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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Controversial California oyster farm fights to stay

It's a salty Christmas miracle for Drakes Bay Oyster Company -- albeit a temporary one.


The bivalve purveyor in Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco, was set to be dissolved at the end of the year: equipment dismantled, employees laid off, land vacated. This was the plan all along for the feds, who had issued a 40-year lease to the company with the intent of its expiration on Jan. 1, 2013, at which time the land would be returned to federal wilderness and cute scampering seals on the Point Reyes National Seashore.

After the Interior Department refused to extend the company's lease for another 10 years, Drakes vowed to fight the decision and filed suit. Now it's reached at least a temporary agreement with Interior. From the Marin Independent Journal:

Under the agreement, the oyster company which has long been a fixture in Point Reyes National Seashore may continue activities involving planting and growing new oysters in the water at Drakes Estero, avoiding layoffs of one-third of its 30 employees right before the holidays ...

Under the agreement, the oyster company has withdrawn its request for a temporary restraining order and instead will file a motion for a preliminary injunction challenging [Interior Secretary Kenneth] Salazar's decision.

A hearing is set for Jan. 25 on the injunction.

Everyone loves them some seals, even in molting season (this is saying a lot, seals), and many environmentalists -- the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, other usual suspects -- support closing the farm, citing the importance of pure wilderness. But many other environmentalists support letting it stay, and their voices have grown stronger over the past couple of weeks. Writes Earth Island Journal editor Jason Marks:


NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority and its director Joe Lhota received broad (and largely deserved) praise for the speed with which the city's transit system was brought back online after Sandy. One of the things that made that recovery remarkable was how expensive it was, with the agency tallying $5 billion in expenses linked to the storm. That cost came on top of the MTA's ongoing budget problems.

An empty, dry tunnel under the East River
An empty, dry tunnel under the East River.

Unsurprisingly, then, the MTA today announced plans to increase fares. As reported by The New York Times:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted unanimously on Wednesday to raise the base fare on subways and buses by a quarter, to $2.50, and increase the cost of a 30-day MetroCard by $8, to $112. …

The cost of a seven-day subway or bus pass will also rise by $1, to $30. And the bonus on pay-per-ride MetroCards will decrease to 5 percent, from 7 percent, but will be available to anyone who places at least $5 on a card. Currently, the bonus applies only to purchases of at least $10.

Those increases are 11 percent for a single ride, 8 percent for a 30-day card, and 3 percent for a 7-day pass. Sounds steep -- particularly when you consider that fares have consistently increased faster than the rate of inflation. Then again, so has the number of bus routes and subway lines.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

Given that we're talking public transit, it's tempting to label the hikes regressive, disproportionately affecting lower-income users. But it isn't that simple. According to the most recent subway and bus rider data, the demographics of public transit users in the region are probably not what you'd expect.


California releases draft rules for regulating fracking

Jerry Brown, the once-and-current king (governor) of California, yesterday announced a draft proposal for regulating fracking. Because if there's one thing California needs, it's more fissures beneath it. And/or more earthquakes.

Though that's not the tack Brown took. From the L.A. Times:

The proposed rules, released Tuesday, would require energy companies to disclose for the first time the chemicals they inject deep into the ground to break apart rock and release oil. They also would have to reveal the location of the wells where they use the procedure.

Though fracking has unlocked vast amounts of previously unreachable fossil fuels elsewhere, environmentalists and public health advocates in California have raised safety questions about the hundreds of chemicals used -- many of them known carcinogens -- and the potential for drinking water contamination.

I mean, nothing about the earthquakes? Well, you're the governor.

Oil pumps off of Highway 5
Oil pumps near I-5.


Caught on video: Mudslide from rain-soaked hill derails freight train

It's a normal, unremarkable scene: A freight train runs along the edge of a parking lot next to a hillside. The sort of thing you see all the time.

Until the hillside gives way.

This happened yesterday in Everett, Wash., just north of Seattle. The Seattle Times describes how it happened:

The surface slide came off an oversaturated 100-foot cliff that geotechnical engineers had been scheduled to check right after the 66-car train passed, according to [Burlington Northern Santa Fe] spokesman Gus Melonas.

A BNSF-led crew of at least 50 people are cleaning up some of the general grocery store merchandise that spilled -- products including soap, lemon juice, solvents and disinfectants. The Seattle-bound train came from Chicago carrying a wide variety of general merchandise including meat, ovens and other things.

Here's what the rainfall totals in Everett have looked like over the past 10 days, in inches per hour. Sunday and Monday were deluged. And Tuesday, the hillside slipped.

everett rainfall


Walmart bribed its way around Mexico’s environmental rules

BREAKING: Walmart did another terrible thing!


The retail giant is not just the biggest employer in the U.S. -- it also dominates Mexico with 2,275 outlets. And it got there by playing very, very dirty. According to the second part of a New York Times investigation, Walmart de Mexico routinely bribed officials not just to get its plans bumped to the top of the pile, but to "subvert democratic governance." This is how the company successfully built a Walmart in a Teotihuacán alfalfa field a mile from ancient pyramids that draw tons of tourists. (Now those tourists get a view of a boxy Walmart supercenter when they climb to the top.) The local leaders said no, so Walmart de Mexico paid a guy $52,000 and redrew the zoning map itself.

Frankly, this is not very surprising. But it's damning as hell. From the Times:

Thanks to eight bribe payments totaling $341,000, for example, Wal-Mart built a Sam’s Club in one of Mexico City’s most densely populated neighborhoods, near the Basílica de Guadalupe, without a construction license, or an environmental permit, or an urban impact assessment, or even a traffic permit. Thanks to nine bribe payments totaling $765,000, Wal-Mart built a vast refrigerated distribution center in an environmentally fragile flood basin north of Mexico City, in an area where electricity was so scarce that many smaller developers were turned away.


TransCanada outmaneuvers Keystone XL pipeline blockaders

A bit of bummer news from East Texas, and this time there's no pepper spray involved. Protesters are still tweeting and blogging per usual, but it appears the Keystone XL pipeline blockade may actually be over. TransCanada apparently realized back in October that while it might not be able to go through the tree-sitters, it could easily go around them.

Tar Sands Blockade

Inside Climate News reports:

TransCanada, the pipeline's builder, acquired an easement in October to build the pipeline slightly west of the tree blockade and the original route. Construction is now nearly finished on the property, and the protesters will soon call it quits.

"It's a sad time at the tree blockade," said Ron Seifert, a spokesperson for the Tar Sands Blockade, the activist group behind the campaign. Seifert said it's probably days before the tree village decamps, though no official decision has been made. ...

"As we speak, the pipeline is being trenched around the western end of the blockaded area," he added with disappointment. The "blockade will essentially become symbolic and come to an end."

Read more: Climate & Energy


An oil spill at a bird sanctuary caps Staten Island’s terrible year

For some reason, the fossil fuel industry has it out for Staten Island. First, Superstorm Sandy brought a 14-foot storm surge, worsened by warmed, raised seas. And now, an oil spill, just offshore.

From The New York Times:

Oil from a barge spilled into the waters off Staten Island, spreading to a bird sanctuary on an island in Newark Bay, the Coast Guard said on Saturday.

Workers placed a boom on the surface of the water to contain the oil, added absorbent materials and notified the authorities, [Coast Guard spokesman Petty Officer Erik] Swanson said.

The oil was coming from one of the Boston 30’s tanks, which was carrying 112,000 gallons. The barge is owned by Boston Marine Transport of Massachusetts.

According to the Coast Guard's most recent update, 156,000 gallons of oil/water mixture has been recovered.


Adorable little Michigan town has big plans for cutting carbon emissions

Ann Arbor is a small town in Michigan that, like so many small towns across the Midwest, has been hard-hit as industry has increasingly moved away or overseas. A pleasant place with small hills and tree-lined streets, Ann Arbor has never had any distinguishing characteristic: no classic architecture, no famous music hall, no museums of note. Just a standard small town with a little main street, like so many other thousands littering the region.

But now, at last, Ann Arbor has done something to help it stand out, something of which -- after so many years! -- it might rightly be proud.

ann arbor train station
This is the town's train station! Adorbs.

From (it doesn't even have a real newspaper!):

The Ann Arbor City Council took action Monday night to adopt a Climate Action Plan, a 188-page document that outlines dozens of ways to reduce the community's carbon footprint.

Building on previous environmental goals set by the City Council, the new plan recommends three targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades.

That includes a goal of reducing the entire community's emissions by 8 percent by 2015, by 25 percent by 2025, and by 90 percent by 2050 — all relative to 2000 baseline levels.

I mean, first of all it's cute that such an insignificant town has a city council! Just goes to show you that democracy can take root in even the driest soil.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Bringing back chestnut trees could fight climate change and give us tasty treats

When Nat King Cole first recorded "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" in 1946, American giant chestnut trees had been nearly wiped out by a foreign fungus. Billions of native trees were felled by the disease. If you want to roast those sweet babies over an open fire this holiday season, they'll likely be of the imported-from-China variety.


A hundred years ago, it was a very different scene, NPR reports:

The American chestnut was king of the forest. One of every four hardwoods in the eastern woodlands was a chestnut. They grew so tall -- up to 100 feet -- they were called the redwoods of the east.

By the mid-20th century they were "pretty much obliterated," and now the only seasonal street-food treats are those crusty sugared peanuts. An American tragedy.

Efforts to revitalize the country's chestnut stock have been ongoing for decades, but they're not just aimed at holiday treats (because researchers have other crazy priorities).

Why is it so important to bring back the chestnut tree? Advocates say the trees were critical to the economy of rural communities and the ecology of the forests. Some even say chestnuts can help with global warming.

"Some" being scientists, like the ones who penned a 2009 Purdue University study on new hybrid chestnut trees and their carbon-fighting superpowers.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


The U.S. could lose 34 million acres of forest by 2060

Do you like trees? I like trees. Trees are pretty interesting, right? And, if my fourth-grade science teacher is to be believed, they exhale oxygen, which is a nice complement to the way my lungs work. It is with regret, then, that I must inform you that trees are going away. Not all of them. Just 34 million acres of them across the United States.

That figure is the worst-case scenario according to the U.S. Forest Service's forecast of how expanding residential and industrial areas will combine with climate change to wipe out an enormous amount of forested land.

Some key points (and graphs) from the report, "Future of America’s Forests and Rangelands" [PDF].

  • Urban and developed land is expected to increase between 41 and 77 percent by 2060.
In each chart below, different "RPA" figures indicate different forecasting models.
In each chart below, different "RPA" figures indicate different forecasting models.
Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy