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In Pennsylvania, Dr. Frack will see you now

fracking site
Daniel Foster

People who live near fracking sites have been complaining for years about headaches, nosebleeds, and birth defects. Now one such population, in Washington County, Penn., is getting some help in the form of free medical consultations -- but not from the usual suspects.

Washington County is a place known for its many picturesque bridges. It's also known for its "wet gas" -- an underground smorgasbord of methane, propane, butane, and ethane that hasn't seen daylight since the Devonian era. During the drilling process, most of this gas is captured, but a certain amount does leak into the atmosphere.

There has been some research into the risks of living in a natural gas drilling area, but not the kind of long-term, systematic study that would prove or disprove a connection between the gas and the health issues.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Plants are poison — and that just may be why they keep us healthy

veggies
ep_jhu

The health effects of antioxidants came up recently because a study found that organic food has more of them. Now science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff has a fascinating story on a theory that upends conventional wisdom about antioxidants.

The original idea was that antioxidants were good because they sopped up molecules called "reactive oxygen species" (ROS) that are released by stress and bounce around cells, wrecking havoc. This new theory suggests that we need the stress, and it's our bodies' reaction to that (producing our own internal antioxidants) that really does us good.

In other words, it's the whole system that's important -- piling on more antioxidants from outside alone basically accomplishes nothing. Here's Velasquez-Manoff:

Read more: Food

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New rules aim to stop rash of oil train spills and explosions

oil-train.jpg
John Wathen / Public Herald

Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed new rules for improving safety standards around transporting large quantities of flammable materials by rail. The chief concern here is the movement of crude oil and ethanol, which the federal government has been ramping up through recent decisions to expand the exploration and extraction of domestic oil and gas.

The new rules, summarized here, focus on upgrades for train tank cars, new speed limits for trains carrying flammable fuels, improved braking operations, and more rigorous testing for the movement of volatile liquids. A recent rash of train crashes and oil spills, notably in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Alabama, and Lynchburg, Va., prompted the new safety standards.

In a recent review of data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Politico found that train wrecks have done more than $10 million in damage as of mid-May this year, which is nearly triple the damage for all of 2013.

In a press statement, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the proposal “our most significant progress yet in developing and enforcing new rules to ensure that all flammable liquids, including Bakken crude and ethanol, are transported safely.”

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Hop on the bus, Gus

Even rural America can have good public transportation

bus in Roaring Fork Valley
Paul Sableman

When I travel to a rural area, I assume that renting a car will be a necessity. In fact, I assume it in much of the U.S. Except in a few older coastal or Upper Midwest inner cities, it's hard to get around in America without driving. So imagine my surprise upon arriving in Aspen, Colo., for a reporting trip and the Aspen Ideas Festival, and finding that a surprisingly good bus system and bikeshare program could get me almost everywhere I needed to go. And it didn't cost an arm and a leg -- just an arm. A broken arm. It turns out Aspen is so pro-pedestrian that it can actually create difficulties for visiting cyclists. But that’s not the worst problem to have.

Aspen and its neighbors along the Roaring Fork River high in the Rocky Mountains, such as Carbondale, are old mining towns. Developed in the late 19th century, they have walkable downtowns. To help residents and visitors get around or between those downtowns, they have a recently expanded bus service. The regional bus stops along Route 82, the road connecting the towns, with parking lots at the outlying stops, like a suburban commuter-rail station.

Local environmentalists I spoke with raved about the bus system, which may partly reflect the low expectations we’ve all developed for rural mass transit. Still, there were 4.1 million rides on Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) buses in 2013, a 4 percent increase over 2012. That’s impressive for a region with only around 32,000 residents (though the seasonal population can increase substantially from tourism). If you’re in a downtown area, there will be a stop walking distance from you. The buses come frequently enough despite the small local population. The system is even integrated with other modes of transit: Many buses are outfitted with a bike rack in front and at certain stops you can load your bike on.

Read more: Cities, Living

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People: Stop getting your panties in a wad about “fake” charity clothing bins

Used clothing bins -- those metal boxes where people drop their unwanted or used shirts, jackets, jeans, belts, and the occasional human skull -- sure are making people mad these days.

The problem is in the sales pitch: Some of the sketchier bins on street corners and in parking lots have “DONATION” stenciled on the side. As a result, people think that their old spandex jeggings, those Uggs from last season, and the hot pink Juicy Couture sweatpants that they only wore once are going to a person in need. In fact, those “donations” are going to textile recyclers who are making billions selling the clothes to companies overseas that grind the clothes into material for industrial uses.

While it isn't exactly a news flash that most of the clothes from these bins go to for-profit companies, a recent New York Times article condemned the boxes as public nuisances, calling them magnets for graffiti and crime, and fire hazards. The city of New York has upped its efforts to haul away the bins. One New York state assemblyman has made getting rid of them his cause celebre, and the bins have been causing turf wars in other states.

Read more: Living

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Knockout

How a town in Maine is blocking an Exxon tar-sands pipeline

tar sands protestors in Maine
350.org

Citizens trying to stop the piping of tar-sands oil through their community wore blue “Clear Skies” shirts at a city council meeting in South Portland, Maine, this week. But they might as well have been wearing boxing gloves. The small city struck a mighty blow against Canadian tar-sands extraction.

“It’s been a long fight,” said resident Andy Jones after a 6-1 city council vote on Monday to approve the Clear Skies Ordinance, which will block the loading of heavy tar-sands bitumen onto tankers at the city’s port.

The measure is intended to stop ExxonMobil and partner companies from bringing Albertan tar-sands oil east through an aging pipeline network to the city’s waterfront. Currently, the pipeline transports conventional oil west from Portland to Canada; the companies want to reverse its flow.

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The Bot Digest

Will drones save the rhinos? Some conservationists say it’s launch time

drone_alaska
Shutterstock

Even as the teensy unarmed planes continue to invade American skies, words like "drones" and "surveillance" tend not to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings. But are there certain cases where being kept under bot watch will be welcomed?

Because drones are both nimble and thrifty, idealists are launching drones on feel-good missions across the globe. Yesterday, I wrote about the potential for drones to keep us in the know of what goes on with our food. Here are some other projects that aim to use camera-armed drones for the good of the planet -- and why skepticism might keep these projects from taking off.

Drones that spot illegal fishing

ocean
Shutterstock

Ocean conservationists may be psyched about Obama's plan for a supersized marine protected area. But, given that 20 percent of seafood is caught illegally, marine sanctuaries may matter a lot less when the rules aren't enforced. That's why the government of Belize is testing the waters with drone surveillance by using them to monitor their Glover's Reef Marine Reserve.

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George Harrison memorial tree falls victim to climate-driven irony

george_harrison
Gustavo Medde

If you’re wondering what killed the George Harrison memorial tree in L.A.’s Griffith Park, the short answer is irony. I think. I learned about irony from Alanis Morissette, so hopefully I got that right, but I’d better just let Randy Lewis at the Los Angeles Times explain:

The George Harrison Tree was killed by beetles.

Thanks, Randy. (Yes, we're talking about that George Harrison.)

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Earth crushes another temperature record; not getting much love from the stands

sun_stands
Jamie Manley

The Earth is currently riding a hot streak that would make Barry Bonds blush. This May was the hottest May in history, and, we learned today, it was followed by the hottest June.

June marked the 352nd consecutive hotter-than-average month, a stretch reaching back to February of 1985, and it doesn’t show any signs of cooling off. So far this year, every month but February has been one of the four hottest on record, and, with an El Niño on deck, 2014 is well on its way to becoming the hottest year in history.

If you’re suspicious that, with a streak like that, the planet must be juicing, well, you’re not alone. Seth Borenstien of the Associated Press spoke with NOAA’s chief of climate monitoring, Derek Arndt, and it sounds like this is more than a corked climate bat:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Millions alive today would have to die before the paleo diet could take over

banksy caveman
Lord Jim

The idea of going paleo is attractive to someone like me, who feels he is living in an unhealthy, vapid world of consumerism. The sprawl of modern humanity is clearly unhealthy for earth’s biodiversity and for the stability of our climate. And it makes a lot of sense that our modern lifestyle would prove unhealthy for us: Our bodies were shaped for hundreds of thousands of years to hunt and gather -- and yet we insist on sitting down all day while eating things our ancestors would not recognize as food. We keep introducing new things that don’t fit into the natural environment or the environment of our bodies.

There’s a natural yearning to backtrack -- to get back to the garden. But there’s a problem, usually unacknowledged, with the whole paleo phenomenon: Going back to a hunter-gatherer's meat-heavy diet is impossible unless we cull our population to pre-agricultural levels. There have been no reasonable proposals for achieving quick population reduction. And so we are faced with a sad reality: We can’t ever go home again.

In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about putting her family on the paleo diet while reviewing “a small library of what might be called paleo literature -- how-to books that are mostly how-to-undo books.”

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food