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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Arr, matey: Russia charges Greenpeace protesters with piracy

Pirate girl
Dressing like this for the protest was the Greenpeace activists' biggest mistake.

We told you recently that Russian law enforcement suggested Greenpeace activists violated anti-piracy laws when they scaled the country's first offshore drilling rig. And we told you that even President Vladimir Putin scoffed at the notion that the activists were "pirates" -- given that they were obviously protesters, not looters.

But the cops have persisted, charging all 30 aboard the Greenpeace ship, including journalists, with piracy -- a crime that could see them each jailed for up to 15 years.

On Tuesday, a Russian court denied bail to three accused Russians, including a freelance journalist, during a hearing. Protesters from other countries are due to receive their days in court later this week. From Reuters:

Greenpeace says the piracy charges against the activists and crew members are absurd and unfounded and that the conditions of detention have in some cases violated their rights.


California utilities say, “No batteries for you!”

solar panels
No batteries allowed.

California has the nation's biggest "net metering" program, allowing solar panel and wind turbine owners to pump their excess electrons onto their local power grid so they can be sold to their neighbors by a utility company.

But in some cases the state's utilities are refusing to allow customers to take part in the program if they hook up a battery to their renewable energy system. In others, the utilities will allow solar plus battery systems -- but only if customers submit to costly double-metering upgrades.


U.S. government is buying up $300-million sugar glut

The USDA HQ is Candy Land
"Take your kid to work" day at the USDA's Washington headquarters.

Trick-or-treaters in waiting take note: The U.S. Department of Agriculture is buying up a stockpile of sugar, spending about $1 per American resident on a sweet bounty that it can barely give away.

That's because the government has been promoting the planting of more sugar cane and sugar beet crops than the over-sugared country can bear. Meanwhile, the North American Free Trade Agreement has opened an import spigot that has seen Mexican sugar flowing unencumbered into the U.S.

To reduce the financial burden on the agricultural companies that planted all those unsellable, diabetes-inducing crops, the USDA is going on a sugar-buying binge. Bloomberg reports:

Since June, the sugar glut led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to buy sugar to prop up prices, sell it at a loss to biofuels producers and take steps to reduce imports. The efforts have barely dented the surplus.

“The government is still supporting growers to produce more sugar than we actually consume,” Arthur Liming, a Chicago-based futures specialist at Citigroup Inc., said in a telephone interview.


Salmonella breaks out around U.S. as feds stay home


Hundreds of customers of California poultry producer Foster Farms have a health problem: an especially potent strain of salmonella.

And the country has a governance problem: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials have been furloughed by the federal government shutdown.

These two problems do not play nicely together.

As the tainted chicken makes it way onto plates as far away as the East Coast, Hawaii, and Alaska (seriously -- this is what our food system looks like now), the CDC is summoning dozens of its employees back to work to help handle the emergency. According to an NBC report:

Of 183 complete cases, 76 patients have been hospitalized. Among those, many infections appear to be resistant to the most common antibiotics used for them [said CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds].

Read more: Food, Politics


Federal shutdown freezes Antarctic science, other research

Antarctic research
Stacy Kim, National Science Foundation
Nothing to see here, folks. Y'all can just stay home this year.

It's springtime at the South Pole, meaning there soon will be enough daylight and warmth for hardy climate researchers to make their annual haul south -- way, way south. (Since Antarctica's ice sheet would raise seas more than 150 feet upon melting, it seems like an important thing to stay on top of.)

But preparations by America's team are being threatened by the American government shutdown. NPR explains:

Advance teams have already started working to get things set up and ready for the researchers, who usually begin heading south right about now.

But they're hearing that the government's contractor for logistics in Antarctica, Lockheed Martin, will run out of funding for its Antarctic support program in about a week. A decision about whether they will need to start pulling back personnel is expected very soon.


Exxon demolishing homes ruined by its Mayflower spill

The house that Exxon demolished
36 N. Starlite Rd., in happier days.

If you wish to bid Jose Modica and Daneshia Roberts-Modica farewell in the wake of the tar-sands oil spill that wrecked their Mayflower, Ark., neighborhood in the spring, don't bother sending the flowers to their 36 N. Starlite Rd. address.

The couple bought the four-bedroom house last year for $180,000. Then the oil spill happened, and their family was never allowed to return. So they sold it to Exxon in August for $3,000 less than they had paid.

Let's call them motivated sellers.


Wind turbine blade manufacturer hiring at whirlwind rate

LM Wind Power blade
Courtesy of LM Wind Power
That's a big-ass blade.

The economies of Grand Forks, N.D., and Little Rock, Ark. are being swept up in a green bonanza.

LM Wind Power, a global manufacturer of blades for wind turbines, says it doubled its U.S. workforce to 700 in August -- up from 350 in April. And it says the boom will continue: It expects to employ some 1,200 people in the U.S. next year -- most of them based at its factories in North Dakota and Arkansas.

In a press release, the company credited the extension late last year of the Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit with the growth of its workforce:

“We are pleased to see that the market is improving again following a period of low activity due to uncertainty around the PTC,” said LM Wind Power’s Head of US Operations, Bill Burga Jr. “With the political framework in place, our customers are winning more business again and we are ready to serve their demand for highly efficient quality blades for the US market, adding hundreds of extra jobs. Now it is crucial that the politicians remain committed to securing a stable economic framework to enable continued industry growth and increased US employment.”


Splitsville for Obama and his chief climate adviser

Heather Zichal.

What two things do you say to Barack Obama's climate and energy czar?

"Who are you?" and "Catch ya later."

You might never have heard the name Heather Zichal (then again, being a Grist reader, you might very well have).

Zichal is the White House official who has done much of the president's heavy lifting on climate policy. Which, despite promises made by Obama during the 2008 election campaign, had not been a particularly admirable amount. But then June 2013 rolled around, and Obama unveiled a far-reaching climate plan that had been crafted by Zichal -- who by then had risen to become his senior climate and energy adviser. Zichal was also instrumental in developing new federal standards for the fuel efficiency of cars.

Sounds like preeminent, high-profile work, right? Wrong. Despite the headiness of the role, Zichal was never given the authority, profile, or resources that such important work deserves. Al Gore made a veiled reference to her post in June, complaining that Obama had just "one person" working on climate change "who hasn’t been given that much authority."


Thousands of Minneapolis bees killed by pesticides

Bee on flower
Let's hope that flower hasn't been poisoned.

When thousands of Minneapolis bees died last month, "spilling out of the hive" like they were "drunk," as one apiarist put it, the University of Minnesota and the state's ag department were called in.

After weeks of lab tests, the scientists found the culprit: Fipronil, a widely used insecticide found in more than 50 pest-killing products. From Minnesota Daily:

The University Bee Lab, the Bee Squad and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture conducted tests to confirm that pesticide had caused the deaths.

Read more: Food


Abandoned Russian farmland soaks up 50 million tons of carbon every year

Abandoned grain processor
An abandoned grain processor that dates back to Soviet era.

When the USSR collapsed, the communal farming systems that helped feed the union's citizens collapsed with it. Farmers abandoned 110 million acres of farmland and headed into the cities in search of work.

New research by European scientists has revealed the staggering climate benefits of that sweeping change in land use. According to the study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, wild vegetation growing on former USSR farming lands has sucked up approximately 50 million tons of carbon every year since 1990.

New Scientist reports that's equivalent to 10 percent of Russia's yearly fossil fuel carbon emissions:

"Everything like this makes a difference," says Jonathan Sanderman, a soil chemist at CSIRO Land and Water in Australia. "Ten per cent is quite a bit considering most nations are only committed to 5 per cent reduction targets. So by doing absolutely nothing -- by having depressed their economy -- they've achieved quite a bit."

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food