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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Rampaging pig virus may raise pork prices

Vulnerable little factory-reared piggies.

A stomach virus that kills most of the piglets it infects is tearing across America, reaching farms in at least 13 states just a month after it was first detected here.

The disease threatens to trim back the nation's pork supplies at a time when the price of the meat is already rising following last year's drought.

Scientists say a strain of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV), which shares 99.4 percent of its genes with a strain that recently killed more than 1 million piglets in China, is harmless to humans and other animals. But you wouldn't want to be a baby pig that contracted the disease.

From Reuters:

While the virus has not tended to kill older pigs, mortality among very young pigs infected in U.S. farms is commonly 50 percent, and can be as high [as] 100 percent, say veterinarians and scientists who are studying the outbreak. ...

Read more: Food


Study: Trees save at least a life a year in each of 10 major U.S. cities

Trees in Central Park
Keith Wagner
These trees in Central Park are doing their arboreal best to save the lives of New Yorkers.

Next time you hug a city-dwelling tree, be sure to whisper quiet thanks for the lives it is helping to save.

Researchers recently calculated that urban forests help save one or more people from dying every year in each of 10 major cities studied.

Trees growing in cities help clean the air of fine particulate air pollution -- soot, smoke, dust, dirt -- that can lodge in human lungs and cause health problems. Trees clear 71 tons of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from Atlanta's air annually. And they suck up enough pollution to save seven or eight lives every year in New York City.

These are the findings of researchers with the U.S. Forest Service and Davey Institute, published in the journal Environmental Pollution [PDF]. They calculated the health and economic benefits of air-cleansing urban forests in 10 U.S. cities and found that trees save lives, reduce hospital visits, and reduce the number of days taken off work. They do that mainly by sucking pollutants out of the air. Economic benefits, mostly from reduced mortality, ranged from $1.1 million a year in Syracuse, N.Y., to $60.1 million a year in New York City.

Read more: Cities


China warns it will execute serious polluters

A polluted river in China
Adam Cohn
Whoever polluted this river is in big trouble.

There are carrot and stick approaches to tackling pollution. China is reaching for the stick. The country announced Wednesday that it is willing to impose the harshest possible penalty on polluters. From Reuters:

Chinese authorities have given courts the powers to hand down the death penalty in serious pollution cases, state media said, as the government tries to assuage growing public anger at environmental desecration. ...

A new judicial interpretation which took effect on Wednesday would impose "harsher punishments" and tighten "lax and superficial" enforcement of the country's environmental protection laws, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

"In the most serious cases the death penalty could be handed down," it said.


Buzzkill: Huge bee die-off in Oregon parking lot blamed on insecticide spraying

National Pollinator Week began grimly Sunday when tens of thousands of dead bumblebees, honeybees, ladybugs, and other insects were discovered blanketing a shopping plaza's parking lot just off Interstate 5 in Wilsonville, Ore.

Bumblebees were the species hardest hit, with an estimated 25,000 dead and 150 colonies lost outside a Target store. “They were literally falling out of the trees," said Rich Hatfield, a conservation biologist with the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. "To our knowledge this is one of the largest documented bumblebee deaths in the Western U.S. It was heartbreaking to watch.”

It turns out that landscapers had sprayed the lot's 65 European linden trees on Saturday with the insecticide Safari. The insecticide is marketed by manufacturer Valent as "a super-systemic insecticide with quick uptake and knockdown."

Dead bees in Oregon
Rich Hatfield / The Xerces Society
A carpet of dead bumblebees in a Target parking lot.

Xerces sampled the dead bees and concluded that the landscaping company that sprayed the insecticide was to blame. State investigators say they won't be ready to pin the blame on the landscapers until they have investigated other pesticide applications in the area. From Oregon Public Broadcasting:

"[The landscaping company] made a huge mistake, but unfortunately this is not that uncommon," said [Xerces Executive Director Scott Hoffman] Black. "Evidently they didn't follow the label instructions. This should not have been applied to the trees while they're in bloom."


Coming soon: An Obama climate strategy

Barack Obama
The White House
His big, new climate plan is coming any day now.

Rumors have been swirling that President Obama soon plans to unveil major new efforts to combat climate change. And today, White House officials confirmed that the announcement is coming soon -- probably next month, but maybe as early as next week.

At a Washington, D.C., forum sponsored by The New Republic, Heather Zichal, White House coordinator for energy and climate change, said the president planned to unveil new policy initiatives and is “serious about making [climate change] a second-term priority.” She declined to give details, but according to The New York Times ...

Ms. Zichal suggested in her remarks that a central part of the administration’s approach to dealing with climate change would be to use the authority given to the Environmental Protection Agency to address climate-altering pollutants from power plants under the Clean Air Act. …


Seattle adopts plan for going carbon neutral — but will pot growers get in the way?

Seattle's climate ambitions are thiiiis big.
Shutterstock / Holyhikaru
Seattle's climate ambitions are thiiiis big.

Seattle has set itself an 86-page to-do list to help it reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

The city council on Monday voted unanimously to adopt the 2013 Seattle Climate Action Plan [PDF], which outlines a detailed process designed to achieve the heady goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in less than 40 years.

The council originally set its carbon-neutrality goal in 2011. Following work by consultants and staff, the city now has a plan laying out how that goal can be turned into reality. Next comes the hard part: actually doing all the climate-friendly stuff.

"While I'm pleased that Council adopted the Plan, we know the real work is just beginning," said Jill Simmons, director of the city's Office of Sustainability & Environment.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Coal foes suffer setback in fight against exports

Coal dust for everybody!
Kurt Haubrich
Coal dust for everybody!

Bad news for climate hawks, coal haters, and Northwesterners who don't like breathing coal dust: The Army Corps of Engineers says it won't consider climate change or other big-picture issues when it reviews the environmental impacts of proposed coal export terminals.

Plans are afoot to build or expand coal export facilities at three ports in the Pacific Northwest. The governors of Oregon and Washington, other elected leaders in the states, and enviros have all been calling for the Army Corps to do a comprehensive study considering the wide-ranging, cumulative impacts of a big coal export push through the region -- including coal dust, diesel exhaust, railroad and port congestion, road traffic, water pollution, and, yes, climate change.

But this week, the Army Corps said no. From the Associated Press:


Obama in Berlin: “We have to get to work” on climate change

Obama and Angela Merkel
Reuters/Michael Kappeler
Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, enjoying Berlin's unseasonably hot weather.

President Obama keeps saying bold things about climate change in his big speeches. There was his second inaugural address in January. Then his State of the Union address in February. And today, a high-profile speech in Berlin, Germany, in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

But doing bold things about climate change? Well, that's a whole different issue. Rumor has it that he will unveil a package of climate initiatives in July. We'll see. For now, all we have are words.

So let's look at those words.

"I come here today, Berlin, to say complacency is not the character of great nations," he said before outlining a number of lofty aspirations, most notably a goal to cut back America's nuclear arsenal by as much as a third.

Midway through the speech, Obama got to the climate bit:

Peace with justice means refusing to condemn our children to a harsher, less hospitable planet. The effort to slow climate change requires bold action. And on this, Germany and Europe have led.


Dead zone could break records in Gulf this year

Dead zone
The possible dead zone is shown in red.

Get ready for a swath of marine sterility the likes of which Gulf fishermen have never seen.

NOAA warned Tuesday that a dead zone the size of New Jersey could break records this summer in the Gulf of Mexico. Heavy rainfalls are washing a stew of pollutants and nutrients into the Gulf, feeding outbreaks of algae that will rob the waters of oxygen as they die and decompose. In these oxygen-deprived waters, marine life either flee or die.

The Gulf dead zone is caused every summer by fertilizer and animal waste running off from farms, including those along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Sewage and other sources of nutrient-loaded pollution, such as lawn fertilizers, also play a role. From a NOAA press release:

Read more: Food


China begins carbon trading

Made in China

The latest knockoff to be produced in China is the carbon credit.

On Tuesday, the nation's first carbon-trading program was launched in Shenzhen. Under the small pilot project, 635 companies responsible for 38 percent of the city's carbon pollution began trading emission allowances. The program is scheduled to be expanded to six other areas by next year and then to the whole country before 2020. It will help China meet a national carbon cap that's expected to be imposed by 2016.

China's carbon-trading plans are modeled on similar programs underway in Europe, Australia, California, New England, and other large economies. In fact, carbon trading seems to be catching on with governments everywhere -- except the United States.

Though the Chinese program is starting off small, it's expected to have big ramifications. From Reuters: