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Our Daily Planet: Toxic Coal Ash, Saving Our Forests, Enviro Voters in Trump Steel Tariffs, Sustainability in Business, and a 67 Yr Old Mom
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Monday, March 12th, 2018

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Home destroyed when TVA coal ash impoundment burst in 2008.  Photo: NRDC
EPA Loosens Toxic Coal Ash Rule To Save Coal Plants $$

Disposing of the toxic residue from coal plants is about to get easier.  The EPA announced earlier this month a proposal make many changes to the current rule, including to:
  • lower federal standards for coal ash disposal; 
  • allow states to take over approvals with even more flexibility;
  • allow streamlined processes for non-groundwater releases; 
  • allow states to set lower standards for halting operations in the event of a leak from an impoundment;
  • loosen performance standards for erosion protection of impoundments.
The Obama Administration's rule was another one that industry has been challenging in court since 2015.  It was promulgated after a long process that started in 2008 when an impoundment "pond" filled with coal ash waste at the TVA Kingston power plant in Harriman, Tennessee burst and poured more than a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge into the Emory River and the Roane County community located along its banks.  Investigators at TVA found that the cause of the rupture was negligence by TVA.  Dozens of homes were destroyed by the sludge tsunami, several people were injured (luckily no one was killed), and the town continues to suffer from the now ruined landscape that poses a hazard to the health of everyone still living there.  Worse yet, the cleanup workers and their families are now suing the cleanup contractor because many of them suffered severe health effects -- none of them were required to protective masks or other equipment -- and 17 have since died.

Why This Matters:  Coal ash is another toxic byproduct of burning coal.  Rolling back these regulations is just a way to shift the costs of coal from the coal plants on to the public -- through the adverse health effects caused by lax standards for disposal.  Not to mention the severe injustice caused when, due to those lax standards, the public near these facilities is greatly harmed.  When you add in the local impacts of the air pollution from these old coal plants, the air pollution transport impacts that spread across the region, and the more diffuse climate change impacts, the true costs of burning coal are very high -- indeed, too high. We have better options. 

To Dig Deeper Into the Coal Ash Problem:  Check out the entire Earth Justice graphic that we show below by clicking here.


Can We Help The World's Forests Before It's Too Late?

Late last week Grist wrote an eye-opening piece on the state of the world's forests and what can be done to protect them as our planet warms. Our climate is shifting so rapidly that it's putting forests in danger as they often can't adapt quickly enough to warmer weather and changing rain patterns. Additionally, not all parts of the planet are being affected evenly, our poles are warming more quickly and throwing off the balance of global air circulation. "Rising temperatures and increasingly unusual rainfall patterns inflict more frequent drought, pest outbreaks, and fires. Trees are dying at the fastest rate ever seen, on the backs of extreme events like the 2015 El Niño, which sparked massive forest fires across the tropics. In 2016, the world lost a New Zealand-sized amount of trees, the most in recorded history." 

In places like California where drought has shifted more biomes to desert-like conditions, forest health is suffering. Since 2014 a there has been a ten-fold increase in tree mortality that has claimed more than 129 million trees. This has largely been the result of a drier climate and beetle infestations that were made worse by climate change. 

Why This Matters: Our forests are our last natural defense against climate change as they suck 100 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere and absorb one-third of human carbon emissions. Not to mention they foster bio-diversity, stabilize terrestrial life, and can ever make us calmer. Forests also provide jobs, in everything from logging and sawmills, to forestry and conservation and even tourism. We depend on forests for a lot, thus ensuring their survival is critical to ours. It's also forcing us to change how we think about forests. Whereas traditionally forests were seen as inherently stable, we're now starting to see that they are inherently changing. 

What Can Be Done: Scientists and conservationists are looking for ways to help forests cope with the changes they're incurring. They're "considering tinkering with the ecosystems in various ways, including introducing novel species, replanting forests with climate change in mind, and even planting fast-growing species just to burn them for energy." While experts have to proceed with caution so as to avoid creating ecological imbalances, in some parts of British Columbia artificially boosting tree diversity increased the forest’s capacity for regrowth by up to 40 percent, giving hope for future efforts. 


What Do Trump's Steel Tariffs Mean for U.S. Energy?

Last week President Trump announced his decision to a impose 25% import tariff on steel and aluminum which was poorly received by the oil and gas industry who has otherwise backed the president. The fossil fuel industry previously cheered the president's efforts to roll back environmental regulations but sees the tariffs as a major blow to their current US projects. As Vox noted, "In the energy sector, where steel and aluminum go into everything from coal-fired power plants to power lines, these tariffs are likely to undermine Trump’s pursuit of “energy dominance”: the goal of using US coal, oil, and gas supplies as a diplomatic weapon.

Natural gas companies who are trying to capitalize on global demand for their product complain that paying a higher price for steel could stall pipeline projects. As Politico reported, "The tariff moves are also unsettling senators in energy states who have backed Trump's moves for the sector. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the tariffs could add up to half a billion dollars to the price of a proposed 800-mile pipeline the state has long wanted to jump-start its natural gas production." 

Why This Matters: It's unclear if the tariffs will slow the construction of oil and gas pipelines and if this will have an impact on emissions. Unfortunately, the tariffs will also deal a blow to the solar and wind industries. "Steel and aluminum are important commodities for critical wind, solar and storage components, with few bankable substitute materials available," state Wood Mackenzie Power and Renewables analysts in a forthcoming research note. The solar sector already faced a setback earlier this year when President Trump imposed a 30% duty on solar equipment made abroad. As for wind energy, turbines are becoming larger and more powerful and require increasing amounts of steel and aluminum to construct. 

This goes to show how unclear the Administration's intentions are. On the one hand, they vow to bolster the fossil fuel industry over renewable energy, but on the other hand, their actions don't help promote any American energy sector. 


Photo: Gerry Images via The Hill
PA-18 Race A Toss Up, Enviro Voters Could Decide It

Tuesday's special election in Pennsylvania's 18th district is extremely close and hard fought, with even the President weighing in. It is an open seat, caused by the sudden retirement of Republican incumbent Tim Murphy who was forced out suddenly amidst allegations of misconduct.  The race pits Conor Lamb, the  Democrat, a 33-year-old former marine and federal prosecutor, against Rick Saccone, the Republican, a career Air Force veteran and a member of the state House of Representatives.  The district is located outside of Pittsburg and went for President Trump in the 2016 election by 16 points.  Environmental issues may be important to the race -- more than 25% of the district's voters have worked in the coal mining industry, and the last coal mine in the district recently closed for good. 

On the issues, Lamb favors "robust and responsible energy development" with a special emphasis on natural gas production.  According to his website,  Lamb believes, "[g]overnment should not be an impediment to energy development and job creation, but 
we rely on government to enforce the law and hold companies accountable if they endanger workers or pollute our air or water."  Rick Saccone claims that he is the "only pro-coal" candidate in the race and will "utilize his experience to continue to revitalize the coal industry."  

The non-partisan Environmental Voter Project (which does not endorse candidates), is working in the district to turn out environmental voters. They have identified over 35,000 voters who are very interested in environmental issues and are focusing on increasing the turnout of more than 26,000 of them who have not turned out to vote in previous elections.  They are sensing a surprisingly high level of interest among the environmental voters they are contacting -- with more voter excitement than usual.  

Why This Matters: Environmental voters care passionately about the issues, but don't tend to vote.  According to Nathaniel Stinnett, Founder and Executive Director of the Environmental Voter Project, "everybody is paying attention to this race. In PA-18, it feels more like a November presidential election than a March special election for Congress."  His message to environmental voters is clear, " Get out the door and vote on Tuesday because your neighbor sure will be."   Every vote matters in a race as close as this one



Wisdom is the world's oldest wild breeding bird.  Photo: Fish and Wildlife Service

One Amazing Albatross  

The world's oldest breeding bird has done it again.  At age 67, this Laysan albatross, named Wisdom, makes her home at Midway Atoll— now a wildlife refuge run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Midway is more than the historic site of a pivotal WWII battle; it is also a popular breeding ground for over three million seabirds and is home to the largest albatross colony in the world. Wisdom has been returning to Midway Atoll every year since 1956.  The Laysan albatross (like Wisdom) spends the vast majority of its life at sea—but like many species of seabird, it returns to the same nesting site to breed annually.  Midway Island is part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, as are the thousands of miles of U.S. ocean territory that surrounds it, which was created by Presidents George W. Bush and vastly expanded by President Obama.  

Scientists of the USFWS at Midway believe that Wisdom has successfully raised from 30-36 new albatross chicks in her life. As with each of those previous eggs, Wisdom and her mate, Akeakamai, took turns for two months—alternating between incubating the egg and flying off to look for food at sea. Now that the chick has hatched, it will be five months before the little albatross will leave the nest.

Why This Matters:  The albatross is an amazing creature -- it can fly for thousands of miles to collect food for its young, and males and females share parenting duties.  To think that this mother bird is able to care for her new baby at 67, having had more than 35 babies already, is nothing short of amazing.  But albatross are also highly at risk due to plastic pollution in the ocean.  Their plight is highlighted in the film entitled Albatross, the winner of the wildlife award at the International Ocean Film Festival, which provides a close-up view of ravenous albatross chicks gulping down plastic mistakenly scooped up by parents on foraging journeys.  Which is one more reason why it is important to eliminate plastic pollution reaching the ocean. And why we need monuments in the ocean like Papahanaumokuakea where these magnificent birds are protected from other risks.  

Watch the trailer for Albatross by clicking here.  


Businesses and Investors Increasingly Committed to Conservation

Corporate social responsibility is on the rise, and businesses have stepped in to fill the void of government action on conservation. Idealistic young people are pressuring corporations to take a stand -- either as employees or consumers of their products. Social attitudes are shifting, as people increasingly believe that companies should take a stand on political issues like climate change and sustainability.  In fact, in recent polling, 66% believe It is important, and that companies that do are more trustworthy, particularly when they are speaking up about something relevant to their business.  

Here are some cases in point:

Why This Matters:  In a word: scale.  McDonald's has 37,000 restaurants in more than 100 countries serving over 69 million customers daily - they have real power to lead industry and consumers toward a more sustainable future and fuel a movement to address waste globally.  The same applies to Walmart, Apple, and HP - with global operations, supply chains, and customers, these companies can go beyond what is possible by international institutions.  But small-scale efforts matter too - these give individuals a chance to participate.  We love what up-and-coming retailer United by Blue is doing to organize action at the grassroots level -- action that people can see and touch.  While the gun safety issue may be in the spotlight now, climate change and sustainability are high up on the responsibility priority list.  
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