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Our Daily Planet: More Storms, Air Pollution & Productivity, Solar in Coal Country, IUU Fishing Exposed, Plastic Recycling Breakthrough, and He's Back
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

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 Climate Change

East and West Coast Slammed by More Severe Weather; EPA Slammed Too

In Boston, the city is hunkered down in the midst of another massive snowstorm which was predicted to bring up to 18 more inches of snow, with coastal flooding and damaging, gale-force winds also expected.  Ahead of the storm on Monday night, schools in Boston and more than 500 flights from Logan Airport had been canceled, with most public transportation also shut down.  This is the third major snowstorm to hit Boston in two weeks.

Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara, California, heavy rains have forced mandatory evacuations due to the potential for severe mudslides again.  Emergency authorities in the Montecito area went door to door Monday afternoon to let residents know of new mandatory evacuation orders, which went into effect at 8:00 p.m. Monday night.  During the mudslides earlier this year, evacuations were voluntary and as a result, many people were not able to get out in time.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Santa Barbara County officials warned,  "[t]hose hills are filled with silt, with rocks, with boulders, there's plenty more up there that could come down." Sheriff Bill Brown told reporters Monday that conditions may be more precarious than in January before deadly mudslides swept through Montecito. "Don't be fooled into thinking that this can't happen again," he said. Because the rain storm was expected to move in quickly, County officials created an interactive map so residents could monitor the level of risk to their neighborhoods.

And in Washington, D.C., the EPA was also taking a pounding.  An outside panel of young people who are part of EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) released to E&E News a draft 85-page report slamming the agency for its failures to address climate change.  According to E&ENews, the report was written by 15 youth representatives (between the ages of 19 and 29) who come from academia, environmental groups and local government and are either currently working with local communities vulnerable to climate change or have done so in the past.

Why This Matters:  These relentless storms are a harbinger of things to come.  Young people are speaking up and putting increasing pressure on the government to take action -- they will live with the consequences of our failures and they know it.  That future comes into sharper focus with each hazardous storm that hits - with real impacts on people's lives and to the local economies.  


Air Pollution Decreases Productivity--Even In Office Jobs

Researchers from Columbia University, USC, and UC San Diego spent 10 years researching how breathing polluted air affected workers' productivity. Their recently published research demonstrates that air pollution decreased productivity in farm and factory workers and even in workers with office jobs

The biggest impact of air pollution was seen in farm workers in California’s Central Valley, who were paid by the volume of grapes and blueberries they collected. Days that had higher readings of ground-level ozone—a harmful gas formed when tailpipe emissions mix with sunlight—resulted in worker productivity decline of 5.5 percent. Pear packers in a Northern California plant were also affected by particulate matter despite working indoors, their productivity on high pollution days fell by 3 percent. 

The researchers also studied Chinese call center workers in Shanghai and Nantong (cities with pollution levels comparable to that of large US cities) to find that they also incurred productivity loss though less than the other groups (0.3 percent decline for a roughly 4-5 microgram increase in particulate matter). Call center workers make about 100 calls a day, which resulted in about one fewer call a day for every four workers.

Why This Matters: There's a growing body of evidence showing just how harmful air pollution is to human health, even "safe levels" of exposure can damage babies' brains while they're in the womb. While environmentalists and healthcare groups generally lobby for increased air pollution standards where industry opposes them, this is a signal that air pollution can affect bottom lines. Even China (who is often criticised for choosing economic growth over environmental protection) has made major strides in the last 4 years to reduce air pollution after levels got so bad they were decreasing the lifespan of Chinese citizens. In cities like Beijing and Shijiazhuang life expectancy is up 3.3 years and 5.3 years, respectively after government pollution reduction efforts were put in place.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. the Trump Administration has worked to roll back numerous air pollution standards. Most recently reversing 2016 rules governing leaks and emissions from oil and gas drilling operations, which release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air and increase the severity of respiratory diseases. 


Teacher Myrtle Boggs and her students explain how solar is saving money for their rural school. Photo: KVEC Video
Students in Coal Country Are Working Toward a Power Shift

Schools in coal country are struggling to pay their energy bills as region’s heavy reliance on coal has led power rates to rise faster than in other parts of the country. As Ohio Valley Resource reported, "Arlie Boggs Elementary sits between Kentucky’s two tallest mountains in a remote area that once had a booming coal economy. Ten years ago there were over a thousand coal miners employed here in Letcher County. Today, there are just 28." As eighth-grader Nicholas Sturgill put it, "Paying bills had become a hardship for many. We wondered what we could do to reduce costs in our homes and our schools."

Sturgill and his classmates at first tried creating hydroelectric power from a creek by their school but with the help of a former student, who had recently launched Bluegrass Solar, they installed three solar panels that sit on the school’s roof are used mainly to charge the classroom laptops. With the savings to the school, students hope to buy more solar panels and further reduce reliance on grid energy. Kentucky's utility (Kentucky Power) recently attempted to increase power rates but was denied by the utility commission after schools expressed that they simply wouldn't be able to afford the increase. However, commissioners directed the power company to cut costs by scrapping the program that paid customers who invest in energy efficiency--which schools relied upon to make upgrades and save money. 

Why This Matters:  Kentucky's Commissioner of Education Stephen Pruitt said in a recent utility commission meeting that Many of our schools are literally going month-to-month and even week-to-week to be able to keep the doors open." Students have not only had to put their ingenuity toward finding energy solutions for their school but have also worked to conserve energy wherever possible. "On average, Kentuckians and West Virginians have consistently used more energy than the average American. That’s likely in part because the two states have historically had among the country’s lowest electricity rates. Now, as the costs are growing, there’s more incentive to conserve electricity."

Kentucky, unlike many other states, has no mandate to require a certain share of renewable energy and this hasn't just hurt schools but also the state's big business employers who have committed to using increasing amounts of renewable energy in their operations. General Motors, Ford, Walmart, L'Oreal, and Toyota complain that there's not enough renewable energy being generated in the state to allow them to meet their goals. 


The Terminator Takes On Big Oil and Gas 

At SXSW yesterday, in an interview with Politico, former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vowed to sue the oil and gas companies for murder.  This is just too good to summarize.  Here is the Governor in his own words:
  • We’re going to go after them, and we’re going to be in there like an Alabama tick. Because to me, it’s absolutely irresponsible to know that your product is killing people and not have a warning label on it, like tobacco,” he said. “Every gas station on it, every car should have a warning label on it, every product that has fossil fuels should have a warning label on it.”
  • "This is no different from the smoking issue. The tobacco industry knew for years and years and years and decades, that smoking would kill people, would harm people and create cancer, and were hiding that fact from the people and denied it. Then eventually they were taken to court and had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars because of that.”
  • “The oil companies knew from 1959 on, they did their own study that there would be global warming happening because of fossil fuels, and on top of it that it would be risky for people’s lives, that it would kill.”
There is no exact timetable on the litigation, but he is already working with lawyers on it and preparing a big public push, most likely in conjunction with a large environmental meeting he is hosting in Vienna in June.

Why This Matters:  The oil and gas companies are like comic book villains because for years they have reaped vast benefits from exploiting oil and gas without bearing the true cost of carbon emissions and their actions have harmed the public/planet.  This tough talk from the Terminator will likely both raise awareness with the public and put even more muscle into the fight to get the oil companies to pay now to mitigate the impacts of climate change.  He said he'd be back!  


Photo: European Union Naval Force
Fishing Vessels Go Dark To Avoid Detection

A new report released by the environmental group Oceana on Monday, in conjunction with its partner Global Fishing Watch, highlighting four commercial fishing vessels that appeared to turn off their public tracking systems, a potentially questionable behavior known as going dark at sea.  Boats are required to use tracking devices in order to ensure safety at sea, but many boats turn them off -- and when they do it can indicate illegal activity.  Using satellite technology and image analysis, Global Fishing Watch was able to pinpoint the suspicious activity:
  • A Panamanian commercial fishing vessel seemed to disappear on the west side of the Galápagos Marine Reserve, reappearing after 15 days on the east side of the reserve.
  • An Australian commercial fishing vessel appeared to disable its AIS near the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve on 10 separate occasions over one year.
  • A Spanish commercial fishing vessel appeared to repeatedly go dark when approaching The Gambia’s national waters over a one-and-a-half-year period.
  • Another Spanish commercial fishing vessel appeared to turn off its AIS signal consistently over a seven-month period while operating in the national waters of at least five African countries and on the high seas.
One of the study's authors, Lacey Malarky, told National Public Radio (NPR), "[t]his practice of vessels going dark is really widespread on a global scale," but until now there was no way to call these actions to the attention of the appropriate law enforcement officials.  After seeing the report, the European Commission and the Spanish government have opened investigations into the cases spotlighted by Oceana, Malarky told NPR. "It's an unprecedented step for the EU in terms of AIS non-compliance."

Why This Matters:  Most governments with large marine protected areas do not have this type of enforcement capability -- to find the dark vessels as they go in and out of places where fishing is illegal.  Large marine reserves are very important ocean regeneration zones -- they provide a refuge for fish and other marine life to grow and spawn.  But these reserves are only effective if they are safe from illegal fishing.  With this capability to see in the "dark," we are one step closer to eradicating the $20B illegal fishing trade. 


Photo: The Plastic Age
23-Year-Old Scientist Is Helping the World With its Plastic Pollution Problem

Canadian scientist Miranda Wang and her company BioCellection want to change how we reuse plastics and ensure they don't wind up in the ocean. In her words she wants to, "make plastic waste infinitely recyclable." Currently, only 9% of plastic ever created has been recycled and 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year with millions more piling up in landfills. Plastics generally don't biodegrade but instead, take an incredibly long time to photodegrade.

Drawing inspiration from a soil-based bacteria capable of eating plastic, Wang and her cofounder Jeanny Yao engineered a catalyst that is able to do the same job as the bacteria but far more quickly and efficiently. As CNN reported, Wang is currently focusing on plastic films like shopping bags, the three-hour process breaks down plastic into chemicals that can act as the building blocks for more complex plastic products: nylon for clothes, shoe soles, even automobile parts.

Additionally, "The company has attracted attention, and Schmidt Marine Technology Partners (established by ex-Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy) is among its supporters. BioCellection is now building partnerships with sorting facilities including Greenwaste in San Jose, along with chemical companies and brands to build their supply chain."

Why This Matters: As Wang noted, "Right now we're able to achieve about 70% conversion from plastic waste material to these chemicals." Most importantly, BioCellection believes that when scaled up, it could undercut the virgin plastic market. Even though the world's plastic addiction doesn't seem to be going away, Miranda Wang is remaining optimistic:
"My dream is to be able to see that something that is a sad piece of plastic -- that would right now go to the ocean or landfill -- could be used to make a brand-new Patagonia jacket. (These) problems always seem insurmountable, but they're all created bit by bit. I think when it comes to solving the massive world problems we have, many of the answers are embedded in technology. There's so much creativity out there, so much knowledge in our world, I believe we're able to solve all of them if we try."
ODP Readers - Thanks for reading all the way to the end of today's edition.  We have some exciting news -- stay tuned later this week!  
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