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Uber complicated: Rideshare legal battles heat up across the country

Alfredo Mendez

For several years now, the rideshare revoluton has promised a day when we could throw our car keys away for good. Companies like Lyft, Sidecar, and Uber have succeeded in connecting available drivers and hip urbanites via sleek mobile apps, offering an alternative to car ownership and the potential for reduced gridlock. But some city and state governments have sought to put the brakes on ridesharing's rapid expansion -- resulting in regulation battles across the country. Until they get onboard, it remains to be seen whether the mustachioed car is here to stay or if it'll fade away like last year's waxed handlebar mustache.

In one corner: companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, often called Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs. The TNCs provide prearranged, app-based pickup services and continue to grow in popularity with the plugged-in, smartphone-using, it's-1-a.m.-and-I-need-to-get-home-from-the-bar crowd.

In the other corner: the highly regulated taxi and cab companies that are deeply invested in protecting their industry. These past few weeks, cities and states have been scrambling to strike a balance between the growing need for flexible urban transportation solutions and protecting the interests of the taxi and cab drivers. In Grist’s backyard of Seattle, the city council votes on a new ordinance today. Heck, even Macklemore has chimed in. [Update: A modified ordinance has passed, which seems to make no one happy.]

So far regulation has been stop-and-go for rideshare companies. California set the tone as the first state to approve a set of regulations in September, giving Uber et al much-needed legitimization and the impetus to face other regulatory challenges in New York City and Washington, D.C. But a recent wrongful death lawsuit in San Francisco has drawn attention to public safety concerns.

Below is a map featuring some of the most heated legal battles in cities and states across the country. Depending on your vantage point, some measures may seem more progressive than others. Click on the purple cars to get more information:


Bummer for anti-Keystoners: Report finds no conflict of interest, despite obvious conflicts of interest

Keystone protest
Michael Fleshman

Environmental Resources Management, the consulting firm hired by the State Department to review the potential environmental effects of the Keystone XL pipeline, did all sorts of dodgy and deceptive stuff, but none of it amounted to serious rule breaking -- at least according to the State Department's inspector general.

The Office of Inspector General today published a report that found ERM did not violate the State Department's conflict-of-interest rules as it bid for the Keystone contract and wrote its study. Climate activists and environmentalists had requested the investigation by the inspector general, and now they're none too pleased with the results.

Last month, the State Department released the environmental impact study written by ERM. It found that Keystone would not have significant climate impacts, even though sections of the study actually contradict that top-level finding. Grist's Ben Adler recently highlighted the top three flaws with the study.

Bloomberg has compiled a handy list of questionable behavior by ERM:

Beginning in June 2012, ERM failed:

• to disclose a possible conflict of interest to the State Department until two months after it won the contract, as reported by ... Jim Snyder at Bloomberg News;

• to reconcile why ERM listed TransCanada as a client in its marketing materials the year before it began the Keystone contract, even though ERM and TransCanada had both told State that they had not worked together for at least five years;


Feds will help honeybees find food

A bee on pastureland

The U.S. government estimates that honeybees provide $15 billion worth of pollination services to America's farms every year. So it's throwing $3 million at them in the Midwest, announcing a new effort to help farmers and ranchers grow plants that furnish bees with healthier diets.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says it will use the funds "to promote conservation practices that will provide honey bees with nutritious pollen and nectar while providing benefits to the environment." The pollen and nectar will come from such sources as cover crops and high-quality pastures.

It's another little step by the government to boost hives' chances of survival. Forcing bees to subsist on the pollen and nectar of crops alone can leave them sickly.

"It's a win for the livestock guys, and it's a win for the managed honeybee population," USDA official Jason Weller told Al Jazeera. "And it's a win then for orchardists and other specialty crop producers across the nation because then you're going to have a healthier, more robust bee population that then goes out and helps pollinate important crops."

Read more: Food, Politics


This new tool lets you watch trees disappear in near real time

Click to embiggen.
Global Forest Watch
Pink is tree loss; blue is gain. Click to embiggen.

Tired of trees disappearing on you? Not like Hogwarts invisibility cloak disappearing, but close: DEFORESTATION. Pretty flaky, right? Always right after they volunteered to do the dishes, too. SMH. Thankfully there's Global Forest Watch (GFW), a new system to narc on trees gone MIA. GFW pieces together satellite data to see where the sneaky trees have been vanishing from.

What’s that? Trees can’t just walk off on their own? Someone has to cut them down? Oh right. The BBC breaks it down:

The Earth lost 2.3 million sq. km. of tree cover in 2000-12 because of logging, fire, disease, or storms ...

Read more: Living


Fight the funk: This woman’s fight against garbage fumes became a national crusade


Some time around 1986, Vernice Miller-Travis was in her home in West Harlem watching her favorite movie, Claudine, when she noticed something familiar. In the movie, James Earl Jones’ character, Roop, a New York City sanitation worker, is at the end of his daily garbage run and his truck is headed to the transfer station. That station -- the Marine Transfer Station on the Hudson River -- was right near Miller-Travis’ house on 135th St. Along with the North River Sewage Treatment Center, also near her home, it was the reason she and her neighbors smelled an unmistakable funk all …


New Jersey wants to dump toxic waste on a site that was just cleaned up

Bobby Hidy

Oh COME ON, New Jersey! I want to be able to defend you against haters -- really, I do. But you gotta help me out here. For starters, maybe you could NOT do the thing where you clean up a toxic waste site and then decide to dump more toxic waste in the same place, because it'll be profitable for people with political connections.

Would that be so hard?

Apparently so. As Michael Powell reports in the New York Times, Jersey is allowing a company called Soil Safe to build 29-foot mound of petroleum-contaminated dirt on a site that was once a dumping ground for cyanide-contaminated sludge. This is happening against the advice of environmental experts, who are worried that this mound could wash away into the Rahway River.

Read more: Cities, Living


Marcellus energy development could pave over an area bigger than Delaware

Steve Williams/Penn State College

Development of natural gas and wind resources in the Marcellus shale region could cover up nearly 1.3 million acres of land, an area bigger than the state of Delaware, with cement, asphalt, and other impervious surfaces, according to a paper published this month in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The study, conducted by two scientists from the conservation organization The Nature Conservancy, predicts that 106,004 new gas wells will be drilled in the Marcellus region, based on current trends in natural gas development. The region includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, and Virginia.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Recycled plastic doodads make instant divided bike lanes


We were going to like the Armadillo even if it didn't have a very practical purpose. C'mon, it's a recycled bit of bike infrastructure named after an animal -- basically the Grist List trifecta. But those little plastic bumps have a real purpose, too: They're an easy way for commitment-phobic cities to create semi-separated bike lanes.

FastCoExist writes:

It’s a gentler reminder to drivers than a concrete curb, says Anthony Lau, managing director at Cyclehoop, the company that makes the product. “They’re not very high, so if a driver strays in the road they’ll just feel a bump and move away from the edge. It’s not like driving over concrete, which would just destroy your wheel.” Ambulances and other emergency vehicles could drive over the separator if necessary.

Read more: Cities, Living


EPA’s new pesticide rules: Will they make a difference?


A few days ago, the EPA proposed new rules to protect farmworkers from  pesticides. It's about time. The standards were last updated in 1992, and there's been a lot of research on the effects of pesticides on human health in the 22 years since.

Among the proposed changes: Workers would need to be at least 16 years old in order to handle pesticides, except in some situations involving small family farms. Farms would be obligated to hold mandatory safety trainings every year, instead of every five years, to cover things like how to handle pesticides, how to clean gear and clothing and yourself after handling them, how to know when it’s safe to return to a field that has been treated, and what legal protections are available to farmworkers.

In an ideal world, no workers would ever be exposed to pesticides at all (and no eaters either), but the ideal world is not where we live. While everything we use to kill insects has some level of toxicity to humans, it’s also not fun to stand in a field and watch rootworms eat all your corn. The new rules would be an improvement.

The question, then, is would they be effective and enforceable? I asked Thomas Arcury at Wake Forest School of Medicine, who has spent almost two decades studying the health of farmworkers in North Carolina. His short answer: no.


Volcanoes are giving us a breather from climate change

Cessna 206

Someone, at some point, must have made the right sacrifice to the right volcano god. Because according to new research, eruptions from 17 volcanoes are helping to give humanity a tiny bit of breathing room on climate change.

Time reports:

Research shows that large volcanic eruptions inject sulfur dioxide gas into the stratosphere. The gas forms tiny droplets of sulfuric acid, also known as “volcanic aerosols,” that can block sunlight. That cooling effect has been largely ignored by climate scientists until now, but it seems to partly offset the warming from human-caused changes in greenhouse gases. ...

But unfortunately for us, the cooling effect is expected to be temporary -- if we keep emitting greenhouse gases, the climate will keep warming.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living