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West Virginia caught unprepared for contamination of water supply, despite warnings

don't drink the water in West Virginia
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West Virginia officials knew that a supplier to the coal industry was storing a toxic chemical near the Elk River that had the potential, if it leaked, to poison the water supplies of hundreds of thousands of people.

Last week, it did just that. The chemical leaked from one of Freedom Industries' tanks into the river, triggering an emergency and urgent warnings that residents and businesses should avoid using tap water.

So why are state officials now scratching their heads and sounding surprised about the disaster? Here's some excellent reporting from the Charleston Saturday Gazette-Mail, asking why there was no plan in place for dealing with such an emergency:

Last February, Freedom Industries sent state officials a form telling them the company stored thousands of pounds of a coal-cleaning chemical called 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol in the storage tanks at its Etowah River Terminal. ...

Freedom Industries filed its "Tier 2" form under the federal Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act. State emergency response officials got a copy. So did emergency planners and responders from Kanawha County.

Under the law, government officials are supposed to use chemical inventory information on Tier 2 forms, like Freedom Industries', to prepare for potential accidents. ...

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Get a hot, sustainable burrito in a gas station vending machine

burrito-box-instagram
Daniel Powley

Move over, lubed condoms: There’s a new kid in the gas station vending machine, and his name is SustainaBurrito.

Tehnically the newfangled gizmo is called a Burrito Box — “like a Red Box with burritos,” the L.A. Times wrote -- and they’ve started showing up in L.A. Burrito Box is mimicking Chipotle’s guilt-free, sustainable meat thing, with “100 percent all-natural” burritos, and the breakfast option made with cage-free eggs:

You can choose from six varieties, including roasted potato with egg and cheese, uncured bacon with egg and cheese, chorizo sausage with egg and cheese, free-range chicken with beans and rice, and shredded beef and cheese. The website boasts the burritos are made with hormone- and antibiotic-free ingredients.

Read more: Food, Living

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New Jersey decides not to run a gas pipeline through one of its last spots of wilderness

pine barrens
Jim Lukach

Sometimes governments actually make good decisions about the environmental resources they oversee. Sometimes this even happens in New Jersey -- which, contrary to popular belief, is not covered entirely in highways and suburban developments and does have natural resources worth saving. At least one natural resource!

Among these natural resources (there’s more than one, we’re KIDDING), the most extensive and environmentally valuable is the Pinelands. (If you're a John McPhee fan, you know these woods by their older name, the Pine Barrens.) This million-acre expanse of scrubby pine trees and wetlands takes up almost one-fifth of New Jersey, has a number of unique species in it, and, oh yeah, overlays a gigantic aquifer of pure water. So, naturally, an energy company wanted to run a 22-mile gas pipeline through this area.

Read more: Living

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Join “The Great Poo Hunt” to keep tabs on invasive species, get free food, pick up turds

animal-poop-jeff-kubina
Jeff Kubina

They do things a little differently in Tasmania. Case in point: a recurring shit-finding expedition called “The Great Poo Hunt.” Gathering butt chocolate from Tasmanian devils and the like sounds so fun, 20 people have already signed up!

But they need 20 more, so hop to it! After all, doo-doo can tell a lot: where someone is, what someone’s been eating (chili-cheese Fritos AGAIN?!). I do it all the time to find out whether my lovers have found my secret snack supply in the bottom of -- oh NO you don’t!

Anyway, volunteers get free food and lodging during the five-day hunt, PLUS the knowledge that they’re doo-ing something pretty important:

Read more: Living

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Ask Umbra: Are cows really as bad for the climate as they say?

cow farts
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Send your question to Umbra!

Q. We all know that in the process of eating grass and grain, our farm animals produce methane. But what if that grass was left to die -- wouldn't the decomposition of it also produce methane? Would there be a comparison in amounts of methane produced? And, if we were to just eat those grasses and grains ourselves (instead of having the animal eat it first), wouldn't our own fecal matter produce an equal amount of methane from decomposition?

Rory F.
Orillia, Ontario

A. Dearest Rory,

Let’s call it Methane Week here at Grist -- last Thursday, we discussed the dairy industry’s role in producing hot-air balloonfuls of the greenhouse gas. Today, your question turns our attention to other sources of the stuff: namely, plant decomposition and our own, er, unmentionables. You’re right that we should be concerned about methane -- it’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere -- but there are some significant differences in the sources you mention. Grab your shovel and dig in.

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Here’s another reason why renewables are at an unfair disadvantage

transmission lines
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Recently, a new pipeline started pumping fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale to Manhattan. It's a critical reminder of the importance of infrastructure in determining our energy future -- and of how lopsided our infrastructure policy is.

Burdensome regulations governing infrastructure are hampering renewable energy expansion, while natural gas is facing no such obstacles. If renewable energy is going to make up any significant portion of our nation’s electricity needs, we need to change our energy infrastructure regulations. And the time to make those changes is now.

Coal-fired power plants are retiring, leaving a demand for new electricity generation. The two most likely power sources to fill that void are renewable energy and natural gas. But right now, the competition between these two sources is not happening on a level playing field.

Building out infrastructure is critical to the growth of both of these power generation sources. But it takes a lot longer to put up transmission lines, which link remote wind and solar farms to population centers, than it does to build natural gas pipelines. And therein lies the problem.

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Lifting the crude-oil export ban would worsen pollution and climate change

Oil Tanker
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Oil companies and their shills in politics are pressuring the federal government to repeal a 38-year-old ban on exporting crude oil, as Grist’s John Upton noted last week. The industry is working up a lawsuit to try to get it overturned, and the American Petroleum Institute is telling anyone who will listen how bad the ban is. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who's likely to soon chair the Senate Energy Committee, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee's ranking member, have suggested that we “relook at” the rule and repeal it, respectively. Last month a Washington Post editorial called for removing the ban.

Why, after nearly four decades, is this issue suddenly in the news again? The U.S. adopted the prohibition on exporting crude oil in the 1970s after supply disruptions from OPEC caused oil price shocks. Since then, oil drilled in the U.S. has had to be refined here before exportation. Most of our oil has been imported anyway, because demand is so great and domestic supply relatively minimal -- until recently.

Now, thanks to fracking technology, the U.S. is enjoying an oil production boom. And relative to some other major sources of oil, such as Saudi Arabia, the crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken formation is purer. While each barrel of gasoline goes for the same price on the global market, higher quality crude oil can fetch a premium when the oil company sells it to a refiner, because it costs less to process.

Being forced to sell their oil to domestic refiners prevents the oil companies from squeezing every last bit of profit out of their Earth-choking plunder. So they are demanding that Washington bless them with bigger profit margins by allowing them to bypass domestic refiners.

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Christie administration’s bridge-blocking stunt was bad for environment

Christie bridge cartoon
Donkey Hotey

As you've no doubt heard by now, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) administration shut down two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge toward New York City in September, causing local traffic in adjacent Fort Lee, N.J., to back up for hours. The media has focused, understandably, on the irritation, inconvenience, and even danger caused by the traffic snarls. Kids were late to school, adults were late to work, emergency responders couldn’t get through the traffic, and one woman waiting for them died.

But here's an angle most media have missed: The lane closures also caused more pollution. When cars idle in traffic, they burn more fuel per mile traveled. That means more local air pollution, which causes respiratory ailments and tens of thousands of deaths per year. Idling cars also generate more CO2 emissions.

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Travel leery: Which countries drive, fly, cycle, and take the train most?

When it comes to getting from point A to point B, the sky's the limit (at least for now -- space catapult, anyone?). Here are the four countries who have capitalized on their chosen transportation modes.

Read more: Living

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Go bottomless on the subway tomorrow for the annual No-Pants Ride

no_pants_ride
Dave Bledsoe

You can find an ass on the subway almost every day, but tomorrow there will be LOADS of asses. That's because tomorrow is Improv Everywhere's annual No-Pants Subway Ride, which takes the pants out of public transit, leaving you with only "ublic rit."

Here's what that looked like in 2013:

If you've always wanted to drop trou on the NYC subway, but have suspected (or found out the hard way) that it's frowned upon 364 days of the year, head to one of the meeting points tomorrow by 3 p.m. sharp:

Read more: Cities