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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Here’s an easy way to protect coastal communities from rising seas and storms

Mangroves in Florida
Natural protection against rising seas, or development site in waiting?

Protecting nature is the best way of protecting ourselves from rising tides and storm surges, according to new research.

Sand dunes, wetlands, coral reefs, mangroves, oyster beds, and other shoreline habitats that ring America help to protect two-thirds of the coastlines of the continental U.S. from hurricanes and other such hazards.

Developers see these coastal areas and think -- *ding* *ding* *ding* *ding* -- opportunity. They want to replace shoreline habitats with waterfront homes, shipping channels, highways, and other delights of urbanism and commerce, along with hulking concrete structures designed to keep the rising seas at bay.

Or, another idea would be to leave nature intact and let it continue to shelter us.

The latter approach would, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change, be the superior option for protecting lives and property in most of the nation's coastal areas.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Here’s how the Koch brothers retaliate against journalists they don’t like

Charles and David Koch
Beware of Koch-fueled vendettas.

The right-wing, oil-baron Koch brothers haven't yet succeeded in taking over any of our nation's major newspapers, so in the meantime they're trying other tactics to influence news coverage of their activities. The Washington Post has a chilling report:

When environmental journalist David Sassoon began reporting about the billionaire Koch brothers’ interests in the Canadian oil industry last year, he sought information from their privately held conglomerate, Koch Industries. The brothers, who have gained prominence in recent years as supporters of and donors to conservative causes and candidates, weren’t playing. Despite Sassoon’s repeated requests, Koch Industries declined to respond to him or his news site, InsideClimate News.

But Sassoon, who also serves as publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning site, heard from the Kochs after his story was posted.

In a rebuttal posted on its Web site,, the company asserted that Sassoon’s story “deceives readers” by suggesting that Koch Industries stood to benefit from construction of the Keystone XL pipeline — a denial Sassoon included in his story. KochFacts went on to dismiss Sassoon as a “professional eco-activist” and an “agenda-driven activist.”

It didn’t stop there. The company took out ads on Facebook and via Google featuring a photo of Sassoon with the headline, “David Sassoon’s Deceptions.” The ad’s copy read, “Activist/owner of InsideClimate News misleads readers and asserts outright falsehoods about Koch. Get the full facts on”


Positive buzz: One bumblebee species makes a comeback

The Western bumblebee, or Bombus occidentalis.
USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory
The Western bumblebee, or Bombus occidentalis.

A once-common bumblebee species that all but disappeared over the past 20 years has been glimpsed in Washington state for the first time since the mid-90s, getting local bee fans as excited as if they’d spotted Sasquatch. Though it doesn’t quite make up for the 50,000 bumblebees that met their demise in an Oregon parking lot last month, positive bee news is rare enough these days that we’ll take any excuse to celebrate.

The Western bumblebee, or Bombus occidentalis, an accomplished pollinator of greenhouse tomatoes and cranberries, is distinguishable by its “white butt,” says Will Peterman, a self-described “bee nerd” who caught the elusive insect on camera in a park north of Seattle.

The Seattle Times reports:

The first sighting in more than a decade came from Brier resident Megan O’Donald, who spotted one of the bees in her mother’s garden last summer and reported it to the Xerces Society [for Invertebrate Conservation.]. The insects returned this year, and O’Donald said she saw one Sunday on a goldenrod plant.

When Peterman heard about the earlier sightings, he decided to launch a bee-hunting expedition. Using Google Earth, he identified several patches of likely habitat — mostly small parks or unmown lots. At the fourth site on his list, he got lucky.

The colony, which is located underground, may be shutting down for the season. In late summer, after the broods are raised, the bees that will develop into the next season’s queens start gorging on nectar in preparation for their winter hibernation.

“Probably all we can do now is let the bees continue their cycle and go back next spring,” said UW biology instructor Evan Sugden, who joined the hunt on Sunday.

Read more: Food


FDA moves to keep arsenic out of your apple juice

Apple juice
Finally, more apples in our arsenic juice.

Apple juice may soon be as safe to drink as tap water. (Well, except for all that sugar.)

Nearly two years after consumer groups raised alarms about elevated levels of arsenic in some brands of apple juice, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday proposed new limits on permissible levels of the chemical, which can cause cancer and other maladies.

The FDA's proposed "action level" for inorganic arsenic in apple juice matches the EPA's existing rules for tap water -- 10 parts per billion.


Campaign to roll back state renewable programs is a flop so far

Love the sun
State legislatures are standing behind renewable energy standards.

State laws requiring utilities to sell a certain percentage of clean energy have been attacked across the nation over the past year. But these renewable portfolio standards have been holding their own just fine.

Not only were all of the legislative efforts to roll back such standards defeated, but some states actually strengthened their laws, requiring still more clean energy to flow through the grid. From Bloomberg:

None of the 26 bills to roll back requirements passed before most state legislature sessions ended, according to a July 9 report from Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy. Eight states voted to strengthen or modify laws that require utilities to purchase electricity produced from renewable sources.

Challenges to so-called renewable portfolio standards in effect in 30 states have increased since the lobby group American Legislative Exchange Council released model legislation in October that state lawmakers are using as a blueprint to try to water down rules supporting wind and solar energy.

“There was a big push to slow down progress after ALEC got involved but the momentum is in renewable energy’s favor,” Adam Browning, executive director of the San Francisco-based Vote Solar Initiative, said ... in an interview. “Poll after poll shows that Americans want clean, renewable energy and support these policies.”


Good news for penguins: World’s largest marine reserve could be established around Antarctica

Penguins in Antarctica
Antarctica's penguins could benefit from proposals to create huge international marine preserves in their 'hood.

Plans to protect more than 1.5 million square miles of ocean around Antarctica are getting serious consideration this week -- and that could be a big benefit for whales, seals, birds, fish, krill, and other wildlife in the region.

The idea is akin to creating a vast national park, except that it would be an international park. And it would be larger than most nations. And it would be entirely soggy.

From USA Today:

Read more: Food, Politics


Seas may rise 10 yards during centuries ahead

Under water.
The future view from your favorite beach.

Sea-level rise is currently measured in millimeters per year, but longer-term effects of global warming are going to force our descendants to measure sea-level rise in meters or yards.

Each Celsius degree of global warming is expected to raise sea levels during the centuries ahead by 2.3 meters, or 2.5 yards, according to a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The world is currently trying (and failing) to reach an agreement that would limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. Business-as-usual practices could yet raise temperatures by 4 (or even more) degrees Celsius.

Multiply 2.5 yards by 4 and you are left with the specter of tides that lap 10 yards higher in the future than today. That's 30 feet, the height of a three-story building. For comparison, the seas rose less than a foot last century.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Tea Partiers fight over solar power in Georgia, and the solar fans win


In Georgia on Thursday, the Tea Party scored a victory against the Tea Party by helping push through a plan requiring the state’s largest electric utility to increase its capacity for solar power.

Never a dull day in Southern politics, is there? A proposal by Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald to more than double the amount of solar energy produced by Georgia Power pitted the Tea Party Patriots against the local chapter of Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity (of the notorious “No Climate Tax Pledge”). Virginia Galloway, director of AFP for the state, warned the group’s 50,000 Georgia members that the proposal could increase electricity rates by up to 40 percent, and that this “mandate” -- as she called it -- would “reduce the reliability of every appliance and electronics gadget in your home.” But the Patriots see an increase in the availability of solar as an expansion of the free market and the ratepayers’ right to choose their energy sources.

Those on the left might have a hard time distinguishing between brands of Tea Party, but there are real differences. From the Athens Banner-Herald:

Disagreement between the two groups isn’t unusual. [Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Patriots,] says Galloway is using outdated figures since solar-panel prices have dropped by more than half in the last three years. She also accuses Galloway of being swayed by the fossil-fuel interests that contribute to AFP nationally.

And, to hear Dooley tell it, AFP’s opposition to solar may not reflect the will of the people (or at least the people comprising its target audience).


Fracking industry cleanup workers exposed to benzene in Colorado, feds allege

Parachute Creek, Colorado
Parachute Creek

We told you about the drawn-out spill of 241 barrels of natural gas liquids earlier this year at a Williams Energy plant that handles fracked gas in Colorado. It turns out that Parachute Creek and its wildlife weren't the only things exposed to cancer-causing benzene because of the accident.

The toxic contents of the mess were kept secret from workers sent to excavate it, and the workers were not kitted out with the proper safety equipment.

That's according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which fined a Williams Energy subsidiary and two other companies a total of $27,000 this week for what it described as "serious violations" related to the cleanup work. From The Denver Post:

As workers began digging for super-concentrated hydrocarbons, the companies "did not inform (them) of the nature, level and degree of exposure likely as a result of participation in such hazardous waste operations," OSHA documents said.

Workers dug trenches along the pipeline, west of Parachute Creek, to find and remove toxic material, documents said. "This condition potentially exposed employees to benzene and other volatile organic compounds."


Solar installations soar in California

solar on a house roofThe Golden State is going into overdrive on solar power.

California utility customers installed a record-breaking 391 megawatts of solar power systems last year. That was a banner year for the nation's largest photovoltaic rebate scheme, with installations up 26 percent compared with 2011.

Those panels were installed with the assistance of the California Solar Initiative [PDF], a $2.2 billion program started in 2007 that aims to help residents meet the costs of installing 1,940 megawatts of solar capacity by the end of 2016. The program is on track to meet that target well ahead of schedule, meaning incentives will begin to dwindle.

From the L.A. Times:

The bulk of that money has been poured into incentives, per-watt rebates that have gradually declined as the solar industry grows. This is on top of the federal Solar Investment Tax Credit -- 30% of the cost of each residential or commercial system is paid back to the owner of the home or business -- and the net metering that accounts for all but 92 megawatts of the state’s existing solar capacity. Net metering doles out energy credits to customers for the solar power they produce but don’t consume, easing the strain of monthly electric bills. ...