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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Nuclear waste leaking at Hanford site in Washington, again

A tank storing radioactive waste at America's most contaminated nuclear site appears to have sprung a leak, leaching yet more cancer-causing isotopes into soil some five miles from the Columbia River in Washington state.

The Hanford site
Crash Zone Photography
The Hanford site and the Columbia River

The Hanford site produced plutonium that was used to manufacture the bomb that blew up Hiroshima. Now it's home to a different kind of horror: It's used to store nuclear waste while a plant is built on site to treat that waste. But the Department of Energy treatment plant project has been plagued by delays, and tanks that were designed to hold the waste temporarily keep falling apart.

From the AP:

An underground tank holding some of the worst radioactive waste at the nation's most contaminated nuclear site might be leaking into the soil.

The U.S. Energy Department said workers at Washington state's Hanford Nuclear Reservation detected higher radioactivity levels under tank AY-102 during a routine inspection Thursday.

Spokeswoman Lori Gamache said the department has notified Washington officials and is investigating the leak further. An engineering analysis team will conduct additional sampling and video inspection to determine the source of the contamination, she said.

State and federal officials have long said leaking tanks at Hanford do not pose an immediate threat to the environment or public health. The largest waterway in the Pacific Northwest — the Columbia River — is still at least 5 miles away and the closest communities are several miles downstream.

However, if this dangerous waste escapes the tank into the soil, it raises concerns about it traveling to the groundwater and someday potentially reaching the river.

The AP reports that water samples taken beneath the leaking tank "had an 800,000-count of radioactivity and a high dose rate, which means that workers must reduce their time in the area."

Read more: Politics


FBI chases anti-GMO activists while ignoring Monsanto’s transgressions

FBI agent with gun
Hot on the trail of the bad guys -- depending on your definition of "bad."

Some experimental GMO crops were torn out of a field in Oregon this month. That means it's time for the federal government to freak the fuck out and do its best to clamp down again on eco-activism.

The sugar beet plants, which were genetically engineered by Syngenta to survive applications of the herbicide Roundup, were uprooted in the middle of the night from a couple of fields, presumably by anti-GMO activists. The destruction of the experimental crops occurred in the same state where a strain of Monsanto's illegal herbicide-resistant wheat recently showed up in a farmer's field, threatening America's multibillion-dollar wheat export market.

Guess which crime the FBI is desperate to crack?

That's right: The sugar beet one. The agency announced that it "considers this crime to be economic sabotage and a violation of federal law involving damage to commercial agricultural enterprises." According to the FBI, a $10,000 reward is being offered for clues by Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a corporate forestry and agriculture group that lobbies for pro-GMO and pro-pesticide legislation.


EPA delays fracking safety study until 2016

"please be patient" sign

We told you last week that the EPA is abandoning an investigation that linked fracking chemicals with groundwater contamination in Wyoming. Amid controversy over that move, news about EPA delaying another fracking study got overlooked by most media.

In 2010, Congress ordered the EPA to look into the dangers posed to drinking water sources by hydraulic fracturing. That research was expected to be completed in 2014. But last Tuesday, an EPA official told attendees of a shale-gas conference in Cleveland, Ohio, that it wouldn't be done until 2016.


Kerry implores India to tackle climate change, ticks off Indian enviros

Rajendra Pachauri and John Kerry
U.S. Embassy New Delhi
IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian, welcomes John Kerry. That's America's ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, in the background.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in India over the weekend and gave a speech urging the fast-developing country to work closely with the U.S. and other countries on solutions to climate change.

Kerry is leading a delegation to Delhi for U.S.-India talks focused on trade and energy; Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz is part of the visiting group. The stop in Delhi is one leg of a trip Kerry is making throughout the region.

The Americans' arrival in Delhi coincided with deadly floods in northern India that some Indian officials have linked to global warming. But though climate change poses urgent dangers in India, Kerry's speech was not received warmly by all of the nation's environmentalists. Some felt they were being lectured to by the secretary of state, a representative of a nation that is second only to China in total greenhouse gas emissions.

Kerry has long warned of the dangers of climate change, and it's been one of his favorite topics to discuss abroad since he was sworn in as Obama's top diplomat. "Everywhere I travel as secretary of state -- in every meeting, here at home and across the more than 100,000 miles I’ve traveled since I raised my hand and took the oath to serve in this office -- I raise the concern of climate change," he wrote just last week in an opinion piece in Grist.

Kerry's speech in India was part of a broader push by the Obama administration on climate change. The U.S. recently struck a deal with China to cooperate on reducing heat-trapping HFC emissions, and the president is preparing to make a big climate announcement on Tuesday.

The New York Times reports on Kerry's speech:

“I do understand and fully sympathize with the notion that India’s paramount commitment to development and eradicating poverty [by increasing electricity supplies] is essential,” Mr. Kerry said in a speech at the start of a two-day visit. “But we have to recognize that a collective failure to meet our collective climate challenge would inhibit all countries’ dreams of growth and development.”


How climate deniers are like ignorant patrons of ’80s gay bars

gay bar sign
Ryan Cannon

Writer and gay-rights activist Dan Savage has a provocative piece in the Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, comparing today's climate deniers to gay men in the early '80s who refused to face up to the reality of AIDS.

He starts out discussing a recent This American Life segment on ranchers in Colorado who won't acknowledge that climate change is happening, even as it's ravaging their land and livelihoods.

Listening to the ranchers in [reporter Julia Kumari] Drapkin's report—hearing the anger, denial, and fear in their voices—took me back 30 years. They sounded like another group of people whose world was on fire and who also couldn't bring themselves to face reality. They sounded like people I used to know. They sounded like those faggots who stood around in gay bars in 1983 insisting that AIDS couldn't be a sexually transmitted infection. Even as their friends lay dying, even as more of their friends and lovers became sick, they couldn't accept that sex had anything to do with this terrifying new illness.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Obama climate plan finally coming, on Tuesday

Barack Obama
The White House
He's thinking hard about that upcoming speech.

First we heard it from unnamed sources. Then we heard it from White House climate advisor Heather Zichal. And now we've heard it from Obama himself: The president is gearing up for a big speech in which he'll unveil his long-awaited second-term climate plan.

Obama announced the news in his weekly video address on Saturday. "This Tuesday at Georgetown University, I'll lay out my vision for where I believe we need to go: a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change, and lead global efforts to fight it," he said in the video, which was set to overwrought music and peppered with gauzy scenes of American landscapes. (Watch for yourself below.)


Massive Montana mine has tribes fighting over coal exports

A huge new coal-mining project just approved by the federal government pits a Montana tribe against native communities in the Pacific Northwest.

sign: "Crow country: Keep it beautiful, don't litter"
Lance Fisher
They may soon have a lot more than litter to worry about.

The Crow Nation in southern Montana overlaps the coal-rich Powder River Basin. The tribe is sitting on a deposit of up to 1.4 billion tons of coal -- more than the United States produces in a year -- and on Thursday, the federal government approved the lease of that coal to mining company Cloud Peak Energy. The company has begun preliminary work on a mine that could eventually produce up to 10 million tons of coal every year, much of which it hopes to move through three proposed export terminals in Washington and Oregon to sell to Asian markets.

As demand for coal in the U.S. fizzles thanks to the natural-gas boom, the coal industry is banking on a growing Asian appetite for cheap power to keep it afloat. And the Crow Nation is banking on the deal with Cloud Peak to turn its fortunes around. The Associated Press details what's in it for the tribe:


Wind industry and enviros team up to study bird deaths

A bald eagle
This eagle is feeling better already.

Amid growing controversies over birds killed by turbines, a handful of big wind energy companies are teaming up with conservationists to pool data that could help address the problem.

The American Wind Wildlife Institute, a nonprofit partnership of 22 wind companies and nine green groups, has a new project that aims to round up, analyze, and eventually publish hitherto secret data on bird kills at wind power developments. Midwest Energy News reports:

“Our goal is not to identify problems to prosecute,” said Abby Arnold, AWWI’s executive director. “Our goal is to develop a really good analytic tool that experts — biologists, statisticians, ecologists — and the wind industry can use to understand what these impacts are, where they’re occurring, and how we can address them.” …


Oil companies will curb use of air guns that torment marine mammals

Sperm whale
Finally, some peace and quiet.

Whales, dolphins, and manatees will finally enjoy some peace and quiet in parts of the Gulf of Mexico following a legal settlement that will restrict the use of oil industry air guns.

As if dodging oil spills and dead zones in the Gulf isn't bad enough, the marine mammals there are also subjected to deafening pulses of noise fired from boats searching for new oil fields to drill. “These super-loud airblasts hurt whales and dolphins,” said Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “The seismic surveys sound like an underwater explosion, causing deafness and stress that can disrupt whales’ behaviors and even lead to strandings.”

The legal settlement filed Thursday with a federal court will block the use of the sonar guns in parts of the Gulf until the end of 2015. It will also add manatees to the list of species whose presence requires an automatic silencing of sonar blasts. From the Associated Press:


EPA abandons investigation into fracking pollution

Boy drinking water
Want to know what's in that water? Don't ask the EPA.

The EPA is dropping its only investigation that has found evidence of water contamination from fracking.

Following a three-year study of groundwater pollution around Pavilion, Wyo., the EPA concluded in a draft report in 2011 that fracking chemicals were a likely cause. The finding was obviously controversial — frackers would like us to believe that injecting poisonous chemicals into the ground couldn’t possibly poison water. Critics of the research found fault with the EPA’s methodology and said contamination could have predated fracking.

In the face of these controversies, the agency backed down Thursday, announcing that it was halting the research and abandoning its own draft findings. From The Hill:

The EPA said it will not complete or seek peer review of a 2011 draft study, which found that groundwater pollution in the Pavillion, Wyo., area was consistent with chemicals used in gas production.