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Since 2001, one activist a week has died defending the environment

From a report at NPR:

People who track killings of environmental activists say the numbers have risen dramatically in the last three years. Improved reporting may be one reason, they caution, but they also believe the rising death toll is a consequence of intensifying battles over dwindling supplies of natural resources, particularly in Latin America and Asia.

A report released Tuesday by the London-based Global Witness said more than 700 people -- more than one a week -- died in the decade ending 2011 "defending their human rights or the rights of others related to the environment, specifically land and forests." They were killed, the environmental investigation group says, during protests or investigations into mining, logging, intensive agriculture, hydropower dams, urban development and wildlife poaching.

The Global Witness report indicates that 106 activists were killed last year alone. In 2010, the figure was 96.

Read more: Politics

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EPA to consider whether Alabama landfill violates community’s civil rights

Coal ash from the Tennessee spill.

One of the core tenets of the environmental justice movement is that poorer communities and communities of color disproportionately bear the negative impacts of a pollution-rife economy. Power plants and water treatment centers aren't built in affluent areas.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is being asked to decide if the location of a landfill is a violation of a predominantly black community's civil rights.

In 2011, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (DEM) renewed the permit for a landfill in Uniontown, Ala. The Arrowhead landfill is authorized to receive more solid waste per day than any other landfill in the state -- waste that includes coal ash, toxic residue from coal-burning power plants. Four million tons of ash from Tennessee's 2008 Kingston power plant spill ended up at Arrowhead.

This January, residents filed a complaint with the EPA, arguing that the renewal of the permit was a discriminatory violation of the Civil Rights Act. From a report at the Huffington Post:

The Uniontown facility has been the focus of a long and contentious battle between the mostly black residents living nearby and the developers of the landfill, which opened for receipt of municipal waste and other trash in 2007. The facility is currently permitted to receive up to 15,000 daily tons of municipal, industrial, commercial and construction waste -- as well as "special waste" like coal ash -- from nearly three dozen states.

Taken in aggregate, the civil rights complaint argues, the population of that expansive service area is predominantly white, while the population bordering the landfill is nearly 100 percent African American.

Read more: Coal, Infrastructure

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Updates from the Rio Earth Summit, day one

The Earth Summit in Rio begins today. What's that? You thought it started weeks ago? Very understandable.

You can watch the plenary sessions here, or streaming below.

Later today, 17 year-old Brittany Trilford will speak to the assembly. (You can read Greg Hanscom's interview with her here.) We'll update this post after she does.

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Will the Senate make you inhale mercury? We find out today

The EPA doesn't want you inhaling this.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), a first-of-its-kind baseline regulating the emission of mercury (and, as you might have guessed, other airborne toxics) from coal- and oil-fueled power plants. Today, the Senate, led by Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), will vote on blocking the regulation from ever taking effect. Thanks, Senate!

Obviously, everyone you know will be talking about this. Americans are obsessed with the intricacies of governmental regulation and the procedures by which they are overturned. So to ensure that you're the life of any party, we've put together this overview.

What is the Mercury and Air Toxics Standard?

The rule itself is straightforward. By reducing -- not eliminating -- mercury, sulfur dioxides, and particulate matter emissions, the EPA estimates that between 4,000 and 11,000 premature deaths can be prevented each year. That includes 4,700 heart attacks avoided, and 130,000 asthma attacks. The total economic benefits from this improved health are measured at between $37 billion and $90 billion annually.

The rule was originally proposed by the Bush EPA, but an appeals court determined that its scope was insufficiently broad. Last March, the EPA proposed a revised rule; last winter, they issued a final standard.

Read more: Coal, Oil, Politics

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Fire retardants are great at killing forest fires, fish

A plane drops retardant in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.)

Colorado's High Park forest fire has burned nearly 60,000 acres. According to the Forest Service, 189 homes have been lost and 1.3 million gallons of water dropped on the blaze.

Planes are also dropping hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant, a mix of chemicals intended to slow the fire's spread. From a report by the Denver Post:

So far this fire season, air tankers called to suppress wildfires have been dropping the fire retardants (the mix is called LC95A) at a record pace. As of Friday, more than 401,450 gallons had been dropped on Colorado forests this year, including 320,553 gallons on the lightning-sparked High Park wildfire west of Fort Collins, according to Forest Service records.

LC95A is good for slowing fires. But the slurry is also toxic.

Read more: Animals, Pollution

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Which is scarier: A drone overhead or an unregulated dump next door?

"OMG is that a drone?" (Photo by n0nick.)

The House of Representatives just set rules for debate on H.R. 2578, the "Conservation and Economic Growth Act," meaning it will come to the floor for a vote. (Every single bill currently proposed in the House must be titled with the words “economic growth” or “jobs” or both. If it doesn’t, the bill is put out on the Capitol steps and abandoned, where it sings doleful songs to passing children.)

Sorry. Got sidetracked.

Among 2,578 other things having to do directly or vaguely with land management, H.R. 2578 establishes a 100-mile zone within the borders of the United States in which U.S. Customs and Border Protection is given a free hand. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) thinks these measures are so important that DHS head Janet Napolitano deemed the effort "unnecessary" and "bad policy."

House Democrats, who oppose the measure, have labeled the 100-mile area the "Drone Zone," creating a website outfitted with intern-crafted, Twilight Zone-style graphics of a Predator drone sort of hovering over middle America. You are meant to be scared by this. As we mentioned yesterday, drones are the go-to bogeyman these days, the barely visible eye-in-the-sky that is taking out terrorists in Afghanistan and Yemen. (The "taking out" is not confirmed by the government; the term "terrorists" is not always supported by the evidence.) So, yeah, Drone Zone. Look out, America! Fine.

Here's what else H.R. 2578 would do: waive the application of each of the following laws [PDF] on any public land in that area.

Read more: Energy Policy, Politics

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Mayors in Rio, where they’re doing what they can

Please press the play button.

When we last checked in with C40, the group of cities partnering to address climate issues, they'd just unveiled a fantastic presentation outlining ways in which urban areas could theoretically contribute to greenhouse gas reduction.

Today in Rio, they made that impact concrete. Now boasting 59 cities, the coalition made two announcements.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Miner fired for whistleblowing gets his job back

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

After being fired by Cumberland River Coal Company last year, Charles Scott Howard sued, alleging that he was fired for blowing the whistle on the company's safety issues. On Friday, a court agreed. From the Huffington Post:

A federal judge ordered Friday that Howard's company immediately reinstate him at the mine and pay a $30,000 fine for discriminating against a whistleblower. The sharply worded decision said managers at Cumberland River, as well as its parent company, coal giant Arch Coal, went to great lengths to find a reason to fire Howard after he brought his mine to the attention of federal safety officials.

"It is obvious that [Cumberland River] worked diligently to end Howard's employment," wrote Margaret A. Miller, an administrative law judge for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. "The discrimination against Howard ran through [Cumberland River] and its parent, Arch, at the highest management levels." ...

In 2007, Howard recorded video of faulty seals in the mine that was presented to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. When he suffered a head injury on the job, the court determined that his employer unlawfully used the injury as an excuse to fire him.

Read more: Coal

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Columnist: Millions for coal and oil, but not one more penny for clean energy

The Washington Post's Charles Lane has a column today in which he argues that the Obama administration's efforts to bolster clean energy is money "wasted," and that if government does "double down on clean energy, it’s the federal budget that will end up busted."

He's wrong.

Lane bases his arguments largely on a report released earlier this month by Brookings. "Clean Energy: Revisiting the Challenges of Industrial Policy" assesses the value of subsidies in bolstering a clean energy economy.

What Brookings found probably won't come as much of a surprise: Subsidizing clean energy initiatives is not always effective and is not the ideal way to bolster the sector. Instead of subsidies, the most market-efficient way to support clean energy is to internalize the costs of fossil fuel-based energy production. In other words, to build a system that -- among other things -- ends the ability of coal power producers to emit carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere where they will produce long-term costs in global warming and negative health impacts.

We tried this one way; it was called cap-and-trade. It was proposed by Republicans, then killed when Democrats began to champion it. Politically, it's a non-starter.

There's another way to do it: regulation. The EPA has issued several rules that would lower the allowable baseline for fossil fuel pollution. This is the sort of reception such efforts receive.

Which is why the fossil fuel industry and its allies focus on subsidies as a target. Subsidies are the primary support the government provides to clean energy. If you remove subsidies for clean energy projects, it's almost impossible for them to get a foothold in a crowded marketplace -- even if, over the long run, the technology will obviously be dominant and more cost-effective. If you came up with a new retail system, one that held real promise to vastly improve the consumer experience, how do you think you'd do if Walmart wanted to take you out?

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Yes, the economy could soon run on (mostly) renewable power

Along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a series of billboards sponsored by FORCE, a pro-coal lobby, make the argument for coal-based power by arguing that "wind dies" and "the sun sets." Coal wants you to think renewable energy is unstable, uneven.

Bad news, coal. A massive study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) modeled the impacts of a national energy grid with renewable power comprising between 30 and 90 percent of the mix -- including the requisite generation, transmission, and storage. In short:

The central conclusion of the analysis is that renewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States.

That quote scratches the surface of the NREL's findings, which follow collaboration with 110 contributors from 35 organizations inside and outside the government. (The list of abbreviations used in the report itself runs two-and-a-half pages.) Another study released in 2010 found that Europe could similarly make a transition to a renewable-heavy energy infrastructure.