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Our Daily Planet: Hazy Days of Summer Thanks to Pruitt, Starbucks Cup Charge, and a Bad-Mannered Dolphin
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Tuesday, May 2nd, 2018

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Shenandoah Valley in the haze.  Photo: National Park Service
Hazy Shades of Summer

Thanks to the Trump Administration, your visit to a national park this summer may be marred by increased air pollution.  The EPA's Regional Haze program requires states to implement pollution control plans to improve visibility and air quality at national parks, such as the Grand Canyon.  Since it began the average visual range has increased from 90 to 120 miles in some western parks and from 50 to 70 miles in some eastern parks, while also providing important public health benefits by removing toxic air pollutants from the regions near parks.  As you can see from the photo above, smog in parks like Shenandoah National Park can really have a negative impact.  The story of this program is a familiar one -- the Obama Administration strengthened it with a new rule it put in place in late December 2016.  It was immediately challenged in court, and when the Trump Administration took office the next month, they suspended the new rule for review by their EPA appointees. Just last month, President Trump further directed the Administrator of EPA to also review the state pollution control plans under the program and speed permit approvals for new industrial facilities that are currently covered by those plans.

At the same time, there is new evidence, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that gains made in a critical component of smog, pollutants called nitrogen oxides, have slowed dramatically between 2011 and 2015.
The exact cause of the slowdown is still uncertain, but finding the sources could prove more difficult under the current EPA because of the new proposal that would exclude certain public health and air pollution studies when considering changes to federal air standards.  Scientists believe that the ramp-up in industrial activity related to the economic recovery is to blame  -- possibly from industrial boilers and large, dirtier diesel trucks. 

And This Just In:  The state of California and 17 other states are suing the EPA over the agency's effort to roll back tougher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks that would have made a huge dent in tailpipe emissions.  

Why It Matters: Just when air pollution is getting worse, protective regulations are being rolled back. Air pollution harms human health in two major ways. The tiny, microscopic bits of particulate matter emitted largely by cars are linked to heart disease, including a recent study that found living near polluted areas speeds up the thickening of heart arteries. Meanwhile, smog also harms our lungs and causes breathing problems. Not to mention making your visit to a national park much less enjoyable.  The photo above sadly is not an exaggeration -- I (Monica) can attest that the view of the Shenandoah Valley is lost in the haze many days each summer and that's before these rollbacks.  SAD.


Saguaro National Park at sunset.  Photo: Danita Delimont, Travel & Liesure
There's a Chip in that Cactus

Speaking of national parks, if you ever thought about stealing a cactus from one, well, think again.  National Public Radio on Monday reported on an innovative new program the National Park Service is experimenting with embedding microchips (the same ones they put in pets) in hundreds of cacti in the Saguaro National Park near Tucson to combat theft of these iconic trees.  It seems that people actually do steal the protected saguaro cactus -- dig them right out of the ground and then sell them for big bucks.  

Of the roughly 1.9 million saguaro cacti in the park, only 1,000 of them have the tags.  Working with the National Parks Foundation, the Park Service there tagged small saguaros and ones found close to roads -- which are the most likely to be stolen. The trackers don't actively broadcast a signal. So if a cactus goes missing, the only way to know if it's from the park is for a ranger to scan the suspect cactus with a specialized reader.  Hopefully, just knowing the cactus could be traced back to the park will be a deterrent to thieves.

Why This Matters:  Theft from National Parks is a bigger problem than you might think and its a big headache for the Park Service -- not to mention a shame because those cacti belong to you and me. Everything from civil war crockery to fossils to other valuable collectibles could be at risk of theft in many parks, which do not have legions of police officers to guard everything.  Let's hope this experimental new technology can help protect our national treasures.  Parks are valuable to driving local economies -- but only if there are things to see there.

To Listen to the Full Story:  Click here.

 Climate Change

Clockwise from top left: The deer tick, which transmits Lyme disease; the American dog tick, which transmits Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia; the Culex pipiens mosquito, which transmits West Nile virus; and the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits Zika, dengue and chikungunya. Photos: CDC
Climate Change is  Field Day for Disease-Spreading Insects

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that illnesses from mosquito, tick and flea bites more than tripled in the United States from 2004 to 2016--jumping from 27,388 to more than 96,000 in the 12-year stretch. The data in the report includes illnesses reported in U.S. states and territories. From 2004-2016 more than 640,000 cases of these diseases were reported to the CDC.

The Post added that officials say the actual number of people who have become sick is much higher, in part because many infections are not reported or recognized. The data “substantially underestimate disease occurrence,” the report said.

Of the infection diseases reported such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, West Nile and Zika, only yellow fever, has a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Why This Matters: Climate change can expand the range where disease-spreading insects can live and breed. Mosquitos and ticks thrive in warm temperature and when average temperatures rise they can live in more places especially when it doesn't always get cold enough in the winter to kill them. 

Go Deeper: 8 Ways to Prevent Mosquito Bites That Actually Work. 


Hawaii is the Biggest State for Renewables

When it comes to renewable energy, Hawaii is leading the pack of states working to bring wind and solar projects online.  According to E&E News via Scientific American, Hawaii derives 33 percent of its electricity from rooftop solar and the state has 60 utility-scale renewable energy projects feeding power into its grids.  The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) is studying how Hawaii integrates a large amount of rooftop solar panels into its system.  Rooftop solar panels were long considered a wild-card in the renewables market because this type of power fluctuates so much and may not be readily available during times of peak demand.  

While solar power is rapidly becoming the cheapest source of electricity, the scientists at the DOE lab found that a utility that builds facilities that produce more than it can store and later distribute may find the power actually more expensive. So they are testing the use of “smart inverters” -- switches that can automatically respond to potential overloads -- which help Hawaii's six grids handle the ups and downs of solar power.  The scientists are also modeling different scenarios to ensure a smooth transition to a greater percentage of renewables feeding into the grid.  

Similarly, Hawaii regulators yesterday approved a consumer financing program to boost the adoption of clean energy technology.  The new program will provide renters, low-income households, nonprofits and other Hawaiian Electric ratepayers with "on-bill" loans to install solar hot water heaters, solar photovoltaic systems and/or commercial energy efficiency measures, effectively removing significant barriers for many consumers.

Why This Matters: Hawaii, with its highly ambitious goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045, effectively functions as a demonstration project for what states might do as the United States moves faster toward renewable energy than many experts anticipated.  The way Hawaii guards against overloads and brownouts, if successful, is sure to be repeated by other state grids.  The NREL's scientists believe that with lessons learned there, they can replicate Hawaii's successes in other states.  The nation’s combined wind and solar power contributed over 10 percent of U.S. electricity. It marked the first time since 1984 that renewable sources eclipsed the amount of power produced by the country’s nuclear power plants.   

To Go Deeper:  Read NREL's 2-part report entitled "NREL and Hawaiian Electric Navigate Uncharted Waters of Energy Transformation."


Starbucks Sustainability Update: Going Strong

In March, we wrote that in response to a campaign (and general criticism) calling for Starbucks to limit their use of plastics and waste, the company responded by launching the NextGen Cup Challenge and taking the first step in the development of a global end-to-end solution that would allow cups around the world to be diverted from landfills and composted or given a second life. Then, last month, Starbucks announced that it will test using paper and biodegradable straws in 54 of it's UK locations around London and Manchester. 

Most recently, however, the company announced that it has implemented a 5 cent surcharge on disposable cups in 35 of its London stores, giving customers a 25 cent discount and donating the surcharge to charity. In a preliminary report published last week, Starbucks says it has seen a 150 percent increase in reusable cup use, based on the number of people redeeming the 25 pence discount on reusable cups.

Why This Matters: Starbucks uses about 6 billion disposable cups annually and after setting its goal in 2008 to recycle its cup and create better designs it's faced challenges. F&C wrote that while Starbucks does now have a paper cup that can be recycled and others that can be composted, the bigger problem is that few cities have the right infrastructure to process either kind. So perhaps the solution is in part a cultural one, to incentivize people to use fewer disposable resources where they can. Let's hope these programs can be implemented in more places than the UK, the US certainly could use help in limiting our plastic straw use. 


One Funny Thing: Dolphin Hipchecks Australian Paddleboarder 

Just in case you hadn't seen the viral video of a dolphin knocking over Australian surfer/paddleboarder Andrew Hill, here you go and you're welcome. The video captures a pod of dolphins dancing in the waves off Perth, Australia's coast when one of the playful cetaceans jumps into Hill, knocking him straight off his board. This stretch of coastline is where two surfers have recently been mauled by great white sharks but as Hill added, “Surfers like seeing dolphins.”

In his TV interview after the video went viral, Hill had no idea what he’d done to offend the dolphin, and could only compare the blow to a game of rugby, which he took with a sportsman’s grace.

“Fairly legal hip-and-shoulder, I think,” Hill said. “Hat’s off to him.

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