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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Natural-gas liquid is gushing near a Colorado creek, and nobody can figure out how to stop it

Officials in Parachute, Colo., have stopped the flow of creek-water into their reservoir in case of contamination from a mystery oil spill.
Garfield County
Parachute, Colo., near where a hydrocarbon spill potentially threatens water supplies.

An unidentified “liquid natural-gas product” is flowing freely into the shallow ground near a creekside gas processing plant in rural western Colorado. After 11 days of cleanup operations and investigations, the source and precise contents of the toxic spill remain a mystery.

Officials at Williams Energy, the presumed culprit in the spill, have not been able to locate the source of the leak, so they have been unable to staunch the flow of underground pollution that is threatening to contaminate Parachute Creek.

More than 60,000 gallons of hydrocarbon gunk have so far been sucked up using vacuum-equipped trucks. The underground pollution plume is believed to have grown to at least 200 feet by 170 feet and is at least 14 feet deep.


Researchers find that ‘wind turbine syndrome’ is bogus

A windfarm in South Australia
Watch out, they're coming to get you. Or are they?

South Australian cattle farmer David Mortimer allowed wind turbines to be built on his property in 2004. Now he says the turbines have made him ill.

"Mostly I've had sleep-related problems," Mortimer told The Guardian. "At night I get a deep rumbling sensation in my head which makes it hard to get to sleep. I also get a pulsing in my heart that does not correlate to my heartbeat. It gives me an acute sense of anxiety and arrhythmia that goes on for days."

Are the wind turbines making Mortimer sick? Or has he been fooled by anti-wind activists into thinking that he is sick?

Simon Chapman, a professor of public health at Sydney University, says it's the latter. He led a team of four scientists that concluded that ailments afflicting some people who live near wind farms -- often described as "wind turbine syndrome" or "vibro-acoustic disease" -- are merely "communicated diseases."


America’s infrastructure grade improves to a still very sad D+

America is full of potholes, slumping levees, and fraying electrical grids. So it may surprise you to learn that the country's physical infrastructure is actually apparently improving.

For the first time in 15 years, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country's infrastructure a higher grade than it did last time. Congrats, America, you've improved from a D to a D+! Soo you'll still have to repeat the class.


The New York Times reports:

Some connected trends have led to the shift, according to the engineering organization. It cited a rise in the private financing of public projects and renewed attention from state and local government to kick-start their own projects, rather than wait for Washington to send money. The jump in private investment was instrumental, for example, in the improved outlook for the nation’s rails, according to the report. That evaluation jumped to a C+ from a C-. The group also cited short-term increases in financing — a reference to President Obama’s economic stimulus package, which focused in part on “shovel-ready” projects like road and bridge repair.

“When investments are made and projects move forward, the grades rise,” the report stated.

Gregory E. DiLoreto, the group’s president, said, “A D+ is simply unacceptable for anyone serious about strengthening our nation’s economy,” but he added that the improvement “shows that this problem can be solved.”

In addition to the overall grade, ASCE handed out individual marks for specific kinds of infrastructure: near-failing D- grades for levees and inland waterways, and D grades for drinking water, hazardous waste, roads, transit, and wastewater, among others.


Green tech incubator Greenstart ups its game

We'd all like to accelerate cool green tech, but maybe the initial acceleration is less important than the distance traveled.

At least that's what Greenstart, which Grist profiled back in October, seems to be thinking as it retools its business plan: No longer an accelerator, Greenstart will essentially become a venture capital endeavor, with a focus on helping companies through multiple stages of their development instead of just shoving them off a cliff with bags of money.

"This change was 100 percent motivated by listening to our startups," writes founder and managing partner Mitch Lowe in a post today very effectively titled "We Killed Our Accelerator."

Greenstart's Mitch Lowe
Greenstart's Mitch Lowe.

Fast Co.Exist reports:

This week, Greenstart announced that it’s shutting down its three-month accelerator program -- and morphing into a combination early-stage venture capital firm and design studio. What happened?

"It was simply because entrepreneurs were saying loud and clear that 90 days is nice but we want a partner for the life of our company," says Mitch Lowe, managing partner at Greenstart. "You just get to the good stuff at 90 days. You’re starting to add real value."

Greenstart will now be writing even fatter checks to its portfolio companies, funneling $250,000 to $500,000 into about a dozen startups each year. And those companies won't just be incubated -- Greenstart is in it for the long haul.


A cool new way climate change is killing bivalves

We already know that carbon-dioxide-filled, acidic ocean water is no-good, very-bad news for mussels and other underwater shelled creatures, causing their shells to dissolve. But, as these things so often go, it turns out that climate change is even worse for bivalves than we thought: It's unleashing an awkward kind of anti-puberty on them. They're growing smaller and weaker, and now we find out that they're basically losing their hair.


New research published in the journal Nature shows that mussels' proteinaceuous byssal threads -- the little stringy bits that allow them to stick their bodies on stuff -- are particularly susceptible to ocean acidification. The researchers found mussels' little stringy bits were 40 percent weaker when exposed to elevated CO2 levels, even when their shell strength and tissue growth weren't affected.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Colorado wildfires get an early start this dry year

Colorado on fire in 2012
Colorado on fire in 2012.

An early start to wildfire season took northern Colorado residents by surprise late last week. Two fires broke out on Friday, fanned by unusually high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds, which forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes. And the state has been suffering from epic, epic drought, so that’s really helping with the burning.

Reuters reports:

The early-season wildfires could be a bad omen for drought-stricken Colorado, which had one of its worst ever wildfire seasons in 2012.

All of Colorado is experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Snowpack levels in the Colorado mountains are below the annual average. The state's high-population urban corridor and farmers on the eastern plains rely on melting mountain snow for drinking water and irrigation.

As local fire captain Patrick Love told the Los Angeles Times, "the drought that we have been in, in this portion of the state, has somewhat played a role in the dryness of all the fuels.”


Fastest-growing metro areas in U.S. are sprawling and water-challenged

Yep, New York grew too, but not nearly as much as Texas.
New York grew too, but not as much as big metro areas in Texas.

It's time again for another fun-filled Census report on how much bigger U.S. cities are getting! Happy Monday, Southern and Western states: Y'all dominated the top 30 winning metropolitan areas, crushing the Midwest and Eastern seaboard.

"While most metro areas didn’t experience significant swings in population over the past year, several in the Sun Belt and Mountain West saw noticeable gains," the Governing blog reports.

Here's the thing about these Census city growth reports, though: While we at Grist like to celebrate cities, the Census doesn't calculate urban growth. The agency looks at total metropolitan-area growth, which includes suburbs and sometimes even exurbs. And it turns out that many of the fastest-growing metros are among the sprawlingest and least sustainable.

The top three metro winners for population growth from July 2011 to July 2012, according to the Census, were car-dependent areas with water problems: Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, Texas; Houston-the Woodlands-Sugar Land, Texas; and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Calif. Shouldn't-even-exist Phoenix, Ariz., is No. 7 for big growth; Las Vegas, Nev., is No. 20. City growth is great, but not when it's really sprawl, which is what happens most of the time when metro areas expand.

Read more: Cities


Louisiana pipeline fire, now extinguished, sickened residents

The fire on Friday, three days after a tug boat and pipeline ignited in Louisiana
Coast Guard
The fire on Friday, three days after a tug boat and pipeline ignited in Louisiana.

Air pollution from a huge pipeline and tug boat fire, which raged 30 miles south of New Orleans from Tuesday until it was extinguished on Friday, sickened nearby residents with respiratory ailments and other conditions.

Two days after the fire ignited, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade went door-to-door in LaFitte, La., just east of the bayou where the accident happened, and found that one out of every 10 residents surveyed suffered breathing difficulty, sore eyes, headaches, or other health problems triggered by the acrid pollution plume. About twice that number reported smelling the smoke, and nearly two-thirds said they saw the smoke or fire. "I have bronchial asthma, and I couldn't breathe very well," one resident told the nonprofit.

Health problems could have been far worse had northerly winds not blown the smoke away from the tiny Jefferson Parish community.


BP can bid on new Gulf drilling leases, but will it be allowed to drill?

The sun could be setting on BP's Gulf of Mexico drilling lease suspension
The sun setting on BP's time in the doghouse?

A glimmer of good news for BP and its shareholders: After being forced to sit out a single auction of Gulf of Mexico drilling leases as punishment for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the company will be allowed to bid on new leases this week.

That's not only good news for BP, which already has more Gulf drilling leases than any other company. It's a victory for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and other lawmakers who said they were fed up with persecution of BP by the Obama administration.

There is, however, a major catch. The company's suspension from bidding on new leases has been lifted, but it remains suspended from actually leasing any of the new drilling areas. From Fuel Fix:


Obama: Let’s fund clean car technology with oil and gas royalties

Obama in front of car
White House

What does Obama want? $2 billion for research into technologies that would power Americans' cars without oil.

When does he want it? Gradually -- $200 million a year over a decade.

In a speech on Friday and in his weekly video address on Saturday, the president talked up a proposal for an Energy Security Trust, an idea he first introduced in his State of the Union last month. It would be funded by royalties from offshore oil and gas leases, which oil companies already pay; with offshore drilling on the rise, the White House says there will be more royalty money to tap.

From The New York Times:

The money will support research on a range of cleaner means of powering vehicles, the White House said, including electricity, biofuels, fuel cells and [domestically] produced natural gas.