Envirowrap: Rainforest deaths and much more


We open with dire news from the Amazonian rainforests, then move on to agrofuel worries, dams, mercury-laden water, leukemia clusters, gas-plagued water, irradiated water, and water shortages, ending with news of enfeebled children.

Brazilian rainforest activists murdered

The world’s great rainforests are being leveled, slain by the greed of those who would turn the world’s lungs into profit centers.

Now comes word that Brazil’s most famous rainforest activist and his spouse have paid the ultimate price for the dedication to preserve the dwindling reservoir of biological diversity so essential to all of us.

From The Guardian’s Tom Phillips:

Six months after predicting his own murder, a leading rainforest defender has reportedly been gunned down in the Brazilian Amazon. José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife, Maria do Espírito Santo, are said to have been killed in an ambush near their home in Nova Ipixuna, in Pará state, about 37 miles from Marabá.

According to a local newspaper, Diário do Pará, the couple had not had police protection despite getting frequent death threats because of their battle against illegal loggers and ranchers.

On Tuesday there were conflicting reports from about whether the killing happened on Monday night or Tuesday morning. A police spokesperson said there were reports of a “double homicide” at the settlement called Maçaranduba 2.

In a speech at a TEDx event in Manaus, in November, Da Silva spoke of his fears that loggers would try to silence him. “I could be here today talking to you and in one month you will get the news that I disappeared. I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment … because I denounce the loggers and charcoal producers, and that is why they think I cannot exist. [People] ask me, ‘are you afraid?’ Yes, I’m a human being, of course I am afraid. But my fear does not silence me. As long as I have the strength to walk I will denounce all of those who damage the forest.”

Read the rest.

Rainforest depletion accelerates

Da Silva’s death came a few days after a report that the destruction of Amazonia was rising again.

From Agence France-Presse:

A sharp increase in forest destruction in March and April in the Amazon has led Brazil to announce the creation of an emergency task force to fight against deforestation.

The two-month total of 593 square kilometers (368 square miles) deforested represents a six-fold increase compared to the same period last year, according to official statistics.

The office will be comprised of government experts and representatives of states badly impacted by recent deforestation, according to Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira, who announced the office at a press conference.

“Our goal is to stifle deforestation,” Teixeira said. “And we are going to do it by July.”

In the Amazon state of Mato Grosso alone, 480 square kilometers (298 square miles) of forest were destroyed in two months, according to official statistics based on satellite images. The land is used for cattle and soybean farming.

>snip<

Brazil, the world’s fifth largest country by area, has 5.3 million square kilometers of jungle and forests — mostly in the Amazon river basin — of which only 1.7 million are under state protection. The rest is in private hands, or its ownership is undefined.

Massive deforestation has made Brazil one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.

Read the rest.

Euro activists sue over EU agrofuel rules

One of the leading causes of deforestation across the globe is the hunger for land to produce crops to be harvested for production of transportation fuels.

As noted before, BP — sponsor of a $500 million agrofuel research program here at UC Berkeley — has announced that it covets “the green parts” of the globe to grow it’s fuel crops.

Another major cause of forest loss is palm oil, as Scientific American reported on 11 December 2008:

Today palm oil production is the largest cause of deforestation in Indonesia and other equatorial countries with dwindling expanses of tropical rainforest. Indonesia’s endangered orangutan population, which depends upon the rainforest, has dwindled by as much as 50 percent in recent years.

The clearing of these forests is a big factor in global warming, given how much carbon dioxide (CO2) trees store when left alone. Once forests are cut, tons of CO2 heads skyward where it does the most harm. Also, when not replaced by palm oil plantations, rainforests help maintain water resources by absorbing rainfall and then releasing it into streams and rivers, thus minimizing flooding and soil depletion.

Now comes word that a coalition of activist groups is suing the European Union’s ruling body to force disclosure of the impacts of the EU’s agrofuel mandate.

From The Guardian’s Environment Network blog BusinessGreen:

Green groups are suing the European Commission over what they see as a failure to meet its legal commitment to transparency regarding information in decisions relating to the sustainability of Europe’s biofuels policy.

A lawsuit filed on Wednesday by law organisation ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth Europe, FERN and Corporate Europe Observatory alleges that the Commission has refused the groups access to information about voluntary certification schemes used to ensure compliance with EU criteria on biofuel sustainability set out in the Renewable Energy Directive (RED).

The groups are concerned that the EU may meet its target of sourcing 10 per cent of transport energy from renewable sources using biofuels that, without proper oversight, could be competing with food crops or grown in biodiverse areas cleared for agriculture.

The Commission is looking to accredit at least one certification scheme to ensure that the RED criteria are met, and a committee will meet on Friday to discuss a series of seven programmes.

However, the groups behind the lawsuit say that the process has lacked transparency, and that neither assessment criteria nor information on other schemes being considered have been made publicly available.

They say the Commission rejected a request made last year to obtain information on the organisations that had applied to operate the schemes and how they were chosen.

China’s largest dam poses major problems

While hydroelectric power is often portrayed as a “green” source of renewable energy, scientists have demonstrated that impounding water behind dams lead to decay of suspended organic matter, resulting in significant releases of the two leading global warming culprits, methane and carbon dioxide.

As Duncan Graham-Rowe reported for New Scientist in 2005:

Hydroelectric dams produce significant amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, and in some cases produce more of these greenhouse gases than power plants running on fossil fuels. Carbon emissions vary from dam to dam, says Philip Fearnside from Brazil’s National Institute for Research in the Amazon in Manaus. “But we do know that there are enough emissions to worry about.”

In a study to be published in Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, Fearnside estimates that in 1990 the greenhouse effect of emissions from the Curuá-Una dam in Pará, Brazil, was more than three-and-a-half times what would have been produced by generating the same amount of electricity from oil.

Two years later, another study indicated that a fifth of India’s global warming impact comes for dam-caused emissions.

For more on dam emissions, see here.

Now comes word of more damn problems from China, by way of Michael Wines of the New York Times:

The Three Gorges Dam, the world’s largest hydroelectric project and a symbol of China’s confidence in risky technological solutions, is troubled by urgent pollution and geologic problems, a high-level government body acknowledged Thursday.

The statement came as technicians were certifying the very last of the dam’s array of generators as suitable for hydroelectric generation, the final step in a contentious 19-year effort to complete the project in defiance of domestic and international concerns over its safety as well as threats to the environment, displaced people, historical areas and natural beauty.

According to official figures, the venture cost China about $23 billion, but outside experts estimate it may have cost double that amount. The dam has been plagued by reports of floating archipelagoes of garbage, carpets of algae and landslides on the banks along the vast expanse of still water since the 600-foot-tall dam on the Yangtze River was completed in 2006. Critics also have complained that the government has fallen far short of its goals in helping to resettle the 1.4 million people displaced by the rising waters behind the dam.

China’s State Council, a coordinating body often likened to the United States president’s cabinet, said in a vague statement that the project suffered from a wide range of serious problems. “Although the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention,” the statement said.

The huge dam is meeting the government’s goal of producing pollution-free electric power, the government said, generating 84 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity last year. But critics say the sheer weight of water backed up in the 410-mile-long reservoir behind the dam has increased the danger of earthquakes and landslides. The government has acknowledged that risk, but denied that the project played any role in China’s powerful May 2008 quake in Sichuan Province, in which at least 87,000 people died.

Environmentalists say the lake has become a repository for the waste dumped by cities and industries.

Even the dam’s ability to regulate the notoriously changeable flow of the 3,900-mile-long Yangtze, one of China’s two major rivers, has been called into question. Faced with a historic drought this spring, cities downstream of the dam have been unable to accommodate oceangoing vessels that usually visit their ports, and about 400,000 residents of Hubei Province lost access to drinking water this month.

Although no link has been proved, critics say the dam has changed regional water tables, contributing to the shortage.

Read the rest.

And remember that much of the impounded water will be used to grow crops for agrofuel and to feeds livestock in factory farms, major sources of methane emissions and water pollution, further magnifying the impacts of the dams.

Mercury renders San Francisco Bay fish inedible

From Joanna Lin California Watch:

New state guidelines advise consumers to avoid eating shiner perch and sharks caught in the San Francisco Bay because the fish contain high levels of contaminants.

An advisory released yesterday by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment said that shiner perch had high levels of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, and that sharks had high levels of mercury.

The office found medium to high levels of both contaminants in striped bass and white sturgeon. Fillets of brown rockfish, California halibut, Chinook (king) salmon, jacksmelt, red rock crab and white croaker contained lower levels of the contaminants.

In addition to specific serving suggestions for children, adults, and pregnant and breastfeeding women, the advisory says no one should eat fish from the Lauritzen Channel in the Richmond Inner Harbor. The channel was previously used to formulate, package and ship pesticides and is now part of a Superfund site for hazardous waste.

Read the rest,

At this point we should also note that fish from the Bay constitute a major source of protein for some of the region’s poorest people.

Mercury flows into the Bay from mining waster [it was used in gold recovery], from waste tailings from the region’s now abandoned mercury mines, from fluorescent light bulbs, and from a variety of industrial processes.

Oil companies hide data on fracking contamination

With the most readily accessible natural gas supplies mostly tapped, oil companies are now going after hard-to-get gas trapped in underground shale.

To force it out of the rock, chemically charged water under high pressure in blasted into the shale under high pressure to fracture the rock, hence the term “fracking” from hydraulic fracturing.

Farmers living near fracking projects have reported high levels of methane in their well water, sometimes high enough that a match can set it alight.

But how much of the gas is a result of fracking? To arrive at a definitive answer, water scientists need to know what the water was like before fracking began. And that’s where the trouble begins.

From Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica:

For years the natural gas drilling industry has decried the lack of data that could prove—or disprove—that drilling can cause drinking water contamination. Only baseline data, they said, could show without a doubt that water was clean before drilling began.

The absence of baseline data was one of the most serious criticisms leveled at a group of Duke researchers last week when they published the first peer-reviewed study linking drilling to methane contamination in water supplies.

That study—which found that methane concentrations in drinking water increased dramatically with proximity to gas wells—contained “no baseline information whatsoever,” wrote Chris Tucker, a spokesman for the industry group Energy in Depth, in a statement debunking the study.

Now it turns out that some of that data does exist. It just wasn’t available to the Duke researchers, or to the public.

Ever since high-profile water contamination cases were linked to drilling in Dimock, Pa., in late 2008, drilling companies themselves have been diligently collecting water samples from private wells before they drill, according to several industry consultants who have been working with the data. While Pennsylvania regulations now suggest pre-testing water wells within 1,000 feet of a planned gas well, companies including Chesapeake Energy, Shell and Atlas have been compiling samples from a much larger radius—up to 4,000 feet from every well. The result is one of the largest collections of pre-drilling water samples in the country.

“The industry is sitting on hundreds of thousands of pre and post drilling data sets,” said Robert Jackson, one of the Duke scientists who authored the study, published May 9 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Jackson relied on 68 samples for his study. “I asked them for the data and they wouldn’t share it.”

Read the rest.

Gee, one might suspect they won’t share it because of what it might reveal.

Or maybe we’re just too cynical. . .

And speaking of hiding what’s in the water

Would you believe a lot of water in Texas is radioactive?

That being the case, you’d expect the state’s environmental regulators would water accurate data, readily available to a rightly concerned citizenry, right?

Yeah, sure.

From Mark Greenblatt of KHOU 11 News in Houston comes word of emails from members of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have ordered staff to lower water radiation test results despite federal Environmental Protection Agency rules:

The e-mails and documents, released under order from the Texas Attorney General to KHOU-TV, also show the agency was attempting to help water systems get out of formally violating federal limits for radiation in drinking water. Without a formal violation, the water systems did not have to inform their residents of the increased health risk.

“It’s a conspiracy at the TCEQ of the highest order,” said Tom Smith, of the government watchdog group Public Citizen.  “The documents have indicted the management of this commission in a massive cover-up to convince people that our water is safe to drink when it’s not.”

Smith is talking about what happened to residents who live in communities served by utilities like Harris County Municipal Utility District 105.  For years, tests performed by the Texas Department of State Health Services showed the utility provided water that exceeded the EPA legal limit for exposure to alpha radiation.

However, the TCEQ would consistently subtract off each test’s margin of error from those results, making the actual testing results appear lower than they actually were.  In MUD 105′s case, the utility was able to avoid violations for nearly 20 years, thanks to the TCEQ subtractions.

On Dec.  7, 2000, the EPA said in the federal register that states should not add or subtract the margin of error, also called the counting error, from test results.
In an e-mail from Oct. 30, 2007, a TCEQ drinking water team leader began questioning a senior director about if it would be appropriate for the state agency to stop subtracting the counting error from test results to comply with all federal regulations.

She was told, “I believe there may been some EPA guidance on not subtracting, but can’t remember back that far for sure. This has been the practice in Texas since day one of radionuclide monitoring.  This option was thoroughly discussed with the commissioners and the (executive director) staff when the reg was being adopted. We were directed to maintain the current methodology for subtracting the counting error at that time.”

>snip<

As a result, the subtracting method continued and residents of MUD 105, like Brenda Haynes, were never sent a required notice of violation. That notice would have informed them about the excessive alpha radiation in their water.

Read the rest.

And yet more water problems

We call your attention to an Associated Press report that reveals the American West’s water wars are far from over.

The latest confrontation results from the insatiable thirst of the lush green lawns and casino fountains of Sin City, which has maxed out its available water sources and is now angling to tap the aquifers of northern Nevada and Utah — the subject of eharings scheduled in upcoming months.

Datelined Reno, the AP story offers details on the project:

[A] pre-hearing last week shows the legal battle over the controversial 285-mile-long pipeline project with a price tag as high as $3.5 billion promises to be a lengthy and contentious one.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority alone plans testimony from more than two dozen witnesses over about three weeks’ time to present its case in support of winning the necessary water rights for the project — something it once had in hand but lost a year ago when the Nevada Supreme Court sent the matter back to the state water engineer for the new round of hearings beginning in September.

If the authority secures approval of all the rights it is seeking, the pipeline could end up carrying as much as 65 billion gallons of water from the north to the south on an annual basis. Daily flows would total up to 178 million gallons under that scenario — enough to cover an area the size of nearly 500 football fields with a new foot of water each day.

That’s assuming the conflicting interests in the north and south can agree on the length of a day — something the Nevada Division of Water Resources’ chief hearing officer wasn’t taking for granted at the preconference meeting in a mock courtroom at the National Judicial College on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.

>snip<

The 65 billion gallons of water — 200,000 acre feet — would be enough to support 400,000 households a year. However, SNWA officials believe it’s more realistic to expect approval of about 120,000 acre feet. An acre foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre one foot deep.

SNWA’s chief opponent is the Great Basin Water Network, an alliance of mostly conservationists and rural leaders that opposes tapping any of the groundwater in the north to fuel more growth in southern Nevada.

Other critics who will be represented at the fall hearings include the LDS Church, three tribes and a pair of counties each in Nevada and Utah. With the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and others also in the mix, just organizing the evidence with coherent exhibit numbers can be difficult.

Read the rest.

Here we’d note that Las Vegas is awash in unoccupied homes as a resulting of massive overbuilding and foreclosures. Las Vegas homes have extensive well-watered lawns, grass that requires vast amounts of water because of the extreme desert heat.

The notion of lawns has always struck us as somewhat odd, a vestige of the British colonial legacy. But water-thirsty lawns in the desert represents a criminal waste of increasingly scarce water resources.

Mosquitoes trigger leukemia outbreak

This one’s a shocker, at least for us.

In addition to spreading malaria, mosquitoes may also carry a more dreaded disease, leukemia.

Susanne Rust reports for California Watch:

Something happened to the children of Fallon, Nev., between 1997 and 2003.

Fourteen children were diagnosed with childhood leukemia, a rate for that population size that should only occur, by chance, once every 22,000 years, according to epidemiologists. The Fallon rate was 12 times higher than typically expected.

A new study by California researchers examines the geographic and seasonal occurrences of the diagnoses, and concludes that mosquitoes may have been behind the outbreak.

“The rural location of most cases suggests mosquitoes as a possible vector,” Joe Wiemels, an epidemiologist at UC San Francisco, told New Scientist Magazine.

In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study examining possible causes of childhood leukemia.

The authors showed the disease:

  • tends to occur in children between the ages of 2 and 5, when their immune systems are still “naive.”
  • may be caused by viruses, as viruses have been shown to cause leukemia in animals, as well as other cancers in people. (The Epstein-Barr virus has been linked to Burkitt lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph system.)
  • occurs predominantly in rural areas, where children’s immune systems have been challenged less than those living in urban areas
  • may have a seasonal occurrence, showing up during warm and wet periods.

Wiemels and his co-authors took this all a step further by suggesting that because the town is home to a military community, and therefore has a high turnover of residents, a virus may have come into the town with military personnel. Once there, mosquitoes carried the vector and infected young children in the rural area who may already have had a genetic predisposition to leukemia.

Read the rest.

And finally, our kids are becoming wimps

Back in the days we read lots of science fiction, we read several stories in which humans were reduced to bodiless brains in jars.

Judging by this story, we’re well on our way.

From Denis Campbell, The Guardian’s health correspondent:

Children are becoming weaker, less muscular and unable to do physical tasks that previous generations found simple, research has revealed.

As a generation dedicated to online pursuits grows up, 10-year-olds can do fewer sit-ups and are less able to hang from wall bars in a gym. Arm strength has declined in that age group, as has their ability to grip an object firmly.

The findings, published in the child health journal Acta Paediatrica, have led to fresh concern about the impact on children’s health caused by the shift away from outdoor activities.

Academics led by Dr Gavin Sandercock, a children’s fitness expert at Essex University, studied how strong a group of 315 Essex 10-year-olds in 2008 were compared with 309 children the same age in 1998. They found that:

  • The number of sit-ups 10-year-olds can do declined by 27.1% between 1998 and 2008
  • Arm strength fell by 26% and grip strength by 7%
  • While one in 20 children in 1998 could not hold their own weight when hanging from wall bars, one in 10 could not do so in 2008.

“This is probably due to changes in activity patterns among English 10-year-olds, such as taking part in fewer activities like rope-climbing in PE and tree-climbing for fun,” Sandercock said. “Typically, these activities boosted children’s strength, making them able to lift and hold their own bodyweight.”

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