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Dunkin’ Donuts announces eco-friendly switch to paper cups

The switch will remove a billion foam cups from landfills each year, the company says

Dunkin’ Donuts announced that it will start phasing out its controversial foam cups and replacing them with double-walled paper cups.

The Massachusetts-based coffee company will begin the process in New York and California this spring, with a targeted completion date of 2020.

"Transitioning away from foam has been a critical goal for Dunkin' Donuts U.S., and with the double-walled cup, we will be able to offer a replacement that meets the needs and expectations of both our customers and the communities we serve," the company said in a statement.

Reducing waste

By ceasing the use of styrofoam cups, the company estimates it will remove a billion of them each year from the waste stream. Dunkin’ says it uses about two billion cups per year.

Foam packaging decomposes slowly and often ends up in oceans, posing a health hazard to marine life and other animals that ingest it. Environmentally-concerned consumers have pushed for the cups to be banned for years.

The company said it has been searching for a replacement to its foam cups for at least six years. The new cups will be recyclable, double-walled paper cups certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Standard, which means the paper is responsibly sourced.

Dunkin’ isn’t the first chain restaurant to take steps to become greener. Starbucks uses paper cups, and McDonald’s said last month that it would use only recycled or other environmentally friendly materials for its soda cups, Happy Meal boxes, and other packaging by 2025.

Dunkin’ Donuts announced that it will start phasing out its controversial foam cups and replacing them with double-walled paper cups.The Massachusetts-...

Hurricane Irma likely to affect consumers in several states

About seven million Florida consumers are without power

Hurricane Irma's landfall in Florida was bad, but not quite the nightmare scenario that had been painted days in advance.

The Category 4 storm veered west at the last moment, sparing Miami a direct hit but washing the west coast of the state with a relentless storm surge and howling, 100 miles per hour winds as it churned north.

In its wake is widespread damage and nearly seven million Florida residents without power. Consumers hunkered down in their homes will have to cope with no electricity for days, and with limited supplies of food and gasoline.

Even before the storm hit, Gasbuddy reported numerous stations in Florida had run out of fuel as evacuating motorists gassed up on their way north. Without electricity, some gas stations that still have fuel won't be able to pump it. As of this morning, Gasbuddy reported 53% of gas stations in Tampa/St. Petersburg were without fuel.

Moving inland

Though downgraded, Irma promises to be a literal force of nature as it moves inland. It will likely subject wide areas of the Southeast to high winds and drenching rainfall.

Consumers in Georgia are now experiencing the remnants of Irma and Georgia Power says it is prepared to respond to widespread outages, when they occur. As of 8:00 am ET Monday, the company said more than 180,000 customers were without electricity in the state. There were also more than 1,500 individual cases of damage to poles and power lines that the company is working to repair.

At this point, Irma's projected track will take the downgraded tropical depression to the Northwest, over northern Alabama, Mississippi, and the western end of Tennessee.

Hurricane Irma's landfall in Florida was bad, but not quite the nightmare scenario that had been painted days in advance.The Category 4 storm veered we...

Irma fear factor sparks run on East Coast gas stations

Stations as far away as North Carolina are running dry

Hurricane Irma is closing in on South Florida with deadly force and consumers are taking officials' warnings seriously.

As a result, there has been a run on gas stations, not just in Florida but well up the East Coast. Stations are running out of fuel.

Gasbuddy is keeping a running tally on stations that still have fuel and those whose tanks have run dry. As of Thursday afternoon, 195 stations in the Miami metro still had fuel and 188 did not.

In the West Palm Beach metro, Gasbuddy reports 257 stations still had gasoline while 202 had run dry.

The fuel shortage isn't limited to Florida, however. Gasbuddy reports 151 gas stations in Georgia are out of fuel. Some stations in South and North Carolina have also reported running out of gas.

Gasbuddy provides a real-time gas availability tracker here.

Hurricane Irma is closing in on South Florida with deadly force and consumers are taking officials' warnings seriously.As a result, there has been a ru...

Study says most tap water contains plastic particles

Researchers say the environment is now filled with plastic

An international study has claimed that 83% of tap water samples tested contained tiny particles of plastic.

The study, published by Orb Media, says the health implications are not clear, but probably aren't good. It notes that microplastics -- the name given to these tiny particles -- have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals.

While the world-wide average of water samples containing plastic was more than 80%, the U.S. and Lebanon had the highest rate -- 94%. Europe was among the lowest, at 72%.

How it gets in the water

So, how does this plastic get into our water? The authors say it's not that surprising, given how prevalent plastic is in the world. They say synthetic clothing like fleece, acrylic, and polyester shed thousands of microfibers with every wash. An estimated million tons of these microfibers are discharged into waste water each year, the authors contend, making their way into the environment.

And that's just one source. The researchers say styrene butadiene dust from rubber tires are constantly released into the environment as cars and trucks are driven. There are even microplastics in paint.

And then there is all the plastic that is simply discarded. Plastic doesn't degrade but it does get smaller and, over time, can break down into smaller and smaller particles. The authors contend the world has produced more plastic in the last ten years than in the entire 20th century.

Orb Media describes itself as an organization that produces journalism covering eight core issues, many of which are environmental in nature.

An international study has claimed that 83% of tap water samples tested contained tiny particles of plastic.The study, published by Orb Media, says the...

'Clean meat' start-up corrals some big-time investors

Food industry behemoth Cargill sees the potential to produce meat without killing animals

Mempis Meat isn't in Memphis and the meat it manufactures doesn't come directly from animals, but that hasn't stopped it from landing $17 million from such well-known investors as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and food industry giant Cargill. 

The beefy investment was announced yesterday, setting off a burst of excitement in "clean meat" circles. 

"Today is a watershed day for our environment, for sustainable food production, for global health, and for animals," said Bruce Friedrich, executive director of the Good Food Institute.  

What is this clean meat anyway? It's sort of a way to have your meat and eat it too -- it's meat that has the same chemical composition as dead-animal meat. The difference is that instead of being raised on the hoof, so to speak, clean meat is made in the lab, using self-reproducing cells identical to those found in living animals.

The process is touted as beneficial because it reduces the pollution produced by large herds of animals. Also, in a world increasingly populated by consumers who want to promote kindness to animals, it doesn't require raising and slaughtering living creatures. Of course, it also means that fewer animals will get to experience life on earth, but that's perhaps a question for another day. 

“We’re going to bring meat to the plate in a more sustainable, affordable and delicious way,” said Uma Valeti, M.D., co-founder and CEO of Memphis Meats, in a press release. “The world loves to eat meat, and it is core to many of our cultures and traditions.

"Meat demand is growing rapidly around the world. We want the world to keep eating what it loves. However, the way conventional meat is produced today creates challenges for the environment, animal welfare and human health," Valeti said.

"Protein market"

For its part, Cargill says the investment "is an exciting way for Cargill to explore the potential in this growing segment of the protein market."

You won't find clean meat at the supermarket quite yet, though. Memphis Meats is very much a start-up and is still working towards bringing down the price of its product and clearing regulatory hurdles.

Valeti says it now costs the company less than $2,400 to make a pound of meat -- still a pretty hefty price but a lot less than the $18,000 it cost last year.

Both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department will have to sign off on the process. Before doing that, they'll need to be convinced that clean meat is fit to eat.

Mempis Meat isn't in Memphis and the meat it manufactures doesn't come directly from animals, but that hasn't stopped it from landing $17 million from such...

Solar eclipse blamed for salmon farm bust-out

Thousands of farmed fish escaped, putting native Washington State salmon at risk

The solar eclipse didn't cause the mass havoc some had feared. There were no massive traffic pile-ups, unruly sun-watchers, or epidemics of damaged retinas. Ah, but then there are those salmon.

Washington State officials are urging the public to catch as many salmon as they can after it was discovered that high tides resulting from the eclipse damaged a net pen holding 305,000 farm salmon at a Cooke Aquaculture fish farm near Cypress Island, allowing an unknown number to escape, the Seattle Times reported.

The prison pen bust-out was discovered by fishermen over the weekend when they pulled up spotted, silvery salmon instead of the chinook they were expecting.

No one knows how many fish made the big break, but officials from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) say it's at least 4,000 to 5,000. The fish are about 10 pounds each. 

"High tides and currents"

Cooke is blaming the escape on “exceptionally high tides and currents coinciding with this week’s solar eclipse” although the pen apparently collapsed on Saturday, a few days before the eclipse.

“It appears that many fish are still contained within the nets,” Cooke said in the statement. “It will not be possible to confirm exact numbers of fish losses until harvesting is completed and an inventory of fish in the pens has been conducted.”

Fishermen and wildlife officials are worried about the effect the farmed salmon will have on the native Atlantic salmon that inhabit the waters in the area.

WDFW officials are urging licensed fishermen to catch as many of the farmed salmon as they can. 

“Catch as many as you want,” the WDFW's Ron Warren said. “We don’t want anything competing with our natural populations. We have never seen a successful crossbreeding with Atlantic salmon, but we don’t want to test the theory.”

The solar eclipse didn't cause the mass havoc some had feared. There were no massive traffic pile-ups, unruly sun-watchers, or epidemics of damaged retinas...

Beverage industry lobbies for more bottled water at national parks amid attempts to curb plastic waste

The Park Service says that national parks can't stop concession providers from selling bottled water.

The bottled water industry is celebrating a National Park Service decision to end a program that encouraged park visitors to carry their own reusable water bottles rather than buy more plastic. 

“The International Bottled Water Association applauds this action,” the water bottle industry trade group says in a news release, claiming that reversing the environmental measure “recognizes the importance of making safe, healthy, convenient bottled water available to the millions of people from around the world who want to stay well-hydrated while visiting national parks.”

Under a voluntary measure that the National Park Service introduced in 2011, individual parks could apply for permission to stop selling disposable water bottles.  Over the years, beverage companies like Coca-Cola, which owns the water bottle brand Dasani, had aggressively lobbied against efforts to keep bottled water out of national parks. The 2011 program was ultimately not nearly as ambitious as earlier proposals to curb disposable water bottle sales that the beverage industry successfully faught off.  

Even voluntary program was too much

The bottled water industry remained adamant that any ban on disposable water bottles, even one that allowed visitors to drink water for free if they brought their own bottle, was a threat to public health. “Visitors to all of America’s national parks will have better access to the healthiest packaged beverage now that the U.S. National Park Service has rescinded a policy that allowed individual national parks to ban the sale of bottled water in single-serve plastic containers,” the International Bottled Water Association adds.

The National Park Service also frames the reversal as a public health decision. “The ban removed the healthiest beverage choice at a variety of parks while still allowing sales of bottled sweetened drinks,” the agency said in their announcement. 

 A spokesman at one park said that they do not know how this decision will actually be enforced and referred  questions back to Washington, D.C.

Water bottle companies lobbied Department of Interior 

National Park superintendents have long identified plastic water bottles as a major source of waste. Under the 2011 program, officially called a memorandum, parks that wanted to participate were instructed to install water-filling stations, create an education program and explain how banning bottles would affect sales at concession stands, among other requirements.

Only 23 parks had participated in the program and the application process was somewhat cumbersome, according to a spokesman with environmental advocacy group Stop Corporate Abuse. "I think had there been no industry pushback it would have been a much easier process,” spokesman Jesse Bragg tells ConsumerAffairs.

The International Bottled Water Association initially lobbied Congress about the issue and this year moved onto the Department of Interior.

“It would be more accurate to say: During the past several years, IBWA has reached out to the Department of the Interior and members of congress to explain the problems with the National Park Service bottled water sales ban policy and seek to have it rescinded,” International Bottled Water Association spokesman Jill Culora responds to ConsumerAffairs.

An empty announcement?

It is not clear that individual national parks necessarily needed this program or any other sort of headquarter permission to eliminate water bottles in the first place. The park system is decentralized and parks form their own contracts with concession companies. 

Zion National Park in Utah banned water bottles in 2008, well before any so-called “water bottle ban” was implemented nationally, and reported reducing waste the following year by 60,000 bottles. 

National Park spokesman Jeremy Barnum tells ConsumerAffairs via email that “parks can no longer prohibit concession providers from selling plastic water bottles.” The decision is “effective immediately,” he writes. But Barnum did not answer questions about how this decision would apply to cases in which parks and concession companies may have agreed with each other under contract not to carry plastic water bottles. 

The bottled water industry is celebrating a National Park Service decision to end a program that encouraged park visitors to carry their own reusable water...

Scientists calculate the amount of plastic on earth

Most of it goes into landfills or the environment

You go into a fast-food restaurant and order a salad. It comes in a plastic bowl, covered by a clear plastic top.

The salad dressing is in a plastic bag and the utensils to eat the salad are made of plastic. They are encased in a clear plastic wrapper. When you're finished eating, all of that plastic goes into the trash.

And that's just one example of how nearly every consumer product produces some kind of plastic waste, waste that for the most part either ends up in landfills or the natural environment and doesn't break down over time.

Writing in Sciences Advances, researchers from several different universities point out that large-scale of production of plastic has only occurred since around 1950. Since then, production has surged, fueled by what is known as "single use" plastic -- material used in packaging or to produce the forks and spoons at fast-food restaurants.

8.3 billion metric tons

In that time, we've produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics, the researcher write. They say their analysis is the first to look at global plastic production, how it's used and where it goes.

Of the 6.3 billion tons of plastic that becomes waste, the researchers say only 9% was recycled and 12% was incinerated. Seventy-nine percent, they say, ended up in landfills or the natural environment.

“Most plastics don’t biodegrade in any meaningful sense, so the plastic waste humans have generated could be with us for hundreds or even thousands of years,” said Jenna Jambeck, study co-author and associate professor of engineering at UGA. “Our estimates underscore the need to think critically about the materials we use and our waste management practices.”

12 billion tons by 2050

Jambeck and her colleague say that if current trends continue, 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will end up in landfills or the environment by 2050. To put 12 billion tons in perspective, that's about 35,000 times as heavy at the Empire State Building.

Researchers say part of the problem is in how plastic, an incredibly durable material, is used. They point out that steel is also durable, but once it is produced it usually goes into buildings and other structures, where it stays for decades.

An increasing amount of plastic, however, falls into the "single-use" category. The plastic elements in the fast-food salad mentioned above are used just once. Roland Geyer, lead author of the paper, says half of all the world's plastic becomes waste after four or fewer years of use.

The researchers say they aren't suggesting a total removal of plastic from the marketplace. Instead, they say there needs to be a more serious examination of how plastic is used and what happens to it after.

You go into a fast-food restaurant and order a salad. It comes in a plastic bowl, covered by a clear plastic top.The salad dressing is in a plastic bag...

Major tuna producer agrees to sustainable standards

Greenpeace calls it 'huge progress for oceans'

Thai Union Group, one of the world's largest tuna producers, is winning praise from the environmental group Greenpeace after it committed to more sustainable fishing methods.

Thai Union Group markets canned tuna around the world under a number of different brands. In the U.S., its brand is Chicken of the Sea.

The company has agreed to adopt best practice fisheries, improve other fisheries, and bring more responsibly-caught tuna to key markets.

Progress for oceans

“This marks huge progress for our oceans and marine life, and for the rights of people working in the seafood industry,” said Greenpeace International Executive Director Bunny McDiarmid.

McDiarmid said Thai Union's agreement is important because it will pressure other industry players to adopt similar practices.

The Thai Union commitments include reducing the number of fish aggregating devices (FADs) used in its supply chains by an average of 50% by 2020. FADs are floating, man-made eco-systems that attract tuna. The problem is, they also attract other kinds of marine life, including sharks, turtles, and juvenile tuna.

Thai Union has agreed to double the amount of verifiable FAD-free fish sold in international markets within the next three years.

Moratorium on at-sea transshipment

The company has also agreed to extend its moratorium on at-sea transshipment, which allows ships to continuously fish for months at a time and has the potential to lead to illegal activity, Greenpeace said.

The agreement also calls for the company to change from longline caught tuna to pole and line or troll-caught tuna for a significant amount of its catch, with the change effective by 2020. Longline vessels are being discouraged because Greenpeace says they can result in catching non-target species.

As for the company, it says it is willing to take the lead in trying to influence positive change. It has agreed to work with the environmental group to meet sustainable goals.

Representatives of Thai Union and Greenpeace say they will meet every six months to assess progress and implementation, with a third-party review sometime next year.

Thai Union Group, one of the world's largest tuna producers, is winning praise from the environmental group Greenpeace after it committed to more sustainab...

Consumers voice overwhelming support to keep national monuments intact

Senators and environmental groups speak out against attempts to reduce or eliminate protected lands

Back in April, President Trump ordered a review of 27 national monuments across the U.S. to see if their designations by past presidents under the Antiquities Act was done with an “appropriate level of input from all parties.” The idea is that if they weren’t then the government could choose to reduce or eliminate protected areas, opening them up to business interests.

On Monday, the public comment period for the review ended and environmental organizations say the consensus is clear: consumers want these national monuments to remain intact.  

“It’s no wonder communities across the country mobilized to submit over 2.7 million comments so quickly when people overwhelmingly disapprove of the Trump administration’s extreme anti-environmental policies,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters.

National monument review

According to Courthouse News, the review encompassed more than 11.2 million acres of land predominantly in the American West and 217 million acres of ocean on both sides of the country.

Proponents of reducing or eliminating federal ownership of monument lands say that the current designations are too intrusive, restrictive, and stop states from using their own land how they’d like to. They say this is especially true in states like Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and California where protected lands are highly concentrated.

Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is leading the review and says that his investigation aims to assess all sides of the debate before making a final decision. “Too often under previous administrations, decisions were made in the Washington, D.C. bubble, far removed from the local residents who actually work the land and have to live with the consequences of D.C.’s actions,” he said on Tuesday. “This monument review is the exact opposite.”

However, environmental groups claim that Zinke is already in the pocket of corporate interests, as seen by his recommendation to shrink 1.9 million acres of protected land in Southeastern Utah to allegedly open it up for drilling.

“Zinke’s public-review process was a complete sham from start to finish. He’s doing the bidding of corporate polluters,” charged Randi Spivak, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s public lands program.

Senators speak out

Several U.S. senators have spoken out on the matter, with many saying that reducing protections for monument lands would be devastating to the states they represent.

“Erasing America’s national monuments from the map would devastate our thriving outdoor recreation economy, which generates 68,000 jobs and $6.1 billion of annual economic activity in New Mexico alone,” said New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich. “And it could easily lead us down a slippery slope toward the selloff of our public lands to the highest bidder and massive giveaways of public resources to special interests.”

“The Trump administration’s process to roll back our national monuments is not rooted in Western values, where we sit down, compare priorities, and find common ground,” said Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. “Throughout the comment period, Coloradans and people across the country agreed, sending a unified message: Leave our national monuments alone.”

Is it legal?

While other officials like Utah Congressman Rob Bishop have become proactive in trying to undo national monument designations on the grounds that they lack local support, are excessive, or violate the Antiquities Act, legal experts have questioned whether the President Trump has the right to reduce or eliminate national monuments at all.

On July 7, 121 lawyers specializing in environmental law sent a letter saying that the review “reflect(s) profound misunderstandings of both the nature of national monuments and the president’s legal authority under the Antiquities Act.” They point out that Congress, not the President, has plenary authority over public lands, and that any attempt by the executive office to pass land-use decisions would be illegal.

The group references an interim report on the Bears Ears protected area in Utah which “implies that the president has the power to abolish or diminish a national monument after it has been established by a public proclamation that properly invokes authority under the Antiquities Act,” saying that such an assumption “is mistaken.”

The Department of Interior’s review of the national monuments is scheduled to end on August 24.

Back in April, President Trump ordered a review of 27 national monuments across the U.S. to see if their designations by past presidents under the Antiquit...

Activists urge Mexican shrimp boycott to save a tiny porpoise

China's demand for an exotic fish bladder is driving a rare breed of porpoise to extinction

A sleek campaign is urging consumers and fish importers in the United States to “Boycott Mexican Shrimp,” which on the surface may sound like a health warning to avoid the beloved seafood. But that is no reason to throw the shrimp burrito you already purchased in the trashcan, as the boycott doesn’t have anything to do with the contents of the shrimp itself.

Rather, environmental organizations are hoping that a massive shrimp boycott will be an effective if indirect political strategy to save the vaquita, a tiny porpoise that lives in the gulf of Mexico. The vaquita was discovered by scientists only a few decades ago, and only 600 existed as of ten years ago, Boycott Mexican Shrimp spokesman DJ Schubert tells ConsumerAffairs. 

Now the vaquita population has dwindled down to 30. Most people are likely unaware that the vaquita exists at all and have never seen one in person. If the population reached 600 again one day, then perhaps that could change, "which would be not only a powerful thing for people to see,” Schubert says, “it could also bring massive tourism to the area.” 

The campaign is reportedly modeled after a 1980s boycott against the tuna industry that successfully stopped United States companies from setting their nets near dolphins.

Conservation groups say that the Mexican shrimp industry and the Mexican government have not done enough to deter illegal fishing practices. But not everyone agrees that a shrimp boycott is the answer to saving the vaquita.

Chinese demand for another fish is blamed for killing vaquita

A report by local conservationist group the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita or CIRVA found that fishing using gill nets is the driving force behind the vaquita’s extinction. Responding to that concern, the Mexican government in 2015 temporarily banned fishing with gill nets in the vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California. But fishing with gill nets continues in the refuge, and CIRVA points to illegal fishing as the culprit. Fisherman who illegally use gill nets are typically on the hunt for a different fish called the totoaba.

The bladder of the totoaba is considered a delicacy in China, one that businessmen are reportedly willing to spend $30,000 for the privilege to eat. In one recent exploration trip, “thirty-one illegal totoaba gillnets, including 23 nets that had been recently set, were recovered,” CIRVA wrote. “This shows that illegal fishing activities, particularly the setting of large-mesh gillnets for totoaba, continue at alarming levels within the range of the vaquita.”

Industry launches counter-initiative

Due to China’s demand for the totoaba bladder, the fishing industry is calling for a continued ban on gill net fishing in areas where the ban is already in place, but is speaking out against the shrimp boycott. 

“Targeting legally sourced Mexican shrimp for a boycott in a misguided attempt to draw attention to this issue is unfortunate,” the National Fisheries Institute, the US trade group representing the fishing industry, told trade publication Seafood Source in a statement.

The Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, an NGO that works with the fishing industry, is also opposed to a boycott on grounds that shrimp fishermen who source their product legally would be targeted. And the Mexican fishing industry operates their own Buy Mexican Shrimp website while still acknowledging the vaquita’s near-extinction.

“The issue with the Vaquita in the Upper Gulf is also a priority that the Mexican Shrimp Council is active in supporting,” the Mexican shrimp industry’s trade group  writes on its website. “Working with government and NGO’s to find solutions to protect these beautiful animals and to support the current ban on gillnet fishing, the council is working with others in a continued search for innovative gear that will not impact marine life and support the local trade.”

The Mexican shrimp council also describes a vessel-monitoring system that they hope will keep black market fishermen away from the seas. “There is no one solution for the current situation with the decline of the Vaquita population, but the council is active on numerous fronts to help protect the environment and marine life in the area,” the group adds.

Boycott Mexican Shrimp spokesman D.J. Schubert acknowledges that there are even environmental and wildlife groups that refuse to get on board with the boycott campaign for various reasons. World Wildlife Fund, for example, has not joined the boycott, but has launched its own initiative to save the vaquita that includes employing local fishermen to help remove the illegal nets. "I think that’s a spectacular way to provide the fishermen with a way to earn a living... and we know World Wildlife Fund is making other efforts to try to save the vaquita. And that's what it's going to take. It’s going to take a coalition of organizations and different strategies."

Shrimp industry and Mexican government need to do more, groups say

The World Wildlife Fund is also calling for a permanent ban on fishing with gill nets in the vaquita habitat, rather than just the temporary gill net fishing ban that has been in place. In a move welcomed by the conservation groups, the Mexican government last week signed an agreement with American actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim committing to make the ban permanent.

But the idea of a total ban has raised suspicions among fishermen, including one who told the Los Angeles Times that he believed the Mexican government was only trying to clear the seas to make way for oil exploration. 

Schubert says this is flatly untrue and points out that many of the organizations behind the Boycott Mexican Shrimp coalition--there are 31 in total--are the same organizations that are often in the crosshairs of the oil and gas industry, such as the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Resources Defense Council. 

And while Chinese demand for totoaba is the current driving force behind the vaquita extinction, the shrimp industry before the gill net ban had been put in place was a major culprit, the activists say. The Boycott Mexican Shrimp coalition points to several rescue operations in which animal activists found gill nets for shrimp in the vaquita refuge area. Before the ban went into effect in 2015, “the shrimp industry was the fundamental cause of the vaquita   population’s decline over  the past two decades and  shrimp vessels both large and small continue to be caught fishing illegally    inside the Vaquita Refuge Area,” the groups wrote in a March 2017 letter to a fish distributor in Los Angeles, one of many letters they have sent as part of their boycott campaign. 

The NOAA similarly says that "vaquitas are endangered due to accidental deaths in fishing nets set for fish and shrimp."

"The Mexican government has to do more, the shrimp industry has to do more,” Schubert adds. “We want the shrimp industry to step up and say, ‘We agree that we were part of the problem, we agree that we need to be part of the solution, we agree to commit to policing our own ranks.’... At some point we might call off the boycott, but for now we're just not convinced there's enough political will."

A sleek campaign is urging consumers and fish importers in the United States to “Boycott Mexican Shrimp,” whi...

How paper waste could lead to a boom in the U.S. economy

Researchers say turning lignin into carbon fiber could create jobs in rural America

Companies often talk about reducing their carbon footprint by cutting down on waste, but could all that extra carbon that’s out there actually fuel American industry?

Researchers from Texas A&M seem to think so. Dr. Joshua Yuan and his colleagues say that waste material from the paper and pulp industry could be repurposed to make all sorts of products, from tennis rackets to entire cars. The secret, they say, is collecting and repurposing a substance called lignin that is found in all that waste.

"People have been thinking about using lignin to make carbon fiber for many years, but achieving good quality has been an issue,” said Yuan. “We have overcome one of the industry’s most challenging issues by discovering how to make good quality carbon fiber from waste.”

Carbon fiber production

In basic terms, lignin is a class of organic materials that helps form the tissues and structural walls in certain plants and algae. The researchers say that about 50 million tons of lignin is thrown away each year in products disposed of by the paper and pulp industry.

Initially, the research team found some initial success in making fuel and bioproducts from lignin, but the processes involved still led to a lot of waste. That’s when they started thinking outside the box and considered making other products.

“We separated lignin into different parts, and then we found that certain parts of lignin are very good for high quality carbon fiber manufacturing,” explains Yuan. “We are still improving and fine-tuning the quality, but eventually this carbon fiber could be used for windmills, sport materials, and even bicycles and cars…Carbon Fiber is much lighter but has the same mechanical strength as other materials used for those products now. This material can be used for a lot of different applications.

Creating U.S. jobs

The researchers believe that the process they’re developing makes complete use of lignin and dramatically cuts down on waste. They say that certain parts of the substance could be used to make anything from bioplastics to asphalt binder modifiers that are used to make roads.

Perhaps best of all, Yuan points out that the sustainable nature of lignin allows for an economic return that would create jobs and fuel economic growth in rural areas of the U.S. where production would most likely take place.

“The entire supply chain is in the United States, which means the jobs would be here. The biomass is grown, harvested and transported here. It would be difficult to ever ship that much waste to another country for production. It all stays here…It would put agriculture production and industry together in a bioeconomy making renewable products,” he said.

The full study has been published in Green Chem.

Companies often talk about reducing their carbon footprint by cutting down on waste, but could all that extra carbon that’s out there actually fuel America...

Shoppers finding more sustainable tuna on store shelves

But Greenpeace charges major tuna producers have made less progress

As a shopper, if it is important to you that retailers provide more responsibly-produced options, you're in luck.

The environmental group Greenpeace reports U.S. retailers have made significant strides in offering consumers responsibly-sourced canned tuna.

But that's mainly because of the proliferation of smaller, "disruptive" niche companies that have embedded responsibility into their culture and brand. The biggest producers, Greenpeace says, aren't doing so well.

According to Greenpeace, these retailers have made big improvements when it comes to canned tuna:

  • Whole Foods
  • Hy-Vee
  • Wegmans
  • Giant Eagle
  • Albertsons
  • ALDI
  • Ahold Delhaize
  • Kroger

'Holding industry back'

But the environmental group charges the three major U.S. tuna brands -- Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee, and StarKist -- are holding the industry back.

“Retailers are quickly realizing that consumers want canned tuna products that they can feel good about feeding their families,” said Greenpeace USA Oceans Campaigner David Pinsky. “It’s unfortunate that tuna giants like Chicken of the Sea continue to talk a good game on sustainability and human rights, yet have not made the changes needed to shift a destructive industry."

Whole Foods joined three other brands, Wild Planet, American Tuna, and Ocean Naturals, in the green category this year, with Greenpeace singling them out as the best canned tuna choices for shoppers.

Whole Foods recently said it would only offer sustainable canned tuna by early next year. Greenpeace says that sets the bar for the rest of U.S. retailers.

Wild Planet and American Tuna were tied at the top of the tuna rankings, with Greenpeace calling them "trusted sustainable tuna brands that continue to advocate for positive changes throughout the industry."

Sustainable tuna

There are a number of factors that go into sustainable tuna fishing practices, but most have to do with limiting the species caught in the nets to tuna, avoiding other types of fish that might be endangered.

There are also different types of tuna and environmentalists say the type should be prominently displayed on the can. The three most popular types of canned tuna are Skipjack, Albacore, and Yellow Fin.

Greenpeace charges the big three tuna brands have shown little improvement in policies and practices in the last 12 months. For the three, Chicken of the Sea ranked highest on sustainability and human rights, but Greenpeace says the company must do more to show its suppliers are meeting those goals.

As a shopper, if it is important to you that retailers provide more responsibly-produced options, you're in luck.The environmental group Greenpeace rep...

Melting snow a toxic brew, researchers find

Urban snow soaks up pollutants and releases them in the spring

As spring brings warmer temperatures, the snow that remains in many areas will begin to slowly melt away. Unfortunately, as it does so it will release a toxic brew made up of car emissions and other pollutants that are unleashed into the environment as the weather warms up.

"We found that snow absorbs certain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are organic pollutants known to be toxic and carcinogenic," says Yevgen Nazarenko, a postdoctoral researcher at McGill University's Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and Department of Chemistry.

"Understanding how these pollutants interact with the environment, including snow, is crucial if we are to reduce the hundreds of thousands of premature deaths caused by mild air pollution in North America. Worldwide, air pollution claims as many as 8 million lives," says Prof. Parisa A. Ariya, senior author of the group's new study, published in Environmental Pollution.   

In some cases, it doesn't take high-tech equipment to sniff out shifting pollution levels.

"When one goes outdoors in winter, and there is fresh snow, one can sense the air has a different smell--it usually smells 'crisper'. Once the snow has been on the ground for some time, the effect goes away. When the weather warms up, the air acquires yet another smell. This is what led us to wonder about how exactly snow interacts with air pollutants," says Nazarenko.

The scientists analyzed how snow takes up pollutants from car emissions by exposing it to engine exhaust in a frozen glass sphere built in the lab. They found that exhaust is affected differently by the cold and snow depending on the type of fuel injection in the engine.

Exhaust particles altered

The new study also found that snow takes up airborne particulate matter and alters the concentrations of different nanoparticles, the smallest particles found in air pollution. These tiny particles have been linked to numerous health problems. Unexpectedly, colder temperatures and interaction with snow increased the relative presence of smaller nanoparticles in the polluted air above the snow.

Once in the snowpack, air pollutants may undergo chemical transformations that create additional pollutants with different toxicity and carcinogenicity. Some compounds, including more toxic and carcinogenic chemicals, may volatilize back into the air, while others accumulate in the snow and are released with meltwater.

"These releases could lead to a higher short-term concentration of certain pollutants in the air, soil and surface water bodies where the meltwater runs to," worries Nazarenko.

As spring brings warmer temperatures, the snow that remains in many areas will begin to slowly melt away. Unfortunately, as it does so it will release a to...

Recycling program from Tom's of Maine aims to keep old toys out of landfills

Spring cleaning? Here's where to send your kids' broken toys

The average household with children amasses its share of broken, trash-bound toys. For Earth Month, Tom’s of Maine has partnered with recycler TerraCycle to help prevent broken toys from ending up in landfills.

The natural personal care product manufacturer says its Less Waste Challenge toy recycling program is part of an initiative to educate consumers and their children about the amount of waste their household sends to landfills.

"Knowing what to do with broken toys is a challenge because as parents we don't want to be wasteful and throw them away. We want to show our kids there are better solutions," said Susan Dewhirst, goodness programs manager at Tom's of Maine, in a statement.

"The act of recycling a toy together can be a way for parents to start a conversation with their kids about what we can all do to take care of the planet for generations,” Dewhirst said.

Collected, donated, recycled

The number of broken toys sent to landfills is significant, says Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle. In fact, a recent study found that 55% of parents frequently throw out toys to reduce clutter in their homes.

The companies hope to divert broken or unwanted toys from landfills by collecting, donating, and recycling them. To get in on the program, consumers can print out a free shipping label, load up an old box with up to 10 pounds of unwanted toys, and ship the box to TerraCycle. 

Toys that can be recycled include:

  • Dolls
  • Discarded toys or toy pieces
  • Cards
  • Dice
  • Game boards
  • Packaging from board games
  • Books with sound
  • Handheld electronic games and players
  • Remote control vehicles
  • Electronic stuffed animals
  • Baby toys
  • Building sets
  • Stuffed animals
  • Puzzle pieces
  • Game pieces
  • Action figures

Trash to treasure

By taking part in the recycling initiative, “Parents can feel good knowing that broken toys can be 100% recycled or reused, which helps planet Earth,” Szaky said.

Beyond donating old toys, families can help the earth by taking Toms' #LessWasteChallenge pledge to reduce their household waste by one pound per week.

Additionally, visitors to the Tom’s of Maine website can find environmentally-friendly DIY projects that can be done using items that might otherwise be tossed in the trash.

The average household with children amasses its share of broken, trash-bound toys. For Earth Month, Tom’s of Maine has partnered with recycler TerraCycle t...

Feds deny bid to ban agricultural pesticide

Environmentalists say chlorpyrifos poses hazard to consumers and farm workers

As environmentalists are learning, the Trump administration takes a very different approach to environmental matters than its predecessor.

At midweek, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied a petition to ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide in agriculture. Under the Obama administration, the EPA had planned to impose a rule that would have effectively banned its use, citing research linking it to damage to the central nervous system.

Because of a court order, the current administration said it had until the end of this week to decide whether or not to ban the chemical, as environmental groups had filed suit to force it to do. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced the agency would not ban the pesticide as he issued an EPA Order.

“In this Order, EPA denies a petition requesting that EPA revoke all tolerances for the pesticide chlorpyrifos under section 408(d) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and cancel all chlorpyrifos registrations under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act,” Pruitt wrote. “The petition was filed in September 2007 by the Pesticide Action Network North America (P ANNA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).”

The petition was never formally acted upon during Obama's two terms, but in 2015 the administration announced its intentions to impose rules that would not allow for any trace residues of the chemical on food. In announcing his decision to deny the petition, Pruitt said it was based on science rather than “pre-determined results.”

Environmental groups react

“EPA turned a blind-eye to extensive scientific evidence and peer reviews documenting serious harm to children and their developing brains, including increased risk of learning disabilities, reductions in IQ, developmental delay, autism and ADHD,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, Senior Scientist at NRDC.

Kristin Schafer, policy director at PANNA, accused the EPA of caving to corporate pressure and of failing “to follow overpowering scientific evidence of harm to children’s brains.”

According to a pesticide information network, established by Cornell and several other universities, Chlorpyrifos is known as a broad spectrum insecticide. It was introduced in 1965 and used primarily to kill mosquitoes, but it's no longer approved for that use.

It is effective at controlling a variety of insects and is currently used on both food and non-food agricultural products.

The network also notes the chemical is “moderately toxic to humans.” It says studies have show that poisoning from chlorpyrifos may affect the central nervous system, as well as the cardiovascular system, and the respiratory system.

As environmentalists are learning, the Trump administration takes a very different approach to environmental matters than its predecessor.At midweek, t...

Warm temperatures, not just drought, are shrinking the Colorado River, study says

The lifeblood of the Southwest is losing its flow

The American Southwest as we know it today would not exist without the Colorado River. Spanning 1,450 miles through the region, the river irrigates farms, creates hydro-power, provides drinking water to millions and is a source of fun and beauty in federally-recognized recreation areas and parks along the route.

“We couldn’t inhabit the Southwest, with its large areas of desert, without a big river running through the middle of it,” according to to the author of a two-year-old report which found that the river is responsible for $1.4 trillion worth of economic activity.

All of which is to say, government agencies need to act fast if they want to preserve the economy of the Southwest. New research from the University of Arizona and Colorado State University shows that warming temperatures are causing the Colorado River to shrink.

A 21st-Century Decline

In the 21st century, from 2000 through 2014, the river’s flow reached only 81 percent of its 20th century average, the researchers found. They attributed that change in flow to warming temperatures, saying this is the first study of its kind to trace a direct link between global warming and the decreased Colorado River flow.

"The future of Colorado River is far less rosy than other recent assessments have portrayed,” co-author Bradly Udall told ScienceDaily. “A clear message to water managers is that they need to plan for significantly lower river flows." 

Not that previous assessments of the Colorado River have actually been rosy. A longtime drought has diminished water in the region since 2000. Government officials and researchers have warned that the agriculture industry will need to dramatically cut back on its water usage in the years to come as a result. And the Bureau of Reclamation this month forecast that there is a 34 percent chance the river will not be able to fulfill the needs of all the states depending on it in 2018.

But the drought has only accounted for two-thirds of the river’s decline, according to the latest research from the Colorado and Arizona researchers. The remaining third of the loss, they say, is literally caused by climate change.

Warmer temperatures have been causing the moisture in the river basin’s waterways to evaporate, according to their research. The findings mean that even an end to the drought may not restore the river to previous levels. “We can’t say with any certainty that precipitation is going to increase and come to our rescue,” Udall explained in another interview.

Conservationists sue to prevent drilling

Yet even as farmers, the real estate industry, and consumers anticipate cutbacks, conservationists worry that other industries may want to build new infrastructure along the Colorado River Basin and get their share. The Bureau of Land Management’s resource management plans currently allow for oil and gas drilling in the Colorado Basin area.

Last fall, the Center for Biological Diversity threatened to sue the BLM if the agency would not promise to block all new oil and gas development in the upper basin of the river. Part of the concern, Center for Biological Diversity attorney Wendy Park tells ConsumerAffairs, is that fracking or drilling in the basin would require companies “to use tremendous amounts of water,” water she worries would likely come from the Colorado River.

But there have been some hopeful developments. Since being threatened with the suit, the BLM has agreed to do a new evaluation into the effects of industry in the region, called a programmatic biological opinion, which Park anticipates will be ready in the spring. 

The American Southwest as we know it today would not exist without the Colorado River. Spanning 1,450 miles through the region, the river irrigates farms,...

Critics warn Congress not to roll back Obama-era methane rules

Rules are intended to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas

As part of its wholesale rollback of Obama-era legislation, Congress is looking at voiding safeguards that control methane gas leakage from oil and natural gas installations on public lands controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Methane gas is a major contributor to global warming, and critics of the proposal say that eliminating the rules would be the equivalent of adding 950,000 vehicles to the road. 

“Congressional Republicans have shown once again that they're more interested in profiting Big Oil than protecting average Americans. The BLM Methane Rule is a cost-effective, common-sense approach to controlling the waste and pollution created by oil and gas companies,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.  “A Congressional rollback of this rule would be an annual handout of millions of dollars to oil and gas companies, paid for by taxpayers and at the expense of New Yorkers' and Americans' health, safety, and environment."

Schneiderman and a number of other attorneys general, the California Environmental Protection Agency, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality co-signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer asking them to block any rollback of existing safeguards. 

"All reasonable precautions"

At issue is the Mineral Leasing Act, which obligates the federal government to ensure that companies on BLM land “use all reasonable precautions to prevent waste of oil or gas.”

Last November, the BLM finalized its regulations to reduce the waste of gas from flaring, venting, and leaks from oil and gas production, but now a Congressional Review Act resolution threatens to void those regulations.

The BLM Methane Rule is estimated to save enough gas to supply about 740,000 households each year. Overall, the rule will reduce flaring by an estimated 49 percent and venting and leaks by roughly 35 percent, as compared to 2014 rates.

Eliminating the BLM Methane Rule would potentially result in an additional 180,000 tons of methane emissions per year, roughly equivalent to pollution of up to 950,000 vehicles—or roughly 2.5% of New York’s total annual emissions of greenhouse gases, the letter said.

Estimates from the Government Accountability Office predict that rolling back the BLM Methane Rule would cost states, tribes, and federal taxpayers as much as $23 million annually in royalty revenues that are lost to uncontrolled venting, flaring, and leaking. Overall, the rule can potentially save hundreds of millions over the next decade, including savings from the recovery and sale of natural gas and public health costs.

The states noted that if Congress eliminates a rule under the Congressional Review Act, that action blocks agencies from issuing similar rules, meaning that the measure being considered could permanently bar BLM from regulating resource waste, something it is required by law to do. 

Besides Schneiderman, attorneys general from Illinois, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont signed the letter. Schneiderman has initiated litigation along with states across the country to defend environmental and clean energy policies, including the Clean Power Plan, the “Waters of the U.S.” rule, and EPA regulations to reduce emissions of methane in the oil and gas industry

As part of its wholesale rollback of Obama-era legislation, Congress is looking at voiding safeguards that control methane gas leakage from oil and natural...

Is recycling really the best way to keep plastic out of the oceans?

Op-ed suggests that landfills keep plastic where it belongs -- in the earth

Confession time. I throw plastic into the garbage.

What? Don’t you recycle plastic?

No. I most certainly do not. You see, I care about the environment.

Coming soon to an alternative theatre near you, the eco-documentary "Midway" invites you to take a journey “across an ocean of grief, and beyond.” Sea birds die agonizing deaths after ingesting bits of plastic that collect in gigantic oceanic whirlpools called gyres. For years this has prompted environmentalists to ask, “Do we have the courage to face the realities of our time?”

Before we get to that reality, can I first ask, is there a shortage of sea birds I’m not aware of? There must be billions of them along the coastlines of the United States alone. But all right… I don’t want animals to suffer. And besides, the plastic debris is also fatal to fish. So, here’s the reality.

The notion that recycling plastic will prevent sea birds from dying is false. It turns out recycling is the source of the problem here, not the solution.

Trash discarded into landfills is perfectly safe, buried under layer upon layer of tons of soil. Very little plastic trash escapes a landfill, thus protecting sea birds everywhere. And besides, plastic originates in the soil from fossilized plants, so it’s best to put it right back in the soil when we’re done with it.

By contrast, there are many points in the recycling process where recyclables escape into the environment, beginning right at your curbside, followed by the sorely imperfect processes of transportation, handling, and storage, all of which occurs outdoors since it would be extremely cost-ineffective to handle and store plastic trash indoors. It’s just trash, after all.

Wind blows plastic trash for miles, literally… into waterways and hence right into the world’s oceans. Then there’s the biggest breakdown in the whole recycling system. Fraud.

Since it does not pay to recycle most materials, especially plastics, subsidies keep the nation’s “green” recycling systems running every step of the way. And once such “green” subsidies are paid, is it such a leap to imagine the odd recycling tycoon choosing to avoid the expense of actually recycling all the plastic he receives? Government inspectors aren’t going to check. What would they check for? A few hundred tons of plastic missing out of thousands of tons? It’s not as if recyclable material is traceable; it’s not labelled.

Of course, if a recycler dumps a few tons of plastic into the ocean every now and then, he’ll have less recycled plastic to sell. But subsidies are paid to move plastic INTO recycling facilities, while the amount leaving is left to the whims of the open market. Meanwhile, the raw material from which new plastic is made, fossilized plants, also known as oil, costs ten times LESS than the actual expense of recycling used plastic! So, who in his right mind is bothering to pay anything close to the production cost for recycled plastic anyway?

The more plastic a recycler recycles, the more money he’s losing.

As long as the public sees government officials supporting the recycling industry, most of us remain blissfully ignorant in the belief that millions upon millions of tons of plastic are being chipped-up, melted down, and made into new plastic products somewhere by someone. It MUST be true, because recycling is good! The result, we assume, is a bit less plastic in our landfills, but the reality is more plastic in the ocean.

And for those who refuse to believe there’s fraud in the sacrosanct recycling industry, the fact remains that nothing escapes a landfill. Nothing, except maybe a few plastic bags here and there, but certainly not any of the heavy plastic bits found in the carcasses of dead sea birds.

And besides… what are all those millions of birds that live off our nation’s landfills? Oh yeah… sea birds.

Landfills are the solution here, not the problem.

---

Mischa Popoff is a Policy Advisor at The Heartland Institute, and is the author of "Is it Organic? The inside story of the organic industry."

Confession time. I throw plastic into the garbage.What? Don’t you recycle plastic?No. I most certainly do not. You see, I care about the environmen...

Trump's 'order' to revive Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines may not be binding

The Army Corps of Engineers is still obliged to follow procedures established by law

Two days before President Trump took office, the environmentalists and Native Americans fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline celebrated another small but hopeful legal victory -- the United States Army Corps of Engineers announced on January 18 that it was beginning a new environmental study into the pipeline's Lake Oahe crossing, as well as allowing people to leave public comments about the project until February 20.  

The Corps back in December had already made a surprise announcement that it would consider alternative routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline, routes which would be explored via a formal Environmental Impact Statement. But then the Dakota Access Pipeline filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the Corps from conducting that impact statement. The Corps then stalled on formally registering its impact statement, the necessary next step to begin.  

Finally, on January 18, the Corps formally registered its Environmental Impact Statement, by posting a  "Notice of an Intent to Register" on its website. The notice, the Standing Rock Sioux said in a statement shortly afterward, is "yet another small victory on the path to justice."

But with Trump signing what the Washington Post reported were "executive orders Tuesday to revive the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines," what happens next is unclear.  The Corps of Engineers' spokespeople have not returned multiple messages left Tuesday inquiring about the pipeline or the pending Environmental Impact Statement. And the Interior Department, which also oversees the pipeline, directed press inquiries back to the Corps. 

Standing Rock attorneys say Corps must complete EIS

Jan Hasselman, an attorney with EarthJustice representing the Standing Rock Sioux on the legal front as they fight the pipeline in court, contends that Trump's latest order isn't much of an order at all, despite the news reports describing it as such.  

"The president’s action is not an executive order, as has been reported, but a 'memorandum' to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers directing them to complete the permitting process to the extent allowed under law,'" Hasselman writes. In fact, the document Trump signed is simply called, "MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF THE ARMY."

In the memorandum, Trump directs the Corps to "review and approve in an expedited manner, to the extent permitted by law and as warranted, and with such conditions as are necessary or appropriate, requests for approvals to construct and operate the DAPL..." (the full document is embedded below). 

Hasselman, the EarthJustice attorney, notes that the memo  is simply asking the Corps to complete its permitting process to the extent it can legally. "We believe that the Corps has already found that the law — including the Tribe’s treaty rights — requires a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and consideration of route alternatives," he adds. "Nothing in the Presidential Memorandum changes that or even addresses it." 

He further suggests that more lawsuits will come if the Corps does not go through with its Environmental Impact Statement as promised: "If the Corps responds to this directive by issuing the easement without the EIS process, it will be violating the law and subjecting itself to additional litigation."

Corps could still deny key easement, attorneys say

Loose state laws as well as federal regulations that Barack Obama enacted during his presidency already allow for the expedited approval of oil and gas pipelines, as we've previously reported. In 2016, when approving portions of the Dakota Access Pipeline that it has authority over, the Corps of Engineers determined that the pipeline could cross 200 different waterways under Nationwide Permit #12, the agency's permitting system that allows for expedited approval of pipelines. 

But the pipeline's crossing under Lake Oahe, a source of drinking water for the Sioux that connects to the Missouri River, remained in dispute as protesters organized and began attracting worldwide support. "The easement necessary for the pipeline to cross USACE-managed federal land at Lake Oahe is currently under review," agency spokesperson Moira Kelley wrote in a November 29 email. Five days later,  as religious clergy from various faiths and thousands of military veterans joined the Sioux at their resistance camp for a crowded and cold weekend,  the Corps suddenly announced that it would be considering alternative routes.

As the Corps wrote on its website, "a consideration of alternative routes for the Dakota Access Pipeline Crossing would be best accomplished through an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis."

With the Corps officially beginning its EIS during the final days of the Obama administration on January 18, is there a chance that it could still deny the pipeline's easement under Lake Oahe? Daveon Coleman, an EarthJustice spokesman, says to ConsumerAffairs in an email: "The short answer is yes, in theory, the Corps still has authority to deny the easement."

Construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by Amy Cranks on Scribd

Two days before President Trump took office, the environmentalists and Native Americans fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline celebrated another small but ho...

If Trump wants to fast-track oil and gas pipelines, he can thank Obama

The Obama administration issued quick permits for massive oil and gas projects

Luc Novovitch remembers being taken by surprise when he learned that a new, 148-mile natural gas pipeline was coming to the Texas county where he had served on the Commissioner’s Court, whether locals wanted it or not.

Brewster County is a rural west Texas county, the population hovering around 9,000, that is popular among tourists for its scenic views and relative short drive to the Big Bend National Park. The desolate region had no massive natural gas pipelines until last year, when Energy Transfer Partners began constructing the Trans-Pecos Pipeline. 

As locals learned in 2015, swaths of land in Brewster County fall in the path of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline project. The pipeline, according to operator Energy Transfer Partners, is expected to deliver 1.4 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to Mexico. Originating in Texas’ northern Pecos County, the pipeline makes its way through Central West Texas before finally terminating at the United States-Mexico border.

"The Trans-Pecos pipeline will provide new market outlets for domestically produced clean-burning natural gas, thereby encouraging continued production in the U.S. energy sector," Energy Transfer Partners says on their promotional website.

A done deal

By the time Energy Transfer Partners executive Rick Smith made a presentation to the Brewster County Commissioner’s Court about the project in April 2015, Novovitch remembers it was all but a done deal. 

“I tried to bring the attention of the feds about what was going on, and it didn't really help,” Novovitch, who is no longer on the Brewster County Commissioners Court, now tells ConsumerAffairs. 

With incoming President-elect Donald Trump expected to dismantle whatever environmental protections he can come January 20, environmentalists are concerned about what health and ecological dangers the new administration may bring.

But if Donald Trump’s agenda includes fast-tracking as many oil and gas pipelines as possible, he can thank the Obama administration. Regulations that President Barack Obama used his executive authority to enact in 2012 have allowed for expedited reviews of oil and gas pipeline projects, setting what environmentalists warn is a dangerous precedent. 

Obama counters Republican attacks with faster pipeline permits 

In March 2012, as Republicans accused Obama of dragging his feet on approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline amid objections from environmentalists, the president took a trip to Cushing, Oklahoma. It was there, in the heart of oil country, that companies like Keystone XL’s Transcanada aimed to build more pipelines to transport all of the oil and gas produced by the domestic fracking boom.

“We are drilling all over the place. Right now that's not the challenge. That's not the problem. The problem in a place like Cushing is that we’re actually producing so much oil and gas, in places like North Dakota and Colorado, that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needed to go," Obama told the crowd.

At that time, Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum, calling for, as his memo described it, “Expedited Review of Pipeline Projects from Cushing to Port Arthur and Other Domestic Pipeline Infrastructure Projects.” The executive order sounds innocent enough, calling for public government agencies to “coordinate and expedite their reviews, consultations, and other processes as necessary" so as to create "a more efficient domestic pipeline system for the transportation of crude oil."

But people and groups that have attempted to challenge pipeline projects describe the order as little more than a gift to the oil and gas industry. “It is downright foolhardy to cut corners on safety reviews for permitting the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline,” National Resources Defense Council’s program officer Susan Casey-Lefkowitz warned in a blog post, shortly after Obama enacted the expedited review process. 

At the same time, the United States Army Corps of Engineers began giving the green light to oil and gas pipeline projects that pass waterways under a quick process called Nationwide Permit 12.

“While the Corps’ use of NWP [Nationwide Permit] 12 is not new,” wrote a coalition of nearly two dozen environmental groups in a recent legal objection, “it is only since 2012 that the Corps began using NWP 12 to approve massive pipeline projects." 

“To the best of our knowledge, prior to 2012, the Corps had never before used NWP 12 to permit hundreds or thousands of water crossings to approve a major pipeline project," the environmental groups added.

Complicated permitting breaks massive pipeline projects into small parts

The trick behind expedited permitting reviews is that they break up what should be one single regulatory action, evaluating the environmental impacts of a massive pipeline project as a whole, into piecemeal parts, according to Coyne Gibson, a volunteer with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance. Gibson and the alliance have been trying to fight the Trans-Pecos pipeline in the courts.  

The Trans Pecos pipeline, Gibson explains, is expected to make 135 water crossings. “They claim that each of those in isolation has no significant impact," Gibson tells ConsumerAffairs. But regulators did not examine the bigger pictire, Gibson says, evaluating the impact of a natural gas pipeline making 135 waterway crossings as a whole. 

Federal energy commissioners give green light

Soon after Trans-Pecos made its presence known in Brewster County, locals like former County Commissioner Novovitch learned how limited federal involvement would be. Even though the pipeline crosses into Mexico, it flows only through one state in the United States. Federal regulators therefore classify the project as an “intrastate” pipeline.

As an intrastate project, the pipeline is subject to limited federal review, as feds claim most of that burden falls onto the state of Texas. In fact, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined that only one small section of the 148-mile pipeline--just over 1,000 feet--should be subject to federal review, because that is the one section crossing the Texas border into Mexico. Otherwise, the feds and pipeline operator alike say it is merely an intrastate project. 

"From [the Texas border town of] Presidio, magically it becomes international, so they have to apply for a presidential permit, just for this section,” Novovitch tells Consumer Affairs.”This is ridiculous. It’s an artifice. I kept asking FERC to consider the cumulative impacts.”

The calls from Novovitch and other pipeline opponents to federal regulators were not heeded. “We have determined that if constructed in accordance with its application and supplements,” the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission wrote about the Trans-Pecos Pipeline January 2016, “approval of this proposal would not constitute a major federal action significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.” FERC officially granted the company its presidential permit in May 2016.

Pipes dot the hills of the Big Bend region, but much of the project is already buried. The Trans-Pecos Pipeline, according to Energy Transfer Partners, is expected to be in service by March 2017.

Luc Novovitch remembers being taken by surprise when he learned that a new, 148-mile natural gas pipeline was coming to the Texas county where he had serve...

Obama permanently bans offshore drilling in Atlantic and Arctic areas

Proponents hope the move will be hard to overturn by future administration

Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown of California penned a letter to President Obama asking him to step up measures to protect the West Coast from offshore drilling. Although the POTUS had introduced a measure that would ban the practice off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington until 2022, Brown hoped that Obama would make the ban permanent to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and preserve the coastline.

While that particular topic has not yet been broached, Obama did take steps to reduce offshore drilling – but on the other side of the country. Acting jointly in a partnership with Canada, Obama has indefinitely blocked offshore drilling in 31 Atlantic canyons, according to NPR. The same action was taken in the U.S. Arctic waters in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, and Canada is reportedly doing the same for all Arctic Canadian waters.

“Today, President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau are proud to launch actions ensuring a strong, sustainable and viable Arctic economy and ecosystem, with low-impact shipping, science based management of marine resources, and free from the future risks of offshore oil and gas activity,” a White House press release states.

"Permanent" ban?

Obama was able to push through the action by citing a 1953 law, called the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, that empowers the president to “withdraw U.S. waters from future oil and gas leasing,” according to Bloomberg. The total area affected by the mandate includes 3.8 million acres in the Atlantic and a combined 115 million acres in the Arctic.

Environmentalists have applauded the move, saying that the measure will help protect coastal residents in both the U.S. and Canada. However, members of the oil and gas industry are less than pleased with the decision and say that the permanency of the ban is a fiction.

“Blocking offshore exploration would weaken our national security, destroy good-paying jobs and could make energy less affordable for consumers. Fortunately, there is no such thing as a permanent ban, and we look forward to working with the new administration on fulfilling the will of American voters on energy production,” said Erik Milito of the American Petroleum Institute.

Moving away from fossil fuels

While a Republican-held Congress and the new administration of President-elect Trump could prove detrimental to the ban in the long-run, detractors say that the statute that Obama cited is not constructed for a reversal by the president. That means that untangling the move could potentially take years to make its way through the courts.

“These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth. They reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited,” the White House said in a statement.

“By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large scale oil and gas leasing production in the region – at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.” 

Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown of California penned a letter to President Obama asking him to step up measures to protect the West Coast from off...

California Gov. Brown asks Obama to permanently ban offshore drilling on the West Coast

Supporters want to make it harder for a temporary ban to be overturned by President-elect Trump

Last month, President Obama unveiled a plan that would ban offshore oil drilling off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington until 2022. The notion was denounced by many Republican members of Congress, who said that it would effectively oust the U.S. as a leader in global energy.

“Today’s plan will chart a path of energy dependency for decades to come. We should be building on our position as a global energy leader, but we are punting it to Russia as Obama appeases the environmentalists pulling his strings,” said Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah).

However, there are many other leaders who would see the plan made permanent before Obama leaves office. One of them is California Governor Jerry Brown, who has asked Obama to cement the plan so that it won’t be easily overturned by President-elect Trump.

“California is blessed with hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline; home to scenic state parks, beautiful beaches, abundant wildlife and thriving communities. Clearly, large new oil and gas reserves would be inconsistent with our overriding imperative to reduce reliance on fuels and combat the devastating impacts of climate change,” Brown said in a letter to Obama.

Opposing views

Brown announced his proposition and asked for support from the governors of Oregon and Washington at an event that launched a new organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. The International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification is made up of advocacy groups, businesses, and several nations, such as France, Chile, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Quebec.

Brown says that the group’s work will be critical going forward after Trump’s recent election; the President-elect has previously denied evidence related to global climate change and has picked officials who are also skeptics.

"Whatever problems we have today, they will pale to the stresses that we are going to have by rising sea levels, the threat of tropical diseases, and all manner of extreme weather events,” said Brown.

Oil companies have opposed the plan to ban offshore drilling on the West Coast, saying that doing so would lead to importing more oil and perhaps worsening environmental outcomes.

“If offshore production is banned it will force us to import more oil from foreign sources. That oil is produced under less stringent environmental regulations, and its transportation to California will create an increase in greenhouse gases and other pollutants,” said the Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry group, in a statement.

According to U.S. News, the White House has declined to comment on Brown’s request thus far.

Last month, President Obama unveiled a plan that would ban offshore oil drilling off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington until 2022. The notio...

An oil pipeline leaks in North Dakota and experts aren't surprised

More than 176,000 gallons of crude oil recently leaked into a North Dakota creek, keeping up a troubling pattern

On December 6, as protesters near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation celebrated a victory against the Dakota Access Pipeline and vowed to continue fighting the project, North Dakota state health workers were about 200 miles away, cleaning up oil leaked from another pipeline.

A landowner in Belfield, North Dakota noticed the spill the previous day, according to the Bismarck Tribune, as the pipeline operator Belle Fourche Pipeline Co, said its own equipment had failed to detect the leak. Officials estimated that spill affected 2.5 miles of the Ash Coulee Creek, a tributary that feeds into the Little Missouri River.

So far, more than 176,000 gallons of crude oil have leaked from the pipeline, North Dakota officials announced on Monday.

The timing might seem fateful, given that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s primary concern about the Dakota Access Pipeline is that it would be built under a body of water, one that similarly feeds into the Missouri River. But people who study energy infrastructure say such news is unfortunately not a surprise or a rarity. It’s simply the cost of doing business with fossil fuels, and part of the reason why the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline protests have gained widespread support from environmentalists and green think tanks.  

"Pipelines are like every other piece of physical infrastructure in the world, which means that they fail, and they fail surprisingly often, definitely more often than people think,” Eric de Place, policy director for the think tank the Sightline Institute, tells ConsumerAffairs. "It drives home the fact that over time, we know, just from observed evidence in the world, that physical pipelines corrode, leak, decay, and the monitoring equipment that companies use is not foolproof."

Documenting the risks of oil spills and pipelines

Researchers are still trying to determine the full cost of such leaks. One study authored by Duke University researchers this past April found that toxins linked to oil development were present in North Dakota’s soil and waterways at levels above what the federal government has deemed safe. The researchers linked the contamination to oil spills. "We found even if you take away the spill water," Avner Vengosh, the study’s lead author, told InsideClimateNews, "you still left behind the legacy of radioactivity in the soils.”

Nationwide, the research on pipeline safety and oil spills is equally troubling. An analysis two years ago by the Center for Biological Diversity, using publicly available data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, says that there have been nearly 8,000 “significant” pipeline incidents since 1986, resulting in $7 billion in damage, 500 deaths, 2,300 in injuries and an untold long-term impact on the nation’s waterways.

“Pipeline leaks are common and incredibly dangerous, and the Dakota Access pipeline will threaten every community it cuts through,” Randi Spivak, a program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a recent press release.

Oil surplus

De Place, the Sightline Institute policy director, who documents the risks of fossil fuel extraction in his own research, points out that the United States is already awash with crude oil. In fact, a worldwide surplus of crude has sent oil prices tumbling and recently lead members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to agree to production cuts, the first deal of its kind in eight years.

"We don’t have a problem where we're running out of oil and we don't know what to do next. We've got the opposite,” de Place says. "My view is that there is no need for additional crude oil infrastructure. We have all of the crude oil infrastructure that we will ever need in this country. What we need to do is make sure the infrastructure is safe, well-regulated and well-protected.”

On the other hand, de Place joins the chorus of other environmental researchers who say that the only real long-term solution to concerns about oil spills is to phase out production of fossil fuels altogether. “The whole nature of crude oil transport involves risk...there’s going to be spills, there’s going to be environmental impacts, which is why I think the protest at Standing Rock was so on point.

"You cannot build this and guarantee it will operate safely. You just can’t."

On December 6, as protesters near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation celebrated a recent victory against the Dakota Access Pipeline and vowed to continue...

Shopping online? This extension helps you support companies that are doing good

DoneGood shows you ethical, eco-friendly alternatives

Holiday shopping season is in full swing, and many consumers may be heading online to complete their shopping. But while it’s certainly easy to click “add to cart,” it’s not always easy to find out if your money is going to a corporation with ethical business practices.

DoneGood, a new browser extension for Chrome, is making it easier for eco-conscious consumers to verify that they’re buying a product from a socially responsible company.

The way it works is simple: while you’re searching for a particular gift on Amazon or Google, the extension works in the background to see if a product similar to the one you’re looking at can be purchased from a company with ethical and sustainable manufacturing techniques.

The extension is free, takes just a few seconds to install, and the company says it could trigger a domino effect of good.

Empowering consumers

Buying a DoneGood alternative can yield both moral and monetary rewards while giving smaller companies with ethical business practices a boost, says co-founder Cullen Schwarz.

In our supply and demand economy, increasing the demand for sustainable and ethical practices is key. Casting your vote for reponsible practices is as easy as spending money at companies that share your values, says Schwarz.

“We believe the most powerful tool for change is the money we spend. We want to help people find better products that they can feel good about, make the world better, and save money at the same time,” he told Mother Nature Network.

There’s also a DoneGood iOS app (Android coming soon), which lets users browse products based on the issues they support. Users can see, for instance, which companies focus on which issues simply by browsing by filters such as “Green,” “Cruelty-free,” or “Minority/women-owned”.

Holiday shopping season is in full swing, and many consumers may be heading online to complete their shopping. But while it’s certainly easy to click “add...

At Standing Rock, a mighty fortress grew

People of all faiths, ethnicities, tribes, and beliefs came together to work as one

From Palestine to Standing Rock We Are United. Juntos Protejamos. Mni Wiconi. Artwork and signs of solidarity from all over the world decorated the fence and the main entrance, where volunteer security guards welcomed a line of cars that grew increasingly longer each day. At nightfall, Sioux elders invited anyone who wanted to join in prayer around a sacred fire. But the Suburbans, stadium lights, and police could still be seen in the distance, tiny figures on a hill called Turtle Island, which the Standing Rock Sioux say is a sacred site where people are buried.  

Directly outside the camp, four Humvee vehicles and one large military troop carrier, like something you would see on the nightly news from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, were parked at a barricade on the highway road to the north, cutting people off from the only direct route to the state capital. In the southern direction, the rural road stretched for eight miles before the nearest convenience store and hotel, frozen over after a recent blizzard.

Even as a makeshift city rapidly grew on this swatch of federal land next to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and garnered worldwide support and donations, people were isolated. Nobody who chose to camp in this desolate, freezing tent city in North Dakota had anything but each other.

No emergency services

Shortly before a blizzard hit western North Dakota in early December, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple announced that no state emergency services would be sent to the encampments on federal land where thousands of people vowed to stay through winter. Piling on threats that everyone here was trespassing, the Morton County Sheriff’s Department said they would fine anyone who attempted to bring in supplies.
For the people at Oceti Sakowin, the most populous of the three camps that the Standing Rock Sioux had organized to fight construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe, their source of drinking water, that only meant there was more work to do at the camp. People weren’t leaving, and many "weekend warriors" were only more inspired to come.
“There’s one thing the Governor of North Dakota forgot about...you’re dealing with indigenous people, bro,”  said Shiye Bidzil, a water protector, as the protesters call themselves, in a public video he posted to the thousands of people who follow his coverage of the pipeline standoff on Facebook. "We have survived for millennia, for centuries, and we never needed that technology that you guys rely on for so much.”

At Oceti Sakowin, volunteers unloaded U-Haul moving trucks full of 2x4 studs for framing the structures that they'll use to get through the harsh North Dakota winter. People at the donation camps sorted through blankets and canned food, while others split massive amounts of firewood brought in by logging trucks, keeping the sound of chainsaws running throughout the day. Medics worked all night at an emergency tent lined with linoleum floors, part of an encampment that also offered midwife services, mental health, an herbalist, and cots for people who were injured or in need of massages.

Women from Wisconsin assessed people’s temporary shelter for construction crews and housed anyone who was unprepared for the weather in communal tents or the public food kitchens, which doubled as free-for-all sleeping areas at night. Young people dug snow and used firewood to build barriers around the many Tipi tents at the camp so that the elderly people inside would not have piles of snow at their feet when they stepped outside. Helicopters swarmed low above the land as an Indigenous activist group taught new visitors how to peacefully protest.

Several drone photographers said they captured photographs of what appeared to be snipers in the hills. Federal informants were likely embedded in the camp and recording anything being said, attorneys who camped at Oceti Sakowin's legal tent warned. A street medic taught people how to remove tear gas from someone’s eyes should they get gassed, and an army veteran shooting photographs at the barricade out on the main highway road insisted that anyone still here on Sunday would be shot with rubber bullets.

Eviction Day

Eviction day, or the day when the United States Army Corps of Engineers said everyone had to leave, was coming the following Monday. "Whatever happens, happens. We’ll see,” said a 26-year-old man from the Pueblo nation in Arizona, standing outside of a warm makeshift house in Oceti Sakowin complete with a solar panel and shingles on the roof.

Late Sunday afternoon, with eviction day looming, clergy from over a dozen faiths shared a stage with Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the spiritual leader of the Sioux tribe, and took turns leading people in prayer. A Catholic priest apologized for all the pain his religion had caused. A Muslim imam recalled how oil prices were the driving force behind the CIA’s decision to overthrow the Iranian government in 1953. Thousands of military veterans wandered the camp and listened. After the prayers, Sioux leaders asked the estimated 10,000 to 16,000 people there to join hands around the entire perimeter of Oceti Sakowin, a difficult task given the camp’s size.

As the army vets, clergy, hippies, American Indians, medics, cooks, and others slowly formed a massive hand-holding circle, the tension that had been building up that weekend broke into an unexpected celebration. Energy Transfer Partners’ application to build  underneath Lake Oahe had been denied, word quickly spread. The United States Army Corps of Engineers said the company would need to explore another route for the crude oil pipeline, one that didn’t impact the Standing Rock Sioux’s water. Many people broke down in tears and hugged.

What happens next is unclear, and many water protectors say they will not leave. But the announcement symbolized a hopeful victory at an environmental standoff that American Indians say has grown bigger than any other they have seen in their lifetime.

A melting pot at the local casino

All rooms are booked at the reservation casino and hotel eight miles south of the Oceti Sakowin. Christmas songs blare on the loudspeakers in the parking lot, and the stench of cigarettes grows stronger the closer to you get to the hotel lobby. Due to excessive loitering, says a sign taped to the front door, anyone who isn’t a registered guest may be kicked out. But young people in dreadlocks huddle by the casino bar anyway, taking a break from the harsh weather.

Curtis Muhammad, a longtime civil rights activist from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, is in the lobby, waiting to make a presentation for the Sioux. Joined by the Asian American Alliance, Muhammad says he wants American Indians to make refuge space available for minorities, the way they did years ago when blacks escaping slavery from the Underground Railroad needed a place to hide. “We expect that Trump is going to make a lot of us criminals just for being black, and we’re going to need a place to go,” he says.

Levi Medicine Horn, a cultural preservation specialist from South Dakota whose job is to survey sites for the Sioux nation, is thrilled to see all of the outsiders who have descended on the reservation. American Indians have been fighting oil pipelines for years, he says. Foreshadowing the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota set up a “spirit camp” along the path of the Keystone XL Pipeline several years ago. The camp is still there, he says.

Keystone XL united Native Americans and farmers against the project, leading to the creation of an environmental group called the Cowboy and Indian Alliance. But even that unifying campaign hasn’t attracted the international following that the #NODAPL fight has.

Horn leases part of his own land to farmers, and he says he recently lost a client who was angry to learn that he had occasionally joined the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline when his work brought him to North Dakota. The farmer criticized him for depending on fuel to power his truck while fighting an oil pipeline. He argues back to such criticisms: Between fuel or clean water for your children, you choose fuel?

The Origins of #NODAPL

The Standing Rock Sioux leaders and tribal elders say they tried to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from passing under Lake Oahe several years ago, but the #NODAPL movement in its current  form began last spring, when Standing Rock Sioux tribal historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard invited people to set up a prayer and resistance camp on the land she owned, a site now called the Sacred Stone Camp. The Oceti Sakowin camp, on land below Sacred Stone, is the easier of the two to access by car and is the location that has drawn thousands more to the cause, by some estimates as many as 16,000 people on a given weekend. 

Opposite the river of Oceti Sakowin is the Rose Bud camp, a smaller tent city where the United States Army Corps of Engineers has deemed people are allowed to protest in a “Free Speech” zone.

“I was asked, When do you consider this pipeline issue to be over?” Allard wrote online, shortly after the Corps said it would not grant Energy Transfer Partners an easement under Lake Oahe. “I said, when every pipe is out of the ground and the earth is repaired across the United States. I am not negotiating, I am not backing down. I must stand for our grandchildren and for the water.”

Daily life at a tent city in the snow

Every night on the land, people fall asleep to the sound of drums and songs from the Sacred Fire, a plaza that functions as the downtown of the functional if sometimes disorganized city that Oceti Sakowin has become. Tribesmen invite everyone to the prayers and offer messages of unity. Mni Wiconi, Lakota for “Water is Life,” is the camp’s primary rallying cry. Tribal elders say they will not tolerate any racism, misogyny, or anything else that will divide the people here. One man sings a song by the fire on Sunday afternoon about the women at the camp: “Legal Girls, Media Girls, Medic Girls, Teacher girls, Dog-bitten and Maced girls, I love No DAPL Girls.”

When there are no prayers, the sacred area becomes a spot where day-to-day needs are taken care of. Whoever drives the black Ford Fusion needs to move their vehicle; a woman needs a ride to Bismarck to catch a bus at 3 in the morning; we have found a pair of lost keys; and if you have been arrested please meet with the attorneys at the central dome today; are just some of the nonstop announcements made on the microphone in between sermons and prayers.

The line for coffee around the prayer circle is slow, but people are in good spirits while they wait. One man in line says he was not planning to drive to North Dakota until he saw a woman crying outside of the grocery store in Montana where he works. She wanted to come to Oceti Sakowin but needed a ride. He will probably lose his job whenever he makes it back, he cheerfully says. A Unitarian minister from Wyoming, also waiting for coffee, says she is not afraid to get arrested for civil disobedience, considering such an arrest the mark of a true minister.

Many of the so-called weekend warriors who come here briefly are not used to cold weather, or do not fully understand what they are getting into when they set up summer tents on the frigid North Dakota land. So Fawn Youngbear Tibbetts, an environmental activist and organizer from the Anishinaabe Nation in Wisconsin, works every day to assess the sleeping arrangements and will not let anyone sleep in a simple summer tent if she can help it. “We have some experience lasting the winter,” she says while taking a brief break from work. “So we came out here to establish our camp and also help everybody else get winterized.”

Tibbetts is not exaggerating. She recounts how several years ago, a mining company expressed interest in Wisconsin’s Penokee Hills, land that environmentalists warned was home to a complex ecosystem and also culturally significant to the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. To protest the mining operation, Tibbetts and others set up a tent city called the Penokee Hills Harvest Camp and stayed there for four years, surviving the bitter winter in wigwams and other weather-proof outdoor housing. Much like today, the protesters in 2014 were warned that they could not camp on public land. They ignored the government's demands to leave.

Finally, iron ore company Gogebic Taconite abandoned its plans last year. “We inhabited the site,” Tibbetts says.

While many people stay warm in Tipis, it takes up to eight weeks to fulfill an order for the appropriate liner for these traditional tents. And yurts, another tent structure that can survive brutal winters, cost as much as $3,000. To respond to the growing need for warm tent housing, a Seattle carpenter named Paul Cheyok'ten Wagner invented the Tarpee, a Tipi-like structure that only costs $650 and is kept warm via a wooden stove, designed with a steel plate at the top to radiate more heat.
“It’s actually really quite ingenious,” Tibbetts says. She houses people in her camp's own Tarpee but also lists the many other communal tents where people can stay if necessary. The huge influx of people requires her to stay vigilant about checking on people’s temporary shelter. “It’s powerful to be in a big group like this. Yeah, there are all these little camps, but we are all working together. We’re all supporting each other.”

A slippery hill by the main entrance is "Media Hill," where journalists register to get laminated press passes and people can actually get a cellphone signal. Young children ride their sleds down Media Hill as their parents watch them from the top.

Next to the warm media registration tent, a musician from Seattle rides a stationary bicycle, which is attached to a generator so that people can charge their cell phones by riding the bike. He came here with a group of friends but opted to stay when they left, he says through short breaths. Like many others at the camp, who are technically trespassing by staying here, he has asked not to be named.

Not far from the sacred fire, Winona Kasto, a woman from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, cooks two 50-gallon pots of soup every day, made from buffalo meat that she prefers to leave unseasoned.

Her soup is popular because it is made with love, she says, and because the buffalo are pickier eaters than other mammals, eating flowers and other "medicine" from the ground. Her camp has doubled in size as people realized that Kasto needed a larger kitchen to accommodate all of the people who want to eat buffalo soup from Winona’s Kitchen, as a sign posted on her camp’s main Tipi calls the site. At a fire around Winona’s Kitchen on Saturday night, young doctors talk about the impressive medical care that they have witnessed here at Oceti Sakowin.

"What they're trying to do here is community medicine really,” says Revery Barnes, a Cuba-trained doctor from San Francisco who now works at a hospital in South Los Angeles. She has come to drop off supplies and help people at the medic camp for a few days. Being a doctor at a hospital is like working in an assembly line, she says, but the unpaid doctors and medics at Oceti Sakowin give patients the kind of care she would like to see in the real world.

“They’re trying to decolonize medicine. They’re trying to give patients options. This is what we think you have, and we have this herbalist to talk to, we have these herbalist services, we have a pill for you in Western medicine, but if you just want to sit here and talk, we can do that too,” she says.

The visiting doctors ask for a picture with Kasto before they must return home in several days. “Winona is Lakota for gathers people woman,” Kasto tells the group, getting a big laugh from everyone.

Preparing for eviction day 

Even though many people say they are inspired about what the resistance camp has become and are happy to be here, concerns about the police and National Guard presence hang over the camp. Over Thanksgiving weekend, when thousands of people came for the holiday, a group of activists organized a "direct action" protest on the front lines to remove burned-out trucks that authorities had set up as a barricade. “Folks have a right to be on a public road,” Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network, told reporters at the time.

Officers responded by shooting the protesters with high-pressure water hoses. The Morton County Sheriff’s office also shot tear gas grenades, rubber bullets, and other weapons into the crowd, causing a 21-year-old woman named Sophia Wilansky to suffer devastating injuries to her arm. Vanessa Dundon, another water protector on the bridge, was shot in the eye with a tear gas canister and will likely be blind in that eye as a result, according to a page trying to raise money for her surgery.

Over the course of the standoff, the Morton County Sheriff's office has repeatedly used violent, heavy-handed tactics to clamp down on peaceful protestors, according to a lawsuit filed by The National Lawyers Guild this month. (Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier has denied the allegations that his officers' actions were unwarranted, telling the local news channel that “we will continue to enforce the law and urge those lawful protesters to isolate those who are unlawful.")

Concerns about police violence are what inspired thousands of veterans to descend on Oceti Sakowin last weekend, setting up military tents that will be left for people staying at the camp to sleep in once the vets leave. During their brief stay, thousands of the veterans were housed in a local community center to stay warm.

“Never, in my 81 years, [have I] seen police treat protesters like this,” says Byron Jolly, a former police officer and sheriff as well as a Korean war veteran. He gets through the snowy, slippery Oceti Sakowin campgrounds on an all-terrain tracked wheelchair called a TracFab. “And then they said they want protesters to leave here for their own protection so we don’t freeze. But they’ll sprinkle them with water in sub-zero temperatures, eh? So you figure it out. Do they mean that? Hell no. They just want us gone.”

The campgrounds are crowded on Sunday afternoon with veterans of all ages and clergy who answered a call for support from Chief Arvol Looking Horse, the Sioux spiritual leader. Wearing a traditional headdress with a black leather jacket and boots equipped with snow chains, Chief Looking Horse says he has asked people from all nations and religions to stand with the Sioux in solidarity.
“It’s the responsibility of the people to say water is life,” he says. For the following three hours, clergy from the Unitarian, Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist churches, and Jewish and Muslim temples, give speeches and prayers. Leaders of tribes that used to be at war with the Sioux now speak about solidarity and protecting water for everyone. 

“We want to be on the love train and the justice train with them as they struggle against these corporate foes,” said Dr. Cornel West, the Baptist preacher, Princeton professor, and civil rights activist. “I call them foes, not enemies, because they’re human beings, too. They’re just too greedy. They’re just too short-sighted. They’re just too narrow in their spirits and cannot embrace the land and the people and the air, and in the end they could destroy the very planet itself.”

After the prayers, the Sioux elders say that they had originally planned to perform a direct action, or a civil disobedience protest, along the police barricade. But, they say, they have changed their minds. To keep the mood prayerful and peaceful, they instead tell everyone to join hands and make a circle around the entire camp.

People are trying to close gaps in the large circle and are slowly making their way around Oceti Sakowin when news spreads that the Corps has rejected Energy Transfer Partners’ application for an easement under Lake Oahe. (Because Lake Oahe is a dam that the Corps created from the Misssouri River, the Corps requires companies to seeking to build under its project to get additional permits).

The young veteran next to me breaks down crying as she hugs a friend. The Sioux leaders return to the stage where the solemn praying took place and now play celebratory music on the drums as reporters crowd around and shoot photographs. Many people pack up their cars, so they can leave before the next snowfall, and they honk and cheer at the new line of cars waiting to enter Oceti Sakowin. Military veterans lead a march along the road outside, where the barricade still stands but the Humvee vehicles have left. But even this celebration will be short-lived. Energy Transfer Partners and Sunoco Logistics Partners released a statement Sunday night suggesting that they planned to drill under Lake Oahe anyway, describing the Corps’ decision as purely political.

A long road ahead

Reaction to the news has been mixed. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II went on NPR to say that protesters achieved their goal “and it is time now for them to enjoy this winter with their families.” But other leading activists -- people like Sacred Stone Camp founder Dona Brave Bull Allard -- have vowed to stay. On Tuesday, as another blizzard hit the camp and temperatures dropped into the negatives, the local casino opened its doors to people so they could take indoor shelter, and Winona Kasto, the popular cook who fed everyone buffalo soup, posted online that she would be making food at the casino for people who could not afford the buffet.

“People keep asking when are you going to go,” said Fawn Youngbear Tibbetts, the woman who helped fend off the mining company in Wisconsin and is now helping the people at Standing Rock learn how to camp for a long winter. “We’ve fought mining companies, we’ve fought Exxon, we’ve fought nuclear waste repositories. It’s something we always do,”  she said on Sunday, recounting the many environmental causes that Native Americans have led over the years. “But this is really historically different because of the amount of people working together. What you have are warring tribes, that haven’t talked to each other in 500 years, coming together in solidarity and in prayer.”  

Not everyone can stay there forever, but she predicts that many people will continue to leave and return until the fight  here is over. “All water is sacred. We have fights at home, so we’re going back and forth,” she says.

---

Photo credits: Amy Martyn and M. Aaron Martyn

The makeshift city at Oceti SakowinFrom Palestine to Standing Rock We Are United. Juntos Protejamos. Mni Wiconi. Artwork and signs of solidarity from...

Wendy's joins group in advancing sustainable beef

Company is joining the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef

Hamburger chain Wendy's has always tried to set itself apart with the beef it uses to make its burgers. Its advertising proclaims its patties are “fresh, never frozen.”

Now the chain is doubling down on its beef, announcing a partnership with the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef that is says will advance sustainability efforts throughout the U.S. beef value chain.

The company says it has always tried to support sustainable beef production and responsible animal production practices. It says its partnership with the Roundtable will give it a place at the table when environmental, social, and economic sustainability issues are discussed.

Liliana Esposito, Chief Communications Officer for The Wendy's Company, says the partnership simply solidifies long-time commitments.

“We have a long-term interest in promoting the continued sustainability of the U.S beef supply chain, and we are proud to join the efforts of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef and align on common goals and metrics to drive continuous improvement in U.S. beef production," Esposito said.

Millennial influence

As Millennial consumers, especially, have held companies to higher ethical standards, dozens of chains operating on massive scales have made commitments in the area of animal welfare. Wendy's is one of many fast food companies to pledge to move to 100% cage free eggs at its restaurants. Early this year it announced it would make that transition by 2020.

Wendy's says it understands that consumers are increasingly want to know more about their food and where it comes from. The company says the Roundtable is trying to make the U.S. beef value chain to be the best in breed when it comes to environmentally sound, socially responsible, and economically viable beef.

Roundtable members include farmers and ranchers, processors and industry partners, as well as academics, retailers, and environmental groups.

"The strength and success of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is dependent on a diverse membership that encompasses the entire beef value chain," said John Butler, beef producer and Roundtable chairman. "We are very proud to have Wendy's join the Roundtable as we all work to improve the sustainability of the U.S. beef industry."  

Hamburger chain Wendy's has always tried to set itself apart with the beef it uses to make its burgers. Its advertising proclaims its patties are “fresh, n...

Princess Cruise Lines pleads guilty to felony pollution

Officials claim one ship routinely dumped oily water and covered it up

Ships on the world's oceans must abide by strict rules when it comes to handling waste so as not to damage the increasingly fragile marine environment.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced Princess Cuise Lines, part of the Carnival Cruise Lines corporate family, will plead guilty to seven felony charges of deliberate pollution and cover-up. It will also pay a $40 million fine, the largest-ever criminal penalty involving deliberate vessel pollution.

The charges primarily focus on one ship, the Caribbean Princess, which routinely visits Florida, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and Virginia.

Whistleblower

DOJ officials say that in 2013, a newly-hired engineer aboard the vessel became aware that a so-called “magic pipe” was used to illegally discharge oily waste off the coast of England. The engineer is said to have quit his job and left the ship when it docked in Southampton, reporting what he had spoken to both the U.S. Coast Guard and the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).

U.S. officials say senior officers aboard the Caribbean Princess then ordered a cover-up that included the removal of the magic pipe and ordering subordinates to lie about it. In the investigation that followed, U.S. officials determined that the ship had been using the magic pipe to make illegal discharges since 2005, a year after it went into service. They further alleged the ship's officers took deliberate steps to conceal their activity.

“The pollution in this case was the result of more than just bad actors on one ship,” said Assistant Attorney General John Cruden. “It reflects very poorly on Princess’s culture and management. This is a company that knew better and should have done better.”

Follow-up probe

Officials say a follow-up investigation found two other illegal practices on board the Caribbean Princess and four other ships – Star Princess, Grand Princess, Coral Princess, and Golden Princess. The ships were found to have bypassed monitoring systems designed to stop the flow of oily water discharges.

DOJ says the plea agreement also requires all eight companies under the Carnival Cruise Line umbrella to submit to a court supervised Environmental Compliance Program (ECP) for the next five years. That program will require independent auditors to monitor all ships' compliance.

Ships on the world's oceans must abide by strict rules when it comes to handling waste so as not to damage the increasingly fragile marine environment....

Exxon's investors sue energy giant for downplaying climate concerns

After Exxon revealed that it would have to write off some oil reserves, investors are suing

Documents unveiled by the InsideClimateNews site last year revealed that ExxonMobil executives and scientists were aware of the risks that oil and gas drilling posed to the planet even as they publicly denied the link between fossil fuels and climate change.

The revelation attracted unwanted scrutiny from some lawmakers, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who compared ExxonMobil’s expensive, longtime campaign attempting to discredit climate scientists to the campaign waged by the tobacco industry. The company poured an estimated $31 million into think tanks that cast doubt on global warming.

But it’s not just existential concerns about the warming planet that have gotten Exxon in trouble. Shareholders have a more practical reason to be angry at the company -- they say that Exxon’s failure to disclose the risks of global warming hurt their bottom line.

Shareholder sues

A lawsuit filed on behalf of shareholders this month against ExxonMobil in a Dallas federal court accuses the energy giant of artificially inflating the prices of its oil reserves and its stock by not publicly accounting for climate change. The suit comes as the company is experiencing a major slump. On October 28, Exxon's stocks fell more than $2 a share, "erasing billions of dollars in market capitalization," the lawsuit contends.

To be sure, the oil refinery business as a whole is facing financial setbacks. Oil prices and natural gas prices both fell to record lows this year. One potential reason for that, financial experts say, is the worry that more people and government agencies will turn to clean energy, lowering the demand for fossil fuels. But in the midst of the slump, Exxon has been the only oil company not to write off its assets.

That changed late last month, when Exxon announced that it would have to write down over $3.6 billion worth of crude oil it had previously listed as assets. A company document blames dropping oil prices this year for the change:  "If the average prices seen during the first nine months of 2016 persist for the remainder of the year, under the SEC definition of proved reserves, certain quantities of oil, such as those associated with the Kearl oil sands operations in Canada, will not qualify as proved reserves at year-end 2016." Last April, Standard and Poor downgraded the corporation's credit rating for the first time since the Great Depression.

"Material misstatements"

The new lawsuit, filed by stockholder Pedro Ramirez Jr., points to the now-public documents revealing that Exxon knew but concealed the dangers of climate change. He similarly argues that Exxon knew but failed to disclose that it "would not be able to extract the existing hydrocarbon reserves," given concerns about the climate and its effect on the company. "Exxon’s material misstatements and omissions not only artificially inflated the price of Exxon publicly traded securities, but also influenced the rating agencies to issue strong ratings on Exxon’s $20 billion of outstanding debt,” the suit says.

Exxon, which did not return an interview request, remains one of the world's largest publicly traded companies, even as it faces some public scrutiny. The Massachusetts and New York state attorney generals and the Securities Exchange Commission have all launched investigations into Exxon’s denial of climate change and its accounting practices in the past year.

Exxon no longer denies that man-made climate change is real, as it did for decades. In 2014, Exxon publicly acknowledged the risks of climate change for the first time in company history. But, according to news reports from the time, Exxon also assured investors that climate concerns would not affect business. "We are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become 'stranded,'" a company report from the time said.

Documents unveiled by the InsideClimateNews site last year revealed that ExxonMobil executives and scientists were aware of the risks that oil and gas dril...

Tesla and SolarCity to run an entire island on solar power

A 1.4 megawatt microgrid will cover nearly 100% of power needs

Last week, we reported that shareholders had greenlighted a merger between Tesla and SolarCity, a move that Elon Musk had been pushing for. The CEO promised that the acquisition would generate over $1 billion in revenue by 2017, saying that shareholders’ faith would be rewarded.

While little time has passed since that proclamation, it seems that the companies aren’t wasting any time when it comes to getting things done. In a SolarCity blog posting, the new entity has announced that it is supplying the island of Ta’u in American Samoa with a solar-powered microgrid that provides nearly 100% of the island’s energy needs.

“This is part of making history. This project will help lessen the carbon footprint of the world. Living on an island, you experience global warming firsthand. Beach erosions and other noticeable changes are a part of life here. It’s a serious problem, and this project will hopefully set a good example for everyone else to follow,” said local resident Keith Ahsoon.

Supplying power needs

The companies boast that the 1.4-megawatt microgrid will “supply nearly 100 percent of the island’s power needs from renewable energy, providing a cost-saving alternative to diesel, removing the hazards of power intermittency and making outages a thing of the past.”

The system is made up of 5,328 solar panels and 60 Tesla Powerpacks, which can store up to 6 megawatt-hours of energy. Though Ta’u gets a lot of sunlight to keep the grid charged, the storage space would allow the island to have power for three days without any sunlight.

Cleaner, more reliable energy

The new microgrid is sure to be a big change from the power management that the island’s inhabitants are used to. Up until now, residents burned through an estimated 109,500 gallons of diesel fuel per year, and getting supplies wasn’t always easy.

“I recall a time they weren’t able to get the boat out here for two months,” said Ahsoon. “We rely on that boat for everything, including importing diesel for the generators for all of our electricity. Once diesel gets low, we try to save it by using it only for mornings and afternoons. Water systems here also use pumps, everyone in the village uses and depends on that. It’s hard to live not knowing what’s going to happen. I remember growing up using candlelight. And now, in 2016, we were still experiencing the same problems.”

These energy problems may be the very thing that qualifies Ta’u as a perfect candidate for this project, though. The energy needs are moderately low due to a population of only 600, and the sun exposure and controlled environment will help gauge how viable the system is for future development.

“Ta’u is not a postcard from the future, it’s a snapshot of what is possible right now. Renewable power is an economical, practical solution for a growing number of locations and energy needs, and islands that have traditionally relied on fossil fuels can easily transition to microgrids powered by solar and storage today,” the companies said.

Solar panels on Ta'u -- Photo via YouTubeLast week, we reported that shareholders had greenlighted a merger between Tesla and SolarCity, a move that...

Spoiler Alert aims to reduce food waste by recycling surplus food

The startup finds uses for leftover food by facilitating connections between companies

Here in the U.S., an estimated 40% of food goes uneaten. Now, a new startup called Spoiler Alert is making strides toward mitigating the problem of food waste and hunger in America. Aiding its efforts: a partnership with Sysco corporation and $2.5 million in funding.

The Boston-based company is seeking to reduce waste by helping food and beverage companies make use of their leftovers. Making mutually beneficial connections -- for instance, by helping a food producer coordinate with a food bank -- is one way Spoiler Alert prevents food from going to waste.

It coordinates these connections using cloud-based software, CEO Ricky Ashenfelter recently told TechCrunch. “We offer the relevant accounting and reporting systems to capture tax benefits and document important financial, environmental, and social metrics,” Spoiler Alert explained on its website.

Selling imperfect produce  

The platform also aims to keeps cosmetically imperfect, but otherwise good, produce from ending up in landfills. Consumers might not naturally reach for “ugly” produce, but some companies (such as juice or soup makers) don’t need perfect-looking fruits and vegetables in order to make their product.
Spoiler Alert is essentially a “secondary marketplace for wholesale food,” Ashenfelter said, adding that the company will use its recently-raised funding to put its services on the radars of food producers and nonprofits in every major, metropolitan area in the U.S.

The CEO said he hopes Spoiler Alert will eventually help food and beverage companies get rid of organic waste in every sustainable way possible. He also hopes to obtain the resources to allow prepared food from restaurants and catering services to be donated instead of thrown out. 

Here in the U.S., an estimated 40% of food goes uneaten. Now, a new startup called Spoiler Alert is making strides toward mitigating the problem of food wa...

Wind developers expect more of the same under President Trump

The renewable industry isn't expecting more tax breaks, but they are optimistic that they will keep what exists.

The mainstream media conveniently ignores that President-elect Donald Trump cares about birds. “The [Obama] administration fast-tracked wind projects that kill more than 1 million birds a year,” Trump told a group of oil men and women in North Dakota last May. In August, he furthered his stance, telling people: “The wind kills all your birds. All your birds, killed. You know, the environmentalists never talk about that.”

Whatever his true motivation, Trump throughout his campaign has bashed the renewable energy industry as being inefficient and unsafe to birds while making promises to bring back coal plants, drill on public lands, and otherwise “unleash America’s $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves,” concerns from environmental scientists be damned.

Wind in trouble?

It is no surprise, then, that shares in Vestas Wind Systems A/S, a Danish company that is the world’s biggest wind turbine producer, plunged by 14 percent shortly after Trump's victory. The company’s chairman told Bloomberg News that the American market is an important source of business, but he otherwise didn’t sound particularly worried. “I think Trump has a lot of other things to deal with right now rather than wind energy,” the chairman reportedly said.

“While we won’t speculate so soon after the election regarding different scenarios that could play out for the renewable energy sector during Mr. Trump’s presidency, it’s worth remembering that wind and renewable energy have broad bipartisan support in the United States,” company spokesman Michael Zarin adds in an email to ConsumerAffairs.  “Polls show for example that almost 80 percent of Trump supporters want more wind farms built in the United States.”

Good business in Republican states

In the United States, the wind industry has a similar, vaguely positive take. “With over 80% of all wind farms in Republican-held congressional districts, we envision that the Republican leadership in Congress and the White House will want to keep our industry growing,” the industry trade group American Wind Energy Association said in a release shortly after the election, adding that they are ready to work with the president-elect. The industry has claimed throughout the election that wind development enjoys broad support from Americans both Red and Blue.

In Texas, which supplies more wind power than any other state in the country, wind developer and attorney Steven DeWolf founded Wind Tex Energy back in 2002. The company's projects now comprise an estimated 5 percent of the state’s wind energy.

“There is a fair amount of angst in the wind industry about what the Trump presidency will mean. I've seen some comments that it will be business as usual, I’ve seen others that it might change,” DeWolf tells ConsumerAffairs. “But my take on it is nothing will change in the next four years.” Like others, DeWolf doesn’t expect Trump to invest more in wind, but he also doesn’t anticipate losing the incentive programs that already exist.

Due to various factors, including the recession, 2008 was what DeWolf describes as the darkest time for the wind business. Since then, President Barack Obama has been “reasonably supportive,” DeWolf says, providing production tax credits that Congress last year voted to extend until December 2019.

Still, such incentive programs are designed to be phased out by that 2019 expiration date unless more legislation is passed. "I think most folks in the wind business would have liked to seen it [the tax credit program] stay at 100 percent a little bit longer,” says DeWolf, adding that while Texas wind developers are doing well, offshore wind development is unlikely to take off without generous incentives.

Fossil fuel subsidies outpace renewables

The more-of-the-same prediction is comforting enough for those who have already profited from wind energy, but environmental scientists say that much more government investment in renewables is necessary to halt climate change. Renewables receive $120 billion in incentives a year, an amount that is only a fraction of the subsidies that fossil fuels receive. According to the International Energy Agency, a Paris-based think tank, fossil fuels are enjoying $550 billion each year in subsidies. Such incentives, the IEA has said, discourage potential investments in cleaner energy.

In an interview with Marketwatch, an analyst was even less optimistic, telling the publication that Trump’s presidency and a Republican-controlled congress both pose “significant risks” to existing tax credit programs for solar and wind.

Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Myron Ebell, meanwhile, has dismissed concerns about climate change as mere "alarmism."

The mainstream media conveniently ignores that President-elect Donald Trump cares about birds. “The [Obama] administration fast-tracked wind projects that...

Greenhouse gas pact will phase out HFCs in home appliances

The global agreement is supposed to help save the planet, but it will raise costs for manufacturers

A weekend meeting in Rwanda may affect how much you pay for your next refrigerator or air conditioner. At the meeting, envoys from the U.S., China, and other major countries agreed to phase out hydroflourocarbons from cooling appliances, aiming for an 80% reduction by 2045.

The hydroflourocarbons, commonly called HFCs, are an environmental problem; a "greenhouse gas," they contribute to climate change and have long been identified as a threat to the environment as we know it. 

Secretary of State John Kerry helped forge the deal and called it a major victory for the earth and its inhabitants.

"It's a monumental step forward, that addresses the needs of individual nations but it will give us the opportunity to reduce the warming of the planet by an entire half a degree centigrade," he said in a BBC News report.

Experts say the agreement, when fully implemented, will make a big difference in global warming, removing the equivalent of 70 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air by 2050.

"A bit more time"

"HFCs posed an immediate threat to a safe climate due to their increasing use and high global warming potential, thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide," said Benson Ireri of Christian Aid. "By agreeing to an early HFC phase down schedule, we've bought ourselves a bit more time to shift to a global low carbon economy and protect the world's most vulnerable people."

Manufacturers in the U.S. were relatively pleased with the Rwanda agreement, seeing it as less burdensome than the Environmental Protection Agency's plans to phase out HFCs years earlier, 2024 in the case of refrigerators. For now, they will still have to meet the more stringent EPA regulations, which also call for greater energy efficiency, but it's likely U.S. industry will use the Rwanda pact to press for more time to meet the EPA deadline.

The problem, of course, is finding an alternative to HFCs that is safe, effective, and affordable. There are always trade-offs in environmental protection, so it becomes a balancing act to find a solution that is more or less satisfactory to everyone.

"Cooperative effort"

"Our members are rushing right now to make sure that the alternative refrigerants are going to work, going to be safe,” Joe McGuire, chief executive of the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), told the Wall Street Journal.

The group had earlier said it was "disappointed by EPA's decision to deny the home appliance industry the time it needs to cost effectively transition from hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) refrigerant used in domestic refrigeration to newer alternatives," referring to the 2024 date.

"Some of the next generation refrigerants are flammable so a transition will require a cooperative effort from manufacturers, refrigerant suppliers and the safety standards bodies in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the relevant federal safety, environmental and energy agencies in both countries," said Kevin Messner, AHAM’s Senior Vice President of Policy and Government Relations.

Messner said the earlier date "imposes additional and needless costs on U.S. consumers for virtually no environmental benefit."

The EPA says the date should not "pose a signifcant burden" on manufacturers, who have been anticipating the need to move to alternative coolants.

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy called the Rwanda agreement "truly an exciting time for all of us who have worked so hard to achieve this new level of success."

"As head of the U.S. delegation, I could not be more delighted with the outcome of the negotiations and our collective resolve. The prospects for the future of our planet are bright," McCarthy said in a prepared statement.

A weekend meeting in Rwanda may affect how much you pay for your next refrigerator or air conditioner. At the meeting, envoys from the U.S., China, and oth...

CarbonCounter app lets you see the environmental impact of your car

Low carbon emissions cars aren't as expensive as you might think

Environmentally conscious consumers tend to look for more in a car than horsepower and aesthetic appeal. An increasing number of consumers want to know how their car will impact the environment before they choose to buy it.

But factors such as where you live and how much you can afford may rule out an electric car as your best choice. For those who want an affordable car that will contribute the fewest emissions, a new web app may prove to be a handy guide during the car buying process.

CarbonCounter, the brainchild of a group of researchers at MIT, is an app that can help you see how different cars fall on the spectrum of greenhouse gas emissions. It works by factoring in mileage and fuel type, as well as the greenhouse gases emitted during the car’s production.

Cost versus carbon emissions

On a graph, consumers can see a car’s environmental impact and how it stacks up to its price. The app can even take into account certain region-specific factors that may influence a car's impact.

While the app often shows that electric cars are your best bet, there were a few surprises. In some cases, electric cars were found to be worse for the environment than hybrids. Toyota’s Rav4 electric vehicle, for example, uses more energy than many hybrids.

Low cost of going green

In a paper on the study, which led to the creation of the app, Jessica E. Trancik, a professor of energy studies at MIT, pointed out that the cars with the lowest emissions also happened to be the most affordable.

The study found that smaller hybrids and electric cars, such as the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf, were among the cheapest per mile driven.

“Consumers can save money and save emissions at the same time,” Dr. Trancik told the New York Times.

Trancik's colleague and fellow study author, Geoffrey Supran PhD '16, a recent graduate in MIT's Department of Materials and Science and Engineering says the app could help steer consumers away from large, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs -- eventually. 

"[W]e’ve got a long way to go," Supran said. "Obviously the best option is to use public transport and, when possible, to not drive at all. But for those who have to, hopefully our work can help inform a generation of more climate-conscious car buyers.”

Environmentally conscious consumers tend to look for more in a car than horsepower and aesthetic appeal. An increasing number of consumers want to know how...

Too Good To Go app lets users buy restaurant leftovers at a reduced price

The app is currently helping UK users save food and money

Unsold food from restaurants and bakeries typically get thrown away, left to contribute to the estimated 40% of food wasted here in the U.S.

Now, a new app may help mitigate the problem of perfectly good food ending up in landfills. It's called Too Good To Go, and the way it works is simple. 

Users select a restaurant, choose what they would like to eat off of a list of items the restaurant usually has an excess of at the end of the day; and then purchase the leftovers at a discounted price (often as low as half the original price).

Apart from the fact that you have to pick up the food yourself, Too Good To Go is like “Seamless for food waste,” says Business Insider.  

Keeping food out of landfills

It’s currently only available in the UK, but American consumers are eager for a similar solution to come to the U.S.

“This concept is brilliant! And it's a win-win. The customer gets inexpensive food and food waste around the world would decrease exponentially,” one reviewer said.

The creators of the iOS and Android app do have plans to expand to other countries in the future. Their mission: “To save food, save money and save the planet by placing the lost value back onto food as humankind’s most valuable energy resource.”

“It’s a problem that doesn’t need to exist,” says Too Good To Go, “And we’re determined to help solve it.

Unsold food from restaurants and bakeries typically get thrown away, left to contribute to the estimated 40% of food wasted here in the U.S. Now, a new...

Researchers work towards using carbon dioxide as an energy source

If successful, it could mean a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions

While automakers are scrambling to win the race for autonomous vehicles, eco-conscious consumers may be more interested in developments regarding clean-burning fuels. Concerns over global warming and climate change continue to mount, and scientists are continuously working on new ways to provide energy at a lower environmental cost.

Now, a group of researchers from the University of Toronto (UoT) believe that carbon dioxide may be the answer. They theorize that using silicon could enable the energy sector to turn carbon dioxide emissions into an energy-rich fuel source. The best part, they say, is that this new energy source would generate no harmful emissions in the exchange.

Using silicon

Experts have thought of using carbon dioxide as a fuel source for some time, but up to this point they couldn’t produce a material that met the necessary qualifications, of which there are many.

“A chemistry solution to climate change requires a material that is a highly active and selective catalyst to enable the conversion of carbon dioxide to fuel. It also needs to be made of elements that are low cost, non-toxic and readily available,” said Geoffrey Ozin, a chemistry professor at UoT and head of its Solar Fuels Research Cluster.

However, silicon could potentially be a perfect element for this process; it is the seventh most abundant element in the whole universe and the second most abundant element in the earth’s crust, so finding enough of it wouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Clean-burning fuel source

Scientists believe that they could produce energy via silicon by allowing it to convert carbon dioxide with the aid of natural sunlight. In basic terms, engineers would create or harvest silicon nanocrystals that would absorb sunlight. As a result, these crystals could convert carbon emissions into carbon monoxide, which could be used as an energy source.

“Making use of the reducing power of nanostructured hydrides is a conceptually distinct and commercially interesting strategy for making fuels directly from sunlight,” said Ozin.

While researchers are currently working towards finding ways to increase the activity of the nanocrystals, enhance the scale, and boost production rates, they believe that they can eventually create a demonstration unit, which could lead to a pilot solar refinery if successful.

The full study has been published in Nature Communications

While automakers are scrambling to win the race for autonomous vehicles, eco-conscious consumers may be more interested in developments regarding clean-bur...

Smart window material may help consumers control heat and light

A small electric charge would enable users to adjust the tint on their windows

Researchers from Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas have developed a way to transform the windows in your home or business into smart windows.

In a release, the researchers explained that the “flexible smart window material” would be able to lighten or darken the tint of a window with a small electric charge.

Coating windows, windshields, or other glass surfaces in the material would leave users with a surface that could quickly switch from clear to tinted, which could ultimately help consumers save big on heating and cooling bills.

Low-temperature process

Scientists say this smart material differs from conventional smart glasses because it is applied to plastic, rather than glass. Furthermore, the low-temperature process yields a flexible, amorphous structure that is twice as efficient as smart materials produced under high temperatures.

Disordered amorphous structures are somewhat more difficult to study compared to the ordered crystalline materials used in other smart glasses. Nonetheless, researchers were successful in characterizing their atomic-scale structure.

"There's relatively little insight into amorphous materials and how their properties are impacted by local structure. But, we were able to characterize with enough specificity what the local arrangement of the atoms is, so that it sheds light on the differences in properties in a rational way," researcher Delia Milliron said.

The material’s application would be completed in a low-cost manner that would leave consumers with a way to block all light or just some -- but that’s in the future. While the idea for the material is there, the product is not yet in a physical form.

An article on the smart material will be published in the September issue of Nature Materials.

Researchers from Austin's Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas have developed a way to transform the windows in your home or business ...

California's Salton Sea becoming a toxic witches' brew, Boxer warns

State and federal agencies dawdle while the huge lake becomes more dangerous to humans and wildlife

Governments often take actions -- or fail to act -- in ways that would be treated as crimes if committed by an individual or a company. Take the scandalous U.S. Education Department's Teach Grant program that defrauds idealistic young teachers.

Or compare the way federal and California agencies treated Volkswagen's use of emission cheaters with the way they treat their own lack of action to head off a public health and environmental disaster, one that affects millions of Southern California consumers and could be much more harmful than the emissions from a few hundred thousand cars.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif) has tried for years to wring some action out of the various agencies that are supposed to be doing something about the Salton Sea, California's largest lake and one of the largest inland bodies of salt water in the world.

"If we don't act faster than we are acting now, we will face a public health disaster and an environmental disaster," Boxer said in a speech to Southern California local officials Thursday. "There must be no backpedaling, because the dust won't wait for us to act, the birds won't wait for us to act and our children's lungs won't wait for us to act!"

Environmentalists and wild life experts agree with Boxer's analysis.

“The state has been dallying,” said Timothy Bradley, a professor of ecology and director of UC Irvine’s Salton Sea Initiative in a recent Los Angeles Times article. “And it would be unconscionable if it does not now shift into a very high speed to get something done.

The dam burst

The Salton Sea was formed accidentally in the early 20th century when a dam burst and diverted the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley, creating a huge lake.

When the dam was repaired a few years later, there was no longer an abundant supply of fresh water running into the lake and it began to steadily recede and become saltier, leaving a beach littered with dead fish and creating dust that contains particles of pesticides and other harmful materials from agricultural runoff that has drained into the lake for decades.

The lake sometimes smells so bad that officials in Palm Springs, about 50 miles away, issue "odor alerts." 

A 2014 study from the Pacific Institute, a global water think-tank, found that Californians could face $70 billion in costs, ranging from lower property values to dramatically higher health care costs for respiratory illnesses, if action is not taken to save the sea.

Besides posing a risk to human health, the sea is also a national wildlife priority, since it serves as a vital stopover point along the Pacific Flyway for up to two-thirds of U.S. continental bird species. 

Money allocated

This year, California lawmakers budgeted $80.5 million, more than ever before, for Salton Sea projects aimed at bringing fresh water into the turgid sea. The Obama Administration also announced $3 million in allocations for Salton Sea restoration.

But Boxer said the projects are not moving fast enough. She called on federal and state agencies to coordinate their efforts before conditions worsen, warned against "backpedaling," and promised she would continue to push for action even after she retires later this year.

A warming climate and the continuing drought are worsening the situation, as the sea dries up at "an alarming pace," Boxer said. "Already we have seen massive fish die-offs and declining bird populations." 

Boxer, who has long pressed for faster action, said she will not give up even after she leaves the Senate later this year.

"While I will be leaving the Senate at the end of this year, I plan to do everything in my power during that time to help the Salton Sea. And I want you to know I am not retiring. I plan to keep fighting these fights - I will just be doing it from here in California. Even after I leave the Senate, I will do everything I can to help," Boxer said.

Millions of dead fish and their skeletal remains line the Salton Sea beaches. (Staff photos)Governments often take actions -- or fail to act -- in wa...

Stuffstr app can help you keep your unused items out of landfills

Consumers can see item-specific recommendations for where their unused stuff should go

You probably have a few items in your home that you’re not using. In fact, you probably have over $7,000 worth of unused items in your home, says John Atcheson, CEO of an app called Stuffstr.

What if, instead of taking those items to the dump or gathering them up to take to a thrift store, you could get them into the hands of someone who could use them?

That’s the idea behind Stuffstr, an app intended to “increase the use and recirculation of the things we buy and help people reduce clutter and keep things out of landfills."

In addition to helping you declutter your home, Stuffstr can help ensure your items end up in the best possible place.

Recirculating unused stuff

"The average person throws away 70 pounds of clothing annually. It’s often easier to just throw things away,” Atcheson said, adding that we use 80% of our stuff less than once a month.

Atcheson and co-founder Steve Gutmann, who both have backgrounds in the sharing economy, want to “bridge this gap by changing people’s relationship with their stuff.”

While thrift stores such as Goodwill may be an easy way for consumers to get rid of items en masse, these stores aren't always the proper second home for certain items. The app aims to make sure your items end up somewhere where they are needed.

Movement toward circular economy

After inputting your items (either manually or by inputting emailed receipts), the app will show you where your donation should go based on what it is.

For instance, Stuffstr might tell you that your item is best suited for a manufacturer recycling program or a used electronics collection service. Or perhaps it should go to a friend or an organization such as Habitat for Humanity.

Additionally, Stuffstr will give you directions to its recommended donation spots and let you know if there are pickup options available. In the future, the Stuffstr team hopes to get retailers involved in the sustainability movement.

“Longer-term, our goal is to help retailers move toward longer-lasting products and new business models that can improve both their bottom lines and our environment,” Atcheson told SustainableBrands.

Currently, the app is only available for iOS

You probably have a few items in your home that you’re not using. In fact, you probably have over $7,000 worth of unused items in your home, says John Atch...

Relief efforts underway to help Louisiana flood victims

Consumers can help, but are encouraged to use care in making donations

For many, it produced flashbacks to Hurricane Katrina almost 11 years ago. Cars mostly submerged on city streets. People standing on roof tops waiting to be rescued.

Massive rains in southeast Louisiana have sent rivers over their banks, flooding wide areas of the state, with the death toll at 11 so far.

"The current flooding in Louisiana is the worst natural disaster to strike the United States since Superstorm Sandy," said Brad Kieserman, vice president, Disaster Services Operations and Logistics for the Red Cross. "The Red Cross is mounting a massive relief operation, which we anticipate will cost at least $30 million and that number may grow as we learn more about the scope and magnitude of the devastation."

How to donate

The Red Cross has set up a special online portal where consumers can make a donation. Those who want to help should donate to well known, reputable organizations and not respond to telemarketer or email solicitations from groups you've never heard of. In nearly all cases, those are scams.

This time, New Orleans has been spared the worst of the flooding. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has set up the NOLA Pay It Forward Fund, asking the city's residents to make donations to help those displaced by the flood waters.

“Within the past several days, approximately 20,000 people have been rescued from their homes due to swollen rivers from record-breaking rainfall,” Landrieu said. “Proceeds from this fund will support nonprofit organizations working tirelessly in the affected areas to provide assistance and care for residents with emergency needs.”

GoFundMe campaigns

On Tuesday GoFundMe reported that more than 2000 GoFundMe campaigns to help Louisiana had been established and had initially raised over $1.2 million. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landy said that, while he is gratified by the response, he is working with GoFundMe to make sure all the donations go to help flood victims.

Retail businesses have also responded. U-Haul of Northern Louisiana has offered 30 days of free self-storage and U-Box container usage to people in Lafayette, La., one of the hardest hit areas. Lowes has announced it is donating $500,000 to the American Red Cross Louisiana relief effort.

The recovery costs are likely to be massive, and the economic tragedy for many homeowners is that their losses will not be covered by their homeowners insurance. Unless there is a separate flood insurance policy, most homeowner policies do not cover damage caused by flooding.

For many, it produced flashbacks to Hurricane Katrina almost 11 years ago. Cars mostly submerged on city streets. People standing on roof tops waiting to b...

California may ditch Daylight Saving Time

Enough with the sun already, a hot and drought-ridden state exclaims

It's not quite Camelot, but in California, voters get to decide just about everything through the state's initiative process. Soon they may even decide when the sun rises and sets.

A state legislative committee has cleared a measure that would ask voters to decide whether to scrap Daylight Saving Time, and the bill now goes to the full Senate, where it is expected to pass handily. It has already passed the General Assembly.

It may sound odd that a state usually seen as progressive, forward-looking and so forth would want to turn the clock back, but the fact is that much of the state is desert and the rest is pretty sunny too. A lot of Californians would like for the cool, cool of the evening to arrive a bit sooner during the hot months when daylight time is now in effect. 

“Daylight Saving Time is an institution that has been in place largely without question for more than half a century,” said the measure's sponsor, Assemblyman Kansen Chu (D-San Jose), in a statement. “I think we owe it to the general public to be given the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not it ought to be continued.” 

Feel the burn

California switched to daylight time in 1949, with voters' approval. It was promoted as a way to use less energy since it would get dark later during the summer months. But in today's world, those savings don't materialize, since most of us are inside with the lights, air conditioner, and humongous flat screens running full bore.

Interestingly, there are also public health arguments in favor of hastening the setting of the sun. The number of recorded heart attacks, industrial and workplace injuries, and traffic accidents and fatalities also increase in the days following the change to DST. 

Studies conducted in Indiana by the National Bureau of Economic Research support those arguments. They found that Indiana residents pay an additional $9 million per year in energy costs because of daylight saving time.

Indiana, it just so happens, is one of the states that has for years eschewed the switch to later summer sunsets. Part of Arizona also opts out of daylight time and all of Hawaii does so.

If voters approve the change, the federal government would have to give its permission, but this is not thought to present a serious obstacle.

There is no known opposition to the bill although, privately, some have expressed concern about the effect the change would have on airlines, broadcast networks, and others for whom time is money.

Bicoastal commuters accustomed to leaving the East Coast around 9 a.m. and motoring stately into Big L.A. at 11:30 or so would roll in even earlier and would easily be able to take a lunch meeting at the Pacific Diner.  

Supporters of youth sports are dubious, however, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story.  "It's a horrible idea and a really crappy piece of legislation," said Costa Mesa Parks Commissioner Byron de Arakal, who said it is already difficult to meet the demand for lighted athletic fields. Losing an hour of daylight would make it worse, he argued.

Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and a slice of Idaho, who with California make up the Pacific Time Zone, might also feel bereft if they were left alone in the glaring sun while California basked in the moonlight. That's not likely to be a concern for sun-baked California voters, however. 

It's not quite Camelot, but in California, voters get to decide just about everything through the state's initiative process. Soon they may even decide whe...

Study says pesticides used to help bees may hurt them

Researchers say an unintended consequence may be that bees are more vulnerable to disease

The disappearance of large numbers of honey bees, known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), has been linked to any number of potential factors, including the widespread use of pesticides.

Now there is a study suggesting that supposedly benign pesticides that are intended to make bees healthier might actually be harming them.

The study, led by a scientist at Virginia Tech, says the pesticide affects bacteria in bees that can reduce their ability to process sugars and peptides. Without that ability, their health can suffer.

“Although helpful for ridding hives of parasites and pathogens, the chemicals in beekeeper-applied pesticides can be harmful to the bees,” said Mark Williams, an associate professor of horticulture at Virginia Tech. “Our research suggests that pesticides could specifically impact the microbes that are crucial to honey bee nutrition and health.”

The research project studied genomic data from bees from hives treated with pesticides and those that were not. The results were pretty clear cut – bees from hives treated with the pesticides showed the greatest change in gut microbiome.

There could be other reasons

Could this affect honey bee survival? The researchers say it might. They've called for additional study to more definitively answer the question.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines CCD as a dead colony with no adult bees, no dead bee bodies, a live queen, and usually honey and immature bees still present. As yet, scientists don't know what causes it.

However, bees have other threats. The USDA says the threat from CCD has actually begun to decline, eclipsed by the threats of poor nutrition and parasites.

In Virginia, the study says annual hive loss is around 30%, with no end in sight. That, researchers predict, will likely drive up the cost for important crops that pollinating bees make possible, such as fruit and vegetables.

The disappearance of large numbers of honey bees, known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), has been linked to any number of potential factors, including th...

Google's Project Sunroof puts solar energy within reach

The online tool shows homeowners their roof's solar panel potential

Letting natural energy sources lend a hand can help homeowners save money on their energy bills. But while you may have the will to install solar panels, you might be in the dark about how to acquire them.

Google wants to use its wealth of maps, data, and computing resources to shed some light on the wonderful world of solar energy.

With Project Sunroof, homeowners can calculate the best solar plan for their property. The online tool can "help you calculate your roof's solar energy potential, without having to climb up any ladders," wrote Carl Elkin, Engineering Lead for Project Sunroof.

Estimate and next steps

After plugging in your address, the online platform will show you how much sun your roof gets. The tool can then answer all your burning questions about the project itself, such as how big of an installation would be most practical, how much it would cost, and how much money it could save you annually.

After you’ve gotten a better understanding of your home’s solar potential, Project Sunroof can help you get the ball the rolling.

Based on your electricity usage and other factors, the tool can provide a more accurate cost estimate. From there, homeowners have the option of being put in touch with local solar installers.

Project Sunroof is now available in 42 states, Cleantechnica reports. While Google plans to roll out the service to every state in the U.S. soon, the platform is not yet available in Hawaii, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Idaho, Tennessee, Alaska, Mississippi, or the District of Columbia.

Letting natural energy sources lend a hand can help homeowners save money on their energy bills. But while you may have the will to install solar panels, y...

Drought-stricken California sitting on huge pool of water

Stanford researchers discover large aquifer beneath state's Central Valley

California has a water problem. Maybe that's something of an understatement.

The state has been under drought conditions for well over four years and been under a drought state of emergency since January 2014.

But scientists at Stanford University report a potential solution to California's water problems may lie thousands of feet below the surface. Their study suggests that a large aquifer below California's Central Valley holds as much as 2700 cubic kilometers of fresh groundwater – much more than previously estimated.

“California’s Central Valley alone has close to three times the volume of fresh groundwater and four times the volume of USDWs (underground sources of drinking water) than previous estimates suggest,” the authors wrote. “Therefore, efforts to monitor and protect deeper, saline groundwater resources are needed in California and beyond.”

Mandatory water conservation

The California drought has produced statewide limits on water use, with public officials levying fines against consumers and businesses that do not take part in water conservation efforts.

But the drought also has effects beyond the state's borders, since a large portion of the U.S. food supply is produced there.

Still, the researchers say their discovery is a hopeful development, even though the risks of tapping the resource have yet to be fully measured. They concede that pumping huge amounts of water from aquifers can have impact on the surface of the land, causing the ground to sink in some areas.

The water may also be vulnerable to contamination by industrial activity, such as oil and gas exploration.

The report may also be greeted with some skepticism by other scientists. The Washington Post interviewed researchers who said the groundwater in question may have already been used for other purposes and contain contaminants that are not easily removed.

Groundwater extracted from deep levels may also have a high salt content. One water resource expert, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, told the Post there are still a lot of unresolved issues before the parched state can begin pumping the newly discovered water.

California has a water problem. Maybe that's something of an understatement.The state has been under drought conditions for well over four years and be...

New bill aims to combat food waste

Seeks to cut down on expiration date label confusion

Forty percent of all food in America is wasted, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). When food goes to waste, so do our resources.

At some point or another, you’ve probably contributed to the issue of food waste -- but you might not have realized it. Experts say up to 90% of us misinterpret expiration date labels and throw food away prematurely.

Now, a new bill introduced today in the U.S. Senate and House aims to make expiration date labels a little clearer. The ultimate goal: to reduce food waste and save resources.

“Perfectly good food”

We’ve been taught to believe that a looming expiration date signals that food is about to become unsafe to eat. Often, however, that’s not the case.

“Contrary to popular belief, expiration date labels often don’t indicate whether food is still safe to eat,” said Dana Gunders, Senior Scientist at the NRDC in a statement. “As a result, we are tossing massive amounts of perfectly good food in the trash -- along with all of the water, climate pollution, and money it took to get it to our fridge.”

Gunders explains that the bill will help clarify the real meaning of the dates on food labels, while the companion bills would establish standard federal rules for the dates on food labels.

Save the Food campaign

The NRDC and Ad Council recently unveiled a new national public service campaign called Save The Food (video below). The campaign seeks to combat waste by showing consumers just how many resources go into a product before it reaches their home.

In a country where one in seven Americans is food insecure, we still tend to waste a substantial amount of food each year. It is estimated that we throw away $162 billion worth of food annually (about $1,500 worth per household).

Both the bill and the campaign seek to cut down on food waste by raising awareness of the issue and altering consumer's perceptions surrounding date labels.

Forty percent of all food in America is wasted, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). When food goes to waste, so do our resources....

Three Michigan officials charged in Flint water crisis

State attorney general says investigation is ongoing

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed criminal charges against three bureaucrats in connection with Flint, Michigan's water contamination crisis.

The complaint against the trio of environmental officials includes 13 felony charges and five misdemeanors. The charges are the result of Schuette's investigation into the water crisis, launched last year.

In 2014, the City of Flint switched its water supply to the Flint River. Some Flint residents showed signs of lead poisoning shortly afterward..

Environmental experts called in to investigate determined that the corrosive water from the river interacted with the ancient lead supply pipes, causing lead to leach into the water supply.

No elected officials named

While some of Michigan's elected officials have come under criticism in connection with the debacle, none were named in the first wave of charges. However, Schuette says his investigation is ongoing.

Stephen Busch, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality District 8 Water Supervisor, faces three felony and two misdemeanor charges.

Michael Prysby, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality District 8 Water Engineer, faced four felony counts and two misdemeanor charges.

Michael Glasgow, City of Flint Laboratory and Water Quality Supervisor, was charged with one felony and one misdemeanor.

The charges

Busch and Prysby are accused of misconduct in office, allegedly misleading officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and failing to provide clean and safe drinking water to the citizens of Genesee County, Mich.

Glasgow is accused of tampering with evidence, allegedly removing, altering, concealing, and destroying a report on the contamination.

Schuette said he wanted to make clear that the justice system in Michigan is not rigged. The charges are meant to send that message.

“So many things went so terribly wrong in Flint,” Schuette said in a statement. “I made a decision that I must investigate what went wrong. It is my job as Attorney General to protect the citizens of Michigan. The citizens of Flint deserve that, the citizens of Michigan deserve that.”

Schuette said the ongoing investigation is “broad, detailed and comprehensive."

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has filed criminal charges against three bureaucrats in connection with Flint, Michigan's water contamination crisi...

Michigan opposes oil pipeline request

Still reeling from Flint water crisis, state sees too much environmental risk

When Canadian oil producers proposed the XL Pipeline to move oil across the United States, Republicans generally supported it while Democrats, who ultimately prevailed, opposed it.

Fast forward to this month, when Michigan's Republican attorney general, Bill Schuette, told the U.S. State Department that Michigan is opposed to a proposal to move Canadian oil across the state.

Admittedly, the circumstances are a bit different. For starters, the pipeline in question is 98 years old and runs along the bottom of the St. Clair River between Ontario and Michigan. That river empties into the Detroit River, which then makes its way to Lake Erie.

“As Attorney General of the State of Michigan, one of my highest priorities is protecting the Great Lakes, our most precious natural resources. The Great Lakes literally define our state and are the lifeblood of our environment and economy,” Schuette wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Schuette said very little is known about how they constructed pipelines back in 1918. He also noted that there has been no independent verification of the current pipeline condition, and whether it would be up to the task of transporting crude oil through environmentally-sensitive areas.

The Flint factor

It should be noted that Michigan is currently dealing with a rather large environmental problem. In the city of Flint, the water supply is being transported through lead pipes, contaminating the city's drinking water.

After the city switched its drinking water supply to the Flint River in 2014, the corrosive water caused lead from the pipes to leach into the water supply, creating a public health crisis with enormous political fallout.

When the proposal to allow crude oil to be moved through an aging pipeline was set in motion, it likely set off alarm bells among the state's office holders. Schuette says the proposal carries “significant, unnecessary risks” to public health and the environment.

“There is no available evidence that these two pipelines have ever transported significant quantities of crude oil or are needed for that purpose now,” Schuette said.

When Canadian oil producers proposed the XL Pipeline to move oil across the United States, Republica...

Why honeybees are disappearing

Polish researchers may have uncovered an important clue

For the last decade or so, honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate. There's a name for it – colony collapse disorder (CCD).

There have been a number of theories as to why this is happening, including the proliferation of cellular powers. Increasingly, however, suspicion is focusing on one answer to the mystery – pesticides.

Researchers in Europe have provided the latest evidence. Their findings, published in the Journal of Chromatography A, found dead honeybees they examined had traces of 57 different pesticides.

There is a very important reason consumers should be concerned with the bees' disappearance.

Public concern

"Bee health is a matter of public concern -- bees are considered critically important for the environment and agriculture by pollinating more than 80% of crops and wild plants in Europe," Tomasz Kiljanek, lead author of the study, said in a release.

The problem is also of great concern in the U.S. Agriculture officials worry that CCD, should it continue unabated, could put food production at risk.

While previous research has suggested pesticides might be what is killing off the bee population, the question has been, which pesticide. This latest study, from the National Veterinary Research Institute in Poland, suggests it's not just one pesticide, but a combination of many.

And with many pesticides now in use, scientists are left with the difficult task of finding which ones are proving lethal to the bees. They also have to take into consideration the possibility that certain combinations of pesticides, or prolonged exposure, could be doing the damage.

Nothing has been scientifically proven

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that to date, there has been no scientific cause of CCD that has been conclusively proven. While pesticides may be a prime suspect, since the 1980s bees have been under attack from new pathogens, from deformed wing virus to nosema fungi.

“CCD may even be a result of a combination of two or more of these factors and not necessarily the same factors in the same order in every instance,” the USDA concluded.

The nature of CCD is extremely odd. Not all of the bees die. The majority of the worker bees simply disappear, leaving behind the queen and immature bees. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports observed cases of CCD have actually declined over the last five years.

If pesticides are indeed behind CCD, it has yet to be explained why it only affects the worker bees and is not continuing to claim increasing numbers of victims.

For the last decade or so, honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate. There's a name for it – colony collapse disorder (CCD).There have been...

Flint water crisis has other states looking closely at water purity

Former New Jersey water supervisor sentenced for falsifying records

The Flint, Michigan water crisis – in which the city's water supply has been found to contain unsafe amounts of lead – has consumers across the country on edge.

Now, the water coming out of the tap everywhere is greeted with a more skeptical eye.

The New York Times has a report on other jurisdictions that have experienced water issues that haven't generated the news coverage Flint has. For example, lead levels rose in Sebring, Ohio's water supply last August after the town stopped adding a chemical to keep lead pipes from corroding.

Even the nation's capital experienced a jump in lead levels in 2001 after the city changed some of its water purification procedures.

Water purity falsification

Meanwhile, states and localities are on high alert to find problems before they make headlines. Acting New Jersey Attorney General John Hoffman has announced the sentencing of a former licensed operator of the New Brunswick and Milltown public water supplies.

Hoffman said Edward O'Rourke was sentenced to three years in prison after he was convicted of falsifying water purity records.

In pleading guilty to the charges, O’Rourke admitted that he intentionally submitted false water purity testing data between April 2010 and December 2012 to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in order to cover up the fact that he had failed to properly oversee the testing of drinking water samples.

While there were discrepancies that did not meet water purity standards, the investigation did not reveal any evidence that water distributed to the public ever contained coliform bacteria.

“Tens of thousands of residents relied on O’Rourke as the man responsible for ensuring that their drinking water was safe, and he not only failed to properly test the water, he lied again and again to cover up his failures,” Hoffman said in a release. “O’Rourke exhibited a remarkable lack of concern for the health of the people of these two communities.”

Scam alert

In Michigan, meanwhile, state Attorney General Bill Schuette is concerned that Flint residents have something else to worry about – scammers. He says a high profile crisis like this brings con artists out of the woodwork.

Among the scams he's worried about is one in which scammers pretend to be official workers, gain entry to residents' homes, and then steal things of value – including sensitive personal information.

He also warns people in Michigan – and around the country – to be dubious of charity solicitations on behalf of Flint residents. He says it's generally better to contact a charity directly to ensure its true identity.

The Flint, Michigan water crisis – in which the city's water supply has been found to contain unsafe amounts of lead – has consumers across the country on ...

Michigan's attorney general launches probe of Flint water crisis

Investigation will determine whether laws were violated

The impact of Flint, Michigan's water crisis is spreading beyond the borders of that state. Consumers in other communities across America are beginning to question the safety of the water that comes from their taps.

Residents of Flint began reporting an odd taste and smell from their water in 2014, when changes were made to the source of the city's water. The water, it turns out, was supplied through lead pipes and, as a result, the water contained elevated levels of the toxic substance.

It's turned into a major scandal in the state and this week Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette launched an investigation, naming former prosecutor Todd Flood as Special Counsel. Schuette said retired Detroit FBI chief Andrew Arena will also determine whether any Michigan laws were violated in the process that created a major public health crisis for Flint residents.

“We will do our job thoroughly and let the chips fall where they may,” Schuette said in a statement. “I have every confidence in Todd Flood, Andrew Arena and our team to work with me on this independent investigation. This investigation is about beginning the road back, to rebuild, regain and restore trust in government.”

Governor faces lawsuit

Meanwhile, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and the state government face lawsuits in connection with the crisis. A coalition of local citizens and national groups filed suit seeking federal court intervention to secure access to safe drinking water in Flint. The suit alleges violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Clean water activists worry that the Flint crisis is just the tip of a very dangerous environmental iceberg. They point to a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report by the agency's Lead and Copper Rule Working Group that warned many communities across the country are served by aging lead water pipes.

The report specifically recommended that the EPA revise the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to, among other things, “require proactive lead service line (LSL) replacement programs, which set replacement goals, effectively engage customers in implementing those goals, and provide improved access to information about LSLs,” instead of the current practice of responding only after a case where lead levels exceed legal limits.

Major infrastructure commitment

That, of course, would require a major infrastructure commitment, and cost-cutting measures in Flint are blamed for that city's public health crisis.

Writing on the group's website, Clean Water Action Campaigns Director Lynn Thorp says the crisis in Flint appears to be a textbook example of how not to proceed.

“Over 100,000 people are unable to use their tap water,” Thorp writes. “Flint already had high levels of lead-poisoned children. Now those numbers have doubled. A Legionnaire’s disease outbreak may well be related. All because officials put the bottom-line first.”

As we reported in September, there was a bi-partisan bill introduced in Congress to upgrade water system infrastructure, but it never made it into law.

For concerned consumers, a rational approach might be to ask municipal officials about the condition of local water service lines and whether any of them contain lead.

Our story late last year on water filters also has information about places to get your water tested. You'll find it here.

The impact of Flint, Michigan's water crisis is spreading beyond the borders of that state. Consumers in other communities across America are beginning to ...

Report says there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050

World business leaders urged to attack plastic pollution

The World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting is underway this week in Davos, Switzerland, a meeting best known for bringing together global leaders of commerce to talk business.

But it's not all about commerce this week.

A WEF report seeks to focus attention on the plight of the world's oceans – in particular, the amount of plastic that is being dumped into them. In terms of dollars and cents, the report laments the waste of up to $120 billion a year in recyclable material.

But beyond the the financial cost, by 2050, on the current track, the report says oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish, by weight.

Single-use plastic

The problem stems largely from what is known as single-use plastic. Plastic water bottles, the packaging electronics devices come in, the plastic forks and spoons used at fast food restaurants. Increasingly, it all ends up in the ocean.

Small pits of plastic can end up in fish, and thus become part of the human food chain.

Since this, after all, is an economic conference, the report's authors see a potential business solution. They call for a “New Plastics Economy,” a fundamental rethink for plastic packaging and plastics in general.

The report says this new model would be based on creating effective after-use pathways for plastics, keeping it out of the ocean and other natural environments.

Plastic revolution

“This report demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy,” said Dominic Waughray, Head of Public-Private Partnership, World Economic Forum. “The public, private sector and civil society all need to mobilize to capture the opportunity of the new circular plastics economy.”

The report says the use of plastics has increased by twenty times in the past half-century and is expected to double again in the next 20 years.

“In the ocean, sunlight and waves cause floating plastics to break into increasingly smaller particles, but they never completely disappear or biodegrade,” 5 Gyres, a non-profit combating plastic pollution, says on its website. “Plastic particles act as sponges for waterborne contaminants such as pesticides.”

The group warns that fish, turtles, and even whales eat plastic objects that can make them sick or kill them. It says ocean animals are also killed by dangerous plastic waste that entangles or traps them, often suffocating them underwater.

The WEF report says the New Plastics Economy would not only help solve an urgent environmental problem, but create strong economic benefits by repurposing discarded plastic material.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting is underway this week in Davos, Switzerland, a meeting best known for bringing together global leaders of com...

D.C. bans plastic take-out trays and cups

It's the latest city to try to rid itself of polystyrene foam containers

Lunchtime in D.C. isn't just lobbyists escorting Congressmen into steakhouses. The city's diners, food trucks, and take-out joints fill thousands of plastic, foam, and paper containers with lunches that are eaten curbside, in the park, or at someone's desk.

But starting Friday, Jan. 1, the list of legal to-go containers shrinks. It will be illegal in 2016 to use polystyrene foam food and drink containers. Styrofoam, in other words.

It's not really all that surprising. Many cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, have already banned the little white foam boxes.

The Washington ban was enacted back in 2014 when the D.C. Council voted to require businesses to use compostable disposable dining products. The primary goal is to improve the health of the Anacostia River, in the hope that someday it will once again be safe for swimming and fishing.

Fines for violators start at $100 and rise to $3,200 for repeat offenders, but District officials say they don't expect a lot of resistance. 

The D.C. Department of Energy and Environment has been publicizing the ban, using a "FoamFreeDC" campaign, and officials say foam containers began disappearing ahead of the deadline. 

Lunchtime in D.C. isn't just lobbyists escorting Congressmen into steakhouses. The city's diners, food trucks, and take-out joints fill thousands of plasti...

Composting food waste remains your best option, study says

With landfills brimming, composting trash-bound food waste is vital to reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Intercepting landfill-bound food scraps by composting them is something many have done for years, thinking it’s the right thing to do. Well, a new University of Washington study confirms that it is.

The study calculated the environmental benefits associated with keeping these organic materials out of landfills and found that food waste generates "significantly more" of the greenhouse gas methane when buried in landfills than when it’s composted.

"Putting your food waste in the compost bin can really help reduce methane emissions from landfills, so it's an easy thing to do that can have a big impact," said Sally Brown, a UW research associate professor of environmental and forest sciences.

Keep on composting

Brown’s study, set to appear in the January 2016 issue of Compost Science & Utilization analyzes new changes to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency model that helps solid waste planners estimate greenhouse gas emission reductions based on whether materials are composted, recycled, burned, or thrown away.

With compost, the model calculates how much methane is produced over time in landfills as organic materials decay. It also considers how much methane from landfills is currently captured in collection systems versus being released into the atmosphere. The results are overwhelmingly in support of composting food waste rather than sending it to landfills.

In the U.S., about 95% of food scraps are still thrown away and eventually end up in landfills. The scenario is better for yard waste — grass clippings, leaves, and branches — with more than half diverted to compost facilities instead of landfills.

So how can you help?

Curbside pickup

More than one-third of all waste that enters landfills could be composted instead. So if you live in a place where compost is an option, use it — and pat yourself on the back for doing so. With landfills brimming, conserving space in existing landfills remains imperative to reducing potent greenhouse gas emissions.

Seattle and King County were among the first municipalities nationwide to adopt food waste composting and curbside pickup. Other leaders include San Francisco, New York City, and the states of Vermont and Massachusetts. There are now more than 90 cities that offer the service.

But even if you’re not a resident of these municipalities, you can help. Composting locally at the neighborhood or community-level yields many benefits: improved local soils, greener spaces, enhanced food security, fewer food deserts, less truck traffic hauling garbage, and increased composting know-how and skills that can be reinforced in the next generation. Local, small-scale composting helps community participation and education flourish.

Intercepting landfill-bound food scraps by composting them is something many have done for years, thinking it’s the right thing to do. Well, a new Universi...

Study: character and morality of Americans may be 'seriously degrading'

Researchers call for "brain health advocacy" to lessen growth of mass violence

The San Bernardino shooting that left 14 dead was the 355th mass shooting this year. It is producing the usual arguments for and against gun control and immigration reform, but researchers say there may be something even more sinister at work.

"Guns, clearly, are the elephant in the room," said Dr. Mary Ellen O'Toole, Ph.D., director of the Forensic Science Program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "But in addition, from a behavioral perspective, the 'character' and morality of people in this country appears to be seriously degrading.

"The lack of compassion, lack of guilt and empathy, an embrace of violence as a method to handle world problems, and a generalized world hatred push those people towards guns to carry out their desire for human destruction," O'Toole said.

The San Bernardino attack was the first "mission-oriented" shooting to include a female, which shows, said O'Toole, that mass shooting crimes are morphing and not abating.

Mission-oriented shooter

As described in "The Mission-Oriented Shooter: A New Type of Mass Killer," a recent article by O'Toole, a mission-oriented shooter is a person whose mission is to kill as many people as possible, or to achieve maximum lethality. These particular crimes are well planned and can involve months and even years of preparation. 

"Shootings involving mission-oriented females may be a new threshold which should be concerning to all of us, and the incident in San Bernardino might just be a hybrid, and a harbinger, of shootings to come," said O'Toole, who is also editor-in-chief of Violence and Gender, a peer-reviewed journal.

A "hybrid" means a spinoff from other cases of mass murder. "Like a cancer," says O'Toole, "this crime is moving and growing in insidious ways, and is resistant to 'treatment.'"

Brain health

O'Toole's article appeared last April in the journal Violence and Gender, published by the Avielle Foundation, whose mission is to prevent violence by fostering brain science research and community involvement and education.

"We at The Avielle Foundation are horrified and, honestly, sick of expressing our infinite heartbreak," said Jeremy Richman, PhD, the foundation's founder and director.

"We must actively pursue solutions to preventing violence," Richman said. "We need to be comfortable advocating for our own brain health and that of our loved ones. How many more innocent people have to die, how many bright lives will be destroyed, how many more families will forever grieve before an overwhelming tide of support occurs to make change? We must push for brain health advocacy and research. We are all responsible for meaningful change."

Violence and Gender is the only peer-reviewed journal focused on the understanding, prediction, and prevention of acts of violence and the role that gender plays in those acts.

The San Bernardino shooting that left 14 dead was the 355th mass shooting this year. It is producing the usual arguments for and against gun control and im...

Green features may add value to a home when it's time to sell

Solar panels that generate electricity could increase the selling price

Real estate professionals will tell you that some home improvements will add value to your home. Others, not so much.

For years it was an article of faith that adding a deck or updating a kitchen would pay off when it came time to sell. Putting in a swimming pool, on the other hand, didn't add a premium.

Lately, something else has helped sell a house. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) noted in 2013 that going green seemed to make a house more desirable. It said a survey found that buyers placed a high importance on energy efficiency when searching for a home.

Things that affect monthly energy costs were frequently cited as the most important. Some 39% of home buyers said heating and cooling costs were the most important green feature of a home, followed by energy efficient appliances and lighting, at 24% each.

Boost from solar power

New research by the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a home appraisal expert found supporting evidence, suggesting that installing photvoltaic (PV) solar arrays, capable of generating electricity, adds a premium when a home is sold. In other words, a buyer is willing to pay extra for a home that produces some of its electricity from the sun.

The importance of green features also varies regionally, with northeastern and southern buyers placing more importance on a home’s heating and cooling costs in their decision making process.

The researchers engaged a team of seven appraisers from across six states to determine the value that PV systems added to single-family homes, using the industry-standard paired-sales valuation technique, which compares recent sales of comparable homes to estimate the premium buyers would pay for PV.

Around $15,000

The new findings pretty much were in line with a 2013 Berkeley Lab study that found buyers were willing to pay $15,000 more for a home with the average-size solar PV system, around 3.6 kilowatts.

"These results will benefit appraisers, real estate agents, and mortgage lenders who increasingly encounter PV homes and need to understand the factors that contribute to, and detract from, market value," said study co-author Ben Hoen, a researcher in the Energy Technologies Area of Berkeley Lab.

The study found a lot of variables, since what buyers were willing to pay often hinged on the underlying system and market characteristics. Factors influencing the premium include the size of the system, the available incentives and installed prices at the time of sale, and the underlying retail electricity rates. The appraisers said any formula to determine added value needs to take all these factors into consideration.

PV systems are becoming more of a factor in the existing home market. Berkeley Labs says there were more than a half million U.S. PV home systems in 2014, underscoring the need for new, reliable, and consistent valuation options.

Real estate professionals will tell you that some home improvements will add value to your home. Others, not so much.For years it was an article of fai...

Study shows that going green can make a real difference for companies

Researchers also find that meeting Energy Star certification standards can help companies reap huge savings

The United States population is continuing to grow over time, much like the population of the rest of the world. As the number of people in the country increases, it is imperative that we make sure that we use our resources wisely. Energy, in particular, is a finite resource in many ways. Using non-renewable forms of it for too long can put us in a very difficult position going into the future.

In order to reduce our energy consumption, we have to come up with many clever ways to make sure that we are getting 'the most bang for our buck”. In a recent article, we at ConsumerAffairs talked about how green buildings – those that use energy at a lower rate – are able to help the environment and save money for those that own them.

Researchers at SaveOnEnergy.com have taken this research a step further, though. In a recent study, they found which companies and entities were taking advantage of green technology, as well as how much they could expect to save by going green.

Energy Star certifications growing

For the study, the researchers focused on companies and entities that met the requirements for Energy star certifications between 2001 and 2014. Energy Star is a program initiated by the EPA that provides standards for buildings so that they can lower their energy consumption.

Companies that are able to meet these standards are awarded with an Energy Star certification that lasts for one year. Companies are able to re-qualify each year, provided that their buildings continue to meet the standards. Since its inception, Energy Star has helped to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 2.1 billion metric tons.

From 2001 to 2014, the number of Energy Star certifications has continued to grow. The graphic below shows how the number of certified Energy Star buildings have increased and expanded to different areas of the U.S. The researchers say that the number of certified buildings is now over 26,000, with more being certified every day.

While many companies make up a good share of green buildings with their offices (32%), they are not the only ones taking advantage of green technology. The researchers found that K-12 schools also make up 32% of green buildings in the country. This is followed by retail stores with 17%, supermarkets and grocery stores with 10%, and other smaller entities with 9%.

Schools take advantage

Some may be surprised by the number of school districts that have invested in green buildings, but the researchers point out that it just makes good economic sense. By lowering energy consumption, schools are able to free up money to pay for other expenses, like maintenance, teacher salaries, and extracurricular programs.

The amount of money that can be saved cannot be understated. A technical report from the Los Angeles Unified School District showed that a 1% reduction in energy costs would allow them to hire up to 25 new teachers. Perhaps not coincidentally, this same school district has the highest number of green schools in the U.S., with 142 total buildings.

In other states, many school districts are taking even better advantage of green technology. In Gwinnett County, Georgia, 93% of all schools meet the criteria for an Energy Star certification. They hold the second spot on the list of districts with the most number of green schools, with 126 in total.

Well-known retailers going green

Retail stores covered approximately 17% of all green buildings during the research period, many of which are well-known companies. Target was the retailer with the most number of green buildings, with 1,211 in all. Following them was Kohl's with 978, JCPenney with 648, Staples with 544, and Sears with 532.

While supermarkets and grocery stores have fewer green buildings (covering 10% of all green buildings during the research period), many of them have received special recognition from the EPA. In addition to being certified by Energy Star, these establishments work hard towards other goals, such as eliminating food waste, supporting sustainability, and improving efficiency.

Financial savings

If all of the positive statistics about green buildings weren't enough to get companies to certify, then they can always look at the potentially huge financial savings that go along with it. The EPA estimates that, over a three-year period, buildings who met Energy Star certification standards had yearly energy savings of 2.4%.

While that number may seem marginal to some, rest assured that it is not. In their study, the researchers included some calculations that can put that number in perspective.

At 2.4%, a 500,000 square foot office building had the potential to save roughly $120,000 per year by having their certification. For an 800,000 square foot school district, yearly savings were estimated to be near $140,000. A medium box retailer with 500 stores could expect to save $2.5 million every year, and a full-service hotel chain with 100 properties would save $4.1 million every year. Those numbers are nothing to scoff at by anyone's standards.

Setting an example

With all of the benefits that green technology can provide, one can only hope that they continue to flourish in the U.S. The researchers hope that their work can provide positive examples of what green technology is capable of. They applaud the companies who have taken steps thus far in reducing their energy consumption.

“We created this project to shed light on how Energy Star certification can benefit the participating businesses, the greater community, and the environment as a whole. We also wanted to highlight the companies and organizations that are doing their part with the hopes that more entities will be inspired to commit to greater energy efficiency,” said Amanda Milligan, the study's project manager.

For more information, you can read the team's full study here.  

The United States population is continuing to grow over time, much like the population of the rest of the world. As the number of people in the country inc...

Textile industry looks to clean up its act

Some companies look to stop their polluting practices

With the autumn season well under way and winter coming right behind it, you might be getting ready to pull your warmer clothes out of storage. Unfortunately, you might be feeling a little out of style in your older clothes (which coincidentally is exactly what the fashion industry wants), but have you ever thought of what the real price is for new clothing?

Now, we aren’t necessarily talking about the money you pay at the counter; the environmental cost of new clothes may actually be much higher. A new article that has been published in Chemical & Engineering News(C&EN) discusses just how much the fashion industry affects the world around us.

Polluted practices 

Alex Scott, senior editor at C&EN, explains in the article that there are a number of different pollutants used when making clothes. These include dyes, fixing agents, bleaches, solvents, detergents, and other various materials. While using these agents isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the way in which they’re disposed of can often hit well below the mark.

Many companies simply allow these pollutants to wash away into wastewater systems which empty their contents into nearby rivers. These compounds can often be untreated before being released, which can have damaging effects on the environment and those that come into contact with them. Records produced by environmental groups show that nearby residents of textile factories can often become sick. Productivity at local farms also tends to drop as a result of these dirty practices.

Cleaning up

Luckily, some clothing manufacturers are acknowledging this problem and working toward fixing it. While the timeline leaves something to be desired, these companies have pledged to stop dumping their toxins into waterways by 2020.

In the meantime, many chemical firms are attempting to come up with products that meet the emerging green standards of the fashion industry. OrganoClick, a Swedish company, has developed a waterproofing compound that is made from biomaterials. These could replace current waterproofing products, some of which may contain carcinogens, according to Scott’s article. The company Archroma, which is well-known in the textile industry for its chemical production, is selling dyes that are made from natural products, such as waste nutshells and rosemary leaves.

While these alternatives, and others like them, are a good step forward, they may only be as effective as consumers allow them to be. The cost of producing environmentally safe products is almost always higher than making unsafe ones, which will invariably drive up their prices at retail stores. So, though the current generation may be more environmentally conscious than previous ones, their choice to buy more expensive products may ultimately decide how much the textile industry cleans itself up.

With the autumn season well under way and winter coming right behind it, you might be getting ready to pull your warmer clothes out of storage. Unfortunate...

A new breakthrough with solar energy cells could make them cheaper and more effective

The research could be a huge step forward for clean energy sources

A new breakthrough in solar energy has the potential to make it cheaper and more viable as a source of renewable energy, according to researchers at Lund University and Uppsala University in Sweden.

Historically, developing solar energy cells was a fairly expensive process because they needed to use an expensive metal called ruthenium in order to adequately capture sunlight and convert it into usable energy. Unfortunately, attempting to replace this expensive material with a more usable one proved to be a challenge.

"Many researchers have tried to replace ruthenium with iron, but without success. All previous attempts have resulted in molecules that convert light energy into heat instead of electrons, which is required for solar cells to generate electricity," said Villy Sundström, Professor of Chemical Physics at Lund University.

Luckily, researchers have found a way around using ruthenium. The technique behind the breakthrough involves using nanostructured titanium dioxide and a dye that can be applied to solar energy cells to capture and convert energy without losing it through heat.

These new materials will finally allow scientists to use iron and lower the cost of making the power cells. This will undoubtedly lower the cost of production, which is a huge step towards making solar energy more marketable.

“The advantage of using iron is that it is a common element in nature. It can provide inexpensive and environmentally friendly applications of solar energy in the future,” said Kenneth Wärnmark, Professor of Organic Chemistry at Lund University.

In addition to furthering research on solar energy, the breakthrough also holds promise for solar fuels – an area of development wherein the sun is used to turn water and carbon dioxide into energy-rich molecules. The full study has been published in Nature Chemistry

A new breakthrough in solar energy has the potential to make it cheaper and more viable as a source of renewable energy, according to researchers at Lund U...

Nearly half of U.S. seafood gets wasted

Researchers say most of it is lost at the consumer level

Food waste is an issue getting increasing attention, so it stands to reason that a new report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) will raise a few eyebrows.

The report maintains that as much as 47% of the U.S. seafood supply is lost each year, never making it to consumers' tables. The research suggests the biggest reason is consumer waste.

If true, it's a troubling development, coming at a time when seafood sources are under pressure and consumers are being urged to eat more fish, due to its health benefits.

“If we’re told to eat significantly more seafood but the supply is severely threatened, it is critical and urgent to reduce waste of seafood,” said study leader David Love, an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The study looked at seafood waste by focusing on the amount of seafood lost annually at each stage of the food supply chain and at the consumer level. By researchers' estimates, the edible supply of fish starts at 4.7 billion pounds per year.

2.3 billion pounds wasted

They say some of that fish is wasted as it moves through the supply chain from hook or net to plate. The study concludes that 2.3 billion pounds of seafood gets wasted, and that much of that waste could be eliminated by changing consumer behavior.

In fact, the researchers contend that consumers throw out 1.3 million pounds of edible seafood each year.

The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommended increasing seafood consumption to eight ounces per person per week and consuming a variety of seafood in place of some meat and poultry. Yet achieving those levels would require doubling the U.S. seafood supply, the researchers say, or eliminating nearly all seafood waste.

Food waste reduction goals

Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced the nation's first-ever goals for cutting food waste nationwide, setting a target of 50% by 2030.

Dana Gunders, Staff Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and author of the Waste-Free Kitchen Handbook, said it was an historic step.

“Wasted food is wasted money, wasted water, wasted land and wasted energy,” Gunders said. “America is taking solid action to keep more food on our plates now and into the future. We look forward to working with them to make this goal a reality.”

But Gunders said the government can’t accomplish that goal alone. It's going to take help from everyone -- from restaurants to grocery stores to household shoppers.

The Johns Hopkins researchers urge a stronger focus on prevention strategies involving governments, businesses, and consumers to reduce seafood loss and create a more efficient and sustainable seafood system.

Food waste is an issue getting increasing attention, so it stands to reason that a new report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) will...

New legislation seeks to upgrade infrastructure of water systems across the U.S.

Giving more water system options to small communities will reduce cost to taxpayers

Depending on where you live in the United States, your water bill can vary greatly. Cities and larger communities, for example, have water infrastructure in place that can deliver water to their citizens in an effective manner; this makes their water prices more manageable. This contrasts greatly with people in rural areas; because people are more spread out, building and maintaining a water system is much more expensive. This increased cost affects millions of people across the country.

Luckily, a solution to this problem has been introduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN). Their bill is called the “Water Systems Cost Savings Act”, a proposal that aims to provide rural areas with cost-effective alternatives to accessing clean, high quality water. By adding options like water-well systems to areas that don’t have them, Hanna and Cooper believe that their bill will reduce federal, state, and local costs for providing water services.

"Traditional municipal water systems don't work in every community, or are prohibitively expensive," said Hanna. "Fortunately, there are other options. Communities seeking federal assistance to upgrade their water infrastructure should be given the most comprehensive information possible so that they can build the most appropriate and cost-effective system that best meets their unique needs.”

Cost-effective

One of the great things about the bill is that it will not only help citizens who benefit from the upgraded infrastructure. With its passing, all citizens will see their tax dollars going towards other projects that will help their communities. “This bill will encourage cost-effective alternatives that will save taxpayer dollars and free up resources to reduce the growing backlog of clean water infrastructure needs,” said Hanna.

A recent survey given by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that funding for water infrastructure in smaller communities was down $64 billion across the country. The new proposal intends to give programs to agencies like the EPA and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) that will inform smaller communities about more cost-efficient water options.

Many proponents applaud the bill for its focus on water well systems, which are a much more realistic and optimal choice for small communities. “The effectiveness of water wells as a reliable, low-cost way to provide access to safe drinking water has been proven in projects across the nation that have realized costs savings of as much as 94% over conventional drinking water systems,” said Margaret Martens, Executive Director of the Water Systems Council. “This legislation is a win for rural America and for the American taxpayer.”

Depending on where you live in the United States, your water bill can vary greatly. Cities and larger communities, for example, have water infrastructure i...

Green seals may not tell the whole story

FTC warns businesses to be specific in their environmental claims

It's one thing to say your product is "eco-friendly." It's another to say that it is recyclable. One claim is very broad, the other very specific. It's up to businesses and marketers to know the difference, according to a reminder from the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC staff has sent warning letters to five providers of environmental certification seals and 32 businesses using those seals, alerting them to the agency’s concerns that the seals could be considered deceptive and may not comply with the FTC’s environmental marketing guidelines.

“Environmental seals and certifications matter to people who want to shop green,” said Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But if the seals’ claims are broader than the products’ benefits, they can deceive people. We are holding companies accountable for their green claims.”

Hard to tell

It's hard for consumers to know whether a product is really, really green. After all, who knows if that coffee cup is really made from recycled paper? That's where certification seals come in -- they can provide some assurance that a product is what it claims to be.

But if those claims are too broad -- using words like "green" and "eco-friendly" -- they could be construed as misleading and deceptive. After all, there are very few products that are totally benign. 

Besides the warning letters, the FTC has a new business blog post, Performing Seals, that it says can help marketers understand how certification seals can comply with the Green Guides.

The agency did not disclose the businesses and organizations to which it sent the warning letters. 

It's one thing to say your product is "eco-friendly." It's another to say that it is recyclable. One claim is very broad, the other very specific. It's up ...

Neighbor wasting water? Turn 'em in

California uses I Spy technique to make water-wasters dry up

Big Brother may not be watching all the time but your neighbors are. And in California, it's neighbor against neighbor when it comes to watering lawns, washing cars and taking long showers.

There's a severe drought in California, which is not only the nation's most populous state but also the top agricultural producer. Add up 38 million people and $21 billion worth of nuts, fruits and other produce and you have a lot of thirsty mouths and roots.

Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered everyone to cut back their water usage by 25% but enforcing that isn't easy, so the State Water Resources Control Board is pitting enlisting ordinary water-loving Californians to turn in their neighbors and anyone else seen wasting precious water.

The agency has set up a website, SaveWater.CA.gov, where eagle-eyed conservationists can report sprinkler runoff, leaking faucets and so forth.

“Everyone needs to save water, and this is one effective way alert residents can help everyone – and every community – save water during this historic drought,” said State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “Every drop saved – and every suspected leak or water waste reported and corrected – will help stretch the state’s limited water supply, because we don’t know if next year will be a fifth year of drought.”

It's completely anonymous and, yes, you can include photos of the perpetrators in action. Each report will be turned over to local water agencies, which are charged with tracking down the suspects and ordering them to throw down their hose and come out.

“The beauty of this system is that it sends reports directly to the water suppliers,” Marcus said. “Since the State Water Board passed emergency water conservations regulations in July 2014, hundreds of state residents have emailed us and called asking what they can do to report suspected water waste."

Big Brother may not be watching all the time but your neighbors are. And in California, it's neighbor against neighbor w...

Common pesticide may be more toxic to spiders than first thought, and why it matters

Canadian researchers say exposure makes spider a less reliable guard against pests

Most agricultural producers use pesticides to protect their crops, but Canadian researchers have raised an alarm. At least one of these pesticides in use across North America is taking a heavier than expected toll on bronze jumping spiders.

I know what you might be thinking: so what? Is this somehow a problem?

Researchers at McGill University say it is – a big problem. That's because this insect naturally fills the role that the pesticide is designed to fill.

“Bronze jumping spiders play an important role in orchards and fields, especially at the beginning of the agricultural season, by eating many of the pests like the oblique-banded leafroller, a moth that attacks young plants and fruit,” said Raphaël Royauté, who headed the study team. “Farmers spray insecticides on the plants to get rid of these same pests, and it was thought that it had little significant effect on the spiders’ behaviors. But we now know that this isn’t the case.”

Behavior change

Researchers came to this conclusion after studying the spiders' behavior before and after exposure to Phosmet, a widely used broad spectrum insecticide. A normal spider is active and aggressive, boldly attacking its prey. It's exactly the kind of spider a grower wants in his or her field.

But after exposure to Phosmet, the researchers found individual spiders underwent a personality change. They were more shy and less bold, meaning they weren't nearly as aggressive in going after other damaging insects.

The study points out that not all spiders underwent this personality change, only certain ones did. The authors speculate it could be because some individual spiders were much more sensitive to the insecticide than others.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that male and female spiders were affected differently, neither in a good way.

Less adventuresome

Males exposed to insecticide were able to continue to capture prey as they had before, but “lost” their personality type when exploring their environment. Individual females, on the other hand, were much more affected in their ability to capture prey.

“By looking at the way that insecticides affect individual spider behaviors, rather than averaging out the effects on the spider population as a whole, as is traditionally done in scientific research, we are able to see some significant effects that we might have otherwise missed,” says Chris Buddle, who co-authored the paper. “It means we can measure the effects of insecticides before any effects on the spider population as a whole are detected, and in this case, it’s raising some red flags.”

Phosmet has been the subject of litigation brought by farm workers and environmental groups that tried to limit its uses. In a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), safeguards were put in place and the pesticides was approved for nine uses.

The nine uses include on apples, apricots, highbush blueberries, grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, plums, and prunes.  

Most agricultural producers use pesticides to protect their crops, but Canadian researchers have raised an alarm. At least one of these pesticides in use a...

Researchers develop new technologies in hopes of preventing rhino poaching

Cameras, GPS trackers, and heart-rate monitors will alert security teams to possible poaching activity

Rhino poaching has become more widespread in recent years, and it is pushing many species to the brink of extinction. Poachers target these animals because of the demand for rhino horn in Asian countries; the horns have practical medical uses, but many people collect them as a status symbol to showcase their success and wealth. Luckily, a new technology that plants a camera and other technologies inside of the rhino horn may act as a strong deterrent to poachers so that rhino lives can be saved.

At the beginning of the 20th century, rhino populations were at a healthy number; there were an estimated 500,000 rhinos living throughout Africa and Asia. However, as demand for rhino horn has gone up, the worldwide population of the animals has gone down. There are currently only five species of rhino left on Earth, and all of them are classified as a “threatened species” according to the IUCN Redlist. Three out of those five species are further classified as “critically endangered”.

For a while there was an effort made by activists to create a synthetic rhino horn for those who wanted to collect them. Unfortunately, they found that it was only a matter of time before those who bought the synthetic horn would want to trade up for the real thing. After this failure, activists have decided to focus their energies on catching poachers in the act.

The Protect project

The goal of the Protect project is to provide a strong deterrent for poachers who would kill rhinos for their horns. They plan on accomplishing this by putting video cameras, GPS trackers, and heart-rate sensors inside the horns of living rhinos. The system is known as Protect RAPID (Real-time Anti-Poaching Intelligence Device).

The whle system was developed at the University of Chester by biologist Dr. Paul O’Donoghue. He created a tracker and heart rate monitor that could be implanted inside the horns of living rhinos. Along with the camera, these pieces of technology are able to transmit health and wellness information to a central control center.

If the rhino is attacked by poachers and its heart rate stops, which it would if the poachers were intent on getting the horn, then a signal would be sent to a security team that could respond to the rhino’s location. It is estimated that the team could be on-site within minutes of getting a distress signal in order to catch the poachers before they could get away. If there are difficulties with catching the offenders, then the camera footage can reveal what they looked like.  

As of right now, there aren’t many anti-poaching agencies doing this type of work. The patrol area for rhino habitats is too large, so conviction rates for poachers have been relatively low. The Protect system can go a long way toward rectifying this and keeping rhinos safe. Researchers have already completed a proof of concept study, but they are still working on refining prototypes for the new technologies. The first of these prototypes should be available within months. If they are successful, then researchers hope to create other versions of the technologies for endangered species such as tigers and elephants. A fully staffed control center is scheduled to be completed sometime in the early part of next year. 

Rhino poaching has become more widespread in recent years, and it is pushing many species to the brink of extinction. Poachers target these animals because...

Shark researchers offer some tips for staying safe

Researchers say we can coexist with predators; fishermen are not so sure

It might have been enough that this year marked the the 40th anniversary of the movie “Jaws”, but then there was a rash of shark attacks along North Carolina's Outer Banks.

All of a sudden long-dormant fear of an ocean predator was top of mind among the public. It wasn't just “Shark Week” on a popular cable TV channel – it was shark summer.

All of this makes conservationists uncomfortable and worried that the U.S. is about to declare war on sharks. That would be a mistake, they say.

Coexisting with predators

"We don't necessarily have to see conservation and public safety as at odds with each other,” said Fiorenza Micheli, a Stanford researcher and co-author of a new study tracing the history of shark attacks in California. “This is also true of coastal economies. People can coexist with predators."

Micheli and fellow researcher Francesco Ferretti say they found that the risk of a great white shark attack for individual ocean users in California has fallen by over 91% since 1950. To arrive at that figure they looked at the number of reported great white shark attacks that caused injuries on the California coast from 1950 to 2013, as recorded by the Global Shark Attack File.

During that time there were 86 attacks, with 13 of them being fatal. They weighted the numbers with information on coastal population growth and seasonal and weekly beach-going, surfing, scuba diving, abalone diving, and swimming.

The number of attacks has actually increased over the years, but the scientists attribute that to the fact that there are a lot more people in the ocean – not necessarily more sharks.

For example, they argue that three times as many people live in coastal California now than in 1950. The 7,000 surfers in 1950 became 872,000 by 2013. Certified scuba divers grew from about 2,000 at the beginning of the 1960s to about 408,000 in 2013.

Avoiding sharks

The study also looks at when and where shark attacks take place, offering guidance for swimmers who want to avoid them.

"Doing this kind of analyses can inform us on hot spots and cold spots for shark activity in time and space that we can use to make informed decisions and give people a way to stay safe while they are enjoying the ocean,"

For example, in the fall there is a higher chance of finding big white sharks on the California coast than in the spring, when they migrate to Hawaii, said Ferretti. He points out that the chance of a shark attack increases at night. 

The authors say that in Mendocino County, Calif., it is 24 times safer to surf in March than in October and November. If surfers choose the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego in March, they can be 1,566 times safer than they would be during the fall months in Mendocino.

Meanwhile, the reason for eight shark attacks along North Carolina's beaches this summer remains a mystery. According to National Geographic, warmer water and ocean currents may have attracted smaller fish, which in turn attracted sharks. But the magazine states that it's probably due to more humans being in the water.

In North Carolina, evidence is piling up that suggests there are also a lot more sharks in the water. Charter boat captains interviewed by the Richmond Times-Dispatch say there is now an over-population of sharks off the Carolina coast that has been building for years.

Some tuna fishermen say they are only able to boat half their catches before they are at least partially eaten by sharks.

It might have been enough that this year marked the the 40th anniversary of the movie “Jaws”, but then there was a rash of shark attacks along North Caroli...

Could wind farms be hazardous to your health?

Low-frequency sounds could cause problems, German study finds

Some people think high-voltage power lines cause cancer while others are convinced that wi-fi is a threat to human health. Others worry about cell phones. And don't even think mention non-stick skillets.

But wind farms? Oh sure, the giant blades may slice through a buzzard now and then but how would a wind farm be harmful to humans?

Well, a new German study suggests that the very-low-frequency sounds generated by the windmill's rotor blades and windflow may be detected by the human brain, contradicting the assumption that the sounds are below the threshold of human hearing.

Researchers at the European Meteorology Research Program (EMRP) found that humans can hear sounds lower than previously thought. Also, the mechanisms of sound perception are much more complex than expected, the researchers said.

People living in the vicinity of wind farms have reported experiencing sleep disturbances, a decline in performance, and other negative effects, apparently from the "infrasound" generated by the turbines. Infrasound refers to very low sounds, around 16 hertz, generally thought to be below the limit of hearing.

Earlier studies have come to similar conclusions. In 2014, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that the low-frequency sounds could cause panic, sleep disturbances, stress and elevated blood pressure.

Complaints dismissed

The wind power industry dismisses such complaints, saying that the sounds generated by the wind farms are too low and too faint to be detected by humans. But Christian Koch, the lead researcher in a study conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, says it's not that clear-cut.

"Neither scaremongering nor refuting everything is of any help in this situation. Instead, we must try to find out more about how sounds in the limit range of hearing are perceived," Koch said.

Koch and his team used brain imaging to tell when test subjects were aware of very low sounds and found that humans hear sounds as low as 8 hertz -- a full octave lower than previously thought. The test subjects confirmed that they heard something and MRI-type devices showed a reaction in parts of the brain that play a role in emotion.

"This means that a human being has a rather diffuse perception, saying that something is there and that this might involve danger," Koch said. "But we're actually at the very beginning of our investigations. Further research is urgently needed."

Some people think high-voltage power lines cause cancer while others are convinced that wi-fi is a threat to human health. Others worry about cell phones. ...

Green buildings are good for the environment, but also for those that use them

Researchers have reported that there are several health benefits to living or working in these structures

Entire industries and companies have gotten on the “green” bandwagon by supporting technologies that minimize impact on the environment. In the past 10 years, we have seen the emergence of green buildings, which help the environment by using less energy and water.

Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have conducted an analysis of these structures to see just how good they are for the people who live and work in them as well.

Green buildings have begun flourishing around the world. According to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a group that certifies green building standards, over 69,000 green buildings have been certified in 150 countries.

Remarkable health benefits

Although we know that they have a greatly reduced environmental impact, the amount that they benefit the people that use them is remarkable. "Overall, the initial scientific evidence indicates better indoor environmental quality in green buildings versus non-green buildings, with direct benefits to human health for occupants of those buildings,” said Dr. Joseph Allen, who led the Harvard research team.

The researchers reported that people who live or work in green buildings are generally more satisfied with environmental conditions. The air quality is superior when compared to other buildings, and they do not require as much maintenance due to stricter guidelines that are followed during construction.

These benefits translate into better physical and mental health for occupants. Professionals who work in green buildings report that they are more productive and more likely to stay employed at the company using the space.

Green buildings that are used as hospitals also provide many benefits to patients and staff. Research shows that fewer patients die in these hospitals, the quality of care is higher, and there are fewer blood stream infections that occur, possibly due to superior interior conditions.

Dr. Allen and his team are continuing to gather data on green buildings to fully explore their health benefits. They hope to implement sensors in some buildings in order to gather more objective data on how they affect occupants’ health. Their full study has been published in the journal Current Environmental Health Reports

Entire industries and companies have gotten on the “green” bandwagon by supporting technologies that minimize impact on the environment. In the past 10 yea...

United Airlines invests $30 million in biofuels

The transition will allow the airline company to reduce their emissions

This summer, United Airlines is flying high with a new type of fuel. They are going to be using fuel that is made from farm animal manure and fats. The effort is an attempt to curb the greenhouse gas emissions produced by burning jet fuel in commercial aircraft.

Conventional fossil fuels, which airlines have utilized for many years, have been proven to be bad for the environment because they release large amounts of new carbon into the atmosphere. Biofuels are a much better alternative because farm waste and fats have already been exposed to the atmosphere and have absorbed carbon during their lifetime. So, when they are burned as a fuel source, no extra carbon is introduced into the atmosphere.

The first flight powered by animal waste will be pretty short; it will take off from Los Angeles and land in San Francisco. The airline company plans to make several of these short-range flights over the next two weeks to test the effectiveness of the new fuel source. All of these flights will be using about 30 percent biofuel. They will be acquiring it from a California-based company named AltAir fuels.

$30 million investment

The commitment doesn’t stop there. United just announced that they made a $30 million investment in Fulcrum BioEnergy, one of the largest makers of aviation biofuels. According to the New York Times, this is the largest investment in alternative fuels ever made by a commercial airline. United is hoping to integrate biofuels into its entire fleet of planes soon.

United officials said Tuesday that they expect to begin receiving fuel from Fulcrum BioEnercy Inc. in 2018. They hope to be acquiring 90 million gallons a year by 2021.

United’s managing director for environmental affairs, Angela Foster-Rice, said the airline has greatly reduced emissions by buying more fuel-efficient planes, and it seeks to take the next step by expanding use of alternative fuels.

Biofuels have been proven to be comparable to jet fuel prices, and with United’s commitment to the energy source, this could spell good things for biofuel companies. Fulcrum is planning on building five plants near United hub airports to support their fuel needs. 

This summer, United Airlines is flying high with a new type of fuel. They are going to be using fuel that is made from farm animal manure and fats. The eff...

The buzz on bees with dementia

Declining bee population could be linked to aluminum pollution

The beehive population has dropped from 5 million to 2.5 million since the 1940s. That is a significant decrease and has scientists worried. Pesticides have been blamed and so have our cell phones -- they are emitting radiation that could just be wiping the bee population out.

Now the fear is that bees are getting dementia. A study published on PLoS ONE, says aluminum, "one of the most significant environmental contaminants of recent times," could be responsible for the pollinators' decline.

The study, led by Keele University's Chris Exley and Ellen Rotheray and Dave Goulson of University of Sussex found that bee larvae were heavily contaminated by aluminum, some with toxic levels.

It turns out that when bees forage for nectar they do not actively avoid nectar which contains aluminum, which was once linked with Alzheimer’s in humans although that link has never been proven.

Tiny but complex

Tiny it may be, but a bee’s brain is very complex and studies have found that bees have a pretty good memory. Memory is a high-level cognitive function that involves the ability to remember places facts and events and studies have confirmed the existence of a map-like, spatial memory in the honeybee.

Aluminum may be a factor but age may also play a role.

Bees seem to age like humans according to Gro Amdam, a researcher at Arizona State University.

"We knew from previous research that when bees stay in the nest and take care of larvae — the bee babies — they remain mentally competent for as long as we observe them. However, after a period of nursing, bees fly out gathering food and begin aging very quickly," Amdam said.

And this aging seems to resemble that in humans. "After just two weeks, foraging bees have worn wings, hairless bodies, and more importantly, lose brain function — basically measured as the ability to learn new things," Amdam said.

The White House is getting in on the buzz. The Obama Administration last month expressed concern about the dwindling bee population and the possible consequences for food production. It is supporting a measure that calls for the planting of bee-friendly flowers and plants at federal offices across the country.

The beehive population has dropped from 5 million to 2.5 million since the 1940s. That is a significant decrease and has scientists worried. Pesticides hav...

Schools ditch polystyrene trays, switch to compostable plates

The move will keep 225 million trays out of landfills each year

Schools churn out educated citizens (we hope) but they also churn out a lot of waste, including polystyrene food containers from the cafeteria that clutter up landfills.

But now a coalition of urban school districts is taking steps to dump the polystyrene -- or Styrofoam, which is the best-known brand of polystyrene -- replacing it with disposable plates made of compostable material. 

“This news is a game changer,” said Eric Goldstein, chief executive officer of School Support Services for the New York City Department of Education. “As leaders in school meals, we’re proud to create a product that students will not only find easy to use, but one that also protects the environment for many years to come.”

The six large school districts that make up the Urban School Food Alliance say they will remove 225 million polystyrene trays a year from landfills by creating the new compostable round plate for cafeterias.

The alliance is made up of school disrticts including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Dallas and Orlando.

Why can't it be recycled?

Technically, polystyrene can be recycled but as the American Chemical Society explains in this video, processing it is just too expensive.

Smarter choice

Food and nutrition directors in the aliance specified the round shape to allow students to eat their food off plates like they do at home, replacing the institutional rectangular lunch tray.

The districts in the alliance collectively procure more than $550 million in food and supplies annually to serve more than 2.9 million students enrolled in their schools.

“These cities are teaching kids that sustainability and smarter choices can be integrated into every part of your daily life – even your lunch,” said Mark Izeman, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a non-profit partner of the alliance. “Shifting from polystyrene trays to compostable plates will allow these cities to dramatically slash waste sent to landfills, reduce plastics pollution in our communities and oceans, and create valuable compost that can be re-used on our farms. We are proud to work with a group of school systems dedicated to driving landmark changes in the health and sustainability of school food.”

Schools across America use polystyrene trays because they cost less than compostable ones. Polystyrene trays average about $0.04 apiece, compared to its compostable counterpart, which averages about $0.12 cents each. Given the extremely tight budgets in school meal programs, affording compostable plates seemed impossible until the Urban School Food Alliance districts used their collective purchasing power to innovate a compostable round plate for schools at an affordable cost of $0.049 each.

The American-made molded fiber compostable round plate is produced from pre-consumer recycled newsprint. It is FDA-approved and manufactured in Maine by Huhtamaki North America.

Schools churn out educated citizens (we hope) but they also churn out a lot of waste, including polystyrene fo...

What to do in case of a tornado

May is the start of tornado season: here's how to be prepared

Hurricanes only strike certain coastal regions and earthquakes are largely confined to well-identified areas but all 50 states have experienced a tornado at one time or another. Much shorter in duration than a hurricane, a tornado can be just as deadly and cause more destruction.

On May 3, 1999 a deadly series of tornadoes tore through Oklahoma, killing 40 people and causing nearly 700 injuries. An F5 twister stayed on the ground for nearly 90 minutes, cutting a 38-mile path of destruction from Chickasha through southern Oklahoma City.

Because these storms can form quickly and strike with deadly force, knowing the warning signs and what to do when one approaches can be the difference between life and death.

Storm warnings

Tornadoes are most likely to form in conditions that spawn severe thunderstorms. Hot, humid weather is often common but so is a clash of temperature extremes, when two fronts collide. When these conditions exist it is wise to keep eyes and ears on weather bulletins.

In addition, your eyes and ears can tell you that conditions are ripe for a tornado. According to the NOAA Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., you might observe strong, persistent rotation in the base of a cloud. You might also see whiling dust or debris on the ground, minutes before a funnel forms.

A forming tornado will often produce hail and heavy rain – and then suddenly, the wind dies down and the sun comes out. You might observe debris, like small tree limbs, actually floating in the air. An approaching storm will many times turn the sky an eerie shade of green.

Night tornadoes

Tornadoes that strike at night are particularly deadly because so many people are asleep and can't see the approaching storm. But they can often hear it. A tornado is usually accompanied by a loud, continuous roar or rumble.

You may also see small, bright blue-green to white flashes near ground level. That is usually a sign of snapping power lines and the approach of a funnel cloud.

Regardless of the time of day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises anyone in the path of a suspected tornado to take shelter immediately

“The key to surviving a tornado and reducing the risk of injury lies in planning, preparing, and practicing what you and your family will do if a tornado strikes,” the CDC says. “Flying debris causes most deaths and injuries during a tornado. Although there is no completely safe place during a tornado, some locations are much safer than others.”

A basement or shelter below ground will be the safest. In a house with no basement, go to the lowest floor and stay clear of windows. Crouch as low as possible in a small center room, under a stairwell or an interior hallway.

If possible, cover yourself with thick padding, like a mattress. Lying in a bath tub might offer a shell of partial protection.

After the storm

Once a tornado has passed conditions can still be dangerous. If you have suffered damage or injuries, keep family members together and wait for emergency personnel. If you can safely render aid to someone who is injured, do so.

Damage from the storm can pose a serious threat threat long after the tornado has left the area. Stay clear of downed power line since they may still be hot. Watch your step, since broken glass, nails and other sharp objects could be everywhere.

Don't go into heavily damaged buildings since they could collapse at any time. Find a working radio, TV or smartphone and get instruction from local officials and news about the storm.

If you live in the Midwest or Great Plains, two areas at high risk of spring tornadoes, it's a good idea to assemble a disaster preparedness kit for the season. Federal disaster officials provide this list of things that should go in it.

Hurricanes only strike certain coastal regions and earthquakes are largely confined to well-identified areas but all 50 states have experienced a tornado a...

Plastic containers continue to pile up on land and sea

Plastic is forever, and that's the problem

Unless you are a frequent visitor to landfills or sail the world's oceans, you aren't likely to encounter the mountains of plastic on land or islands of it floating in the sea.

But if you are observant in everyday life, when you visit the supermarket, fast food restaurants and discount stores filled with packaged consumer items, you may begin to appreciate the world's ever-increasing use of disposable plastic.

The problem with plastic is how to dispose of it. Since it is not biodegradable, it basically lasts forever, clogging the world's waste disposal system.

Microbeads

It's not just plastic bottles and food containers that are the problem. 5 Gyres, a non-profit environmental group focused on plastic pollution, is trying to bring attention to the problems posed by tiny plastic grains, known as microbeads and used in a large number of cosmetics and personal care products.

The group says these microbeads eventually make their way to our waterways and wildlife, and eventually are ingested by humans through the food chain, toothpastes or other body products that contain microbeads.

"Poorly designed products escape consumer hands and waste management systems," said Anna Cummins, co-founder of 5 Gyres. "Plastic fragments become hazardous waste in the environment.”

5 Gyres is partnering with Whole Foods Market in the North Atlantic region to conduct an innovative #Ban the Bead campaign. Rainbow Light, a nutritional supplement manufacturer, is sponsoring a 5 Gyres sea expedition, starting in June, to conduct research on marine plastic pollution.

“We engage with companies like Rainbow Light that are championing design solutions to the problem of plastic pollution,” Cummins said. “Their EcoGuard bottles are an excellent example of the impact conscious companies can make to keep harmful plastics out of the waste stream.”

Rising concern

Concerns about plastic pollution have gained momentum since February, when a marine study calculated that between 4.8 million and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans from land each year. That was 3 times the amount anyone thought.

The problem has mobilized efforts from a variety of sources, some of them surprising. Bloomberg News reports a Dutch teenager last year secured $2 million in funding to build an ocean clean-up machine to pick up with floating plastic debris and funnel it to specific collection points. But it's literally a drop in the ocean.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says it is working with international leaders and organizations such as the UN Environment Program to help establish international guidelines for curbing plastic pollution.

What you can do

In the meantime, the group says consumers can help by cutting disposable plastics out of daily routines. It suggests bringing your own bag to the store, choosing reusable items wherever possible, and purchasing plastic with recycled content.

Recycling is another method of cutting back on the mushrooming growth in plastic.

“Each piece of plastic recycled is one less piece of waste that could end up in our oceans,” the group says.

Finally, it says being aware of how you are contributing to the problem and taking steps to reduce your use of plastic can also help.

Unless you are a frequent visitor to landfills or sail the world's oceans, you aren't likely to encounter the mountains of pl...

Hectic night? Don't blame the moon

A full moon does not contribute to early births, car accidents, suicides or criminal activity

The last few nights, emergency room workers, police officers and others who deal with society's mishaps have cast their eyes skyward, looking with dread at the shining orb hovering in the night sky. 

"Uh, oh, it's a full moon. Better be ready," is a common lament but Jean-Luc Margot, a UCLA professor of planetary astronomy, says it's just not so.

"Some nurses ascribe the apparent chaos to the moon, but dozens of studies show that the belief is unfounded," said Jean-Luc Margot, a UCLA professor of planetary astronomy.

Of course, the moon does not influence the timing of human births or hospital admissions, according to new research by Margot that confirms what scientists have known for decades. The study illustrates how intelligent and otherwise reasonable people develop strong beliefs that, to put it politely, are not aligned with reality.

But yet this belief hangs on and is cited frequently by those who would never knowingly utter a superstitious word, even though the absence of a lunar influence on human affairs has been demonstrated in the areas of automobile accidents, hospital admissions, surgery outcomes, cancer survival rates, menstruation, births, birth complications, depression, violent behavior, and even criminal activity, Margot writes. His study was published online by the journal Nursing Research.

Even though a 40-year-old UCLA study demonstrated that the timing of births does not correlate in any way with the lunar cycle, the belief in a lunar effect has persisted. A 2004 study in a nursing journal, for example, suggested that the full moon influenced the number of hospital admissions in a medical unit in Barcelona, Spain.

But Margot identified multiple flaws in the data collection and analysis of the 2004 research. By re-analyzing the data, he showed that the number of admissions was unrelated to the lunar cycle.

"The moon is innocent," Margot said.

Confirmation bias

Why, then, do so many believe otherwise?

Margot cited what scientists refer to as "confirmation bias" -- people's tendency to interpret information in a way that confirms their beliefs and ignore data that contradict them. When life is hectic on the day of a full moon, many people remember the association because it confirms their belief. But hectic days that do not correspond with a full moon are promptly ignored and forgotten because they do not reinforce the belief.

Margot said the societal costs of flawed beliefs can be enormous.

In just one current example, the recent measles outbreak appears to have been triggered by parents' questionable beliefs about the safety of the measles vaccine.

"Vaccines are widely and correctly regarded as one of the greatest public health achievements, yet vaccine-preventable diseases are killing people because of beliefs that are out of step with scientific facts," Margot said.

A willingness to engage in evidence-based reasoning and admit that one's beliefs may be incorrect will produce a more accurate view of the world and result in better decision-making, Margot said.

"Perhaps we can start by correcting our delusions about the moon, and work from there," he said.

The last few nights, emergency room workers, police officers and others who deal with society's mishaps have cast their eyes skyward, looking with dread at...

U.S. energy grid relying more on wind and solar in 2015

But first nuclear plant in 20 years also coming on line this year

After years of policy initiatives pushing renewable sources of energy, not just for individuals but for utilities, wind and solar are becoming bigger players in keeping the lights on.

U.S. utility companies will rely even more on these alternatives sources in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

In a report this week, the EIA said it expects electric utilities to add more than 20 gigawatts (GW) of utility-scale generating capacity to the grid this year, with the largest increase – 9.9 GW – provided by wind power. Natural gas is expected to increase by 6.3 gigawatts while solar should add another 2.2 GW.

At the same time, EIA says about 16 GW of capacity will be taken off-line in 2015, with nearly 13 GW of that made up of coal-fired plants. That leaves a net increase of only 4 GW in 2015.

Uneven

The alternative energy additions are not spread evenly across the country. Wind power plants tend to be clustered in the Great Plains, where wide open prairies are conducive to windmills.

Large solar additions of systems with at least one megawatt of capacity are dominated by just 2 states — California, with 1.2 GW, and North Carolina 0.4 GW, which combine for 73% of total solar additions. Both states have policies designed to increase renewable sources of energy.

The EIA figures do not include small-scale installations such as residential rooftop solar photovoltaic systems.

Meanwhile, new natural gas plants are spread more evenly throughout the country. As you might expect, Texas, where the fuel is plentiful, is adding more than double any other state. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland will also get expanded natural gas capacity.

While the increase in wind and solar capacity is noteworthy, it may be overshadowed by an older energy source. Later this year the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Watts Bar 2 nuclear facility in southeastern Tennessee will come on line, generating 1.1 GW of electricity. It will be the first new nuclear reactor in the U.S. in nearly 20 years.

Lost capacity

The nation's power grid is losing energy output from a number of coal plants that will go dark in 2015.

Most of the retiring coal capacity is found in the Appalachian region -- slightly more than 8 GW combined in Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, and Indiana. Most of the plants are small and operate at a lower capacity factor than average coal-fired units in the U.S.

They are being shut down in most cases to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS).

Bills aren't going down

The small net growth in electric generating capacity is unlikely to give consumers the same kind of break on utility bills that they have enjoyed at the gas pump over the last few months.

The EIA notes that even with falling natural gas prices, consumers haven't seen a corresponding drop in their utility bills. However, the EIA says those pr