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Our Daily Planet: Primaries from Coast to Coast, Can't Hear You, and Trees that Glow in the Dark
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

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Today's Coast to Coast Primaries:  PA, NE, ID and OR

Today's primaries all feature important environmental issues and no shortage of swing districts.  Here is a quick guide to the conservation issues and candidates in play in each.

Pennsylvania has newly configured districts, which has shaken up some of the previously safe seats.   The western part of the state was ground zero for President Trump in 2016 because of the decline of coal mining and loss of manufacturing jobs.  The lingering after-effects of mining pervade the region: orange streams full of sulfuric acid and heavy metals, toxic pits and more mine reclamation projects than any other state in the nation. The Trump Administration has targeted the region for coal mining renewal projects.  Recently there has been an economic resurgence due to a fracking boom putting Pennsylvania second, behind Texas, in natural gas production. Now fracking and its infrastructure are the biggest environmental issue facing the state.

Nebraska has one contentious Democratic primary in which a former Republican Congressman, Brad Ashford, is running as a Democrat for this old seat, taking on a progressive woman candidate.  The woman, Kara  Eastman, is strong on climate issues and has been endorsed by national progressive groups, including Climate Hawks Vote. 

Oregon has only one Republican Congressman, Greg Walden, who is running unopposed, while 6 Democrats are running for the right to take him on.  His district covers the eastern 2/3rds of the state, including the area where Cliven Bundy and his band of anti-government protesters held an armed standoff and occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon in 2016. 

Idaho has a particularly competitive set of races at both the state and federal level.  Public land issues could be a big factor -- the front-running candidate for Governor on the Republican side is Congressman Raul Labrador (vacating his House seat to run) who is opposed to federal land ownership and management.  According to E & E News, Labrador has sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of public lands bills aimed at transferring millions of acres of federally owned land to state control.  Labrador has said that federal government and environmentalists "have made our land less accessible."

Why This Matters:  The midterm elections this year will be key for both the future of environmental health and safety and climate regulations put in place by prior Administrations, as well as public lands and oceans conservation policies.  Every vote matters when it comes to conserving the environment.


Trump Administration Worried About "PR Nightmare" Due To Improved Water Safety Standards

Last week, we told you about the 126 military installations where tap water or groundwater on or near the base is contaminated with highly toxic fluorinated chemicals.  Yesterday The Hill reported that officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the White House were anxious about the public relations "nightmare" that would be caused because another federal agency was planning to update health standards for fluorinated chemicals in drinking water, according to internal emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

In numerous email exchanges, the White House, EPA and the Defense Department tried to slow down the change in the safety standards out of fear of bad publicity.  One set of emails said, "The public, media and Congressional reaction to these new numbers
is going to be huge,” a White House official wrote in a letter forwarded to the EPA. “The impact to EPA and DoD [the Department of Defense] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”  ATSDR is the agency within the Centers for Disease Control tasked with setting the health standard for safe drinking water given expected exposures. ATSDR's recommendations are nonbinding and don't force the EPA to change its standards, they are important to health professionals. 
  • As we explained last week, EPA's advisory level is 70 parts per trillion for the combined level of the chemicals involved. 
  • A recent study concluded that an approximate safe dose of those chemicals in drinking water is 1 ppt.
Why This Matters:  It is shocking that these elected officials worried more about the appearance of the change to tighten the health standards for safe drinking water than about the health of the public.  If safety came first, the White House and EPA would have greenlit the safety standard change immediately, regardless of how it looked.  Hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to unsafe water at military installations and other communities where these fire retardant chemicals were used and produced. 

To Go Deeper:  You can read the emails yourself by clicking here and here.    

 Climate Change

Photo: Robbie Russell / NASA
Older Arctic Sea Ice is Disappearing and it's a Problem

We talk about melting polar ice a lot here but it's really a big deal. In the Arctic Ocean ice stays frozen year round but as the New York Times reported, this winter, the region hit a record low for ice older than five years. This, along with a near-record low for sea ice over all, supports predictions that by midcentury there will be no more ice in the Arctic Ocean in summer. Some Arctic sea ice melts as summer brings warmer temperatures but some of it stays frozen and grows thicker as winter returns, forming second-year ice. In previous years, this older ice would often turn into multi-year ice and often even last over a decade. Now, most of this older ice has melted away and the newer ice is thinner and less resilient to warming temperatures (which in turn decreases the Earth's albedo).          

Why This Matters: Sea ice levels affect the rest of the planet too. As Penn State Climatologist, Michael Mann, told The Verge, “The Arctic is a natural freezer. Just like you’d be concerned if all of the ice in your freezer melted, so should you be concerned about the loss of Arctic sea ice.” For instance, scientists believe that the warming Arctic may cause more extreme weather in North America and Europe (remember that "Bomb Cyclone" Eastcoasters?). Earlier this year, for instance, research showed that when the Arctic is unusually warm, extreme winter weather is two to four times more likely in the eastern US. Loss of sea ice also affects animals like narwhals and polar bears who rely on it for shelter and hunting and whose populations could rapidly drop without enough summer sea ice. 


Cities Grapple with Noise Pollution

The EPA has said that noise below an average of 70 decibels over 24 hours is a safe threshold that won't cause hearing loss, it's European equivalent, on the other hand, set noise guidelines of 40 decibels at night to “protect human health” adding that steady, continuous noise in the daytime should not exceed 50 decibels. Cities and citizens across America are fighting for ways to reduce noise pollution because in addition to hearing problems researchers have found that sustained exposure to noise pollution may increase the risk of heart disease. New YorkCity is having its noise monitored by NYU with a grant from the National Science Foundation. In Houston, new “quiet concrete” is being tested on busy stretches of highway. Phoenix has resurfaced more than 200 miles of highway with a concrete mix that uses pieces of old tires to dampen sound

According to  Rick Neitzel, director of environmental health policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, “The consensus is that if we can keep noise below 70 decibels on average, that would eliminate hearing loss,” Neitzel said. “But the problem is that if noise is more than 50 decibels, there’s an increased risk of heart attack and hypertension,” he said. “Noise at 70 decibels is not safe.” It's also noteworthy that poorer neighborhoods, as well as more racially segregated ones, have higher levels of noise pollution that whiter, more affluent zip codes, according to a study from UC Berkeley. 

Why This Matters: The most troubling thing about these statistics is that most people are unaware that noise pollution is harmful to their health. Raising awareness around noise pollution should be a PSA much in the same way that the CDC spread awareness about the dangers of second-hand smoke. If we're supposed to keep noise below 40 decibels at night then many Americans are at risk and should have better information available to them: 
Graphic: UC Berkeley


New Science About BOFFFs Shows Their Importance

According to a new study published last Friday in the journal Science, the older and larger a female fish, the more important she is for species conservation and management.  Why, you ask?  Because of her eggs of course -- the older and bigger, the more eggs a female fish can lay.  The Washington Post reports that this study by biologists at Monash University in Australia and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, who gathered egg data from 342 fish species across the world's oceans, shows that the difference can be quite profound.  For example, the vermilion snapper had a 400-fold difference in eggs between the littlest mother fish, who lays approximately 4000 eggs versus an older larger female, who can lay as many as 4,000,000 the study's authors told The Washington Post.

Why This Matters:  Apparently, the "
size effect" in fisheries is so well known it has an acronym: BOFFFF, for Big Old Fat Fecund Female Fish. LOL - size matters for female fish.  This new work is important for our understanding of fisheries because a BOFFFF's importance is often tough to assess. Really?!?  According to government scientists, these older female fish tend to get fished out of the population -- the bigger the fish, the better from a fisherman's standpoint. This story just keeps getting better from my (Monica's) perspective. In fact, protecting older females is a good way to replenish overfished stocks.  We find this fisheries term "BOFFFs" funny and a little offensive.  Big old mommas everywhere unite!  Of course, they are important - no matter what species!  Just don't apply this "scientific term" to female humans!


Image: Screenshot of Dezeen video 
One Cool Thing: Could Glowing Trees Replace Streetlights?

From F&C: If you happened to be in San Diego last week and stood on the beach at night, you might have seen the ocean glowing an electric shade of blue as bioluminescent algae bloomed, a relatively rare natural phenomenon. Danish researchers with a startup called Allumen are trying to isolate the genes that make the microalgae glow for another purpose: potential natural streetlights.

If the genes of the trees could be tweaked then they could glow at night in the same way the algae does and potentially help illuminate city streets. This, of course, comes with its own set of ethical challenges, such as what happens to plants and animals that surround, cross-fertilize or feed on the trees? The glowing blue light could also ultimately not be bright enough and as cities begin to use more renewable energy to power streetlights they may avoid uptake of it altogether. Though the technology is still far from reality, it's pretty cool to imagine a park of glowing trees! 
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