Briefly

Stuff that matters


Seed you soon

Take a tour of the Arctic vault designed to keep our seeds safe.

Motherboard takes us inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault deep in Norway’s mountains, home to seeds from every country in the world — even North Korea.

The vault has already been needed: When the gene bank in Aleppo, Syria, was destroyed, it supplied Syria with backup seeds to start over.

“Some journalists call this the ‘Noah’s Ark of plant diversity,’” says Åsmund Asdal, the vault’s coordinator, in the video.

We may have an ark, but let’s hope we don’t have to use it.


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This politician fights for polluted communities.

Nanette Barragán is used to facing off against polluters. Elected in 2013 to the city council of Hermosa Beach, California, she took on E&B Natural Resources, an oil and gas company looking to drill wells on the beach. Barragán, an attorney before going into politics, learned of the potential project and began campaigning for residents to vote against it. The project was eventually squashed. In November, she won a congressional seat in California’s 44th district.

To Barragán, making sure President Trump’s environmental rollbacks don’t affect communities is a matter of life or death. The district she represents, the same in which she grew up, encompasses heavily polluted parts of Los Angeles County — areas crisscrossed with freeways and dotted with oil and gas wells. Barragan says she grew up close to a major highway and suffered from allergies. “I now go back and wonder if it was related to living that close,” she says.

Exide Technologies, a battery manufacturer that has polluted parts of southeast Los Angeles County with arsenic, lead, and other chemicals for years, sits just outside her district’s borders. Barragán’s district is also 69 percent Latino and 15 percent black. She has become acutely aware of the environmental injustices of the pollution plaguing the region. “People who are suffering are in communities of color,” she says.

Now in the nation’s capital, Barragán is chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s newly formed environmental task force and a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources, which considers legislation on topics like energy and public lands and is chaired by climate denier Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican. She knows the next four years will be tough but says she’s up for the challenge. “I think it’s going to be, I hate to say it, a lot of defense.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


Good nature

To reduce obesity and depression, we need more nature in our lives.

Nature is an overlooked antidote: People who live near green spaces are generally happier and report better physical and mental health.

A new report from the Institute for European Environmental Policy examines the links between nature, equity, and well-being. Researchers reviewed more than 200 studies on the topic.

In urban areas with more trees, doctors prescribed fewer antidepressants, according to a London study. And in Denmark, people living within 330 yards of green spaces were less likely to be obese and more likely to engage in rigorous exercise.

But access to nature — and the benefits that ensue — aren’t equally distributed across populations. Minorities and low-income people tend to live farther from parks and tree-packed areas.

The report calls for doubling down on efforts to make natural areas accessible to disadvantaged groups. For example, instituting building codes with standards for nature proximity, and creating health policies that account for the preventative benefits of the great outdoors.

On average, we spend only 5 percent of our time outside. So — how about going for a nice, long walk?


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This Brooklynite retrofits cities.

U.S. cities are packed with about 5 million medium-sized buildings — schools, churches, community centers, apartment buildings. Most use way more energy than they should. Many also have poor airflow and dirty, out-of-date heating and electrical systems. Those conditions contribute to high inner-city asthma rates and other health concerns.

“These buildings are actually making children sick,” says Donnel Baird, who grew up in such a place. His parents, immigrants from Guyana, raised their kids in a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, relying on a cooking stove for heat. Baird eventually moved to the South and then attended Duke University, before returning to New York as a community organizer in 2008.

In 2013, Baird launched BlocPower, which provides engineering and financial know-how to retrofit city buildings. The technical part is cool: Engineers survey structures with sensors and smartphone apps, figuring out the best ways to reduce energy use, like replacing oil boilers with solar hot water. But the financing is critical; BlocPower builds the case for each project and connects owners with lenders. It has already retrofitted more than 500 buildings in New York and is expanding into Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlanta.

“The biggest way for us to reduce carbon emissions right now,” Baird says, “is efficiency.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


Superfund Man

The EPA is still cleaning up brownfields. So that’s something.

There’s a lot of totally rational concern over the future of the Environmental Protection Agency, especially in the wake of the skinny budget the Trump administration released last week.

While Scott Pruitt didn’t push back at Trump slashing his budget by 25 percent, the new EPA administrator apparently drew the line at defunding Superfund cleanups. He sees cleaning up our most contaminated land as a real business opportunity for future development.

To wit, the EPA announced yesterday that it would continue cleanup of the USS Lead Superfund site in East Chicago, Indiana, a community that’s been stricken by elevated lead levels in its soil and water supply. The $16 million recovered from “several potentially responsible parties” will go toward soil remediation at some 200 homes in the town.

The news follows the kickoff of a long-awaited cleanup over the weekend at the AMCO Chemical Company Superfund site in Oakland, California. More than a decade of debate took place over how to best remediate the site’s contaminated soil and water.

So fear not, the skinny EPA won’t completely waste away. (We hope.)


Coal up and die

Burning coal for electricity continues its steep slide into history.

An electric company in Ohio said on Monday that it would close two coal-fired plants that generate 3,000 megawatts of power. Last week, another company in New Mexico released an economic analysis that suggests it could shutter a 1,800-megawatt plant in five years.

It’s an encouraging trend in an otherwise dismal year for the environment. In January, the owners of the biggest coal plant in the West announced plans to shut it down later this year because it’s just too expensive to keep running. Another in Montana could close this year if a bailout from the state government doesn’t materialize.

What’s driving this? Burning coal no longer makes good business sense. That’s largely because of competition from natural gas, but also because environmental regulations have forced companies to pay for pollution. The result: The country is shifting away from coal power.

Big changes like this are wrenching. These closures will put a lot of people out of their jobs. The coal plants shutting down in Ohio are “by far our largest employer and it will absolutely be devastating to our community here in Ohio,” Michael Pell, a community leader, told Reuters.

An enlightened government might respond by building new, cleaner power plants and retraining workers for green jobs. After all, clean power is now employing more people than coal.


Pipe Cleaner

Remember that money Congress approved to rebuild Flint’s water system? Some of it is finally on the way.

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Michigan city a $100 million grant to improve its municipal infrastructure, which has been contaminating drinking water with high levels of lead.

This past September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill appropriating funds for the repairs in Flint, nearly a year after residents were told to stop drinking their water. The Senate took until early December to pass it, and then-President Obama signed it a week later.

The EPA awarded its $100 million — which Michigan will match with $20 million — exactly one month after the state’s Department of Environmental Quality submitted a plan for what it would do with the funds. Nearly $60 million is earmarked for water treatment upgrades, while another $40 million will go to repair an estimated 12,000 corroded service pipes.

In a statement, new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said, “The people of Flint and all Americans deserve a more responsive federal government.”

Only $31.5 million in federal money will be available to Flint immediately. The rest, according to The Detroit News, “will not be provided until the city and state complete additional technical reviews and gather public comment.” How’s that for responsive?