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Ask Umbra: How do I fight my city’s terrible litter problem?

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Q. My city is littered with litter! It is all over the place. I try to pick up litter whenever I am outside, but I am only one person. What other methods can I employ to clean up my city? Blakely S. Boston, Mass. A. Dearest Blakely, Of all the environmental issues out there, you’d think litter would be the one we could all agree to fix. After all, when’s the last time you heard someone argue in favor of greasy potato chip bags in the park or cigarette butts in the harbor? But despite the near-universal distaste for litter, there’s still trash flying around town. Go figure. I’m glad to hear you’re concerned. As you may already know, the litter problem does more than make a neighborhood look, well, trashy. Free-range garbage also makes its way into storm drains, and from there, local waterways, where it can end up in the stomachs of turtles and seabirds. It may attract pets and wildlife, which in turn invites the spread of germs. Litter diverts recyclable items from the recycling plant. And in case those reasons don’t move you – personally, you had me at turtles in distress – littering costs businesses and governments billions in cleanup. That’s a high price to pay for the “convenience” of tossing a banana peel out the car window. Your solo anti-littering crusade is no doubt a positive step, Blakely, but you can multiply your impact with a little help from your friends. One person picking up litter can haul a few bags away, sure, but one person inspiring others to pick up litter is what really gets things done. My best piece of advice? Start recruiting others to your cause. This can be as simple as getting a few friends together, handing out bags, and spending a few hours in the sunshine scooping up trash. You might want to add protective gloves, too, just in case. Earth Day is tomorrow – why not celebrate with a spur-of-the-moment cleanup party? If you’re truly moved by this cause, I encourage you to take it a step further and get organized. Community cleanup events that put dozens of locals on the job will have a much bigger impact (and tend to lend a rather festive air to the proceedings to boot). The nonprofit Keep America Beautiful sets up Great American Cleanup events each year, where you can meet like-minded neighbors while hoovering up garbage in your parks, roadways, and community spaces. Connect with your local chapter here. And if you don’t find a ready-made anti-litter event nearby, well, why not start your own? Keep America Beautiful supplies a bunch of helpful tips for would-be litter moguls, from setting up an organizing committee to choosing a date (hint: springtime is great) to getting the word out around town. One of the best ways to add manpower and publicity to a project like this is hooking up with other local organizations: Think schools, churches, nonprofits, service clubs, Scouts, 4-H clubs, college environmental organizations — any group with a track record of community service is a good bet. While you’re at it, talk to your local businesses about donating snacks, tools, or even T-shirts to your volunteers. Before I get too carried away, let me mention one more step: Have your big cleanup be the kickoff for regular anti-trash events! You and your friends, plus any other groups you recruit, can “adopt” particularly litter-challenged spots and make it your mission to keep them wrapper-free. Not only will you be picking up garbage every month or so, you’ll also be instilling a sense of pride and ownership in your community, which is kind of like mosquito repellent for litterbugs. Don’t forget about the power of social media while you’re planning your event, Blakely, whether it’s a simple get-together with friends or a community-wide shindig. Facebook and Twitter can be great ways to spread the word about what you’re up to, and check out what this enterprising man is doing with Instagram. The more people know, the more they’ll be inspired to join your crusade – and the better off your town (and your town’s turtles) will be. Beautificationally, UmbraFiled under: Cities, Living

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Bury The Dead

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On January 24, 2009, my college classmate Julian was killed in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan. He was twenty-five years old, and his was the first combat death in Afghanistan during the Obama presidency. His death was also the first I learned of from a Facebook wall.Read more…

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Now available: 29 flavors of open source seeds, sans patents

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There’s been an argument going on for at least 100 years over seeds. Should they be free? Or should the people who develop them control, and profit from, their use? If they were shared, we’d have a more fluid development of agricultural technology, because all plant breeders could experiment with the best stuff. On the other hand, maybe breeders wouldn’t want to engage in the hard work of experimenting if they couldn’t sell their inventions for lots of money. It used to be that those who bred new varieties of plants shared them freely, in part because it was almost impossible to control them: As soon as someone buys one of your new tomato seeds, he can use it to make a hundred more. As Irwin Goldman, a vegetable breeder at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, told NPR reporter Dan Charles, plant breeders used to have a code of ethics that mandated sharing: “If other breeders asked for our materials, we would send them a packet of seed, and they would do the same for us,” he says. “That was a wonderful way to work, and that way of working is no longer with us.” All that changed after seed companies began producing hybrids, which lose their superpowers if you try to grow more of them, and as cash-strapped universities have begun patenting more and more of their seeds. But on Thursday the Open Source Seed Initiative at the University of Wisconsin-Madison released the first set of seeds with an open-source license. It is distributing 29 varieties, including broccoli, celery, kale, and quinoa. The license is pretty simple: It’s just a commitment to keep the seeds, and their derivatives, in the public domain. Instead of the pages of small print that comes with most patent use agreements, this is “almost like a haiku,” Goldman said. But, like the software-industry idea it borrows from, it also effectively commits those who use the seeds as raw material for new products to share those innovations under the same open-source terms. In other words, it’s contagious, in a good way. Jack Kloppenburg (who I’ve written about here) has been one of the main people pushing open source seeds. And Kloppenburg, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says this initiative is aimed at a larger problem. As with open-source software, these seeds are meant to encourage innovation and allow researchers to build quirky things for small markets. Bigger companies generally specialize their products for the biggest market. Here’s Dan Charles again: [Kloppenburg] says turning seeds into private property has contributed to the rise of big seed companies that in turn promote ever-bigger, more specialized farms. “The problem is concentration, and the narrow set of uses to which the technology and the breeding are being put,” he says. Kloppenburg says one important goal for this initiative is simply to get people thinking and talking about how seeds are controlled. “It’s to open people’s minds,” he says. “It’s kind of a biological meme, you might say: Free seed! Seed that can be used by anyone!” This doesn’t conclude the argument over seeds, by any means; it actually ups the stakes. Commercial seeds used to be naturally open source, and now they are overwhelmingly privatized. The Open Source Seed Initiative provides the opportunity to make what was an academic debate real again. For the moment, university scientists will probably be the main people to benefit from open-source seeds. But if you want some, you will soon be able to buy them from High Mowing Organic Seeds and Wild Garden Seed.Filed under: Article, Food

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A surprisingly pleasant song about plastic pollution

If you’re like the Amazing Mr. Smashing, you’re probably singing and chucking water bottles at sea otters. If so, why don’t you kick some puppies while you’re at it? If not, phew — you’re off the hook. Or not. It turns out that most of the junk in the ocean is plastic, and chances are, some of it’s yours. Don’t worry, some of it is mine, too. The stuff just never goes away! Sure, it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces over a coupla years, but then fish and barnacles and birds and maybe even weird new microbial ecosystems eat it. The video, by illustrator Edward Ward, was produced by Seas at Risk, a Brussels-based group fighting the good fight against ocean trash. This week, the European parliament passed a resolution to reduce single-use plastic bag use by 80 percent in the next five years. (Sorry, American Beauty fans, get your sublime litter fix before it runs out.) It’s not a perfect victory, since problematic “biodegradable” bags get a pass; still, it could save a lot of choked sea turtles in the long run. Nice work, Europe. Now you’ll have something to hum while you’re bringing your goldfish home from the pet store in a Klean Kanteen.Filed under: Article, Living

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Three Gulf Coast victories scored since the BP spill

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You will hear a lot of gloomy reports about the state of the Gulf Coast as we approach the fourth-year commemoration of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster on April 20. And that’s fair. BP deserves little cheer in the face of widespread health problems across the Gulf, for both humans and marine animals, and the disappearance of entire fishing communities. Despite what BP is telling us, it ain’t all good. But it ain’t all bad, either. Gulf Coast communities from the Florida Panhandle to Texas’s right shoulder had been through a few disaster rodeos before the BP spill. They’ve survived hurricanes named for just about every letter of the alphabet. And they’ve endured careless and reckless decisions from every level of government, way more than one time too many. Given those past experiences, residents and activists along the Gulf corralled together after the BP disaster to make sure their most immediate concerns would be heard this time around. Region-wide networks like the Gulf Future Coalition and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health were formed immediately after the spill to harness the expertise of Gulf citizens who often historically were excluded from recovery processes. Through guiding documents like the Unified Action Plan for a Healthy Gulf and media projects like Bridge the Gulf, community members were able to voice their concerns and demands, free of bureaucratic or political filters. These projects gave Gulf residents the opportunity not only to frame the Gulf recovery narrative, but also to influence government-led recovery plans. The result has been three demonstrable victories: 1. The Gulf Coast gets to keep the money: The current civil trial against BP to determine how much the company will pay in Clean Water Act fines won’t conclude until next year, but scientists and legal experts expect fines to total upwards of $20 billion, which normally would be great news … for the U.S. Treasury. Under the Oil Spill Liability Act, such fines are directed to a special Treasury account to be used to cope with future oil tragedies. But Gulf Coast communities said, “Wayment, y’alls oil and gas drillers been foulin’ up our waters for decades. We deserve that money for the tragedies y’all been causin’ today.” The community groups wrote up a new law called the RESTORE Act, which would keep 80 percent of the BP fine money right there in the Gulf, and out of reach of D.C.’s balanced-budget stalkers. Inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom says no one’s been able to get anything passed through Congress the past few years. Well, the RESTORE Act passed, and it’s now law. The Gulf Coast keeps the money. Derrick Evans, director of the Gulf Coast Fund, explains it better in this video. 2. Gulf Coast residents get some health care (even as they’re denied the full benefits of Obamacare): Unexplained illnesses have become prevalent in the wake of the spill, particularly among those involved in the emergency cleanup response immediately after. Despite an untold number of Gulf residents complaining of respiratory problems, rashes, and nausea, BP stated it would not hear any health-related grievances through its claims process. In fact, BP publicly doubted that any of the reported illnesses were connected to the oil spill. But Gulf advocates did not let BP off that easy. When the company settled part of its civil case with a party of commercial fishermen and oil workers for $7.8 billion in 2012, activists were able to finagle a $105 million carve-out for health centers to be built in every Gulf state. These new health facilities will provide services to all Gulf residents, not just those directly impacted by the oil spill, and also epidemiological training for doctors so they can better monitor for spill-related illnesses as they surface over time. “These communities gave input early on that helped to shape the program that is now coming back to provide health services to them,” says Steve Bradberry, executive director of The Alliance Institute, which helped facilitate the community input. Another silver lining here is that the new health centers, some of which are just now coming online, are being built in states where the governors have turned down federal funding to expand Medicaid. 3. You don’t have to rely on Anderson Cooper for your Gulf news anymore: When disaster strikes the Gulf, national media forces like CNN and The New York Times drone in to capture the melee, then disperse at the first sign of another news story elsewhere in the world. And then Spike Lee comes and shoots a documentary, and it’s a wrap. But that’s not the whole picture anymore. Gulf residents have taken their stories into their own hands, eyes, and voices, mainly through documentaries. The result is what film scholars will hopefully one day recognize as the definitive canon of cinematic Gulf tales of survival. I’ve written about a couple of them, such as Leah Mahan’s Come Hell or High Water and Nailah Jefferson’s Vanishing Pearls. Add to that list Monique Verdin’s My Louisiana Love and Margaret Brown’s The Great Invisible. Then offscreen there’s Cry You One, a play that takes its audience directly to the bayous and wetlands of Louisiana for its narrative — literally. These stories — along with those told in the hundreds of local blogs, news outlets, and books that have sprouted in the past few years — will give future historians a view from the ground of what restoration looked like, who benefited, and who was excluded.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

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The week in GIFs: Mark Ruffalo edition

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Mark Ruffalo won our “Who’s your fave green celeb” poll, plus we’re way overdue to stare at gifs of him. Power plants lost their legal bid to douse you with mercury: TumblrThere’s now a gnat named after Bill McKibben: TumblrThe IPCC report was censored: Fracking can make you sick in a number of different ways: TumblrVermont is about to mandate GMO labels on food: GiphyAir pollution disproportionately affects people of color (even though they aren’t causing as much of it): TumblrAirbnb can make your dreams of running a brothel come true: TumblrThanks for being awesome, Ruff. GiphyFiled under: Living

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BP claims mission accomplished in Gulf cleanup; Coast Guard begs to differ

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BP this week metaphorically hung a “mission accomplished” banner over the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems that it wrecked when the Deepwater Horizon oil well blew up and spewed 200 million gallons of oil in 2010. Funny thing, though: BP isn’t the commander of the cleanup operation. The Coast Guard is. And it’s calling bullshit. Here’s what BP said in a press statement on Tuesday, nearly four years after the blowout: “The U.S. Coast Guard today ended patrols and operations on the final three shoreline miles in Louisiana, bringing to a close the extensive four-year active cleanup of the Gulf Coast following the Deepwater Horizon accident. These operations ended in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi in June 2013.” Helpful though it may have seemed for BP to speak on behalf of the federal government, the Coast Guard took some umbrage. From The Washington Post: Coast Guard Capt. Thomas Sparks, the federal on-scene coordinator of the Deepwater Horizon response, sought to stress that the switch to what he called a “middle response” process “does not end cleanup operations.” “Our response posture has evolved to target re-oiling events on coastline segments that were previously cleaned,” said Sparks. “But let me be absolutely clear: This response is not over — not by a long shot.” The Gulf Restoration Network tried to explain the semantics behind BP’s deceptive statement. “When oil washes up on shore, BP is no longer automatically obliged to go out there and clean up the mess,” spokesperson Raleigh Hoke said. “Now the onus is on the public, and state and federal governments to find the oil and then call BP in.” We get why BP would wish that the cleanup were over. The efforts have already cost $14 billion — a fraction of the $42 billion that the company expects to pay out in fines, compensation claims, and other costs related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It’s a nightmare that we all wish were over — but wishes and rhetoric do not remove poisons from an ecosystem.Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy

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Chris Christie is still trying to force a pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands

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In January, on the heels of the embarrassing revelation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) staffers created a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish an obscure political rival, Christie and his allies were handed a defeat. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected a proposed 22-mile natural-gas pipeline that would go through a national reserve of forests and wetlands. Though Christie went so far as to bully a commissioner who was skeptical of the pipeline into recusing himself from the decision, that wasn’t enough to secure approval. But now the pipeline is back. The state’s leading power brokers want the commission to reconsider and are pressuring commissioners to change their votes, working both behind the scenes and through public statements and symbolic votes in county and town legislative bodies. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, “A growing number of elected officials from Gov. Christie to lawmakers including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have joined county freeholders and township officials in support of the project. They are considering ways of returning the issue to the Pinelands Commission, possibly as a ‘compelling public need’ for energy security and scores of jobs.” The promise of merely “scores” of jobs in a state with 8.9 million residents is a clue that job creation is not the real issue. One of Christie’s top cronies is involved in the proposal. The law firm of David Samson, whom Christie appointed as chair of the Port Authority, represents Rockland Capital, owners of the power plant that the Pinelands pipeline would supply with natural gas. As Wayne Barrett noted in the New York Daily News, “Christie … was so eager to help Rockland that his [Department of Environmental Protection] and Board of Public Utilities (BPU) decided to support the pipeline, paid for by rate increases, despite that the fact that … it would run underground through 15 miles of the million-acre Pinelands, the country’s first natural preserve and a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.” (Samson resigned from the Port Authority last month after the Bridgegate debacle and media reports that he is under federal investigation for lobbying for companies with business before the Port Authority.) The B.L. England power plant, which would be served by the pipeline, currently burns coal. Christie’s Democratic predecessors had forced it to sign agreements to reduce its pollution or switch to natural gas. The Christie administration gave it a reprieve until 2015. Switching from coal to gas could be beneficial to the climate — when burned, gas emits roughly half the CO2 that coal does (though that’s not so impressive compared to wind or solar). But in practice, natural gas drilling operations and pipelines often leak methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas, which can neutralize any climate benefit. And beyond climate change, the pipeline would pose obvious threats to the local environment. Environmental critics say the proposal has such strong backing because the beneficiaries, such as Samson, are politically connected. “It’s not the jobs, it’s the power,” says Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. Tittel also speculates that Christie, seeking support from anti-environment conservatives in the Republican presidential primary, is trying to bolster his pro–fossil fuel bona fides. “The governor had been pro-wind until he went national,” says Tittel. “This [project] is in the middle of an area that was set aside for big wind farms. Cheap gas power will kill offshore wind.” The Christie administration did not respond to a request for comment. Environmentalists and neighbors would like to see the B.L. England plant shut down. Ironically, climate change, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, makes its shoreline location especially precarious. “The power plant is in an area that floods with storm surges,” notes Tittel. And the plant is a blight on the shore. “It’s a big ugly smokestack in a scenic area, Ocean City, which is a tourist hub,” Tittel says. If you decommissioned the plant, Tittel argues, you could create more jobs with development of condos, hotels, and restaurants in the area. (Although any development in a future flood plain could be risky, power plants are especially vulnerable to a storm surge, as all of Lower Manhattan learned when it lost power for days after a transformer station on the East River got hit during Superstorm Sandy.) Unfortunately, New Jersey politicians are notorious for making these types of decisions on the basis of cronyism rather than empiricism. Christie’s latest heavy-handed tactic was to veto 5 percent raises for the Pinelands Commission staffers.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

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People of color contribute least to smog, yet breathe more of it. WTF?

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Get a load of this: It’s not poor people whose nostrils get the dirtiest air. It’s people of color — even wealthy ones. It’s true, you can’t 1,000 percent separate race and class, but new findings from the University of Minnesota found that race, more than income, determines who smog hurts the most. Writes ThinkProgress: When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breathe air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles. Unfair, especially because people of color produce less air pollution than white people (African-Americans, for example, emit 20 percent less CO2 than white Americans). So why is this happening? You know, other than racism? Writes Atlantic Cities: [T]hat’s still a subject for further investigation; [U-Minnesota Professor Julian] Marshall notes that one theory is that more non-whites tend to live in pollution-rich downtown areas and near freeways. The difference isn’t unique to New York and L.A. — it’s true even in the Midwest. The researchers specifically call out Michigan and Wisconsin as places where policymakers should take their findings into account and use air pollution regulations to stem inequality. Lowering people of color’s NO2 exposure to that of white people would prevent 7,000 heart attack deaths every year, the researchers write. Since air pollution is the No. 1 environmental health risk around the world, killing 7 million people annually, it’s pretty significant that people of color are disproportionately affected. It’s yet another reminder that our ideal clean-air, clean-water, bike-safe future’s gotta include gender, racial, and class equality. Onward!Filed under: Cities, Climate & Energy, Living

Continue reading People of color contribute least to smog, yet breathe more of it. WTF?

Ask Umbra: How do I know if my local swimming hole is safe?

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Send your question to Umbra! Q. Summer is coming, so I wonder if the river near my house (the famous Kamogawa) is safe for my kids to splash in. There is a garbage incinerator upstream, though not directly on the river, and the operators *swear* it does not leak. Is there a water testing kit? What kinds of things would I want to test for? And what kinds of safety limits would I want to look for? It does not have to be drinking-water quality, just safe enough to stick their little feet and hands in. GabiKyoto, Japan A. Dearest Gabi, You’ve just officially made it Water Week here at Ask Umbra. On Monday, we waded into what kind of substances we can safely put in the water; today, let’s address whether or not we can put ourselves in as well. I hope you’ll forgive me for answering your question broadly. I don’t know how clean the Kamogawa is, nor will my expense account cover phone calls to Japan to check. But I can share some information I hope will be useful to you and anyone else longing for a warm-weather dip in a local waterway. When water-quality monitors talk about a lake or river being safe for swimming (or splashing), they’re almost always talking about bacteria – whether or not there is any, and in what numbers. Specifically, we’re concerned about the infamous E. coli: Not because it’s dangerous in and of itself (most strains aren’t), but because it’s a good indicator that other, nastier bugs are invisibly doing the backstroke in there. Why? E. coli is commonly found in human and animal poop – so if it’s in the water, then sewage probably is, too. This doesn’t necessarily mean the local sewage treatment plant is overflowing into the river (though it might). High E. coli counts also often come from stormwater runoff, which washes pet waste and bird poop, plus oil, fertilizer, trash, and pesticides into streams and lakes. No matter the source, we should be concerned about the presence of bacteria because it can make us sick, and kids are especially at risk. And you don’t have to drink the water to come down with a case of Kamogawa’s revenge: Open cuts can admit nasty bacteria, and just getting the bugs on your skin can eventually transport them into your mouth. Many agencies here in the States sample the water regularly, particularly at popular swimming spots, and publish the results. These can usually be found through a town or county environment department; a little Googling should point you in the right direction. Failing that, there are some consumer water-testing kits on the market; the Vermont Health Department sells one, for example, and some labs offer kits online. Becky Hammer, a water attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, tests for E. coli as a volunteer for a water-quality project near her Virginia home, and recommends checking to see if your local authorities have a similar program. Any lab should be able to tell you what the safe limits for bacteria are and whether or not your river exceeds them. Industrial and chemical pollution of the sort you might get from a negligent factory upstream is another matter, Gabi. As far as I can tell, detecting this kind of contamination is beyond your typical citizen-scientist. A funky smell, sludgy water, an oil slick, or lots of dead fish can tip you off that something is amiss, but Hammer recommends checking with those local water-quality officials for a more definitive answer. If you’ve done your due diligence and decide it’s OK for the kids to wade and splash a bit, following these don’ts won’t hurt, either. Don’t let the kiddos put their heads underwater. Don’t go in after heavy rains, as that’s when stormwater runoff makes high bacterial counts most likely. Don’t swim or wade near or downstream of storm drains. Don’t let the kids get in if they have open wounds or scrapes. Don’t forget to wash their little hands and feet when you’re done. Happy researching, Gabi, and I do hope you turn up good news about your lovely river. I hear it gets hot in Kyoto come summertime. Horseplayfully, UmbraFiled under: Living

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Insane cycling video will make you hold your breath for two minutes

Grist cannot be held responsible for the crapping of your pants while watching this helmet-cam of daredevil cyclist Geoff Gulevich going down a mountain: The GoPro video of Gulevich’s ride is from the Red Bull Rampage in Virgin, Utah — an exclusive, invite-only mountain bike competition so dangerous it was cancelled for several years — so it’s prrrrrobably not anything you’d encounter in your morning commute. Plus, Gulevich is a professional mountain biker, so don’t feel guilty if you’re not as daring on two wheels. After all, YOU risk getting doored and T-boned if you ride in the city, whereas THIS punk only flirted with the edge of a cliff. Pfffft. He’s got nothin’ on rush-hour San Francisco.Filed under: Cities, Living

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This giant vacuum will suck the pollution out of rivers

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Dyson vacuums are legendary; they’re the main reason divorce is so ugly. So imagine what happens when you put that powerful technology to work cleaning rivers instead of rugs. Did you picture marine trash getting slurped up into the world’s biggest vacuum bag? Ding ding ding! James Dyson hasn’t actually CREATED his super-sucker yet, but he’s made a design for the M.V. Recyclone boat, a.k.a. the U.S.S. Sucky. Check it: James DysonThe barge would scoop plastic off of a river’s surface before the junk can make it to the ocean, explains Fast Co. Exist: The famed designer’s recycling barge, which uses the same cyclone technology as found in Dyson’s vacuum cleaners, has large nets that trap plastic floating on the river’s surface. A suction system then pulls in the waste, where it’s separated and then sent for processing. Plastic trash in the Pacific got 100 times worse in just the past four decades. When barnacles and fish snack on plastic, you can bet it’ll sneak upward into the food chain. By sucking a little more, Dyson just might help your fish and chips suck a bit less.Filed under: Living

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Here’s what fracking can do to your health

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If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn’t the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it’s what could happen to you when you drink it. Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it’s widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It’s also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere. So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that “fracking kills”? The answer to that second question is probably not, especially in the short term and if you don’t work on or live across the street from a frack site (which, of course, some people in fact do). But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to start fracking away next to kindergartens and nursing homes: Gas extraction produces a range of potentially health-endangering pollutants at nearly every stage of the process, according to a new paper by the California nonprofit Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, released today in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institutes of Health. The study compiled existing, peer-reviewed literature on the health risks of shale gas drilling and found that leaks, poor wastewater management, and air emissions have released harmful chemicals into the air and water around fracking sites nationwide. “It’s clear that the closer you are, the more elevated your risk,” said lead author Seth Shonkoff, a visiting public health scholar at the University of California-Berkeley. “We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe.” Shonkoff cautioned that existing research has focused on cataloging risks, rather than linking specific instances of disease to particular drilling operations — primarily because the fracking boom is so new that long-term studies of, say, cancer rates, simply haven’t been done. But as the United States and the world double down on natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal (as this week’s U.N. climate change solutions report suggests), Shonkoff argues policymakers need to be aware of what a slew of fracked wells could mean for the health of those who live near them. Even given the risks involved in producing natural gas, it’s still a much healthier fuel source than coal; particulate pollution from coal plants killed an estimated 13,000 Americans in 2010, while a recent World Health Organization study named air pollution (to which coal burning is a chief contributor) the single deadliest environmental hazard on earth. Still, how exactly could gas drilling make you ill? Let us count the ways: Air pollution near wells: Near gas wells, studies have found both carcinogenic and other hazardous air pollutants in concentrations above EPA guidelines, with the pollution at its worst within a half-mile radius of the well. In one Colorado study, some of the airborne pollutants were endocrine disrupters, which screw with fetal and early childhood development. Several studies also found precursors to ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Silica sand, which is used to prop open underground cracks and which can cause pulmonary disease and lung cancer, was also found in the air around well sites; one study of 111 well samples found silica concentrations in excess of OSHA guidelines at 51.4 percent of them. Recycled frack water: About a third of the water/chemical/sand mixture that gets pumped into wells flows back up, bringing back not just the toxic fracking chemicals but other goodies from deep underground, including heavy metals like lead and arsenic. Some of this wastewater is treated and recycled for irrigation and agriculture or dumped back into lakes and rivers. Multiple studies found that because the menu of chemicals is so diverse, treatment is often incomplete and has the potential to pollute drinking water supplies with chemicals linked to everything from eye irritation to nervous system damage to cancer, as well as the potential to poison fish. Even if wastewater is contained, spills can be a problem: One Colorado study counted 77 fracking wastewater spills that impacted groundwater supplies, of which 90 percent were contaminated with unsafe levels of benzene. Broken wells: Drinking water supplies can also be contaminated when the cement casings around wells crack and leak, which studies estimate to happen in anywhere from 2 to 50 percent of all wells (including oil wells, offshore rigs, etc.). Methane getting into drinking water wells from leaky gas wells is the prime suspect in Pennsylvania’s flammable faucets; a study there last year found some methane in 82 percent of water wells sampled but concluded that concentrations were six times higher for water wells within one kilometer of a fracking well. A Texas study found elevated levels of arsenic at water wells within three kilometers of gas wells. (While the Texas study linked the contamination to gas extraction in general, it was unclear what specific part of the process was responsible). Many of these issues could be improved with engineering advancements, like gadgets that monitor for leaks and capture gas emissions, or hardier cement. Regulation can also play a role: Just yesterday, the EPA released a series of reports on methane emissions that could eventually inform restrictions on them as part of President Obama’s climate plan. This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy

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This velomobile is basically an electric car without the hassle

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If the words “recumbent trike” make your lip curl, we understand. Weird bikes often seem to perpetuate the myth that cyclists are fringey oddballs disconnected from reality. But the ELF deserves a second glance: A team from Durham, N.C., designed the semi-enclosed, three-wheeled contraption to marry the best aspect of bikes and cars. The result is a low-impact EV that gives you some protection from the elements and plenty of room for groceries. Pedal when you can, but let the solar-powered battery kick in if you’re hauling bags of kitty litter uphill. The ELF can go up to 30 mph and carry up to 350 pounds, but doesn’t need any of that pesky car stuff like a license plate, insurance, or actual gasoline. The battery’ll charge in 90 minutes when plugged in, carrying you up to 14 miles — farther if you put your thighs to work. The ELF’s main problem is its $5,495 price tag. Then again, if you’re basically getting 1,800 mpg, it could be worth it — more than 300 ELF owners seem to think so. If, like moi, your wimpiness forever prevents you from turning cyclist, velomobiles like the ELF just might be the gateway drug.Filed under: Business & Technology, Living

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No, the IPCC climate report doesn’t call for a fracking boom

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You might have heard that the latest installment of the big new U.N. climate report endorses fracking, urging a “dash for gas” as a bridge fuel to put us on a path to a more renewable energy future. These interpretations of the report are exaggerated, lack context, and are just plain wrong. They appear to have been based on interviews and on a censored summary of the report, which was published two days before the full document became available. The energy chapter from the full report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “near‐term GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced” by replacing coal-fired power plants with “highly efficient” natural gas–burning alternatives — a move that “may play a role as a transition fuel in combination with variable renewable sources.” But that’s only true, the report says, if fugitive emissions of climate-changing methane from drilling and distribution of the gas are “low” — which is far from the case today. Scientists reported Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that methane measurements taken near fracking sites in Pennsylvania suggest such operations leak 100 to 1,000 times more methane than the U.S. EPA has estimated. The IPCC’s energy chapter also notes that fracking for gas has “created concerns about potential risks to local water quality and public health.” To protect the climate and save ourselves, the new IPCC report says we must quit fossil fuels. That doesn’t mean switching from coal to natural gas. It means switching from coal and gas to solar and wind, plugging electric vehicles into those renewable sources, and then metaphorically blowing up the fossil-fueled power plants that pock the planet. Stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at “low levels” requires a “fundamental transformation of the energy supply system,” the IPCC says. Overall, its latest report concludes that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent by midcentury, and stop producing any such pollution by the turn of the century, if we’re to keeping warming to within 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.7 F. And nothing is more important in meeting those goals than revolutionizing the way we produce electricity. Humanity’s thirst for electricity is the biggest single cause of climate change, with the energy sector fueling a little more than a third of global warming. Wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable forms of energy account for a little more than half of all new generating capacity being built around the world, the report says. But that is not enough. The report notes that renewable energy still requires government support, such as renewable portfolio standards and prices and caps on carbon emissions. But, as desperately as we need to be curbing fossil-fuel burning, we just keep increasing it instead. Greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector rose 3.1 percent every year from 2001 to 2010. In the 1990s, they rose just 1.7 percent annually. “The main contributors to this trend were a higher energy demand associated with rapid economic growth and an increase of the share of coal in the global fuel mix,” the report states. Of course, slaking our thirst for electricity with renewables wouldn’t just be good for the climate. The energy chapter highlights “co-benefits” from the use of renewable energy, “such as a reduction of air pollution, local employment opportunities, few severe accidents compared to some other forms of energy supply, as well as improved energy access and security.” A revolution doesn’t sound so scary when you put it that way.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy

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Student’s mother pleads for release

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The mother of a London student who is to be deported to her native Mauritius pleads with MPs to release her from Yarl’s Wood immigration centre.

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District councillors slam plan to rezone Stanley sites for luxury flats

<!– google_ad_section_start –> District councillors have criticised the government’s plan to rezone two green-belt sites in Stanley for luxury flats as selling public resources to the wealthy. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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‘Baby hatches’ are no substitute for a social welfare system

<!– google_ad_section_start –> A controversy is raging over the growing phenomenon of “baby hatches” on the mainland amid Guangzhou’s abrupt suspension of its new facility after being overwhelmed by abandoned babies. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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Insider trading suspect Xiao Hui wants extradition case delayed

<!– google_ad_section_start –> A mainland businessman accused of 104 insider-trading offences in Australia yesterday urged a court to adjourn his extradition hearing to allow him to pursue a claim for asylum in Hong Kong. <!– google_ad_section_end –>

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America, Inc. at it’s Finest

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Bren-Books.com, Modern first editions and collectible fiction<

bren-books.com, Modern first editions and collectible fiction

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New July 2013