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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


As citrus disease spreads, government cryopreserves tree roots

USDA cryopreservation
Cryopreservation in action.

Cryonics may never bring slugger Ted Williams back to life, but federal scientists hope that freezing the tips of tree roots could help save America's $3.4 billion citrus-growing industry.

Unlike the famous baseball player, who was frozen after he died in 2002 (with his head and body stored in separate containers), the plant tissue that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists are preserving in subzero temperatures is very much alive.

Citrus trees are increasingly under threat from citrus greening, aka Huanglongbing or "Yellow Dragon Disease," a bacterial disease spread by insects. It has killed millions of citrus trees in the U.S. since it was first detected in Florida in 2005.

From a USDA press release:

[S]cientists are creating a backup storage site or "genebank" for citrus germplasm in the form of small buds, called shoot tips, which have been cryopreserved—that is, plunged into liquid nitrogen for long-term cold storage. ...


Historic lawsuit alleges ag-gag is unconstitutional

Pigs in a truck.
Should their suffering be broadcast?

A lawsuit filed in Utah on Monday is the first big legal challenge to an ag-gag law.

Animal welfare groups, journalists, and a woman who was briefly charged with violating Utah's year-old Agricultural Operation Interference law sued the state in U.S. District Court, alleging that the ag-gag law violates the U.S. Constitution.

The law makes it a misdemeanor to record images or sound while inside an agricultural operation without the owner's consent. It also makes it a crime to apply for work at a slaughterhouse or farm with the intention of making such recordings, or to obtain access to such an operation "under false pretenses." The legislation was approved by state lawmakers amid a surge in such laws nationwide.

From the Deseret News:

"In essence the law criminalizes undercover investigations and videography at slaughterhouses, factory farms, and other agricultural operations, thus 'gagging' speech that is critical of industrial animal agriculture," according to the 41-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, CounterPunch magazine and five individuals claim the law violates their rights to free speech and equal protection. They want a federal judge to strike down the law.


ExxonMobil subsidiary, with arm twisted behind back, agrees to treat fracking wastewater

Susquehanna River
XTO's fracking waste made its way into a tributary of the Susquehanna River.

XTO Energy, an ExxonMobil subsidiary, will reluctantly shell out $20 million to properly treat and dispose of fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It will also pay a $100,000 EPA fine as part of a settlement agreement [PDF] over water-pollution charges [PDF].

From PennLive:

The company is accused of violating the Clean Water Act by releasing over approximately 65 days between 6,300 and 57,373 gallons of fluids that contained barium, calcium, iron, manganese, potassium, sodium, strontium, bromide, chloride and total dissolved solids.


Solar and wind surge, but dirty energy still dominates, as this nifty chart shows

Solar energy production in the U.S. jumped by 49 percent last year, and wind energy by more than 16 percent.

But these clean sources of energy are still just thin lines on this cool flowchart that shows how America's energy was produced in 2012, reminding us how much work lies ahead in shifting to a renewable and clean economy:

Click to embiggen
Click to embiggen.

From Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which produced the chart:

[W]ind power [increased from] from 1.17 quads produced in 2011 up to 1.36 quads in 2012. New wind farms continue to come on line with bigger, more efficient turbines that have been developed in response to government-sponsored incentives to invest in renewable energy.


Think you can’t afford an EV? Think again

You could be as happy as this guy.
Tom Raftery
You could be as happy as this guy.

It’s easy to see the electric car as a symbol of the kind of offbeat elitism often associated with eco-conscious living -- the rich man’s veggie oil-powered VW bus, if you will. But that could change as the industry starts going Model T on EVs, making them more affordable for the masses. Automakers are now offering an array of discount leases and perks that, when combined with government tax incentives, make EV ownership accessible for a much broader segment of the population.

Owning an electric vehicle automatically slashes drivers’ fuel costs by as much as 80 percent. But it’s the up-front cash that presents a barrier to most prospective buyers, not to mention the lack of widespread charging infrastructure. Of course, growing ranks of EV drivers would spur the construction of more charging stations and attract still more electric converts. But with so few choices on the market, none of them wildly affordable, it’s hard to get that cycle started.

Until now. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Bronson Beisel, 46, says he was looking last fall for an alternative to driving his gas-guzzling Ford Expedition sport utility around suburban Atlanta, when he saw a discounted lease offer for an all-electric Nissan Leaf. With $1,000 down, Mr. Beisel says he got a two-year lease for total out-of-pocket payments of $7,009, a deal that reflects a $7,500 federal tax credit.

As a resident of Georgia, Mr. Beisel is also eligible for a $5,000 subsidy from the state government. Now, he says, his out-of-pocket costs for 24 months in the Leaf are just over $2,000. Factor in the $200 a month he reckons he isn't paying for gasoline to fill up his hulking SUV, and Mr. Beisel says "suddenly the car puts $2,000 in my pocket."


Seattle mayor wants to block Whole Foods because of its low wages

Mike McGinn
Dave Lichterman
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn says Whole Foods should pay more or get lost.

The Washington, D.C., city council made national news earlier this month with its effort to force Walmart to pay higher wages at six new stores the company hopes to build in the city.

A similar fight is afoot in Seattle -- but over Whole Foods. Mayor Mike McGinn, who's up for reelection this year, is leading the charge against a proposed new store in the West Seattle neighborhood. Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat reports:

“I’m setting a new standard here, that we are going to look at the wages they pay, and benefits, when a company wants to develop with land that involves public property,” McGinn told me in an interview. ...

McGinn contended in a letter that the nonunion Whole Foods pays “significantly lower” wages and benefits than other grocery stores, including some already in West Seattle. So the idea of allowing Whole Foods to go in there violates the city’s social and economic justice goals.


Wild thing, I think I need you: How weeds could save dinner

Wild strawberries
Kim Hummer / USDA
This wild species of strawberry was recently discovered growing in the Oregon Cascades. Researchers say it could be bred with other species to create new disease-resistant or delicious varieties.

Who needs weeds? In a climate-changed world, we all do.

Wild relatives of potatoes, peas, eggplants, and lentils, among many other crops, are often thought of as weeds, but they could help us produce healthier harvests even as we face water shortages and other climate-induced challenges.

Nature explains:

Faced with climate change, plant breeders are increasingly turning to the genomes of the wild, weedy relatives of crops for traits such as drought tolerance and disease resistance. But a global analysis of 455 crop wild relatives has found that 54% are underrepresented in gene bank collections — and that many, including ones at risk of extinction, have never been collected.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Here’s how wind and solar can save more lives and prevent more pollution

These solar panels, being installed in Ohio, will not produce as much electricity as they would in California -- but they will be better at reducing fossil fuel pollution.
Gary Chancey
These solar panels, being installed in Ohio, will not produce as much electricity as they would in California -- but they will be better at reducing pollution.

America’s renewable energy boom could protect more lives and prevent more climate pollution if wind turbines and solar panels were being installed in different locations, a new study suggests.

Solar and wind energy is most valuable to society when it replaces coal burning. But most of the new solar and wind capacity is being installed outside America’s coal-powered states. It's going where the wind blows the hardest, where the sun shines the strongest, or where states have renewable energy mandates or incentives.

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University compared the benefits of installing a wind turbine in 33,000 locations across America, factoring in the positive impact of reduced greenhouse gas emissions and avoided death and disease. They repeated the exercise with a solar panel, comparing nearly 1,000 potential locations.

From their paper, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Thirty percent of existing wind capacity is installed in Texas and California, where the combined health, environmental, and climate benefits from wind are among the lowest in the country. Less than 5% of existing wind capacity is in Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia, where wind energy offers the greatest social benefits from displaced pollution. …


No one knows how to stop these tar-sands oil spills

Oil spill at Cold Lake, Alberta
Photograph obtained by the Toronto Star
Oil polluting the ground at Cold Lake in Alberta.

Thousands of barrels of tar-sands oil have been burbling up into forest areas for at least six weeks in Cold Lake, Alberta, and it seems that nobody knows how to staunch the flow.

An underground oil blowout at a big tar-sands operation run by Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. has caused spills at four different sites over the past few months. (This is different from the 100-acre spill in Alberta that we told you about last month, which was caused by a ruptured pipeline.)

Media and others have been blocked from visiting the sites, but the Toronto Star obtained documents and photographs about the ongoing disaster from a government scientist involved in the cleanup, who spoke to the reporter on condition of anonymity. The prognosis is sickening. From Friday’s article:


Electric vehicle sales are skyrocketing

Chevy Volt
Chevy Volt

Americans bought 40,000 new electric vehicles in the first six months of this year -- more than twice the number purchased during the same period last year. And that was after sales of plug-in cars tripled from 17,000 in 2011 to 52,000 last year.

Why are Americans so gung-ho on EVs? Caring about the environment is one reason. But the Energy Department highlighted another good reason on Friday when it released the plug-in sales data. From a department press release:

The eGallon, a quick and simple way for consumers to compare the costs of fueling electric vehicles vs. driving on gasoline, rose slightly to $1.18 from $1.14 in the latest monthly numbers, but remains far below the $3.49 cost of a gallon of gasoline.