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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Zen and the art of bridge maintenance

The collapse of an Interstate 5 bridge in Washington state Thursday night offered a wake-up call about the sorry state of disrepair in which we’ve left our country's auto-centric transportation system. But all the talk about aging bridges and infrastructure drowns out a few larger questions -- about how we plan to fund the massive road system we've built, and why, with existing roads crumbling, we keep dropping money on more.

No one was killed when an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington collapsed.
No one was killed when an I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington collapsed.

The bridge that collapsed in Washington was built, like many major bridges in the U.S., during the rise of the interstate highway system, circa 1955. That means it had already exceeded by several years the 50-year lifespan typical of American bridges.

Ironically, the bridge in Washington, unlike nearly 70,000 bridges across the country, wasn’t rated “structurally deficient.” It had been inspected as recently as November 2012. But after a half a century, a bridge is likely to need major upgrades of some kind, and with the average bridge in this country now 43 years old, we’re looking at a huge roster of bridges due for repairs. According to the Federal Highway Administration, as of 2009, the backlog of deficient bridges required $70.9 billion to address -- and that number has likely increased since then.

So what are states doing to tackle the problem? They're funneling money to shiny new construction projects instead, natch.


Fracking accident leaks benzene into Colorado stream

Officials in Parachute, Colo., stopped the flow of creek-water into a reservoir following a natural-gas fluid spill.
Garfield County
Officials in Parachute, Colo., stopped the flow of creek water into a reservoir following a natural-gas fluid spill.

Once again, Colorado's fracking boom has residents wondering if there's something in the water -- carcinogenic benzene, in this case. A plant for fracked natural gas processor Williams Energy, near Parachute, Colo., spilled an estimated 241 barrels of mixed natural gas liquid into the ground, some of which eventually washed as benzene into Parachute Creek.

More than two months after the spill was discovered, neighbors of the plant are wondering why the energy company is being put in charge of the cleanup -- and why the state has failed to issue any fines.

Benzene levels in Parachute Creek rose above a safe-to-drink 5 parts per billion following the spill, which was caused by a faulty pressure gauge on a four-inch pipeline.

The safety limit for benzene in Coloradoan drinking water sources is 5 parts per billion. But the state doesn't define the creek as a source of drinking water, and the limit for such water bodies is 5,300 parts per billion. Less than two miles downstream from the Williams Energy plant, headgates that control the flow of water from Parachute Creek into an irrigation reservoir have been closed since the spill was discovered.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Arctic base evacuated as ice dissolves beneath researchers’ feet


Though it carries major supervillain cred, placing a scientific research station atop an Arctic ice floe in an era of global warming is a dicey proposition -- even for the Russians.

North Pole 40, a Russian science station that monitors pollution and conducts meteorological research, began operating in October on an Arctic ice floe. The Russians have been deploying research stations to drifting ice floes for more than 70 years, and North Pole 40 is their 40th such station.

But they don't make ice floes like they used to. After just seven months of research, the ice floe that supports North Pole 40 started disintegrating. So Russia is scrambling an ice breaker out to the site to relocate the station and rescue the 16 scientists aboard.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Support for climate action is the new normal in U.S.

Americans want more of this, despite what the fossil fuel companies might say.
Americans want more of this, despite what the fossil fuel companies might say.

Pick 100 Americans at random and line them up. Ask those who think the country shouldn't do a damned thing to rein in its greenhouse emissions to please step forward.

Guess how many would do so?


Just six out of every 100 Americans believe there is absolutely no need for the U.S. to take action to reduce its emissions to help combat climate change.

That's according to the latest survey result from an ongoing project that tracks public attitudes towards climate change. The project is run by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

Read more: Climate & Energy


American meat labeling laws bolstered; Canadians indignant

Would you eat the bacon from this pig if you knew it was Canadian?
Would you eat the bacon from this pig if you knew it was Canadian?

Wee life stories documenting the globetrotting lives of pigs, cows, and chickens raised for slaughter will soon be posted on packages of meat sold in the U.S.

But the new miniature memoirs -- such as "Born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States" -- have outraged Canadian agricultural officials. They're mulling a trade war, because the labels will help American grocery shoppers "discriminate" against Canadian-born poultry, swine, and cattle.

Large retailers are also oinking in angry disapproval, saying the labeling rule will be an expensive hassle for them.

Read more: Food


Chemical creep: Farmers return to pesticides as GMO corn loses bug resistance


Monsanto’s Bt corn was supposed to reduce pesticide use. The Environmental Protection Agency said as much when the corn, which is genetically modified to resist the crop-ravaging rootworm, debuted in 2003. Sure enough, as more farmers sowed their fields with Bt corn, fewer of them needed to spray pesticides to protect their crops. The share of U.S. corn acreage treated with insecticides fell from 25 percent in 2005 to 9 percent in 2010.

But now, Bt corn has become, basically, too successful: Rootworms are starting to develop immunity to this prevalent crop, driving farmers to return to insecticide use. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Syngenta, one of the world's largest pesticide makers, reported that sales of its major soil insecticide for corn, which is applied at planting time, more than doubled in 2012. Chief Financial Officer John Ramsay attributed the growth to "increased grower awareness" of rootworm resistance in the U.S. Insecticide sales in the first quarter climbed 5% to $480 million.


Connecticut Senate passes GMO-labeling bill

Is this corn genetically modified? Connecticut lawmakers think you have the right to know.

Does your mouth water at the thought of corn that's engineered to produce a poison that kills insects? If not, Connecticut might be the place for you.

The state's Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed legislation that would require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically engineered ingredients such as GM corn. The bill sailed through on a 35-1 vote, and now moves to the state House.

From the Connecticut Post:

Speaker of the House J. Brendan Sharkey [D] wants to support legislation that would require the labeling of products that contain genetically modified organisms.

But he's not sure whether the House will approve the version approved in the state Senate late Tuesday night that would depend on three nearby states to approve similar legislation by July of 2015.


New Energy Secretary Moniz is all about energy efficiency

Ernest Moniz addressing an energy efficiency conference, several hours after he was worn in as Energy Secretary.
Energy Department on YouTube
Ernest Moniz addressing an energy-efficiency conference, just hours after being sworn in as energy secretary.

The cleanest electricity is no electricity at all -- a fact that is not lost on new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

During his first speech after being sworn into his new post, Moniz said energy efficiency would be one of his top priorities.

From Greentech Media:

Secretary Moniz spoke to a crowd at the Energy Efficiency Global Forum about his upcoming agenda as secretary.

"Efficiency is going to be a big focus going forward," he said. "I just don't see the solutions to our biggest energy and environmental challenges without a very big demand-side response. That's why it's important to move this way, way up in our priorities." The audience applauded.


Federal officials hampering Texas fertilizer explosion investigation

burning fertilizer plant
Reuters / Mike Stone
The aftermath of the April 17 explosion and fire in West, Texas.

It would sure be nice to know what exactly caused a fertilizer plant to explode in Texas last month, killing 14 people -- especially given that 800,000 Americans live near similar facilities. But federal investigators are complaining to Congress that their work has been stymied by other government agencies, meaning the mystery might never be solved.

From The Dallas Morning News:

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board, in a letter released Tuesday, accused the Texas state fire marshal and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives of hampering its work by blocking access to key witnesses for three weeks after the massive blast — “an unprecedented and harmful delay.”

Board chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso wrote that the “incident site was massively and irreversibly altered under the direction of ATF personnel, who used cranes, bulldozers and other excavation apparatus in an ultimately unsuccessful quest to find a single ignition source for the original fire.” ...


House votes to take Keystone decision out of Obama’s hands

Bill sponsor, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.)

Those rambunctious fossil-fuel flunkies in the U.S. House of Representatives were at it again Wednesday. They passed a bill that would allow Keystone XL to bypass environmental laws and be built without approval from President Obama.

But the vote tally showed that support for construction of the pipeline is waning among House Democrats, following years of campaigning by environmentalists.

The House voted 241-175 to do away with an ongoing environmental review for the northern leg of the tar-sands pipeline project and make it more difficult for opponents to file appeals. (The southern leg is already more than halfway built.) The vote was mostly along partisan lines: All but one Republican voted in favor, and all but 19 Democrats voted against. Reuters reports that the number of Democrats in favor of the bill was down from the 69 that voted to approve similar legislation in April 2012.

"Pure political theater" is how The Guardian described the passage of the bill: