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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


New Yorkers exposed to more pesticides than rural residents

The Big Apple

New Yorkers can eat all the organics that they want -- but that won't be enough to protect them from the Big Apple's stubborn pesticide problem.

Despite living in a dense city with only tiny patches of agriculture (much of it organic, local, and ad-hoc), New York City residents have higher exposure levels than most Americans to two toxic classes of pesticide, according to a new study.

And the poisons are not just hitchhiking in on the produce.

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


Frackers are flushing radioactive waste into rivers

Blacklick Creek
Blacklick Creek in Pennsylvania.

Frackers often treat their wastewater a little bit like sewage, passing it through water treatment plants and then flushing it into streams and rivers. It may be an improvement on pumping the stuff back into the ground, which can trigger earthquakes, but new research reveals that this can be a dangerously shitty approach to managing frack water.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, entails injecting water and chemicals into the ground to break up underground rocks and release oil and gas. When that water burbles back to the surface, however, it comes back laced with traces of metals, isotopes, and other pollutants that normally sit harmlessly deep beneath the soil.

Duke University researchers studied a fracker's wastewater treatment plant in Pennsylvania and found it removed more than 90 percent of the radioactive radium from the wastewater. But that's not nearly enough: The researchers report in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that the radioisotopes that are slipping through the cracks in the treatment system are accumulating in alarming levels in Blacklick Creek, where the wastewater is dumped.


Say goodbye to Yosemite’s largest glacier

Lyell Glacier
Park visitors gaze at what remains of the Lyell Glacier.

Hasta la vista, glacier.

The world's glaciers are withering quickly -- researchers say they are contributing to nearly one-third of sea-level rise, despite holding just 1 percent of the planet's surface ice. And while the glaciers in California's Yosemite National Park aren't the largest, they are suffering the same alarming fate as their icy ilk in other parts of the world.

Yosemite's granite cliffs and valleys were carved during the Ice Age as glaciers expanded. Now these vestigial masses of ice are mostly retreating -- and fast. The park employs a full-time glaciologist, Greg Stock, who recently returned from a trek to Lyell Glacier, which is the park's largest. He told the L.A. Times that it had shrunk visibly since he made the same back-country hike last year:

Read more: Climate & Energy


American company sues Canada over fracking moratorium

The St. Lawrence River
The St. Lawrence River.

Quebec isn't entirely sure about this whole fracking thing. Amid reports from across the continent of groundwater pollution, air pollution, deforestation, and other environmental side effects of hydraulic fracturing, the Canadian province has placed a moratorium on the practice beneath the St. Lawrence River.

That doesn't sit well with Lone Pine Resources, a Delaware-based company that has long eyed the gas and oil that's locked up in the Utica shale beneath the grand waterway. The company claims it spent millions to get the appropriate permits to drill, and now that the fossil fuels seem out of reach, it says Canadians need to pony up more than $250 million in compensation.

The company last month submitted a claim [PDF] to an international arbitration system seeking damages because of "Quebec’s arbitrary, capricious, and illegal revocation" of its "valuable right to mine for oil and gas under the St. Lawrence River." The claim is based on Chapter 11 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which allows private companies to sue governments when laws hurt their expected profits.


Monsanto just dropped $1 billion on better weather forecasts

North Idaho wheat field
Gary Beck
Who's watching the weather for the farmers?

Congressional paralysis is freezing or slashing national spending on weather forecasting and monitoring. Plans to deploy a next-generation array of satellites known as COSMIC-2 could be cut by lawmakers as part of the sequester spending cuts -- if only they would pass a budget. And workers at NASA, which provide data used by climate researchers the world over, are being furloughed.

But Monsanto -- that profitable agro-corporation that wields ever-increasing power over the world's food supply -- is taking a smarter approach. As the effects of climate change devastate crops the world over, Monsanto has announced it is buying the Climate Corporation for $930 million. From the press release:

“Farmers around the world are challenged to make key decisions for their farms in the face of increasingly volatile weather, as well as a proliferation of information sources,” said David Friedberg, chief executive officer for The Climate Corporation. “Our team understands that the ability to turn data into actionable insight and farm management recommendations is vitally important for agriculture around the world and can greatly benefit farmers, regardless of farm size or their preferred farming methods. Monsanto shares this important vision for our business and we look forward to creating even greater experiences for our farmer customers.”

Modern Farmer explains the acquisition:

Climate Corporation underwrites weather insurance for farmers, basically in real time, using some of the most sophisticated data tools available to determine the risks posed by future weather conditions and events.


In Silicon Valley hub, new homes must be wired for electric cars

Tesla roadsters charging at the company's Palo Alto headquarters.
John Upton
Tesla roadsters charging at the company's Palo Alto headquarters.

If you build a new home in Tesla Motors' hometown, your electrician is going to need to wire it up for an electric vehicle charger.

The Palo Alto, Calif., City Council recently endorsed a building-code change that would require builders to include wiring in new homes that can easily be connected to a charger. The council also directed city staff to figure out how to make it easier and cheaper to obtain permits for new EV chargers.


Kiribati climate refugees fighting to stay in New Zealand

A Kiribati couple and their children have left their island home for New Zealand, seeking refuge from rising seas -- and the fate of their immigration case could shape the future for thousands of other climate refugees.

Kiribati looks like a tough place to leave -- but some of its citizens driven from their homeland by rising seas are telling New Zealand that they had no choice.

We told you last year that the 100,000 people who live on the low-lying Pacific Ocean archipelago are desperately seeking new homes, with waves already submerging some of its 32 carol atolls. Now, attention has turned to the case of a 37-year-old and his wife and kids who are seeking asylum in New Zealand after fleeing six years ago.

Here's the story the man told New Zealand's immigration tribunal, via the AP:

The man said that around 1998, king tides began regularly breaching the sea walls around his village, which was overcrowded and had no sewerage system. He said the fouled drinking water would make people vomit, and that there was no higher ground that would allow villagers to escape the knee-deep water.

He said returning to the island would endanger the lives of his two youngest children.

"There's no future for us when we go back to Kiribati," he told the tribunal, according to the transcript. "Especially for my children. There's nothing for us there."


Army going green to cut back on dangerous fuel convoys

Fuel convoy in Afghanistan
A Marine pours fuel into cans delivered by a convoy in Afghanistan.

We've written at length about the American military's push to go green, and how that's helping to turn the world's most powerful defense force into a leaner and meaner fighting machine.

But here's another reason for the guys and gals in green to ditch dirty fossil fuels: Shifting to solar or wind power can spare soldiers from the dangerous task of hauling massive amounts of incendiary fluids across battlefields -- becoming prime targets for anti-American forces.

In Afghanistan, one life is lost for every 24 deliveries that are attempted, according to a new article in Bloomberg:

With renewable energy, “there is no supply chain vulnerability, there are no commodity costs and there’s a lower chance of disruption,” Richard Kidd, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army in charge of energy security, said in an interview. “A fuel tanker can be shot at and blown up. The sun’s rays will still be there.”


Big Coal buries Obama’s renewable-friendly energy regulator

Ron Binz
Ron Binz.

Anybody casting an eye down the desolate hallway of a furloughed federal department might conclude that Congress is incapable of doing anything. But that's not quite true. This week it succeeded in hounding a well-qualified energy regulator out of the energy-regulating job to which he had been nominated.

President Obama had nominated Ron Binz to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But after being attacked for weeks by coal companies and their Republican (and Democratic) friends in Congress, the former chair of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday gave up any hope of securing the blessing that he needed from lawmakers.

Why all the hate? Because Binz supports solar and wind power -- renewable forms of energy that he has concluded can help America hedge against the economic volatility and environmental hazards posed by fossil fuels.


Florida citrus growers binge on pesticides, endangering bees

Girl in an orange grove
Don't breathe in!

Floridian citrus growers are upping the chemical ante as they struggle to save their groves from citrus greening -- a devastating bacterial infection spread by tiny invasive insects known as Asian citrus psyllids.

While the orange growers used to spray insecticides a few times a year, The Ledger newspaper reports that they are now dousing their groves monthly. (And we recently told you about a Florida's Natural supplier that was accused of spraying its crops every four days with multiple chemicals, killing off honeybee colonies and leading to a $1,500 fine.)

Needless to say, the region's apiarists are none too pleased to see their bees being killed by the insecticides. The Ledger article describes a growing war between Florida's powerful citrus growers and the smaller apiary industry:

Read more: Food