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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


How to get absolutely freaking (almost) everywhere in California without a car

Outside of its cities (and inside a lot of them, too), California is a typical car-happy American state, with about .84 cars for every person. With its miles and miles of looping roadway and ingrained car culture, it can be easy to forget how many other forms of transportation there are in the Golden State, too.

Enter the California Rail Map, one giant badass master map of California's trains, buses, and ferries, showing routes to 500+ destinations throughout the state.

Click to embiggen.
Read more: Uncategorized


So much hope and so many problems for the L.A. river

A new, green future awaits the concrete drainage ditch that we know as the Los Angeles River. But it may have to wait for quite a while.


The Army Corps of Engineers, which originally poured all that concrete about 80 years ago (thanks for nothing, dudes), is teaming up with city engineers on a $10 million study of the potential for restoring the river's ecosystem, creating wetlands for animals and hang-outs for people. From The Wall Street Journal:

The study examines an 11-mile stretch of the river on the city's east side, where some resilient plants have survived in a narrow, muddy strip of so-called soft bottom at the center of the channel.

Efforts to manipulate the river's concrete form without losing its flood-control function will be a "delicate balancing act," said Josephine Axt, the Corps' local planning chief who is leading the study, known as Alternative with Restoration Benefits and Opportunities for Revitalization, or Arbor.

It's like "setting the table," said Omar Brownson, executive director of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp., which coordinates economic-development projects along the river. "We're creating a more attractive destination for investment."

Yes, well, what's a revitalized habitat without the business it attracts? I guess?

The Corps is expected to present the results of the study to the public in June. But that public might not take so kindly to the Corps and their master plans by then. Just last month, the Corps razed dozens of acres of the river's wildlife habitat along the Sepulveda Basin, seriously pissed off the local water agency, violated the Clean Water Act, and potentially also violated endangered species protections.

Read more: Cities


Another Massey executive will go to jail for his role in the Upper Big Branch explosion

A former superintendent at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine pled guilty today to his role in the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. From NPR:

[F]ormer Upper Big Branch coal mine superintendant Gary May was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay a $20,000 fine. ...

May pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and admitted to ordering a company electrician to disable a methane monitor on a mining machine so it could continue to cut coal without automatic shutdowns. The monitor is a safety device that senses explosive amounts of methane gas and automatically shuts down mining machines when dangerous levels of gas are present. …

May also pleaded guilty to deceiving federal mine safety inspectors and hiding safety violations.

A sign near the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010
TV 19
A sign near the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010.

Last November, another Massey executive, David Craig Hughart, pled guilty to conspiracy. At the time, we speculated that his co-conspirators might include former Massey CEO Don Blankenship; now we know that the conspiracy at least included May.


European agency declares popular pesticide too dangerous for bees

Are you sick of hearing about colony collapse? Hey, me too! But I'm guessing the bees are even more fed up at this point.

Image (1) bees_flickr_davidnikonvscanon.jpg for post 40313

For the first time, Europe's food safety agency this week officially labeled the world’s most popular insecticide, imidacloprid, as so dangerous as to be unacceptable for use on crops pollinated by bees, though the body lacks the power to ban the chemical. The report also called into question two other types of neonicotinoid pesticides. All three sound super-evil.

From The Guardian:

[Imidacloprid's] manufacturer, Bayer, claimed the report, released on Wednesday, did not alter existing risk assessments and warned against "over-interpretation of the precautionary principle".

The report comes just months after the UK government dismissed a fast-growing body of evidence of harm to bees as insufficient to justify banning the chemicals. ...


Marcellus, N.Y., namesake of the Marcellus shale formation, bans fracking

The eponymous Marcellus shale outcropping
The eponymous Marcellus shale outcropping.

The ongoing debate over hydraulic fracturing in New York focuses on the Marcellus shale, a geological formation that runs from New York through Pennsylvania to West Virginia. Energy companies are salivating at the prospect of  fracking in the state. But no matter what New York Gov. Cuomo decides on the existing fracking ban, there's one place that no one will be able to frack: Marcellus, N.Y. -- the town for which the formation is named.


The Marcellus town board voted unanimously Monday to ban the exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum in the town.

By a 5-0 vote, the board passed a local law amending its zoning codes to prevent “ all exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum in the town,” Supervisor Daniel J. Ross said this morning. …

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Keystone will be even worse for the climate than you thought, says futile new report

At some point, the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline will be resolved. Either President Obama will allow the State Department to approve it, or he will not. Either it will be built, or it won't. One of these days we'll finally find out the state of Schrodinger's poor little cat.

In the meantime, pipeline opponents and advocates are battling furiously for attention. Press releases and events and reports and letters and protests and panels and all of the strained tools of our semi-evolved persuasion society are thrown around in Washington, D.C., hoping to finally crack open that little cat's box.

Here's what has been thrown around today:

Oil Change International (working with the Natural Resources Defense Council) unveiled a new study, suggesting that petroleum coke, a solid byproduct of the tar-sands oil extraction process, is worse for the climate than coal. And since that petcoke (as it is known) will be sold and burned if tar-sands production is ginned up following approval of Keystone XL, its climate effects should be considered in the government's environmental impact statement on Keystone. The Washington Post reports:

“The proven tar sands reserves of Canada will yield roughly 5 billion tons of petcoke -- enough to fully fuel 111 U.S. coal plants to 2050,” the report says. It asserts that counting petroleum coke use would raise estimates of greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands development by 13 percent beyond earlier estimates used by the State Department.

The report said that “the climate impact of oil production is being consistently undercounted.” It calculated that petroleum coke byproduct from oil carried by the Keystone XL alone would be enough to fuel five coal plants and emit 16.6 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Counterpoint from the American Petroleum Institute's Jack Gerard: The pipeline "is clearly is in the national interest, and that’s the only decision the president needs to make." Considerations of carbon output are "tangential."

Well, now I don't know what to think!

Marines during World War I emerge from the trenches to survey the futile conflict
Marines during World War I emerge from the trenches to survey the futile conflict.


Guess which North American country produces the most garbage. Wrong!

Despite how demure its citizens are, Canada sometimes feels a little insecure about always being promoted as second-fiddle to the United States. There is a famous T-shirt which suggests that Canada is America's hat; while this is largely true, Canada yearns to occasionally suggest that the U.S. is Canada's boxer shorts. (Your Florida is hanging out.)

In one thing, though, Canada emerges victorious: garbage production. From the CBC:

The Conference Board of Canada gave Canada a C grade on Thursday and ranked it in 15th place among 17 developed nations studied across a host of environmental-efficiency metrics. …

While Canada earned a few A grades in categories such as water quality, endangered species and the use of forest resources, overall the country scored a D average. …

Canada fared dismally in terms of the amount of waste we produce. In 2009 (the data year on which the study was based), Canada produced 777 kilgrams of garbage per citizen. Across all 17 countries studied, the average was only 578 kg produced.

This is actually a dump in Canada. Really. With bears.
This is actually a dump in Canada. Really. With bears.


Another urgent need for infrastructure spending: Levees

One source of contention during the House's aggrieved, extensive debate over providing aid to Hurricane Sandy victims was how much money should be spent on preventative measures. To what extent, that is, should the government spend money now in order to save money in the future -- spend money bolstering coastlines in New York and New Jersey so that the next time a big storm comes through, damage is less severe. The preferred answer of the House Republican majority was: zero dollars.

An intentional levee breach in Iowa
An intentional levee breach in Iowa.

The GOP's refusal to spend on prevention is looking all the more shortsighted in light of a new assessment by the Army Corps of Engineers of the strength of the nation's levees. What the Corps is finding is not encouraging, raising the specter of another massive infrastructural need. From the Associated Press:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue ratings for a little more than 40 percent of the 2,487 structures, which protect about 10 million people. Of those it has rated, however, 326 levees covering more than 2,000 miles were found in urgent need of repair.

The problems are myriad: earthen walls weakened by trees, shrubs and burrowing animal holes; houses built dangerously close to or even on top of levees; decayed pipes and pumping stations.

How big is the risk? Hard to say.


Washington’s brand-new governor, Jay Inslee, wastes no time promoting clean energy

Yesterday, the state of Washington got itself a new governor. During the campaign, environmental advocates were bullish on Jay Inslee's prospects as a leader on green issues; our Lisa Hymas suggested he might be the greenest governor in the country.

Inslee didn't waste much time in trying to meet those expectations. From the Olympian:

Inslee, a Democrat with an eye to putting Washington ahead of other states on green jobs and responding to climate change, revisited those themes in his [inaugural] address, which also touch on school funding, the economy and other themes. He also spoke of bringing “innovation” to the culture of Olympia.

Hoping to lend his message urgency, Inslee’s speech was titled, “The World Will Not Wait.” …

Notably, Inslee said: “There is no challenge greater for Washington, with more opportunity for job growth, and more suited to our particular brand of genius and ingenuity, than leading the world’s clean energy economy. It is clear to me that we are the right state, at the right time, with the right people, and it’s also clear to me that we face grave and immediate danger if we fail to act.”


EPA drops methane inquiry to keep oil company happy

EPA headquarters
EPA headquarters.

When Fort Worth resident Steve Lipsky discovered that his tap water was bubbling, the EPA sprang into action. Lipsky lived near natural gas wells being drilled by Range Resources, the likely source of the methane flowing into his water supply. From the Associated Press:

The EPA began investigating complaints about the methane in December 2010, because it said the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas drilling, had not responded quickly enough to the reports of bubbling water.

Government scientists believed two families, including the Lipskys, were in danger from methane and cancer-causing benzene and ordered Range Resources to take steps to clean their water wells and provide affected homeowners with safe water.

The agency issued a 2010 emergency order in an effort to address the problem. And then, without the problem being fixed, it pulled that order. Why?

Believing the case was headed for a lengthy legal battle, the EPA asked an independent scientist named Geoffrey Thyne to analyze water samples taken from 32 water wells. In the report obtained by the AP, Thyne concluded from chemical testing that the gas in the drinking water could have originated from Range Resources' nearby drilling operation.