi summer-aged sake that she hopes will express the cool San Francisco summer through an added savory quality. The other is a more labor-intensive kimoto-style sake, which relies on native yeast and lactic acid. Noriko Kamei sampling a Sequoia Sake. She envisions its high acidity and robust flavor as a good expression of the city’s own fermentation culture, which ranges from sourdough bread to third-wave coffee. “I’m a huge fan of fermentation,” says Kamei Myrick. “It’s really beautiful to live and work with microorganisms to create something like sake that brings people together.” Sake Rice Growing in California, Questions of Sustainability As interest in sake making and drinking in the U.S. has grown, so has the need to source sakamai, or sake rice. Myrick and Kamei work with fifth-generation Sacramento Valley organic rice farmer Michael Van Dyke, who grows five acres of Calrose M105—a hybrid bred both for its early maturing quality and high stable milling rate—for them. Its shorter growing season requires less water, an important quality in a state now suffering its third year of a historic drought. Calrose is a table rice rather than a sakamai, one of 115 or so varieties grown specifically for sake making. This is not necessarily a negative. Even in Japan, more craft brewers are featuring sakes brewed with less expensive table rice as advances in brewing technology and know-how have helped offset differences between the two types of rice. This season, the local irrigation board has limited Van Dyke’s water use to only 600 of his 2,000 acres of rice fields, well below his 50 to 60 percent planting rate per year. “Normally there are ups and downs in the water supply, and if you’re down a year, then you experience two or three good ones. But when you start stacking those [bad years] back to back, it’s tight. You have to look for every opportunity to cut costs,” he says. Although many view rice as one of the worst water guzzling crops the state, Van Dyke notes that this perception—partially formed by the image of flooded rice fields—is not wholly accurate. Jay Lund, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at U.C. Davis, explains this perception gap. “The soils rice are grown on—very heavy clay soils—in California are not suited to a lot of other crops.” Rice “will rank very high” in water use if only the total amount of applied water is taken into account,” he explains, “but so much of that water is returned to groundwater or streams.” Of 60 inches of water applied to a rice field, the “evapotranspiration,” or total loss of water from land surface to the atmosphere, is 34 inches, which he estimates places the crop in about the middle of California agriculture products ranked by water usage. Van Dyke’s soil is composed of light red clay with a layer of hard pan (compacted sandstone that prevent drainage). Unfit for most other crops because of its poor drainage, hard pan can result in natural water tables well suited to rice farming. Left: Michael Van Dyke, Jake Myrick, and Noriko Kamei inspecting rice; right: finished Calrose rice. Yet some who see flooded rice fields might still wonder whether this is a sustainable crop for a drought-plagued state. Bruce Linquist, a U.C. Davis cooperative extension professor and rice expert, says, “I’m sure that’s on a lot of people’s minds, but there’s not a lot of data supporting this. The soils rice are grown on—very heavy clay soils—in California are not suited to a lot of other crops.” And he points to the valuable ecosystem services the fields provide, most importantly winter habitats for migrating birds. “You need a certain amount of rice land to support that kind of habitat,” Linquist adds. The heavy black adobe clay Linquist is referring to, says Van Dyke, “is technically a better soil [for rice growing],” but he prefers the red clay of his farm because it allows him to practice a drill seeding method that minimizes both water use and topsoil disturbance. Both Van Dyke and Myrick point to the vast tracts of California farmland devoted to nut and pomegranate trees, which they consider far less sustainable than rice. Tree planting “almost always affects the groundwater,” says Van Dyke, because of the trees’ thirsty and deep roots, which tap underground sources of water in addition to benefitting from irrigation from drip lines and micro sprinklers. And they point to the fact that the flooding of rice fields can help replenish groundwater. Myrick adds of nut tree farmers: “They want fields to be dry, and we want them to be wet. Wet is a better ecological environment. Pumping water out changes the ecosystem. Look at Houston, [Texas]; it used to be a big rice producer because the clay soil of those delta wetlands are meant to hold water.” Now drained and converted to housing, the land has lost its ability to act like a sponge and absorb excess storm water, leading to catastrophic flooding and loss of property and life. Although rice may be better for flood mitigation than nut and pomegranate trees, Lund says that in measurements of evapotranspiration, the three crops’ water usage is similar. Sequoia’s legacy may ultimately be cemented by such ground-breaking work, yet Myrick and Kamei still don’t know for sure if their daughter will choose to carry on the family business. Water rights play a role in farm viability during drought, but Van Dyke says it’s not so much an issue for his farm, which does not have access to generous historic water rights, but can use some surface water from the nearby Bear River as well as groundwater. Linquist points out that water rights don’t mean a lot “if you don’t have the water” to dole out. This year, in particular, more than half of California’s rice fields are estimated to be left barren without harvest. In the end, what disturbs Van Dyke’s sleep the most is not drought or climate change, but the encroachment of well-funded developers. Urban development spreading north from Sacramento is “taking us over,” he says. “That’s all high-dollar per acre compared to farming,” he says; that difference in land valuation often results in farmland being paved over. Planning for the Future In the face of an uncertain future for California rice farming as climate change advances, Jake Myrick has been working on what he hopes will be his own legacy, a project with Dr. Thomas Tai, a research geneticist at USDA-ARS Crops Pathology and Genetics Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Japanese rice experts from the sprawling Iida Group Holdings conglomerate, which includes a Northern California-based rice milling subsidiary. Their goal: to breed a drought-tolerant, heat-resistant rice, just as agronomists and farmers in Japan are attempting to do. Their efforts center on reviving an older strain of the Wataribune variety that Japanese immigrants brought to California in 1906. Today’s ubiquitous Calrose variety is a descendent of this heirloom Japanese rice, but it has been modified over the years to focus on qualities such as yield and pure white color over flavor. Myrick’s hope is that by recovering an older strain of Wataribune, he’ll be able to bring back some of its lost flavor and aroma. At the same time, Myrick has been working with U.C. Davis to include sake brewing in their master brewing classes. Stalled by the pandemic, he hopes the program will get back on track to create a “cross-pollination, a wine and sake exchange” that could bring more innovation to the U.S. sake-making and -marketing landscape. Sequoia’s legacy may ultimately be cemented by such ground-breaking work, yet Myrick and Kamei still don’t know for sure if their daughter will choose to carry on the family business. Though she watched her parents launch the business as a teenager and began helping out when she was 17, Myrick concedes that making sake is not the most secure vocation to envision for one’s child. Kamei Myrick’s food science studies could end up exerting a bigger pull. Juggling her school work and brewing “has been difficult” for the family, Myrick admits. But he adds, with the hard-won optimism of a parent determined not to curtail their child’s freedom, “I’m loving this while it lasts.” Photos and video credit: Mizzica Films. The post Civil Eats TV: Women Brewing Change at Sequoia Sake appeared first on Civil Eats.
‘Backed into a corner’: Duncan’s First Nation sues Alberta for cumulative impacts of industry

‘Backed into a corner’: Duncan’s First Nation sues Alberta for cumulative impacts of industry

October 3, 2022

By Drew Anderson and Matt Simmons (Local Journalism Initiative Reporter) Lawsuit follows in the footsteps of B.C. Supreme Court’s precedent-setting Blueberry River decision, which could have profound impacts for oil and gas industry

By Drew Anderson and Matt Simmons (Local Journalism Initiative Reporter) A First Nation in northern Alberta is suing the Alberta government for infringement of Treaty Rights, leaning heavily on a B.C. Supreme Court decision last year, which found that province liable for violations based on the cumulative impacts of industry on the Blueberry River First Nation’s territory.  The outcome of the lawsuit could have a profound impact in a province heavily reliant on an oil and gas industry that has caused significant cumulative impacts, including in the Peace River district that is home to Duncan’s First Nation — the nation that has launched the suit.  In B.C., the court ordered the government to sit down with the Blueberry River First Nation to develop a plan to address its concerns and gave the nation the power to block new developments on its land. Both Blueberry River and Duncan’s First Nations are signatories to Treaty 8. The Duncan’s First Nation suit alleges the government has violated the nation’s Treaty Right to practise its traditional ways of life by approving too many industrial activities on its traditional territories, effectively preventing use of the land.  The case closely echoes the wording used in the successful Blueberry River decision. “Alberta has engaged in a pattern of conduct that, taken together, has significantly diminished [community members’] right to hunt, fish, trap and gather as part of their way of life,” the statement says.  The promises of Treaty 8 and death by a thousand cuts Each of these are rights the nation was told would be protected when it signed onto Treaty 8 in the late 1800s. But since signing, the province has authorized and permitted widespread development, including agriculture, oil and gas, forestry, mining and, most recently, peat bog harvesting. “Among other things, habitats have been fragmented, lands and waters have been degraded, substances have been introduced that cause legitimate fears of contamination and pollution and lands have been put to uses that are incompatible with the continued meaningful exercise of [Duncan’s First Nation’s] Treaty Rights.” In other words, like its B.C. neighbours, Duncan’s First Nation says it’s experiencing what is known as a “death by a thousand cuts.” Duncan’s First Nation Chief Virginia Gladue had previously urged Premier Jason Kenney, Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson and area MLA Todd Loewen in a May 17 letter to engage in a meaningful discussion in order to stave off the lawsuit. “It is not too much to say that the extensive and ever increasing development in [Duncan’s First Nation’s] territory — development that has been directly caused and permitted by Alberta — poses an existential threat to our culture, identity and way of life,” Gladue writes. Her letter also details a long list of impacts identified in studies conducted by the nation, including roads, traffic, logging, pollutants, agriculture, private land and pollution. The chief was unavailable for an interview for this story. Jeff Langlois is the lawyer representing the nation and says Duncan’s has always played by the rules, showing up to make submissions on projects and going through the processes, none of which dealt with the decreasing amount of undisturbed land. He says the nation doesn’t want to go to court, doesn’t want to pay lawyers, but that it feels “backed into a corner in a lot of ways.” “Duncan’s has gone through those processes and tried to address this issue,” Langlois says.  “So, you’re gonna take up all this land in order to develop a new gas pipeline, but we’re already underwater, right? It’s not a case that you’re taking a cup out of a full bucket, you’re scraping the bottom of the bucket.” Gladue says in her letter the nation wants the government  to establish a robust framework that includes plans for guiding development, land and wildlife protection on the nation’s territory or the lawsuit will go forward.  She says such a framework would help overturn what she characterizes as “years of indifference and inaction” on behalf of the government. “As intended by our ancestors and those that signed the Treaty on your behalf, we invite you to work in the spirit of cooperation, mutual respect and responsibility,” writes Gladue. “The choice is yours: whether to commit to this path or continue own the path of indifference, uncertainty and conflict.” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and his government have taken a pro-industry approach when it comes to development on First Nations territory. Photo: Government of Alberta / Flickr The current United Conservative Government has taken a pro-industry approach to First Nations in Alberta, creating a government-backed litigation fund to help Indigenous groups or affiliated organizations fight opposition to projects. “For too long, pro-development First Nations have been ignored in the debate over resource development,” Premier Jason Kenney said while launching the fund in 2019. The Blueberry River decision set significant precedent The Blueberry decision was the first time the B.C. courts ruled on cumulative impacts. Chris Tollefson, professor of law at the University of Victoria, told The Narwhal in a previous interview the case set a significant precedent because B.C. didn’t appeal the decision. “It’s presumed to state the law accurately and … that decision now becomes the law, at least in British Columbia, binding on all parties and in particular upon the government.” He added the legal decision is “especially persuasive in relation to Treaty 8” — the same treaty Duncan’s First Nation signed. But it’s unclear how the B.C. ruling will play out in Alberta. Kate Gunn, lawyer with First Peoples Law, a firm based in Vancouver, told The Narwhal the Blueberry River decision is not legally binding on Alberta’s court but agreed with Tollefson that it is “persuasive,” especially given both nations are signatories to Treaty 8. “It would be hard for an Alberta court to say that only the nations who signed in B.C. are guaranteed their continued way of life,” she said. She added that when the B.C. Supreme Court handed down its ruling in 2021, it interpreted and clarified a Supreme Court of Canada decision on the rights of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in northern Alberta, also a signatory to Treaty 8.  “The Mikisew case said governments may be liable for treaty infringement if there is so much land taken up by a province that the First Nation can’t exercise their Treaty Rights at all,” Gunn explained. “What Blueberry said is, ‘Yes, that’s correct — but the court didn’t say that there couldn’t be an infringement at a lower threshold.’ ”  She explained that while the B.C. ruling is not binding on other provinces or territories, the Supreme Court of Canada decision is. It’s still open to the Alberta court to decide whether it agrees with the interpretation and proceed on that basis or make contrary findings, which she said would likely be appealed.  Duncan’s isn’t the first Alberta nation to test the waters with litigation against the province on cumulative impacts. Beaver Lake Cree First Nation — a Treaty 6 nation located 100 kilometres northeast of Edmonton — has been battling in the courts since 2008. The basic premise of the argument is the same: government-approved development has diminished the ability of its members to exercise Treaty Rights.  Recently, the nation successfully petitioned the Supreme Court of Canada to overturn a provincial decision that denied them advance costs to see the case through to full trial. The estimated total cost of the litigation is $5 million.  Alberta lacks regional land use plans Both B.C. and Alberta have policies in place to assess cumulative effects, but critics in Alberta have lamented the “sad state” of land use plans meant to address those effects.  Tara Russell, the program director for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in northern Alberta, says there are tools that have been identified to deal with cumulative impacts in Alberta, but consecutive governments have failed to implement them — specifically regional land use plans.  “So we have this tool, we’re just not using it and there’s been quite a distinct lack of will or intent or ambition by government and industry to get them in place,” she says. The Alberta Energy Regulator says it’s unable to comment on the Duncan’s First Nation claim as it’s before the courts and that “inquiries on cumulative effects are best directed at Alberta Environment and Parks.” A view of Suncor’s oilsands base plant. The region that houses the oilsands is one of only two where regional land use plans have been developed in Alberta. Photo: Suncor Energy / Flickr Responding on behalf of the government, a spokesperson for Alberta Justice said the government could not comment due to the lawsuit. When the province backed down from its changes to Alberta’s coal policy last year in the face of public backlash, then-environment minister Jason Nixon said the government takes a comprehensive approach to environmental management to understand cumulative impacts, and pointed specifically to land-use plans. A freedom of information request filed by The Narwhal last year requesting memos and briefing notes for Alberta Energy Regulator executives regarding the potential impact of the Blueberry decision for Alberta’s oil and gas industry was denied due to the records containing “legal advice and analyses that are subject to legal privilege.”  The regulator did point to sections of the Responsible Energy Development Act, Alberta Land Stewardship Act and associated regional plans, Water Act and the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act that can take into account the cumulative impacts of development on the land.  “The regional plans are the primary policy mechanism by which Alberta considers cumulative effects,” the regulator said in an emailed response to questions.  To date, Alberta has only created two of seven such regional plans — in the Lower Athabasca region and the South Saskatchewan region — the Lower Athabasca plan is up for its mandated 10-year review this year.  Duncan’s First Nation territory sits at the convergence of three regions considered for plans, none of which have entered into initial stages of development.  The Land Stewardship Act was created in 2009.  Robert Hamilton, a law professor at the University of Calgary who has written on the significance of the Blueberry River decision, says the different regulatory regimes in B.C. and Alberta could have an impact on the outcome of the Duncan’s lawsuit.  “It was important to the court that the B.C. regulatory regime had failed in the way that it did,” he says.  But, he says, if the nation is able to demonstrate the impacts have prevented them from meaningfully exercising their rights, it’s not difficult to argue the regulatory regime is failing.  The traditional territory of Duncan’s First Nation sits on lesser-known oilsands deposits and on the Montney formation — a big oil and gas play — but there is also extensive logging in the area, with large forest management agreements in place as well as impacts from agriculture and mining.  That mirrors what’s happening on the B.C. side of the border and Hamilton says the facts presented in the Blueberry River about how much impact there was on the land were a key factor in leading to the final decision. “That level of impact is almost unmatched. Almost. Where is it matched? Well, it’s matched in northern Alberta,” he says.  Duncan’s First Nations case could have profound impacts for oil and gas industry The Blueberry River decision said the government had to sit down with the First Nation to ensure there was a collective plan to address projects going forward and to account for the cumulative impacts of development on the territory. Failing to do so could result in an indefinite pause on development. If the same thing happened in Alberta, it could have a profound impact on the oil and gas industry, the province’s largest source of income. In fact, the industry is expected to bring in $28.4 billion in provincial revenues by the end of this fiscal year.  The Narwhal reached out to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers as well as Obsidian Energy, Tourmaline Oil and Baytex Energy, which all operate in the region. None responded to requests for comment on the potential impact of the case.  Langlois says all the nation wants is for the government to address the concerns raised by the community over the years and to develop a plan to address the cumulative impacts of industry.  “Post filing the claim, all we get is well, we’re just going to defer to the land use planning processes that have proved just manifestly unable to deal with this issue, like by design,” he says.  He says there are difficult discussions that need to happen to solve complex problems.  Hamilton, from the University of Calgary, anticipates there will be more cases filed from First Nations dealing with cumulative impacts.  “Treaty Rights throughout the country are under considerable pressure and duty to consult and accommodate has not really been able to satisfy Indigenous people’s desire to have a really meaningful voice in decision making that impacts their rights,” he says.
USDA Conservation Grants Prop up Agribusiness as Usual

USDA Conservation Grants Prop up Agribusiness as Usual

October 3, 2022

Every year, the US Department of Agriculture spends billions of dollars propping up large-scale farming of commodities like corn and soybeans. These crops in turn suffuse the food system, fattening animals on America’s factory-scale meat farms and providing the bulk of sweeteners and fats in processed foods. This style of agriculture doesn’t just underwrite a […]

Every year, the US Department of Agriculture spends billions of dollars propping up large-scale farming of commodities like corn and soybeans. These crops in turn suffuse the food system, fattening animals on America’s factory-scale meat farms and providing the bulk of sweeteners and fats in processed foods. This style of agriculture doesn’t just underwrite a health–ruining cuisine. It also contributes to environmental mayhem: soil erosion and water pollution on an epic scale and a gusher of greenhouse gas emissions from the concentrated manure of all of those confined cows, pigs, and chicken, and from the fertilizer used to grow all that corn. But the USDA doesn’t just pay farmers to churn out as much corn and soybeans as they can. It also operates “conservation” initiatives intended to mitigate the environmental harms of this commodity machine. The department’s conservation spending adds up to a fraction of its outlay for programs that encourage maximum production, consequences be damned. The Environmental Working Group calculates that between 1995 and 2020, the USDA doled out a total of nearly $348 billion on commodity and crop-insurance subsidies vs. $52 billion on conservation. So for every dollar the department offers farmers in conservation funds, it dangles about $6.70 to entice them to farm all-out. Still, those conservation dollars are an important countervailing force, right? In fact, the USDA could spend its conservation resources in much more beneficial ways, a new EWG report suggests. The report focuses on the agency’s two largest conservation programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Both give farmers money in exchange for implementing environmentally friendly practices. EWG combed through USDA data in search of funding for activities the agency deemed “climate-smart”—i.e., those that help farmers cut greenhouse-gas emissions or store carbon in the soil. The Natural Resources Conservation Service, a USDA agency, maintains just such a list. From 2017 to 2020, the EWG report reveals, just $844 million of the more than $3.6 billion of EQIP payments went toward “climate-smart” practices. Of the Top 10 practices funded by EQIP grants, only one, cover crops, lands on the NRCS’s “climate-smart” list. Farmers plant cover crops—which drew $340 million in EQIP funding over the period, more than any other practice—after harvesting cash crops like corn and soybeans. The cover crops buffer the land from heavy winter and spring storms, helping to prevent erosion. But cover crops are a “bit iffy when it comes to the climate benefits,” says Anne Schechinger, EWG’s midwest director, who oversaw the report. That’s because they only reliably sequester carbon in soil when they meet two strict conditions: They must be used every year on fields that are never plowed. Back in 2013, I wrote about an Ohio farm that fit thar bill and demonstrated an impressive record of building carbon in soil. But then, as now, David Brandt’s operation is a unicorn.  EWG conducts annual aerial remote-sensing surveys to gauge off-season cover crop adoption in the corn- and soybean-dominated Midwest. Despite the $340 million EQIP provided between 2017 and 2020, “we always find that less than 5 percent of cropland has cover crops,” she says. Worse, the relatively tiny bits of land under winter cover shift from year to year, she says, suggesting little consistency in planting patterns—and little climate-stabilizing bang for the taxpayer buck.  Integrating trees with crops—a system known as agroforestry, which I wrote about here—is a much more robust way to hold soil in place while also sequestering carbon, Schechinger says. But EQIP only doled out $68 million to “tree & shrub establishment” projects over the aforementioned period. The great bulk of the EQIP money, meanwhile, goes to projects with zero climate impact, like installing sprinkler systems ($217 million) and irrigation pipelines ($163 million). EQIP also throws money at practices that contribute to climate change. Over the 2017-2020 period, the program delivered more than $174 million to farmers building “waste storage facilities” for livestock manure—a mundane way to describe cesspits that gather the waste of large confined hog and cattle facilities. As manure breaks down in these “lagoons,” it emits huge amounts of methane and nitrous oxide—greenhouse gases with many times the heat-trapping power of carbon.  The other USDA program, the CSP, has an even less distinguished environmental record. “Only a miniscule fraction,” of the payments went to climate-smart practices and enhancements: “$11.4 million, or just 0.3 percent of the $3.7 billion spent,” the report states—and that may be an undercount, because despite multiple Freedom of Information Act requests, the USDA “refused to give EWG data for EQIP and CSP practices for which there were five or fewer contracts funded in a county in a particular year.” The authors added: “This data gap makes it impossible to form a complete picture of spending, but what’s missing only underscores the dearth of funding for and low adoption rates of the USDA’s climate-smart practices and enhancements.”  The Inflation Reduction Act, the climate legislation signed into law in August, will pump an additional $11.7 billion into EQIP and CSP between 2023 and 2026, significantly boosting their budgets. The IRA stipulates that the money flow to projects that the USDA “determines directly improve soil carbon, reduce nitrogen losses, or reduce, capture, avoid, or sequester carbon dioxide, methane, or nitrous oxide emissions, associated with agricultural production.”  EWG says it will be watching to make sure the agency complies. Per Schechinger, “It’s on USDA to make sure that these funds are being spent as Congress intended—and not on business as usual.” 
Our Food System Could Have Been So Different

Our Food System Could Have Been So Different

October 1, 2022

The story of America’s “lost crops” shows the reign of corn was not inevitable.

The old, epic story of agriculture in North America had two heroes, long sung and much venerated. One was human ingenuity. The other was corn.That story went something like this. On this continent, agriculture—and therefore civilization—was born in Mesoamerica, where corn happened to be abundant. The more advanced people there began cultivating this knobbly little plant and passed their knowledge north, to people in more temperate climes. When Europeans arrived, corn ruled the fields, a staple crop, just like wheat across the ocean. If the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent was agriculture’s origin point for Europe, Mexico was agriculture’s origin point here. This very human innovation had unspooled in the same rare way in these two places. Superior men tamed nature and taught other superior men to follow.Part of this story is true. The first ear of corn—although calling it corn might be a stretch—likely grew somewhere in the highlands of Central Mexico, as far back as 10,000 or so years ago. The oldest known bits of recognizable corn, a set of four cobs each smaller than a pinky finger, are some thousands of years younger than that. They were uncovered in Oaxaca, in 1966, and that site, cuna del maiz, the “cradle of corn,” is in concept a landmark of human advancement on Earth. In appearance, like many archaeological sites, it is unimpressive, a cave so shallow that even the designation “cave” is questionable. But sometimes a whole history is preserved by chance on a dry cave floor. Sometimes a handful of seeds can help confirm a theory about the dawn of agriculture, or help unravel it.Humans have been living in the valley of Oaxaca for ages; now the main road passes a boomlet of mezcalerias, flat fields of corn, and an antique cliffside etching of a cactus. Some nearby caves, too, have traces of ancient wall paintings—a jaguar, two stick figures, and la paloma, “the dove.” When, starting in 1964, the archaeologist Kent Flannery came to this valley looking for a place to dig, he examined more than 60 of these caves, tested 10 or so, and eventually focused his work on just two. And in one of those, he found some notably old corn cobs. Today, that cave is contained in a biological preserve where council members of the nearest town patrol the grounds and, from time to time, guide visitors up the ridge. Mostly they show off the ancient paintings, in vaulted caves with views that stretch for miles.The corn cave, which is no taller or roomier than a modest corner office, likely served as a storeroom or shelter for nomadic peoples, who left behind bones and plant detritus as far back as 10,000 years ago. Amid the remains of deer, rabbit, mud turtle, mesquite, pine nuts, squash, and prickly pear, Flannery and his crew found those four scant specimens of corn. These days, the cobs are usually stored in Mexico City’s fabulous Museo Nacional de Antropología, but the winter I visited they happened to be on display in Oaxaca’s cultural museum. They, too, are not much to look at—skinny nubbins of plant, black and cragged with empty spaces where kernels once grew. Really, they’re hardly corn. And that gap, the distance between these hardly-corns and the flush, fleshy ears that sustain nations, is where the old story of agriculture’s origins starts to break down.The development of agriculture, the Marxist archaeologist V. Gordon Childe declared in 1935, was an event akin to the Industrial Revolution—a discovery so disruptive that it spread like the shocks of an earthquake, transforming everything in its path. Childe’s work on what he termed “the Neolithic Revolution” focused on just one site of innovation in the Near East, the famous Fertile Crescent, but over time archaeologists posited similar epicenters in the Yangtze River valley of East Asia and in Mesoamerica. From that third point of origin, corn is supposed to have converted naive, nomadic hunter-gatherers into rooted, enlightened farmers throughout the continent, all the way up into the northern plains.This long-held narrative now seems to be incomplete, at best. After all, corn took its sweet time fomenting that revolution—thousands of years to transform from scraggly specimens like the ones found in Oaxaca to full-on corn, thousands more to migrate up from Mesoamerica, and still more to adapt to the growing season at higher latitudes. In the rolling fields of the Midwest, the breadbasket of the United States, maize-based agriculture took over only with Mississippian culture, which began just one short millennium ago.Over the past few decades, a small group of archaeologists have turned up evidence that supports a different timeline, which begins much, much earlier. Plant domestication in North America has no single center, they have discovered. In the land that’s now the U.S., domestication was not an import from farther south; it emerged all on its own. Before Mexico’s corn ever reached this far north, Indigenous people had already domesticated squash, sunflowers, and a suite of plants now known, dismissively, as knotweed, sumpweed, little barley, maygrass, and pitseed goosefoot. Together, these spindly grasses formed a food system unique to the American landscape. They are North America’s lost crops.The lost crops tell a new story of the origins of cultivation, one that echoes discoveries all around the world. Archaeologists have now identified a dozen or more places where cultivation began independently, including Central America, Western and Eastern Africa, South India, and New Guinea. Even in the Fertile Crescent, the old story of a single agricultural revolution does not hold. People there domesticated more than one kind of wheat, and they did it multiple times, in disparate places. The agricultural revolution was both global and fragmented, less an earthquake than an evolutionary shift. If correct, this new reading would debunk what is effectively a “Great Yeoman Theory of History.” No isolated bolts of human inspiration caused a wholesale shift in how humans live and eat; instead, one of civilization’s most important turns would be better understood as the natural outcome, more or less, of biology and botany, a marvel that could (and did) occur almost everywhere that people lived. The global food system that we have now is based on just a tiny fraction of all the plants on Earth. But other paths were always open.It used to be that few people believed in America’s lost crops. The evidence was too limited, their seeds too small. Think of how tiny quinoa seeds are; pitseed goosefoot is closely related, but its seeds are even smaller—too small to register with Americans as food. A prominent lost-crops scholar, Gayle Fritz, once called this the “real men don’t eat pigweed” problem. At an archaeological symposium in the 1980s, a giant in the field dismissed these plants as little more than food for birds: Fritz recalls him saying something like, “All of the crops that have been recovered from the entire Eastern United States would not feed a canary for a week.”The evidence that he was wrong has been sitting in archaeological archives for decades. Back in the ’30s, just as the idea of the Neolithic Revolution was taking hold, an archaeologist named Volney Jones was studying seeds found in a rock shelter in eastern Kentucky, similar to Flannery’s cave in Oaxaca. The Kentucky cave was littered with the remains of corn, gourds, and squash, along with the ancient seeds of sumpweed and goosefoot—“local prairie plants,” Jones called them. These plants did register as food to people back then: Some of their seeds were found preserved in human fecal matter. And the seeds were unusually large for plants of the kind, a sign of domestication.Determining the age of archaeological specimens is an inexact art, and before radiocarbon dating was invented, in the ’40s, it was still less exact. Jones couldn’t say for sure how old the prairie seeds were, but if they were older than the corn and squash, he wrote, “we could hardly escape the startling conclusion that agriculture had a separate origin in the bluff shelter area.” He passed over this idea quickly, perhaps because it seemed so impossible. Even in American archaeology, a relatively quiet corner of human prehistory, a Kentucky cliff was considered a nothing place, where nothing important could have happened. If agriculture had a separate origin here, Western narratives of global human development would have to be rewritten.“The Ozarks were supposed to be a backwater,” Fritz, who is a paleoethnobotanist and professor emerita at Washington University in St. Louis, told me. “We called it the ‘hillbilly hypothesis of Ozark nondevelopment.’ You know, they were probably mostly hunter-gatherers, throwbacks to the Archaic.” Deep into the first millennia A.D., these people were supposed to have been stuck in subsistence-level living. “Well, it turns out that’s just not true,” Fritz said.Early in her career, Fritz came across a collection of ancient seeds from the Ozarks, beautiful specimens, many of which were unusually large and some of which had never been examined closely for subtle signs of domestication. Domesticated seeds develop traits that make them more appealing to humans: They are larger than wild ones, offering more nutrition, and sometimes their seed coats are thinner, granting easier access to the succulent bits. When Fritz examined the Ozarks goosefoot seeds, which had been excavated from yet another unassuming cave, she found that by the standards of wild seeds, their seed coats were notably thin. She spent some of her scant funding on accelerator-mass-spectrometry analysis, a new type of radiocarbon dating, to show that the seeds were older than anyone had imagined. “We thought the Ozark rock-shelter assemblages didn’t have much in the way of time depth, maybe 1,000 to 500 years,” she told me. “My dates went back 3,000 years.”This was in the ’80s. “That was what the game was at that time,” Bruce D. Smith, an archaeologist who dedicated much of his career to plant domestication, told me. “You wanted to get a date and demonstrate the specimen was different from all the wild specimens of the same species.” Smith is now retired (he lives in New Mexico and writes mystery novels), but for decades he was a curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C. He began to look at seed collections held at the museum and found the same results: People in eastern North America had cultivated prairie plants as food. His and Fritz’s analyses, along with similar work from a small group of like-minded scholars, made a convincing archaeological case: People had grown these spindly grasses deliberately, saved their seeds, and then eaten them. Sumpweed, little barley, and goosefoot, these birdseed plants that couldn’t possibly be of interest to humans—they weren’t wild things anymore, but crops.The seeds Smith studied are still in the collection at the National Museum of Natural History; Logan Kistler, who’s now the museum’s curator of archaeobotany and archaeogenomics, showed them to me. Many are kept these days in one-dram vials, each containing 100 seeds, but Smith originally found 50,000 seeds stored in a single cigar box in the museum’s attic. Under a microscope, a domesticated goosefoot seed looks like a golden disc; some of the seeds in the Smithsonian’s collection are early enough in the process of domestication that they still resemble lumps of coal, black and uneven. It is not entirely clear what about them would have attracted human attention, or led someone to taste one.Go back far enough, and this is true of so many plants we now eat: Their ancestors were unpalatable, possibly inedible, or even toxic to the human body. Corn itself is descended from a grass called teosinte, the obvious appeal of which is so limited that some researchers once hypothesized that ancient humans were first drawn to the plant for its stalk, as a base for an alcoholic brew. Smith had a theory to explain the draw of the lost crops, though: They were easily available. Ancient people would have encountered them in the flood plains of the Missouri and Mississippi River basins, where water would have cleared ground as a farmer tills a field, creating bountiful spreads of plant-based food.Or perhaps, as a pair of younger paleoethnobotanists have proposed, it was not only the landscape, but animals—large animals—that led people to these plants. Robert Spengler, who studied with Fritz and now directs the paleoethnobotany labs at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, thinks that all over the world, people have been attracted to plants that evolved to appeal to grazing animals. In the Mississippi basin, those animals would have been bison. When Spengler first told Natalie Mueller, once his grad-school colleague, now a professor at their alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, that he thought bison could have led people to the lost crops, she was skeptical. “I was like, ‘Rob, what the hell are you talking about?’” she told me.But she started to find hints that he might be onto something. Most of the lost crops are rarities these days: Throughout her career, Mueller had painstakingly sought them out on the disturbed land at the edge of human development—the strip between a farmed field and the road, or by a path leading to an old mine. Bison, too, are scarce, but where they have been reintroduced to the prairie, she has had little trouble finding the lost crops. They were growing in the places the animals had cleared.In other words, before anyone thought to save sumpweed seeds, or plant little barley, perhaps those plants, having come to depend on bison for their survival, were changing to fit the tastes of humans who wandered along the bisons’ trails, gathering food from the stands of grass growing there. In 2019, Mueller started visiting a prairie preserve in Oklahoma more regularly, to see what she might find, and she invited me along. Once you see the prairie, she told me, I would see what she meant—that the bison and these plants, thriving together, make their own case. Being there had made her imagine the past anew, and it could do the same for anyone willing to carefully consider how a few overlooked plants now behaved in a landscape that more closely resembled the one where humans would have first met them.   Illustration by Kirsten Stolle The early morning fog erased the rolling hills of the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. It erased most of the road ahead, and any sign of the bison—“our big boys,” as Mueller and Ashley Glenn, her friend and go-to botanist, liked to call them. It muted the sun into a smear of yellow; it washed color from the grass, graying the prairie into a dense muddle that hid birds, spiders, and the coyote (or was it a wolf?) that called somewhere in the near distance. But even on a clear morning, I could not have picked out the plant we were seeking—sumpweed, or Iva, as Mueller called it, from its scientific name, Iva annua. Perhaps it should have stuck out: Fall had purpled its leaves and seeds, and it grew tall enough. But  mixed among the other grasses, the plant was easy to miss.Every time Mueller saw it, she perked up. The first specimen we found was puny, but its fruit was chonky—“really big,” she noted with satisfaction—and as we drove through the preserve, she pointed out the Iva lining the road to me and Fritz, who had come on the trip as well: “Oh, there’s Iva … It’s all Iva over here … Look at this stand; it’s a beautiful one.” At one point, she stopped the car suddenly by the roadside, having spotted, she thought, a sunflower (domesticated, too, on this continent, around the same time as Iva), the first she had seen on the preserve, growing right next to Iva, a coincidence that was going to make her head explode, she was saying, when Glenn, who had wandered deeper afield, cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled—“Iva!”She was standing in a pool of purple that in the late-day light stood out like a bruise against the fading green of the prairie. Even I could pick it out, easily. So much bushy sumpweed surrounded her that she could have stayed in that one spot and harvested for hours.And to Mueller, that made perfect sense. “Usually the bison are all over this spot,” she told me.Like humans, bison are landscapers, and their influence on their environs could have been what led people to the lost crops to begin with. Out on the prairie, where the grass and sky swallowed our gangly bipedal figures, the bison were scaled to fit. From a distance, their dark, curved backs dotted hillsides. One morning we found a herd of them gathered near the fence. Spread out in a column 100-some strong, they began to run, harrumphing through the grass, hurtling up and down the dips and ditches beside the road, muscling forward half tons of flesh and clearing paths through the tall grass.Many of the bison traces we walked were just about wide enough for a single person, and it’s easy to imagine that people traveling the prairies millennia ago would have chosen to follow these paths. Without the bison, the tall grasses grow so thick together that moving anywhere requires tramping down thickets of ornery stalks almost guaranteed to be hiding snakes or other dangers. Whenever we left the road, we sought out these bison traces.Just like a flood on the banks of a river, bison create the fresh-turned earth that an annual grass needs to sow its seeds. When they’re not galloping across the prairie, bison graze patches into the grass, or wallow in it, clearing plots of land with their massive bulk as effectively as any farmer might and opening ground for small fields of Iva and other lost crops. During one of her first spring visits, Mueller stood in a green pool of growth and marveled at three of them—little barley, maygrass, and tiny Iva seedings—mingled together, as if someone had planted them for an archaeologist to find. Based on their observations at the preserve, Mueller and Glenn have argued, along with Spengler, that ancient foragers might have first thought of the lost crops as a potential food when they encountered these dense stands along bison trails.So many domesticated plants started out this way, as what we now derisively refer to as weeds. They showed up and showed up and showed up at the edges of human experience, until someone started interacting with them. Wild grasses would not have been so different from the wolves that hung around the edges of human campgrounds and over time evolved into dogs. Though we rarely give plants credit for such improvisation, some of the more flexible species could have found opportunity, too, in the disturbed ground of those campsite edges.Seeing the Iva in such abundance on the prairie only reinforces the notion that humans might have begun to gather its seeds, so that selection pressure eventually shaped the plant into a form ever more appealing. In a way, this story is simpler than one that casts humans as heroic inventors who discover agriculture with their big human minds. And this less deliberate version could have happened over and over again, in many places across the planet.Wheat, barley, and lentils; corn, squash, and beans; rice, peas, potatoes—humans didn’t necessarily choose them as domesticates, and we’re a rebound relationship for some. Like any species, plants can be opportunistic, and many that we now eat had other partners in a previous era, when megafauna dominated North and South America. Squash, for example, started as compact fruit packed with bitter compounds that only mastodons and their ilk could handle. Avocados, too, evolved to feed these giant creatures, with big shiny pits that slid down megafaunal gullets as easily as raspberry seeds pass through ours. But we turned out to be excellent seed distributors too.We also have our own predilections. Agriculture has slowly rid fruits of bitterness, but the seeds that Mueller and her colleagues harvest from fields, or from the experimental gardens where they’ve grown lost crops, have not undergone that long negotiation with human taste. Boiled or sautéed, goosefoot greens still have a bitter bite. Mueller and the archaeologist Elizabeth T. Horton, another lost-crops scholar, have both tried cooking Iva, with similar outcomes. “It smelled really, really bad,” Horton said. One student had more success grinding it up and making a simple bread. It had “a light herbal flavor,” Mueller reported.She has in the past dropped off seeds for Rob Connoley, the chef of the St. Louis restaurant Bulrush, whose tasting menus feature locally foraged foods. When I asked him how he handled the lost crops, he described air-popping goosefoot seeds into garnishes, or working them into chocolate, as a sort of “foraged Nestle’s Crunch Bar.” Raw, the seeds have an unappealing flavor—“dusty, earthy, but oily,” in his experience. Iva is even harder to cook with. Connoley and his crew tried shelling, popping, and toasting the seeds, and only that last strategy worked, kind of. Ground into a paste, the toasted seeds were edible, technically, but “imagine tasting house paint,” Connoley said. “It’s not the best thing by itself.”Confronted with teosinte, corn’s wild ancestor, a chef might have the same trouble. Like the lost crops, teosinte so little resembles what we think of as food that for decades archaeologists argued whether it could possibly have given rise to corn, or if they were missing some link, an ancient form of maize. Now that debate is settled: Teosinte is it. At first glance, its long, green leaves do seem like corn’s—I saw a small stand in Oaxaca, grown in the city’s ethnobotanical garden. But it’s wider than corn, less organized in its makeup, and only thin, dried tendrils keep its seeds connected. When the seeds fall to the ground, they look like lost human teeth, gnarled and off-white.Genetic evidence suggests that domestication makes more sense when you think of it as a long, drawn-out process, rather than an event. At the beginning of a human-plant relationship, humans would have unconsciously exerted selection pressure on plants, which would respond by, say, producing larger seeds or clustering their seeds near the top. Eventually, humans started choosing plants with certain qualities on purpose. Thinking about agriculture’s origins in this way fills some of the gaping holes in the traditional narrative. For instance: How does a person envision a domesticated plant if they’ve never seen a domesticated plant? (They don’t have to.) And how does a society keep after that vision, generation after generation, for the thousands of years that domestication can take? The slow, evolutionary story, as opposed to the fast, revolutionary one, “doesn’t rely on a few clever people in every society making the decision,” Kistler said. “It just happens. It emerges.”In this evolutionary process, the domestication of any particular plant need not be a one-off. Again, genetic evidence bears this out: Rice was domesticated at least three separate times, in Asia, South America, and Africa. In the Fertile Crescent, domestication took about 2,000 years, and early versions of wheat and other important crops were spread across the region.Kistler is an archaeologist by training, and he might, on any given day, have ancient plant samples—pale-orange squash, when I visited—sitting out in his cavernous office in the museum’s back halls. Although he sometimes travels far afield in search of new plant material, much of his actual work takes place on a computer, as he searches the genetic code of ancient seeds for secrets about plants’ pasts. His work has helped show, for example, that teosinte’s journey to become fully domesticated corn took thousands of years and spanned continents. And that hardy bottle gourds likely reached the Americas by floating across the Atlantic, to be independently domesticated on this side of the ocean. Looking at domestication at this level of detail has teased out how each emerging partnership between human and plant has its own story: Cassava, a perennial vine whose roots are packed with enough cyanide compounds to cause paralysis or death, necessarily took a different route to domestication than teosinte. A plant that evolved fruits to attract some animal or bird as a seed disperser might have a different meet-cute with humans than one that serves us its seeds or roots.Some of these stories have ended. In the Middle East, a different type of wheat was domesticated in parallel with the one we eat now, grown for hundreds of years, and then, for some reason, slowly abandoned. It is now extinct. In South India, a staple crop called browntop millet largely disappeared. Almost certainly, archaeologists have yet to unearth evidence of other lost crops; some we’ll never rediscover. The era of agriculture still accounts for only a fraction of human history’s 200,000 years, and even in this short time we have narrowed down our options, discarding whole crop systems. We think of ourselves as omnivorous foodies, but we are picky eaters, dedicated to a small group of select foods. Illustration by Kirsten Stolle North America’s lost crops were already disappearing from the archaeological record by A.D. 1200, though here and there people were still cultivating them, sometimes for hundreds of years more. An archaeological site in Arkansas, for instance, contained a trove of fat Iva seeds that date to the 15th century A.D., and a couple of glancing references in the journals of early European arrivals hint that some people might still have been eating goosefoot in the 16th century. Perhaps the upheaval of European colonization ended this agriculture heritage altogether. But by then it was already disappearing.Why did these plants fall out of use? And, in turn, why did corn succeed? On a genetic level, changes in certain parts of the plant genome are associated with domesticated traits, but no one knows exactly which genetic traits might predispose a plant to flip from wild to domesticated, or which might act as barriers to domestication. If we understood that, it would be possible to say more definitively why so few plants have made it into the human diet and stuck there. “There are 300,000 plant species, and humans have a known use for, like, 10 percent of them,” Kistler said. “We get half our calories from three of them. And we owe our history to a lot more than the ones we think about right now.”According to its partisans, maize was simply a better crop. But scholars of the lost crops have gone to great pains to show that goosefoot, Iva, and the others are nutritionally competitive with corn. They also know that corn did not supplant the lost crops for hundreds of years. At one moment, corn and those crops thrived as compatible, complementary foods. In a spot not far from where St. Louis sits today, the ancient city of Cahokia, the largest ever discovered dating to the Mississippian period in what’s now the U.S., used to host feasts. Often, Cahokia is considered a corn city, built on maize-centric agriculture, but in the remains of those feasts, squash, sunflower seeds, and all five of the lost crops—maygrass, goosefoot, knotweed, little barley, and sumpweed—are preserved alongside corn cobs.Those cobs are still only a few inches long, neither the catalyst for domestication in this part of the world nor a panacea that transformed human life here immediately. Corn now rules American fields, but is that a historical contingency, one of those realities that swung a particular way by chance, or the necessary end to the story of American agriculture? In the Andes, goosefoot’s cousin, quinoa, stayed a staple; why didn’t goosefoot settle in America’s midwestern plains? In some parts of the world, crops we think of as winners—crops such as rice—started domestication then disappeared, nudged into obscurity by biology, history, or both. “I don’t think we’re ready to answer why we have the few dominant crops we have,” Kistler told me.With the right care and attention, the lost crops might still reveal their allure. They are, Mueller and her colleagues have found, eager to please. In plots scattered across the country, she and a small group of other archaeologists had started cultivating these plants, the first time in hundreds of years that humans have treated them as food. Mueller originally planted her garden with seeds sourced from across the Midwest, including Iva seeds from Arkansas, where Horton had started growing Iva and other lost crops too. For a while, she and Mueller competed over how tall they could get their Iva, Mueller told me. And Horton kept winning.The plants started with a population of Iva that Horton found right outside her old office, at the Arkansas Archaeological Survey. (She now has her own macrobotanical consulting company, Rattlesnake Master.) That original stand of sumpweed grows “big and healthy and lush and gorgeous,” she told me, but never more than about five feet in height, typical for wild Iva. In the Arkansas garden, the first year, the Iva grew six feet. The next year, seven. Then eight, and sometimes nearly nine feet tall. Already, she’s finding unusually large seeds too. Mueller and Horton think these plants might have descended, distantly, from domesticated Iva, which could explain their quick changes. Or Iva’s plasticity makes it respond easily to environmental influences. Transforming the plant’s genes such that it becomes a true domesticate might take ages, but perhaps Iva has a natural flexibility in how it expresses those genes. A plant like that, which responds to human influence so readily, might have been attractive, too, even to someone with no conception of domestication.Ultimately, Mueller hopes that the lost crops might help reveal the fundamental mechanisms of domestication. When I visited her experimental garden plot, she was growing goosefoot, Iva, and erect knotweed, in configurations that might tell her a little more about the secrets their seeds hold. “What I want to do is redomesticate them,” she told me.Who knows? A generation from now goosefoot could be rebranded as North American quinoa, and eaten across the world; Iva could become an acquired taste. By rediscovering the crops that we’ve lost, we could revitalize our idea of what counts as food. We tend to think that we, in our globalized world, eat a variety of goodies greater than any available to humanity in eras past, but like the professor who couldn’t abide pigweed, we have a narrow vision of what passes muster. Historically, domesticating a particular species might have taken thousands of years, but archaeological experiments have shown that the same work can be done in just a few dozen. If we took our cues from ancient diets, we could quickly expand our pantries again. By sampling some of the first foods humans ever grew themselves, we might think again about the possibilities of the world and its growing things, or of rekindling old relationships for millennia to come. We might notice other plants that are growing on the edge of our experience, and wonder what they have to offer.
Hurricane Ian was a powerful storm. Real estate developers made it a catastrophe.

Hurricane Ian was a powerful storm. Real estate developers made it a catastrophe.

September 30, 2022

Dredge-and-fill' created thousands of homes vulnerable to storm surge.

A century ago, the coast of southwest Florida was a maze of swamps and shoals, prone to frequent flooding and almost impossible to navigate by boat. These days, the region is home to more than 2 million people, and over the past decade it has ranked as one of the fastest-growing parts of the country. Many of those new homes sit mere feet from the ocean, surrounded by canals that flow to the Gulf of Mexico. When Hurricane Ian struck the region on Wednesday, its 150-mile-per-hour winds and extreme storm surge smashed hundreds of buildings to bits, flooded houses, and tossed around boats and mobile homes. Cities including Fort Myers and Port Charlotte were destroyed in a matter of hours. These vulnerable cities only exist thanks to the audacious maneuvers of real estate developers, who manipulated coastal and riverine ecosystems to create valuable land over the course of the 20th century. These attempts to tame the forces of nature by tearing out mangroves and draining swamps had disastrous environmental consequences, but they also allowed for the construction of tens of thousands of homes, right in the water’s path. “What this is basically showing us is that developers, if there’s money to be made, they will develop it,” said Stephen Strader, an associate professor at Villanova University who studies the societal forces behind disasters. “You have a natural wetland marsh … the primary function of those regions is to protect the inland areas from things like storm surge. You’re building on top of it, you’re replacing it with subdivisions and homes. What do we expect to see?” The root of southwest Florida’s vulnerability is a development technique called dredge-and-fill: Developers dug up land from the bottom of rivers and swamps, then piled it up until it rose out of the water, creating solid artificial land where there had once been only damp mud. This kind of dredging began well before Florida’s postwar real estate boom, when the state’s agriculture and phosphate mining industries wanted to control inland flooding, create navigable pathways for boats, and cut paths for rainwater to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of these efforts, the flow of water to the coasts from Florida’s soggy inland became tame and predictable, and the channels gave boats direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. Developers began to see the southwest coast as a perfect place for retirees and soldiers returning from World War II to settle down — they just had to build houses for them first. They carved existing swamps into a dense network of so-called finger canals, then used the extra dirt to elevate the remaining land, letting the water in. “Dredge-and-fill became the established method to meet the growing postwar demand for waterfront housing,” wrote three historians in a 2002 historical study of southwest Florida’s waterways.  The most infamous developer to use this method was Gulf American, a firm founded in the 1950s by two scamming brothers named Leonard and Jack Rosen who had also sold televisions and cures for baldness. Gulf American bought a massive plot of land across the river from Fort Myers, cut hundreds of canals in it, and sold pieces of it by mail order to retirees and returning veterans up north. The result was Cape Coral, which the writer Michael Grunwald once called “a boomtown that shouldn’t exist.” “Though the main objective was to create land for home construction, the use of dredge-and-fill produced a suburban landscape of artificial canals, waterways and basins,” wrote the authors of the 2002 survey. “The canals served a number of purposes, including drainage, creation of waterfront property as an enhancement for sales, access to open water for boating, and a source of fill material for the creation of developable lots.” The three Mackle brothers, who owned another prominent firm called General Development Corporation, adopted a similar technique on other sections of Florida’s Gulf Coast. They developed more than a dozen communities across the state, including Port Charlotte, North Port, and Marco Island, all of which fell inside Ian’s radius as it made landfall on Wednesday. In all these cases, development involved carving up coastal swampland, creating a canal network to drain out excess water, and building houses on the land that remained.  “It’s just the same reason why golf courses have lots of water hazards — the big holes that they dig out to put soil on the land and make the fairways become lakes,” said Strader. “And now everybody’s got a waterfront property … but it also means you get more water intrusion.” Backlash over the environmental impacts of dredge-and-fill eventually led to restrictions on the process in the 1970s. The public grew outraged at the idea of chemicals and human waste running off from residential canal systems into the ocean. That didn’t stop new arrivals from rushing into canalside developments like Cape Coral, which grew by 25 percent between 2010 and 2019. It helped, of course, that southwest Florida saw very few hurricanes over the second half of the 20th century. Only three hurricanes have made landfall in the region since 1960 (during which time the sea level off Fort Myers has risen about eight inches), and none of them caused catastrophic flooding. Hurricane Ian brought that reprieve to an end, bringing home the consequences of risky development in the same way Hurricane Ida brought home the consequences of coastal erosion last September. When Hurricane Ida rampaged through the Louisiana coast, it drew attention to the deterioration of that state’s coastal wetlands, which had long acted as a buffer against storm surge. In southwest Florida, something different has happened: Not only did developers clear the wetlands, but they also pushed right out to the water’s edge, leaving just inches of space between homes and the Gulf’s waters. With sea levels rising and catastrophic storms growing more common, the era of constant flooding has started again — this time with millions more people in the way. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Hurricane Ian was a powerful storm. Real estate developers made it a catastrophe. on Sep 30, 2022.

Land Use

Displaced Washington flood survivors ‘in limbo’ while awaiting federal aid

Displaced Washington flood survivors ‘in limbo’ while awaiting federal aid

September 2, 2022

Climate change is straining FEMA’s capacity to help people after a disaster.

This story from InvestigateWest was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations. It is republished here with permission. From her driveway in the early evening of Nov. 14, Maryann Snudden could see the Nooksack River — its bank typically a mile away — creeping over the main road in Everson, a city of 2,500 tucked in the foothills of the Cascade mountains in northwest Washington. The swelling river swallowed roadside shrubs and drew closer to her doorstep. And closer. The sound of pummeling rain boomed through the darkness. By midnight, three feet of water pooled in Snudden’s living room. Soon, an avalanche of debris and freezing floodwater overtook the home that Snudden, a widow, had bought with her mother-in-law only three years earlier.  “The water ripped through so quickly that it shoved my bed through the wall,” Snudden recalled.  The deluge reached as high as the ceiling, inundating furniture, photos, clothes, books, electronics, everything. In the kitchen, the powerful currents pried two refrigerators and a water heater off the floor. Outside, the water swept Snudden’s 30-foot ski boat across the nearby blueberry field.  Snudden, 52, and her mother-in-law, 74, were trapped. Snudden’s son — who lives in a different city — took to Facebook, imploring anyone with a boat to rescue them. “By the time anyone could even come and help, there was six feet of water right out the front door,” she said.  It was around 5 p.m. the next evening when they were finally rescued, pulled into a boat while the river battered their waterlogged home.  It’s been more than seven months since the Nooksack River broke free of its banks and steamrolled through the cities of Whatcom County, in the northwest corner of Washington bordering Canada. Once a lush, vibrant place sandwiched between Puget Sound and the Cascades, Whatcom County today is home to hundreds of people like Snudden, who lost everything in the November 2021 flood and continue to shuffle between hotels, damaged homes, and travel trailers, pinning their hopes on an overwhelmed Federal Emergency Management Agency. The flood waters lapping at Maryann Snudden’s door. Courtesy of Maryann Snudden FEMA has come under fire in recent years for failing to meet the immediate needs of survivors after major disasters. Critics say its programs are inequitable and that long wait times for its home-buyout projects make them useless for many.  “The FEMA process is cumbersome to navigate. The help that does come takes a long time to get here, and it’s not nearly enough,” said Everson Mayor John Perry, who like many others in Whatcom County had anticipated more immediate and widespread federal assistance in the wake of the devastating flood.  FEMA itself makes it clear that its capacity is inherently limited. In an email response to InvestigateWest, FEMA stressed that its “programs alone are not designed to make survivors whole again, but they can provide stability and access to additional resources needed to begin rebuilding and recovering from the floods.”  “These disasters are always locally led, state coordinated, and federally supported,” said Stacey McClain from the Washington State Emergency Management Department. According to FEMA, “the road to recovery” requires additional resources from community organizations, insurance, low-interest loans, and other local, state, or tribal agencies.  Maryann Snudden and her 74-year-old mother-in-law were rescued from their Everson home and pulled into this boat in November 2021.  Courtesy of Maryann Snudden But disasters on the scale of November’s flood are far beyond the capacities of community-based relief groups, highlighting the lack of resources available at the local, state, and federal levels, Perry and other officials said.  Besides, climate change is creating further strain on FEMA’s mission to help people before, during and after a disaster, because billion-dollar disasters in the U.S. are happening every 18 days on average, according to Climate Central, an independent climate science and research organization. The damages caused by coastal and riverine flooding are projected to cost $40.6 billion each year by 2050 — a 26 percent increase — regardless of whether or not global carbon emissions reduction targets are met. “Over the 20th century, responsibilities for emergency response got very consolidated at the federal level, particularly in FEMA,” said Anna Weber, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defence Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. She recalled an analogy a colleague once made on the subject. “They said, ‘After a disaster, everyone expects FEMA to come in with giant airplanes and drop bags of money out with parachutes.’ But the reality is much more complicated than that.”  Maryann Snudden sits on the stairs leading to the basement of her flood-damaged house along Main Street in Everson. Paul Conrad/InvestigateWest And so, officials acknowledge, people devastated by major disasters in America are often left waiting for help that may never come. “We were left alone!” Snudden said. “We were left alone to fend for ourselves, and in places that we couldn’t even live in.” The immediate emergency response fell to state and local officials. Mayor Perry, local police and community members equipped with boats and trucks worked tirelessly to reach those in need. Incredibly, only one person was killed, but during the crisis, the 911 dispatch had a queue of more than 100 pending rescues.  Snudden’s 911 call didn’t get any response from police, and it was Perry who rescued her and her mother-in-law in the end.  In the days that followed — after the river receded back to its designated banks — the community banded together to begin the slow, arduous process of recovery: slinging sandbags, shoveling silt from roads and driveways, fishing valuables out of soggy houses, helping wash each other’s soiled clothes, and lending a hand wherever one was needed.  Perry, the mayor, and people like Snudden all began to ask the same question:  “Where is FEMA?” A presidential major disaster declaration was finally made on Jan. 5 — 51 days after the flood. Only then was FEMA authorized to come to Whatcom County.  FEMA’s arrival meant that flood victims could begin registering for federal disaster assistance. By Jan. 11, survivors could apply for assistance on household and essential needs. “The Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division and FEMA worked together to award $1.4 million in federal grants to individuals and households in Whatcom County,” FEMA said in an email response to InvestigateWest. On the ground, FEMA opened disaster relief centers throughout the county, where Disaster Survivor Assistance teams helped with aid applications. FEMA also issued fact sheets about individual assistance and the importance of flood insurance.  The Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group is a volunteer-based nonprofit that helps coordinate recovery services for families impacted by the flood. That includes a team of local volunteer disaster case managers who help survivors navigate the flood recovery process. They worked closely with FEMA agents, going door-to-door to assess flood damage and help survivors apply for aid, like federal disaster assistance. That includes “grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster,” according to FEMA. Everson Mayor John Perry, local police and community members equipped with boats and trucks worked tirelessly to reach those in need. Photo courtesy of Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. FEMA has several tools to help after a disaster. The Hazard Mitigation Assistance program provides funding for eligible projects that help reduce disaster risk. This larger program includes the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program — which helps rebuild a community after a disaster — and three others: Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities for reducing future disaster risk, Flood Mitigation Assistance to help reduce the risk of flood damage for buildings insured by the National Flood Insurance Program, and a Post-Fire Assistance grant program. The Individual Assistance Program supports post-disaster recovery for households and essential needs. And Public Assistance helps rebuild damaged infrastructure, like roads and bridges, with various categories and levels.  Lacey De Lange is the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group’s lead disaster case manager. She currently helps about 600 households with FEMA aid applications and appeals and works closely with regional FEMA agents. According to De Lange, these agents “bent over backward to do anything they could within their rules and regulations to try and get funding for the flood survivors.”  Still, “there’s never enough money,” De Lange said. “People tend to think that FEMA is the savior that will come and help everybody,” she said, adding that “there’s a big gap between what people get and what people need.”  For Snudden, that rings especially true.  Snudden used to work with foster children at the Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families, but she lost her job during the pandemic. Since November’s flood, she has moved 10 times, paying for hotels out of pocket and even moving back into her flood-damaged home at times. It was not until mid-March that the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group was able to help put Snudden up in a hotel where she stayed through the end of June.  Although state and federal assistance was available for temporary hotel accommodations, Snudden found Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group’s assistance much easier to navigate. The local recovery group is not “lined with red tape,” she said, and they did not require the amount of documentation that FEMA does. “FEMA made it too complicated,” she said.  For one, FEMA requires survivors “to document how [they] used disaster funds and keep all receipts for at least three years for verification of how [they] spent the money,” according to FEMA guidance. Still, Snudden managed to apply for FEMA aid and currently receives some rental assistance, including for a storage unit. But there’s a caveat: “I have to pay it first, and then they reimburse me, which is interesting because I don’t have a job,” she said. “I worry about making it for the next storage unit payment, you know, and it just keeps going month after month.”  In the months since the flood, the focus has progressively moved toward long-term recovery.  Whatcom County’s Emergency Management Department and its River and Flood Division are working with FEMA’s Interagency Recovery Coordination group on long-term recovery efforts. FEMA’s coordination efforts help to bridge local, state, and federal governments to work on watershed management, land use planning, the rural agricultural economy and public warning systems in anticipation of future disasters.  A key component of the long-term recovery effort is the state’s decision to offer a buyout and elevation programs — the former allows individuals to volunteer to have their house acquired by the state and removed from the floodway; the latter raises homes to avoid future flood damage. This is done with money allocated by FEMA through its Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.  The goal: getting people out of harm’s way. Maryann Snudden in her flood-damaged basement in Everson. Paul Conrad/InvestigateWest Applying for and implementing the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, however, is “a bureaucratic nightmare,” according to Deborah Johnson, a river and flood engineer from Whatcom County’s Public Works Department. Johnson is actively involved in the county’s long-term recovery efforts.  “People can’t do anything with their home until they are approved for the buyout or elevation,” Johnson said. “When the grant comes through, the message from FEMA basically says, ‘Yes, we’re giving you the money, but you can’t fix anything up until then,’” she said, adding that there is a two- to five-year wait for the buyout process to go through. “And that leaves a lot of people in limbo. Flood survivors are really struggling.”  A data analysis by Columbia Journalism Investigations shows that Whatcom County has endured four major floods in the last 30 years but has received the third-fewest buyouts in the state — only 12. That does not include pending buyouts following the latest flood. Other counties in Washington have benefited from this program, like King County with 60 buyouts in the past 30 years, Skagit County with 82 and Cowlitz County with 132. In Whatcom County, 2,000 homes reported damage after the flood. According to John Gargett, deputy director of Whatcom County’s Division of Emergency Management, the areas more severely affected by the flood are also places where many people are economically vulnerable, which creates further challenges for moving to safety. “The first question is: Are these people even in a position to build a new house or move to a different area?” Gargett said. The next question is one of land availability. “We know there aren’t a lot of areas large enough… especially when you’re looking at hundreds of homes that are within a floodway.” “That suggests that people need to uproot their lives and move to a whole different community,” he said, adding that the state’s housing crisis makes it even more difficult to find safe, affordable places to live.  “Are there FEMA programs for any of this? Frankly, no,” he added. “There are no federal programs that say, ‘Sorry, your house is flooded out, we’ll go build you a new one somewhere else.’” Still, this home buyout program has become the nation’s go-to strategy to relocate people out of harm’s way after a climate disaster. The average value of damage to a home affected by the flood is about $30,000 to $35,000 per house, according to Gargett, and the FEMA individual assistance program awards just under $6,000 on average. “Right off the bat, you’re starting off in the hole if you’re a homeowner,” Gargett said. FEMA recognizes that the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program “is not a simple process,” as stated in its fact sheet. Grant approval requires coordination and agreement between state and local governments and FEMA. Additionally, “it is important to note that many flooded properties don’t qualify for a buyout, funding is limited, and requests for funding may exceed available resources,” according to the same fact sheet.  With the funding from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Whatcom County is offering a volunteer-based buyout program, which means individuals with property in harm’s way can sign up to be bought out. As Snudden’s house is directly in the floodway — the space where a river naturally floods — she was first in line to sign up, and is now anxiously waiting for the buyout to be completed.   Things take time. “It could take a year to 18 months just to know if we even got the grant funding. Then there’s a whole process of contracts and appraisals and acquisitions, buyouts, or elevations,” said Johnson, the county engineer.  According to Johnson, it likely will not be until late 2023 that the funding for the first buyouts under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program will come through, providing long awaited, albeit still limited, financial relief. “But there are people like Maryann Snudden who can’t wait that long,” Johnson said. “Their homes are in harm’s way, they’re living in a trailer, and there isn’t enough funding to help people get through it,” she said.  Maryann Snudden moved into a travel trailer at the end of June. Paul Conrad/InvestigateWest Snudden, for her part, is adjusting to life in a new travel trailer. She moved into the trailer at the end of June, after the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group could no longer help displaced individuals stay in hotels.  While the Whatcom Long Term Recovery Group is helping pay for her spot in a trailer park, Snudden is funding the trailer with a loan that she will have to repay with the expected buyout money, which may not arrive until the end of next year.  Still, Snudden is grateful to have a roof over her head and believes that someday her new trailer will feel like home. “This morning, I woke up, got a cup of coffee, went outside, and just sat there for a good hour with my new neighbors — not thinking of the flood, not thinking about why I’m here to begin with,” she said. “This will be a good healing place, I think, to be able to carry on and move forward.” Alex Lubben of Columbia Journalism Investigations contributed to this report. InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit invw.org/newsletters to sign up for weekly updates. This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Displaced Washington flood survivors ‘in limbo’ while awaiting federal aid on Sep 2, 2022.
We Will All End Up Paying for Someone Else’s Beach House

We Will All End Up Paying for Someone Else’s Beach House

August 8, 2022

As sea level rises and storm surges grow more intense, beach towns on every coast of the United States will soon be sacrificing more real estate to Poseidon. A 2018 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that more than 300,000 coastal homes, currently worth well over $100 billion, are at risk of “chronic inundation” by 2045. The matter of large swaths of deluxe real estate erected in harm’s way is not new. But as extreme weather events compound, the obvious perils of waterfront living are growing both more obvious and more perilous. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cited 20 different “billion-dollar weather and climate disasters” in 2021. The analytics firm CoreLogic countsmore than 7.5 million homes with “direct or indirect coastal exposure and subsequent risk from coastal storm surge and damage from hurricanes.” Barrier islands in Florida, North Carolina and New Jersey are situated a few feet above sea level. In many places, including the Jersey Shore and the Texas Gulf Coast, the land is simultaneously sinking as the water rises. Sanibel Island in Florida, a multi-billion-dollar habitat for retired C.E.O.s, may be in its final decades before the Gulf of Mexico permanently moves in. The fabulous town of East Hampton on Long Island issued a report in April warning that on its current trajectory, the town will evolve into “a series of islands” over the next half-century. California beach towns from Del Mar in the south to Stinson Beach in the north are reckoning with an ocean poised to submerge them.

Waste

Processing waste biomass to reduce airborne emissions

Processing waste biomass to reduce airborne emissions

September 29, 2022

MIT spinoff Takachar converts agricultural waste into clean-burning fuel, and wins Earthshot Prize.

To prepare fields for planting, farmers the world over often burn corn stalks, rice husks, hay, straw, and other waste left behind from the previous harvest. In many places, the practice creates huge seasonal clouds of smog, contributing to air pollution that kills 7 million people globally a year, according to the World Health Organization. Annually, $120 billion worth of crop and forest residues are burned in the open worldwide — a major waste of resources in an energy-starved world, says Kevin Kung SM ’13, PhD ’17. Kung is working to transform this waste biomass into marketable products — and capitalize on a billion-dollar global market — through his MIT spinoff company, Takachar. Founded in 2015, Takachar develops small-scale, low-cost, portable equipment to convert waste biomass into solid fuel using a variety of thermochemical treatments, including one known as oxygen-lean torrefaction. The technology emerged from Kung’s PhD project in the lab of Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane (1972) Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Biomass fuels, including wood, peat, and animal dung, are a major source of carbon emissions — but billions of people rely on such fuels for cooking, heating, and other household needs. “Currently, burning biomass generates 10 percent of the primary energy used worldwide, and the process is used largely in rural, energy-poor communities. We’re not going to change that overnight. There are places with no other sources of energy,” Ghoniem says. What Takachar’s technology provides is a way to use biomass more cleanly and efficiently by concentrating the fuel and eliminating contaminants such as moisture and dirt, thus creating a “clean-burning” fuel — one that generates less smoke. “In rural communities where biomass is used extensively as a primary energy source, torrefaction will address air pollution head-on,” Ghoniem says. Thermochemical treatment densifies biomass at elevated temperatures, converting plant materials that are typically loose, wet, and bulky into compact charcoal. Centralized processing plants exist, but collection and transportation present major barriers to utilization, Kung says. Takachar’s solution moves processing into the field: To date, Takachar has worked with about 5,500 farmers to process 9,000 metric tons of crops. Takachar estimates its technology has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by gigatons per year at scale. (“Carbon dioxide equivalent” is a measure used to gauge global warming potential.) In recognition, in 2021 Takachar won the first-ever Earthshot Prize in the clean air category, a £1 million prize funded by Prince William and Princess Kate’s Royal Foundation. Roots in Kenya As Kung tells the story, Takachar emerged from a class project that took him to Kenya — which explains the company’s name, a combination of takataka, which mean “trash” in Swahili, and char, for the charcoal end product. It was 2011, and Kung was at MIT as a biological engineering grad student focused on cancer research. But “MIT gives students big latitude for exploration, and I took courses outside my department,” he says. In spring 2011, he signed up for a class known as 15.966 (Global Health Delivery Lab) in the MIT Sloan School of Management. The class brought Kung to Kenya to work with a nongovernmental organization in Nairobi’s Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. “We interviewed slum households for their views on health, and that’s when I noticed the charcoal problem,” Kung says. The problem, as Kung describes it, was that charcoal was everywhere in Kibera — piled up outside, traded by the road, and used as the primary fuel, even indoors. Its creation contributed to deforestation, and its smoke presented a serious health hazard. Eager to address this challenge, Kung secured fellowship support from the MIT International Development Initiative and the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center to conduct more research in Kenya. In 2012, he formed Takachar as a team and received seed money from the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, and D-Lab to produce charcoal from household organic waste. (This work also led to a fertilizer company, Safi Organics, that Kung founded in 2016 with the help of MIT IDEAS. But that is another story.) Meanwhile, Kung had another top priority: finding a topic for his PhD dissertation. Back at MIT, he met Alexander Slocum, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who on a long walk-and-talk along the Charles River suggested he turn his Kenya work into a thesis. Slocum connected him with Robert Stoner, deputy director for science and technology at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and founding director of MITEI’s Tata Center for Technology and Design. Stoner in turn introduced Kung to Ghoniem, who became his PhD advisor, while Slocum and Stoner joined his doctoral committee. Roots in MIT lab Ghoniem’s telling of the Takachar story begins, not surprisingly, in the lab. Back in 2010, he had a master’s student interested in renewable energy, and he suggested the student investigate biomass. That student, Richard Bates ’10, SM ’12, PhD ’16, began exploring the science of converting biomass to more clean-burning charcoal through torrefaction. Most torrefaction (also known as low-temperature pyrolysis) systems use external heating sources, but the lab’s goal, Ghoniem explains, was to develop an efficient, self-sustained reactor that would generate fewer emissions. “We needed to understand the chemistry and physics of the process, and develop fundamental scaling models, before going to the lab to build the device,” he says. By the time Kung joined the lab in 2013, Ghoniem was working with the Tata Center to identify technology suitable for developing countries and largely based on renewable energy. Kung was able to secure a Tata Fellowship and — building on Bates’ research — develop the small-scale, practical device for biomass thermochemical conversion in the field that launched Takachar. This device, which was patented by MIT with inventors Kung, Ghoniem, Stoner, MIT research scientist Santosh Shanbhogue, and Slocum, is self-contained and scalable. It burns a little of the biomass to generate heat; this heat bakes the rest of the biomass, releasing gases; the system then introduces air to enable these gases to combust, which burns off the volatiles and generates more heat, keeping the thermochemical reaction going. “The trick is how to introduce the right amount of air at the right location to sustain the process,” Ghoniem explains. “If you put in more air, that will burn the biomass. If you put in less, there won’t be enough heat to produce the charcoal. That will stop the reaction.” About 10 percent of the biomass is used as fuel to support the reaction, Kung says, adding that “90 percent is densified into a form that’s easier to handle and utilize.” He notes that the research received financial support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab and the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, both at MIT. Sonal Thengane, another postdoc in Ghoniem’s lab, participated in the effort to scale up the technology at the MIT Bates Lab (no relation to Richard Bates). The charcoal produced is more valuable per ton and easier to transport and sell than biomass, reducing transportation costs by two-thirds and giving farmers an additional income opportunity — and an incentive not to burn agricultural waste, Kung says. “There’s more income for farmers, and you get better air quality.” Roots in India When Kung became a Tata Fellow, he joined a program founded to take on the biggest challenges of the developing world, with a focus on India. According to Stoner, Tata Fellows, including Kung, typically visit India twice a year and spend six to eight weeks meeting stakeholders in industry, the government, and in communities to gain perspective on their areas of study. “A unique part of Tata is that you’re considering the ecosystem as a whole,” says Kung, who interviewed hundreds of smallholder farmers, met with truck drivers, and visited existing biomass processing plants during his Tata trips to India. (Along the way, he also connected with Indian engineer Vidyut Mohan, who became Takachar’s co-founder.) “It was very important for Kevin to be there walking about, experimenting, and interviewing farmers,” Stoner says. “He learned about the lives of farmers.” These experiences helped instill in Kung an appreciation for small farmers that still drives him today as Takachar rolls out its first pilot programs, tinkers with the technology, grows its team (now up to 10), and endeavors to build a revenue stream. So, while Takachar has gotten a lot of attention and accolades — from the IDEAS award to the Earthshot Prize — Kung says what motivates him is the prospect of improving people’s lives. The dream, he says, is to empower communities to help both the planet and themselves. “We’re excited about the environmental justice perspective,” he says. “Our work brings production and carbon removal or avoidance to rural communities — providing them with a way to convert waste, make money, and reduce air pollution.” This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative.
Plastic Pollution In Costa Rica: 5 Possible Solutions To Fight It

Plastic Pollution In Costa Rica: 5 Possible Solutions To Fight It

September 8, 2022

Costa Rica, considered one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world, has been grappling with the problem of plastic pollution for a long time. Though recycling seems to be the most obvious choice, things are not rosy as they seem. According to a 2018 report, 550 tons of plastic waste were generated every day […] The post Plastic Pollution In Costa Rica: 5 Possible Solutions To Fight It appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.

Costa Rica, considered one of the most eco-friendly countries in the world, has been grappling with the problem of plastic pollution for a long time. Though recycling seems to be the most obvious choice, things are not rosy as they seem. According to a 2018 report, 550 tons of plastic waste were generated every day in Costa Rica. Of this, only 9% was recycled. 11% got mixed with non-recyclable waste and sent to landfills. A shocking 80% ended up in the waterways of Costa Rica! Moreover, more than 40 tons of plastic waste are not recovered by the waste collection and recycling systems daily. This means that a whopping 314 thousand tons of plastic have found a way into the environment by now. A lack of centralized waste management can be attributed to inadequate recycling in Costa Rica as waste pick-up and handling are done by the municipality of the region. Now, why is it important to manage plastic waste before it becomes pollution? Let’s take a look at some of the figures on a global level. Roughly 300 million tons of plastic waste are produced each year, out of which only 9% is recycled.7 billion tons of all plastic produced between 1950 and 2017 have become waste.8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans every year. That’s equivalent to a garbage truck of plastic emptied into the ocean every minute.Our oceans already have 150 million metric tons of plastic by now.Plastic accounts for 3.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This number is expected to reach 6.5 gigatons by 2050.Without urgent action, the amount of global waste will increase by 70% by 2050. 5 Ways Costa Rica Can Tackle The Problem Of Plastic Pollution As of 2018, Costa Rica’s plastic industry was the third largest industry in the country as reported by UNDP (United Nations Development Program). Costa Rica was also the biggest importer of plastics in Central America. Now, these are some serious statistics! With many countries taking the lead in curbing the use of plastic, and hence plastic waste generation, Costa Rica, too, needs to take charge. And, as one of the leaders in ecotourism and renewable energy, it is essential for Costa Rica to take note of this important issue of plastic pollution before it gets too late. Below are some measures that Costa Rica, as a country, can take to curb plastic pollution. 1. Banning Single-use Plastic & Unnecessary Plastic Packaging 50% of all plastic produced is for single-use purposes. Banning single-use plastics is a very important step in regulating the generation of plastic waste. Items like straws, cotton buds, drink stirrers, balloon sticks, plastic cutlery, coffee cups’ lids, food containers, plastic cups, etc. can be classified as single-use plastics. Many countries like France, India, and Kenya, have already imposed a ban on single-use plastics. Moreover, a lot of plastic packaging is used for vegetables, fruits, goods ordered online, food items, and almost everything else that we pick from the supermarket. Banning or regulating plastic packaging can go a long way in reducing the generation of plastic waste. 2. Investing In Recycling Infrastructure An important area of focus for Costa Rica should be diverting funds and investing capital to set up recycling infrastructure. Some countries like Austria, Germany, and Belgium are the top runners in recycling municipal waste. This has been made possible due to the presence of commendable recycling infrastructure, machines, and software designed to manage waste effectively. 3. Committing To Partnerships That Tackle Existing Plastic Pollution Plastic pollution is a global problem that requires a global response. Due to the exigency and breadth of the plastic pollution problem, many international for a have found this sensitive issue on their tables. Partnering with such organizations working towards preventing plastic pollution and taking initiatives to address this problem is key to creating a future free of plastic. Collaboration helps in unlocking the investment required to scale up and accelerate meaningful solutions to prevent plastic waste. 4. Raising Awareness & Educating The Public The government alone cannot eliminate the problem of plastic pollution. Costa Ricans, too, will have to step up and demonstrate the will and passion to work on this cause. Organizing community engagement workshops & clean-up drives, awareness campaigns, education programs, promoting plastic-free products, and circulating educational material, are some of the effective ways of inculcating a sense of responsibility and respect towards nature and their country. These can spur community action and affect consumer choices. 5. Promoting the 5 Rs To Zero Waste Recycling is important, but we often tend to ignore the 4 Rs before that step. The 5 Rs to zero waste gives us a new framework for dealing with waste in our daily lives by acknowledging our habits that lead to more trash. Promoting these 5 Rs can significantly help in reducing the consumption of plastic and waste generation. The 5 Rs are: Refuse – Refuse the plastic you don’t need.Reduce – Reduce the size, amount, or extent of plastic used.Reuse – Reuse whatever plastic you can.Repurpose – Reuse plastic products for a different purpose. For example, plastic bottles can be used as bird feeders, watering containers, planters, etc. Also known as upcycling.Recycle – Segregate your waste into recyclable and non-recyclable waste. Often, recyclable waste mixed with wet waste is non-reclaimable. Final Thoughts Today, we can’t imagine a world without plastics. Whereas, the production and use of plastic started only in the early 1900s. Though Costa Rica has a long way to go before it can become a plastic-free country, efforts by the government are substantial, and the need of the hour. Let’s make it our vision and mission to eliminate plastic from our pristine land and waters! The post Plastic Pollution In Costa Rica: 5 Possible Solutions To Fight It appeared first on The Tico Times | Costa Rica News | Travel | Real Estate.
Researchers Are Now Tracking Monkeypox in Wastewater

Researchers Are Now Tracking Monkeypox in Wastewater

September 7, 2022

Traditional testing for monkeypox is still difficult to access, but wastewater analysis is proving useful.

If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that testing for viral diseases is complicated. Sometimes, the tests are difficult to get, like in the early days of COVID-19. And even if people have access to testing, they might not feel they need it. People with COVID-19 often don’t have symptoms and may not always know to get tested. And now, with the availability of at-home self-tests, most people test themselves and don’t report the results. With other diseases—such as monkeypox—stigma surrounding the disease and the group most affected can deter access to testing. These limitations hinder health authorities’ ability to learn more about infectious diseases and control their spread. If you can’t detect a problem, you can’t direct resources to help fix it. [time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”] Wastewater analysis can help skirt some of these issues. Scientists have tracked COVID-19 through wastewater since early in the pandemic, and now they’re doing the same for monkeypox. A new program led by researchers at Stanford University, Emory University, and Verily, an Alphabet Inc. company, is monitoring monkeypox cases by analyzing sewage from 41 communities in 10 states. So far, they have detected the monkeypox virus in 22 of those sites. As monkeypox case numbers around the country continue to climb, such information is proving valuable as doctors and patients wrestle with testing challenges. “We have now detected monkeypox DNA in sewersheds before any cases were reported in those counties,” says Bradley White, senior staff scientist at Verily. The group is planning to publish their first findings from their monkeypox work in a preprint soon. Other academic and public-health groups are working with their local sewage facilities to track the virus, but this program, called WastewaterSCAN, is focused on getting a national picture of where cases are. The data are shared publicly on a website hosted by Stanford, and the group is sharing its findings with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Read More: How the Monkeypox Virus Does—and Doesn’t—Spread Because sewage is a composite from the thousands of people, it provides an ideal, anonymous way to detect levels of virus in communities. “We are capturing cases even if people are asymptomatic,” says Marlene Wolfe, professor of environmental health at Emory and co-principal investigator of WastewaterSCAN. “When there is limited testing capacity, and there is stigma associated with the disease, to have a population-level measurement of infections that isn’t impacted by those things is really powerful.” Another reason why sewage is a sophisticated way to track monkeypox relates to the fact that it contains effluent from not just urine and feces, where the virus can be excreted, but also from saliva and water that drain while people brush their teeth and shower. Because monkeypox virus is active in skin lesions, such secretions are particularly effective vehicles for trapping and detecting the virus. Researchers have analyzed wastewater for decades, most notably during the 1940s to track polio in the U.S. But the COVID-19 pandemic proved its utility on a large scale. Studies have shown that waste samples generally pick up signs of SARS-CoV-2 up to a week before clinics in a region start seeing positive cases. Wastewater can even detect new variants of SARS-CoV-2—something a rapid test can’t do. In late 2020, the CDC launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS), the first federal system to track an infectious disease pathogen—in this case, SARS-CoV-2—in sewage. It’s an attempt to standardize the way wastewater is collected, analyzed, and interpreted. NWSS now includes data from local programs—like WastewaterSCAN—and cities with their own tracking systems. New York City’s Biosurveillance Program, for example, has been testing wastewater for signs of SARS-CoV-2 since February, and now 11 hospitals in the group will start scanning for monkeypox and polio, which have been detected in New York City sewage. When monkeypox cases first began popping up in the U.S., the researchers at Stanford, Emory, and Verily saw an opportunity to apply a wastewater lens to the disease, especially since testing for monkeypox wasn’t widely available. They had been tracking SARS-CoV-2 at a few sites in California through the Sewer Coronavirus Alert Network (SCAN) since November 2020, and had been adding analyses of other viruses, including influenza and RSV. When monkeypox cases began spreading around the world and while access to testing was still limited, they added that virus to their investigation as well and expanded their network to include more sites around the country. WastewaterSCAN was born. Wolfe says the group’s platform for isolating the genetic material of microbes made it relatively easy to create the proper assay for detecting the monkeypox virus in mid-June. They targeted a portion of the monkeypox genome that was relatively unique, and the probe successfully identified the virus in their lab tests. But, says White, “the first few tests we ran on wastewater samples didn’t pick anything up.” That might have been because the concentration of virus in sewage at that point was so low. While WastewaterSCAN’s probe is designed to pick up very diluted amounts of virus, at the time of the tests, there were few cases in northern California. On June 19, WastewaterSCAN started testing samples provided daily from two treatment plants in the San Francisco area. The next day, both sites had positive tests for monkeypox. Read More: What It Really Feels Like to Have Monkeypox The monkeypox virus’ genetic material differs from that of SARS-CoV-2 because it’s in the form of DNA, while the COVID-19 virus and all of the group’s previous tests had been directed against RNA. But, White says, “DNA is much more stable than RNA, so as long as the genetic material is extracted from the sample, we’re pretty confident that if people are excreting a virus in wastewater, we will eventually detect it.” The scientists say that there are still a few important unanswered questions about monkeypox in wastewater. They don’t have enough data to say for sure how much of a lead time wastewater can give health officials about rising cases, compared to testing at clinics and hospitals. They are also continuing to analyze the data to get a better sense of how much virus needs to be circulating in the community, or how many cases need to accumulate in a given region, before their analysis can pick up signs of the virus in sewage. That could give doctors an important head start in preparing adequate numbers of tests, vaccines, and treatments for the disease before cases peak. The WastewaterSCAN team is now applying what they’ve learned from COVID-19 and monkeypox to explore ways to monitor influenza, RSV, and other seasonal diseases. In the case of RSV, a respiratory infection that often sickens babies, knowing where cases are starting to circulate could help doctors treat the most vulnerable babies with a monoclonal antibody drug before they get exposed, and thus spare them from contracting a potentially dangerous illness. The key to having such a national system, however, is coordination among partners who share their findings, says Wolfe. “Having a network of sites that use the same collection and analytic methods so we can compare data gives us a national picture of what is going on,” she says. “We’d love to have more federal investments in systems like this.”
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