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Environment

06 Aug 2013
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For nearly six hours last week, members of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee gathered to hear comments about a bill that could overhaul the EPA’s ability to regulate toxic chemicals. Hailed by a panelist from West Virginia as “the best, perhaps last, chance to reform” the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the new Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) is the first such proposal to have won bipartisan support since the original law passed in 1976—and thus has a chance at becoming law. However, critics say that, as currently drafted, the CSIA could actually be detrimental to the cause of regulating toxins. California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined the attorneys general from eight other states to submit a letter on July 31 to the Senate committee, raising concerns that the new bill will make it impossible for states to continue regulating chemicals themselves. They worry that existing regulations…
26 Jul 2013
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There are all sorts of reasons to hit the highway this time of year. You might be trying to escape our recent extremes of desert heat, bound for cooler high country and the freezing plunge of alpine lakes, or bone-chilling swells along the Pacific Coast. Or, perhaps, you’re the sort whose perfect lark includes the world’s largest ball of twine or the International Banana Museum. Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, had something different in mind when they embarked this June on their Great American Adaptation Road Trip. After earning master’s degrees in environmental policy, the young women hoped to see firsthand how people—from city planners to farmers to federal officials to neighbors—are adapting their lives and livelihoods to cope with climate change. “We wanted to focus on what they’re doing to move past the conversation, that…
21 Jul 2013
Minutes before 4 p.m. on a sizzling September day two years ago, right at the time when they were most needed, San Diego’s air conditioners suddenly died. Thousands of television and computer screens also flickered into darkness. Stoplights stopped working; gas stations ceased pumping; and traffic slowed to a snarl. Trains ground to a halt, and planes idled on the runway. Wastewater treatment pumps shut down, spewing some 4 million gallons of raw sewage into the Pacific. Around 2.7 million “customers”—amounting to anywhere from 5 to 7 million people—lost their power, with some remaining in darkness for 12 hours or more. As commuters extricated themselves from highway gridlock, and batteries faded away on millions of electronic devices, folks flocked to the handful of neighborhood bars that—thanks to generators—were able to keep their lights and refrigeration going. There, they could drink away the darkness and speculate as to what had caused…
12 Jul 2013
Peter Stehr is an apple farmer. But when he had a heart attack in 2002, he decided he needed to diversify his income, so he and some associates got a loan and put up a few .6-megawatt wind turbines in his orchard. Today, one of them still spins over a row of apple trees, kicking out some 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity each year, which he sells to the grid for about $120,000. Plenty of Western ranchers and farmers could use that sort of cash, especially in these days of extended drought, when the ditches run dry after the first cutting of hay. But Stehr lives in Germany, outside of Hamburg, and his wind-powered windfall is the offspring of that nation’s Energiewende—inadequately translated as "energy transition"—that encourages renewable energy and is phasing out nuclear power. I joined 17 other European and American journalists to visit Stehr in June as…
11 Jul 2013
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A good friend of mine who is a wildfire medic was at the airport, en route to his next assignment, when I called to ask him, in that helpless way we do, to be safe, and to see how he was handling the tragic news from Arizona, where 19 hotshots lost their lives on June 30 fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire. He didn't know any of the Granite Mountain Hotshots personally. But on-the-job loss of life hits everyone in the fire community hard. It's a reminder of their own mortality, and of the calculated risks their own fire families take every day. "On my last fire, the whole division had to run to the safety zone," he told me. Safety zones are clearings firefighters can escape to if fire behavior changes and threatens the welfare of those on the fire line. Such escapes happen "more than people think," he told…
05 Jul 2013
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Ah, San Diego: As Coachella Valley residents know, the city to the south features great weather, a zoo with adorable panda bears, sandy beaches, turquoise swimming pools—and very little water. Unlike other arid Southwestern cities, San Diego doesn’t have an aquifer to draw its drinking water from, so it imports about 80 percent of it. For many years, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supplied most of that water. But a policy that would allow the Los Angeles-dominated agency to cut San Diego’s supply by 50 percent during drought has always made the city uneasy. For years, San Diego has been looking for ways to wean itself off L.A’s supply, and in the 1990s, the city began eyeing the Colorado River, which is diverted through the desert in a series of huge concrete canals to the Imperial Valley, where about 80 percent of the country’s winter vegetables are grown.…
25 Jun 2013
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May they whose Lot this Log to keep Be worthy of the Task complete And never leave a sentence out Which should occur the voyage about —Inscription on the cover of a 19th century ship’s logbook The morning of April 19, 1875, dawned cool and foggy in San Francisco Harbor. Aboard the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship Yukon, Assistant Commanding Officer Gershom Bradford stepped onto the deck. He watched as the men set up the rigging and filled large tanks with fresh water in preparation for the schooner’s upcoming voyage. He was eager to be under way. As was I, having recently joined the crew. Well, sort of. As Bradford gazed into the mist 138 years ago, so do I gaze into my laptop’s soft glow. The officer’s script in the electronic scan of the Yukon’s logbook is antiquely florid, but I do my best to transcribe his…
21 Jun 2013
The Albuquerque ambiance, as we rolled into town to cover a tribal energy conference, was tinted with doom. It was 7:30 on a June evening, and the car thermometer read 99 degrees. To the north, a massive plume of smoke rose up from the newly ignited Jaroso fire, joining the plumes of the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge fires that had been burning nearby for several days. Dust, kicked up by a vicious wind, shrouded the downtown buildings. The gusts tossed tiny pieces of Styrofoam, reputedly from a luxury condo project gone belly-up, like little pieces of snow. “I’m not sure if this is a drought,” said Roger Fragua, of Jemez Pueblo and the former deputy director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, as he introduced the conference the next morning, “or our new reality.” The attendees could think of the scorching planet in the abstract for the moment,…
31 May 2013
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On April 14, a Sunday, the Colorado ski resort Vail Mountain celebrated closing day in the invariable way: Skiers and boarders sported neon onesies and mullet wigs. The less modest squeezed into denim short shorts to flaunt calves and quads sculpted over a winter on the slopes. Alcohol was over-consumed and confiscated in lift lines. But even without it, the mood was buoyant: It was, unusually, a 13-inch powder day. By Wednesday, 24 more inches had fallen. Skier spirits were still soaring the following Sunday, when Vail hosted Closing Day: The Sequel. Pleading for a third closing day via Facebook, one powder hound goaded: “I dare you to close more times than Brett Favre has retired.” Colorado snowpacks—which supply the Colorado River, a crucial water source for millions of Westerners, including those of us here in the Coachella Valley—began April at 72 percent of their average heft. Thanks to storms…
07 May 2013
Most weekdays, a long line of rail cars delivers thick slabs of steel to a factory in Fontana, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles, and 60 miles northwest of Palm Springs. Deep in the bowels of California Steel Industries, the slabs are toasted until they glow white-hot; they’re then rolled into thin sheets used to make shipping containers, metal roofing and car wheels. The plant churns out more than 2 million tons of flat rolled steel each year, using enormous amounts of natural gas and electricity, and releasing more than 190,000 metric tons of climate-altering carbon dioxide annually. Now, California Steel and many other businesses have to pay for their carbon emissions under California's new cap-and-trade law, the first of its kind in the nation. Last November, the company participated in the state's first auction of carbon allowances, purchasing an undisclosed number, each worth one metric ton of carbon…