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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Extreme heat reveals extreme infrastructure challenges

Last summer, high temperatures caused a “heat kink” in the D.C. metro tracks.
Last summer, high temperatures caused a “heat kink” in the D.C. metro tracks.

Having trouble beating the heat this summer? Imagine how your infrastructure feels.

Last summer, we told you about extreme heat leading to buckling roads, melting runways, and kinky railroad tracks. Now we're also hearing about droopy power lines and grounded airplanes.

NPR’s Science Friday hosted a discussion last week with Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, about how cities can adapt to hotter temperatures and other climate impacts like floods and rising sea levels. Here’s Arroyo:

… the thing to keep in mind is that this infrastructure is built for the past conditions in our local area. So, it's not to say that we can't change our infrastructure with climate change in mind, whether it be climate change impacts along the coast, like storm surge or sea level rise, but it's obviously going to take time and it's going to take money.

Arroyo and host Ira Flatow talked about some of the solutions cities are considering or already implementing to make their systems more resilient.


Quebec oil-train tragedy triggered oil spill that threatens water supplies

The deadly oil-train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on Saturday also sparked an environmental disaster. An oil sheen has stretched more than 60 miles down a river that’s used as a source of drinking water.

By Tuesday morning, 13 people had been confirmed dead and some 37 were still missing after runaway train cars loaded with fracked crude from North Dakota derailed in the town and ignited. Lac-Mégantic's fire chief said the fire is now under control, but a small area of town is still off limits for safety reasons. Emergency crews continue to search for bodies of the missing. Officials are urging relatives to provide them with DNA, such as on toothbrushes, to help them identify the dead, and are warning that some of the bodies may never be identified.

Meanwhile, water and environment officials are facing up to a crisis of their own. An estimated 26,000 gallons of oil that spilled from the rail cars flowed into the Chaudière River. Residents downstream are being asked to conserve water as municipalities switch to backup sources. From CBC News:

Quebec Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet told CBC’s Quebec AM that he flew over the Chaudière River Sunday to see the extent of the damage caused by the oil spilled from the derailed tankers.

“What we have is a small, very fine, very thin layer of oil which, however, covers almost entirely the river for something like 100 kilometres from Lac-Mégantic to St-Georges-de-Beauce,” he said.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Japan’s utilities clamor to fire up nuke plants

International inspectors visiting Fukushima in April.
International inspectors visiting Fukushima in April.


Two years after the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, Japan's government is inviting utilities to file the paperwork needed to fire back up their idled nuclear reactors. Never mind that many Japanese citizens think that's a terrible idea.

Japan is home to 50 reactors, which provided about a third of the country's electricity until the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami triggered the meltdown. Just two of those reactors are currently producing power, with the rest shut down as a precaution. But the number of operational reactors could gradually begin rising. From The Japan Times:

Japan on Monday reopened procedures to allow idled reactors to be brought back online, putting in place new nuclear regulations that reflect the lessons learned from the 2011 Fukushima No. 1 meltdown disaster.


Colorado’s oil and gas boom is polluting the state’s air

Frackers and drillers are sullying Colorado's air.

The oil and gas industry isn't just polluting the water in Colorado. It's also fouling the air.

The 50,000 oil and gas wells in the state are collectively pumping hundreds of tons of pollution into the air every day, making the drilling industry the state's largest source of airborne volatile organic compounds and third-largest source of nitrogen oxides. That's according to a report in The Denver Post:

Colorado health officials are mobilizing to deal with air pollution from oil and gas industry sources that emit at least 600 tons of contaminants a day. …

But as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment emphasizes balance as it edges toward possible new rules to reduce pollution, Front Range residents increasingly are riled by a lack of scientific certainty about whether emissions harm their health.

Anti-drilling groups are making health fears the focus of campaigns against drilling near communities. ...


Solar plane completes cross-country trip despite torn wing

Solar Impulse approaches  John F. Kennedy Airport.
Solar Impulse
Solar Impulse approaches John F. Kennedy Airport.

You know a plane is hot when wing damage actually hastens its arrival.

That happened Saturday night, when the solar-powered Solar Impulse completed a historic stop-and-start transcontinental voyage across America that began May 3 in San Francisco.

  • Total flying time: 105 hours and 41 minutes
  • Distance flown: 3,511 miles
  • Average speed: 33 miles per hour
  • Gasoline consumed: 0 drops

From Reuters:

The Solar Impulse, its four propellers driven by energy collected from 12,000 solar cells in its wings to charge batteries for night use, landed at John F. Kennedy Airport at 11:09 p.m. EDT, organizers said.

The experimental aircraft had left Dulles International Airport outside Washington for its last leg more than 18 hours earlier, on a route that took it north over Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey.


Train explosion in Quebec stokes debate about oil transport

A firefighter walks past a burning train wagon at Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 6, 2013.
Reuters/Mathieu Belanger
A firefighter walks past a burning train at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

The latest disaster caused by the transport of oil across North America has wrecked the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. A driverless train loaded with crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota derailed and exploded early Saturday in the town’s center.

Dozens of buildings were leveled and at least five people were killed, while 40 more were still missing as of Monday morning. The fracked oil was en route to New Brunswick, which is home to the largest oil refinery in Canada. From Reuters:

The train, which did not have an engineer aboard when it derailed, was hauling 72 tanker cars of crude from North Dakota to eastern Canada. It rolled downhill from an overnight parking spot, gathered speed and derailed on a curve in the small town of Lac-Megantic at 1 a.m. on Saturday.

Each car carried 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Four caught fire and exploded in an orange and black fireball that mushroomed hundreds of feet into the air and flattened dozens of buildings, including a popular bar.

“It looks like a war zone here,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The disaster plunged the media into debate: Is it safer to move oil through underground pipelines (à la MayflowerKalamazoo, and Keystone XL), or to move it by rail?

Frackers and tar-sands miners are extracting record amounts of oil in America and Canada. Existing pipelines can’t carry the whopping bounty to refineries, so energy companies are seeking to lay lattices of new pipes. Meanwhile, the glut of liquid hydrocarbons is being loaded onto trains, which are being sent vast distances — and are triggering high-profile spills and accidents.

The Toronto Globe and Mail argues in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster that "[p]ipelines are the safest way of transporting oil and natural gas, and we need more of them, without delay." The New York Times considers the pipeline-vs.-train question more impartially, quoting environmental experts:


Solar-powered sedan hits Dutch streets

This solar-powered car, Stella, was unveiled Thursday.
Bart van Overbeeke
This solar-powered car, Stella, was unveiled Thursday.

Plug-in electric car? That's so 2013.

The electric sedans of the future will also generate their own photovoltaic power.

That's the philosophy behind a new class of competition in this year's World Solar Challenge.

Since 1987, the challenge has had solar-powered cars racing across the parched Australian outback every couple years. But the solar-powered vehicles that have competed in the challenge, while exciting and innovative, have been anything but consumer-friendly. They have typically carried only an uncomfortable driver in a craft shaped like a sheet of aluminum foil precariously perched over three wheels.

This year's challenge, scheduled for October, will push teams to go even further. The new Michelin cruiser class has been created for vehicles that could conceivably be marketed as family sedans. Ten teams have entered, and they will compete against each other for points awarded based on such criteria as practicality, attractiveness, and energy consumption.

On Thursday, one of the those teams unveiled its entry, taking a car it dubbed Stella to cordoned-off Dutch streets to strut its photovoltaic stuff. And it's pretty as a pug. Watch:

The team of 22 Eindhoven University of Technology students behind Stella has vowed to register the car for on-road use, helping to demonstrate its potential commercial viability. From a press release:

‘Stella’ is the first ‘energy-positive car’ with room for four people, a trunk, intuitive steering and a range of 600 kilometers.


U.K. throws party for world’s biggest offshore wind farm

While Americans were celebrating their independence from Britain on Thursday, the British were celebrating a major project that is reducing their dependence on fossil fuels.

The beginning of operations at the world's biggest offshore wind energy plant was belatedly celebrated along an estuary near the mouth of the Thames River. There, 175 turbines have been producing enough power for nearly 500,000 homes since April.

London Array
London Array
Part of the world's biggest offshore wind power plant.

British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Thames Estuary site Thursday with his climate minister to ceremonially cut the ribbon at the London Array. From The Guardian:

The London Array has taken the crown of the world's largest offshore windfarm from the 500MW Greater Gabbard project off the East Anglian coast. The UK currently has more than 3.6GW of offshore wind power capacity, but is expected to have around 18GW by the end of the decade.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Biofuel program could invite giant grass invasion

Here's another environmental incentive to ditch the car: That gas you buy at the pump could soon be helping towering invasive grasses wreak havoc on America's ecosystems.

The EPA recently approved the use of giant reed and napier grass as biofuel ingredients under its Renewable Fuel Standard program. The program requires oil companies to blend a minimum amount of biofuel into the gasoline that they sell. To receive EPA approval under the program, fuel created from grass must produce 60 percent less greenhouse gas than does normal gasoline.

But in approving the use of the two grasses as feedstocks for biofuel, the federal government has begun promoting plantations that environmentalists warn threaten the American landscape and its native species.

Giant reed
Giant reed is a giant pest, but the EPA figures it could also be a giant tool in the fight against climate change.

Enviros are especially concerned about potential new plantations of giant reed, aka Arundo donaxThis monstrous grass can grow two-inch wide stems and reach 20 feet in height. And once it begins wreaking havoc in the wild, the invasive grass can be an expensive (and energy-intensive) nightmare to remove. From a letter to the EPA [PDF] signed by dozen of environmental groups last year:

Arundo donax displaces native vegetation and negatively impacts certain threatened and endangered species such as the Least Bell’s Vireo. In the United States, Arundo donax is listed as a noxious weed in Texas California, Colorado, and Nevada. Additionally, it has been noted as either invasive or a serious risk in New Mexico, Alabama, and South Carolina. Once Arundo donax has invaded an area, control is difficult and costly. In California, costs range between $5,000 and $17,000 per acre to eradicate the weed. Other estimates put that cost as high as $25,000 per acre.


Pepsi: Cancer for a new generation?

Beyonce Pepsi ad
Beyonce's not worried about additives.

Please don't take this as an endorsement. But when it comes to avoiding cancer while you gulp down a sugar-blasting brand-name cola, Coke is it.

Pepsi has been lagging behind its main competitor in removing carcinogenic meth from its flagship cola product. Well, 4-methylimidazole, to be precise.

The chemical can form in trace amounts when caramel coloring used in cola is cooked. It has been found to cause cancer in rats.

Everybody who drinks corporate soda has been drinking the stuff for years. That was supposed to come to an end after California began requiring cancer warnings on products containing elevated levels of 4-methylimidazole. The new regulations prompted Coke and Pepsi to announce early last year that they would take steps to remove the chemical from their products nationwide.

But the Center for Environmental Health tested colas and found that while Californians are drinking safer sodas than they were before, some of the colas sold outside of California still contain high levels of the substance. From the nonprofit's website:

If you live in California, Coke and Pepsi products are made without 4-MEI, a chemical known to cause cancer. But in testing of cola products from ten states, CEH found high levels of 4-MEI in ALL Pepsi cola products, while 9 out of ten Coke products were found without 4-MEI problems.

Read more: Food