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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


New Jersey officials arrested for conspiring to hide water pollution

In the great Goofus and Gallant cartoon of life, this is the Goofus version of protecting clean water. Oh, also if this Goofus and Gallant cartoon were actually an episode of The Sopranos.

From Environment News Service:

Two top officials of the East Orange Water Commission have been charged with conspiring to close contaminated wells before monthly water tests so as to falsely report low levels of a regulated contaminant in drinking water supplied to customers, then opening the wells, allowing the chemical back into the water supply. ...

[Executive director Harry] Mansmann and [assistant executive director William] Mowell allegedly conspired to falsify mandatory testing of the EOWC’s water supply to hide elevated levels of the contaminant tetrachlorethene, or PERC, an industrial solvent used for dry cleaning, which is classified as a probable carcinogen.

Now with more PERC
Now with more PERC.
Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Japan and the Ukraine will now remind you why nuclear power makes you nervous

One reason the United States isn't rushing to build new nuclear power plants is that they're expensive, especially so in an era of cheap natural gas. Another is that we haven't figured out what to do with the resulting nuclear waste, which most elected officials aren't eager to have in their districts.

And then there's the third reason: Nuclear energy scares people. This week's news brings us two reminders of why.

The reactors at Fukushima
The reactors at Fukushima.

In Fukushima, Japan, the first possible health effects of the 2011 meltdown have been seen in humans. Teenagers, to be specific. From The Japan Times:

A Fukushima Prefectural Government panel said Wednesday that two people who were 18 or younger when the triple-meltdown crisis started at the Fukushima No. 1 atomic complex in March 2011 have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, bringing the total cases to three.

Reporting at a meeting on the health impact from the catastrophe, professor Shinichi Suzuki of Fukushima Medical University said it is too early to link the cases to the nuclear disaster, because it took at least four to five years for thyroid cancer to be detected after the Chernobyl meltdown calamity that started in 1986. ...

Radioactive iodine released in fallout tends to accumulate in thyroid glands, particularly in young people. In the Chernobyl disaster, a noticeable increase in thyroid cancer cases was detected among children in the affected area.


Bloomberg proposes banning plastic foam containers, probably because they can hold soda

When I was a kid, you could come to New York City and buy a big soda in a large styrofoam cup. (You could also get murdered a lot more easily or score some drugs or afford a place in Soho, but that's not my point here.) Big soda kept cool in a nice big cup -- paradise, in its way.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg
Reuters / Eduardo Munoz

Last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided that the big soda had to go. And this year, according to reports, he's got his eyes on that cup. From Bloomberg (the media company, not the mayor for whom the company is named) (New York is a complicated place) (the city, not the state from which the city is named):

In his final State of the City address today, the third-term mayor will attempt to cement his legacy as a leader who made the most-populous U.S. city healthier and more environmentally friendly. His office previewed portions of the speech that focused on three initiatives intended to boost air quality, recycling rates and sustainability.

A requirement that 20 percent of all newly constructed public parking spaces be outfitted to charge electric vehicles would create 10,000 such spots within seven years. The plan would need City Council approval. A pilot program to collect curbside food waste from Staten Island homes to use as compost for parks would expand citywide if successful, cutting down on the 1.2 million tons of scraps sent to landfills each year.

(Apparently the city could use more charging stations.)


GAO adds climate change to list of fiscal risks to the government

A nondescript government office building
A nondescript government office building.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office is basically the definition of bureaucracy. It is bureaucrats on bureaucrats on bureaucrats, probably organized into an Excel-like matrix of desks. The GAO will not order lunch before assembling 14 accountants to do an overview of the competing economics.

This morning, it released a 275-page report (short, by its standards) in its "High-Risk Series," addressing the main economic risks the government faces. It's an update to the agency's 2011 offering, noting that two problems cited then (interagency contracting, IRS modernization) are no longer high risks. You know what does pose a high risk to the government's fiscal health? Climate change. From the report [PDF]:

This year, GAO has added two areas.

Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks. Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.

Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data. Potential gaps in environmental satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings—including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—will be less accurate and timely. A number of decisions are needed to ensure contingency and continuity plans can be implemented effectively. [Ed. - We've covered this before.]

That “managing climate change risks” wasn’t seen as high risk in 2011 is a little alarming, but then, the GAO isn’t known for leaping into action.


A third of North Dakota natural gas never makes it to market — which may be a good thing

Of all of the natural gas extracted in North Dakota over the past few years -- so much that it has rewritten the state economy and overhauled electricity production across the country -- only two-thirds has reached market. A full one-third of the gas sucked out of the ground never makes it off the drilling site and is instead burned on the spot, in gas flares now visible from space.

Gas flares visible from space
North Dakota's pieces of flare are visible from space.

Yesterday, a bill aimed at curbing the practice died in the North Dakota state senate. From the Associated Press:

Sen. Tim Mathern’s measure would have cut an exemption commonly used by oil companies claiming an economic hardship of connecting a well to a natural gas pipeline. Oil companies in North Dakota can flare natural gas for a year without paying taxes or royalties on it. After that, companies can request an extension because of the difficulty of connecting the well to a natural gas pipeline. The exemption is nearly always granted by state regulators, who took no position on the legislation.

About one-third of North Dakota’s gas production has been burned off, or “flared,” since the oil boom began about five years ago. Less than 1 percent of natural gas is flared from oil fields nationwide, and less than 3 percent worldwide, according to the U.S. Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration.

Mathern's argument is that the gas is a missed economic opportunity. Extractors could be selling the wasted gas, increasing supply and lowering prices for consumers. Oh, and the state could be collecting royalties on it, too.


Read and take over: Occupying urban streets with guerrilla libraries

Whether because of budget cuts or natural disasters, many of our nation's libraries are struggling. But DIY efforts are filling the cracks in a few especially hard-hit communities.

Urban Librarians Unite

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, Urban Librarians Unite in New York has set up sidewalk mini libraries outside less-mini libraries that have closed due to storm damage.

These tiny, all weather libraries house about a hundred books at a time and there is no expectation whatsoever that the books will come back. ... The Mini Libraries are a resource for our communities, a chance to experiment in library science, and a reminder to the public that even if the library itself is in ruins the librarians are still thinking of them.

ULU is quick to point out that its orange boxes, while super-awesome, aren't a replacement for real library infrastructure.

Read more: Cities, Living


Obama’s threat to act unilaterally on climate change? Looking empty

Some good news for congressional Republicans: The president’s threat to take unilateral action on climate isn't looking all that threatening. White House officials are talking about small steps the administration could take, but aren't currently pushing forward on the big executive action that advocates have wanted to see: EPA regulation of greenhouse gases from existing power plants.

During Tuesday night's State of the Union address, the president issued a challenge to Congress to act on climate change. He pointed at previous efforts to pass market-based, cap-and-trade legislation as an example. "If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations" from the threat of climate change, he warned, "I will."

Prior to the speech, there was some speculation that Obama might announce support for carbon regulations on existing power plants. Last week, the EPA reported that such facilities are the primary source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., which means new rules for the plants would be a powerful step in fighting climate change. The EPA has had the power to impose such regulations for a while, but has so far only proposed measures limiting emissions from brand-new power plants. A threat to regulate old plants, many of which have been belching out carbon and particulate pollution for decades, could be potent.

President Obama in Oval Office

In a meeting this morning, however, it became apparent that this isn’t going to happen any time soon -- if at all. A small group of reporters from various outlets, myself included, met with several administration officials, including Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate; and Brian Deese, deputy director of the National Economic Council. Pressed to explain what steps Obama would take if Congress didn't act, the response was underwhelming.

"We're not in a position to say, 'These are the 15 things we're going to do,'" Zichal said, "but I think the point here is that we have demonstrated an ability to really use our existing authority -- permitting-wise, what we can do through the budget -- to make progress." She noted that the administration has opened up federal land to renewable-energy development and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the government itself. And don't forget the work done to improve the energy efficiency of walk-in freezers and battery chargers.

Which is all fine -- but it seems unlikely that Congress will feel is it forced to address the problem when faced with the prospect of Obama mandating even tighter efficiency standards for commercial appliances.


Courting White House arrest over Keystone XL: Rancher, financier, Kennedy, Sierra Club head

For the first time in the Sierra Club's 121-year history -- and only 164 years after Henry David Thoreau's famed treatise on the topic -- the executive director of the organization will be arrested in an act of civil disobedience.

The event (which entices members of the press with a promise of "great visuals") will happen shortly before noon today outside of the White House. The issue spurring such drastic action by Sierra Club director Michael Brune is the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, meaning that Brune will be something like the 1,200th person arrested at the White House protesting that issue.

Brune will be joined by about 50 others, including Bill McKibben of (and Grist's board), civil rights leader Julian Bond, Robert Kennedy, Jr., and actress Daryl Hannah (who has been arrested at a White House Keystone protest before). Also included at the event: Randy Thompson, a Nebraska rancher who has emerged as a leader in that state's fight against the pipeline. According to Fortune magazine, fund manager Jeremy Grantham also plans to participate. "I have told scientists to be persuasive, be brave and be arrested, if necessary, so it only seems proper to do this," Grantham told the magazine. (Full disclosure: Grantham's foundation is a funder of Grist.)

From a November 2011 protest against Keystone XL
From a November 2011 protest against Keystone XL.


Will New York’s next mayor keep the city’s bike lanes?

This May, New York City is expected to unveil its long-awaited bike sharing program, adding 5,500 bikes at various stations around Manhattan and Brooklyn. Eventually, the city will have 10,000 blue, Citi-branded bikes rolling around its streets.

Ed Yourdon

While the city may soon have more bikes, it may very well have fewer bike lanes -- depending on who is elected mayor in November. From the Times:

In the early stages of the campaign for mayor, the candidates have expressed little enthusiasm about the expansion of bike lanes, and a few have made comments that suggest they may seek to erase some of them. ...

John C. Liu, the city’s comptroller and a likely Democratic candidate for mayor, said in a phone interview that removing existing lanes would be “a likely scenario in some parts of the city,” particularly in Brooklyn and Queens, if he succeeded Mr. Bloomberg. …

Joseph J. Lhota, the former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and a Republican candidate for mayor, also said he “could see” removing lanes that he deemed problematic. He noted that some bus drivers along the B63 route in Park Slope, Brooklyn, had complained about the perils of sharing space with bike riders.

Even public advocate Bill de Blasio suggested that bike lanes that "haven't worked" should be scrapped. (Public advocate, for those wondering, is a New York-specific elected position intended to serve as a sort of civic ombudsman. It is often most effective at preparing candidates to run for other offices.)

Read more: Cities, Living, Politics


Are San Francisco oysters a wilderness wrecker or a pollution solution?


The San Francisco Bay Area has been having some mixed feelings about oysters lately: Are they good for the environment, bad for the environment, or just treats for happy-hour drinkers at the downtown Ferry Building?

Just north of San Francisco in Point Reyes, Drakes Bay Oyster Co. has been fighting to keep harvesting oysters on what was set to become protected wilderness land on Jan. 1. Local environmentalists are split on whether fewer oysters will allow the estuary to "quickly regain its wilderness characteristics" or instead/also lead to a big unfiltered load of seal poop in that wilderness. (Wilderness: It's kind of gross!)

Either way, we'll soon find out, as Drakes Bay just lost its federal appeal to stay beyond a Feb. 28 deadline.

Meanwhile, some miles east across the bay on the Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, Christopher Lim and the Watershed Project are bringing oysters back. The bay had a large native oyster habitat that was wiped out by overharvesting and hydraulic mining. From KQED:

Read more: Food