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New Zealand Fishing Industry Accused of Driving World’s Rarest Dolphin to Extinction

Study of industry that calls itself "world leader" finds that vessels Illegally discard a third of their catch

Biologists Liz Slooten and Steve Dawson crisscross southern New Zealand’s scenic Akaroa Bay looking for the world’s smallest dolphins until Slooten spots a stopped 30-foot motor catamaran. We approach gingerly and find a dozen tourists in the water wearing wetsuits. The grey and black dolphins, no bigger than an 8-year-old child, are checking them out, their characteristic round dorsal fins slicing up though the water as they come up to breathe every two minutes. The tourists watch in hushed silence. Dawson photographs the dolphins to identify them later.

Hectors chinout surfacesPhoto by Photo courtesy of Liz SlootenHector’s dolphins, unique to New Zealand’s shallow coastal waters, are friendly to humans, enjoy sex outside of reproduction and almost never fight. A subspecies called Maui’s dolphin has only 50 to 60 adults left thinly spread over 400 miles off the western coast of the North Island.

These Hector’s dolphins, unique to New Zealand’s shallow coastal waters, are friendly to humans, enjoy sex outside of reproduction and almost never fight, explains Slooten with a tender smile. Like Dawson, she is a professor at the University of Otago, in Dunedin, near the southern tip of New Zealand. The couple has been studying these dolphins for the past 32 years, during which they have seen their numbers plummet as thousands upon thousands drowned after getting caught in gill nets and towed trawl nets used by fishermen. Though their use is legal, these kinds of nets trap and kill, in addition to marine mammals and turtles, many more fish than the fishermen can sell.

“We’ve seen the species fragmenting into smaller and smaller isolated populations,” says Slooten.

One of these, a subspecies called Maui’s dolphin that’s been separated from the rest for 16,000 years, has only 50 to 60 adults thinly spread over 400 miles off the western coast of the North Island, down from 2,000 individuals in 1970. It has become the world’s rarest dolphin. “It’s heartbreaking because it’s so easily avoidable,” Slooten says. The rest of the population, a slightly larger sub-species known as Hector’s dolphins, has fallen from a probable 50,000 to an estimated 10,000.

Since 2012, the International Whaling Commission, along with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), dozens of nonprofits and the country’s opposition parties have been calling on the New Zealand government to ban all nets in the Maui’s habitat. The US has listed the Maui dolphin as critically endangered and the Hector …more

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The Road That Exposed Peru’s Amazon

A drive along the Interoceanic Highway shows how it has opened the rainforest to mining, agriculture, and deforestation

Driving out from Cusco, Peru, the Interoceanic Highway swirls a few hours over the Andes highlands before it plummets down into the jungle. The change in the surroundings is impressive: rocky hills with low-lying scrubs make way for lush vegetation and waterfalls along steep cliffs. In this green, pristine landscape, some farmers try to eke out a living on inclined farmlands, growing corn and cassava.

photo of Interoceanic HighwayPhoto by Connectas Americas The Interoceanic Highway, which connects the Atlantic coast of Brazil with teh Pacific coast of Peru, has increased access to remote parts of Peru.

The next big landscape change comes the moment I have fully descended, some 10,000 feet from where we began, and arrive close to a little town called Mazuco. There I find myself in the midst of a swampy area, full of muddy water and plastic waste, where twisted formations of dead trees are a reminder of the forest this once was. This is gold mining territory, and mining, rife with detrimental impacts for the environment, has been made easier by the road I just travelled.

The Interoceanic Highway, which connects the Atlantic coast of Brazil to the Pacific coast of Peru, was finished in 2012. But access to this remote region increased during the years of construction, between 2003 and 2011, even before the road was completed. Environmentalists, who worried that easy access to the region would increase environmental destruction and impact indigenous communities, protested against the construction of the road. Migrants from the high Andes would suddenly have an easy paved way into a gold mining paradise, to the detriment of local people and wildlife. What used to take days would become a ten-hour bus ride from Cusco.

The environmental advocates were right. Since 2010, gold mining around Mazuco, which lies close to the Madre de Dios river, has increased substantially. More recently, it has also increased within the boundaries of the Tambopata National Reserve and two other nearby reserves, all within the Amazon rainforest. The result is the swamp I find myself in, which can be easily spotted with Google Maps: the satellite images show a yellowish-brown lunar like landscape in the middle of the jungle. And mining is just one of the environmental ramifications of the highway.

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In January, before embarking on my trip into the Amazon, I had coffee in Lima with Peruvian journalist and researcher Gabriel Arriaran, who has been visiting the Madre de …more

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The Student-Built Website That Is Keeping Government Climate Data Safe

One Michigan graduate student figured the more copies of the pre-Trump EPA website, the better

It wasn’t long after President Trump took office that chaos took hold at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Throughout his campaign, Trump had promised to get rid of the agency, leaving just “little tidbits left.” He wasted little time.

photo of EPA dataPhoto by USEPAMany scientists are concerned that important climate data may be removed from government websites during the Trump adminstration. These scientists, along with other concerned citizens, have organized to preserve the data elsewhere.

Out of the gate, Trump’s transition team was set to remove former President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan and other climate data, reported InsideEPA on January 17. Trump officials told EPA staff on January 24 to remove the agency’s climate change page from its website, according to Science. The next day, EPA staffers were told to hold off. Then, two days later, the words “climate change” were erased from the EPA site altogether. Then they were back.

Many scientists didn’t wait to find out what was up, what was down, or what was going which way. At risk was years of data on greenhouse gas emissions, temperature trends, sea level rise, and shrinking sea ice — data essential to our understanding of the enormous environmental shifts our planet is undergoing. Worldwide, they scrambled to capture the information from the websites of the EPA, NASA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the United States Geological Survey. Hackathons were organized to download the data to university servers and sites like DataRefuge and the Internet Archive for the fear that Scott Pruitt would be confirmed as head of the EPA; he was confirmed by the Senate on Friday.

Even outside of scientific circles, concerned citizens recognized a need to act. When John Rozsa, a graduate student in technology studies at Eastern Michigan University, heard about these efforts, he thought the more copies, the better. So, between classes and his full-time job, he began to download the pre-Trump version of the EPA website — 28,000 files and counting.

“I used a variety of Windows and Linux-based high-tech tools that look at every corner of the website and grab every single file,” he said. “I repeated the process four times, and then compared the data sets. Once I confirmed my data sets were reliable, I backed them up, and then sorted the files.”

Now he’s uploading the files to a website he calls EPA Data Dump. It’s very simplistic, he said, “due to …more

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Pruitt Emails Show Close Ties With Fossil Fuel Industry

New EPA chief worked with major energy companies, Koch groups to roll back environmental regulations
By Steve Horn, Sharon Kelly and Graham Readfearn

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has published thousands of emails obtained from the office of former Oklahoma Attorney General, Scott Pruitt, who was recently sworn in as the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for the Trump Administration. 

photo of a swearing-in ceremonyPhoto U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Housed online in searchable form by CMD, the emails cover Pruitt's time spent as the Sooner State's lead legal advocate, and in particular show a “close and friendly relationship between Scott Pruitt’s office and the fossil fuel industry,” CMD said in a press release. CMD was forced to go to court in Oklahoma to secure the release of the emails, which had sat in a queue for two years after the organization had filed an open records request.

Among other things, the emails show extensive communication with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) giant Devon Energy, with Pruitt's office not only involved in discussions with Devon about energy-related issues like proposed U.S. Bureau of Land Management fracking rules, but also more tangential matters like how a proposed airline merger might affect Devon's international travel costs. They also show a close relationship with groups such as the Koch Industries-funded Americans for Prosperity and the Oklahoma Public Policy Council, the latter a member of the influential conservative State Policy Network (SPN).

On the BLM fracking rule, Priutt's office solicited input from Devon, the Oklahoma City fracking company, which seemed to incorporate the feedback in the company's formal legal response. Pruitt's office was aiming to sue the BLM on the proposed rules, a case multiple states eventually won, getting indispensible aid in the effort from the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC).

Any suggestions?” Pruitt's office wrote in a May 1, 2013 email to a Devon vice president. Attachments missing from the FOIA response make it unclear to what extent edits suggested by Devon were actually inserted into the AG's correspondence, although Pruitt's deputy later wrote “thanks for all your help on this.”

 In two other emails dated May 1, 2013, a Devon Energy director replied with suggested changes to Pruitt's office. The next day, Pruitt's office sent the final draft of the letter to Devon, which replied, “I’m glad the Devon team could help, and thanks for all of your work on this.”

This batch of emails was not among those published by the New York Times as a part of its investigation into the correspondence Pruitt …more

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DuPont and Chemours Settle Teflon Toxin Lawsuit for Up to $921M

Deal provides financial succor to 3,500 Ohio Valley residents who said they were sickened by exposure to contaminated drinking water

Last week, chemical giant DuPont and its spin-off Chemours Co. announced they would pay up to $921 million to settle roughly 3,500 Ohio Valley lawsuits over illnesses linked to a toxic chemical known as C-8 used during the manufacture of Teflon.

DuPont protestorsPhoto by Photo courtesy of Keep Your Promises DuPontInternal DuPont documents uncovered during litigation showed that for decades, DuPont was aware the chemical C-8 was dangerous, escaping into the environment, and could be replaced — but that executives deliberately chose to keep using it for years because it was cheaper than alternatives.

C-8, also known as perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, is a soap-like powder that DuPont used for decades at its Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, WV, to smooth lumps in freshly-made Teflon. It's also dangerous, capable of causing cancers, pregnancy problems, and chronic health conditions like thyroid disease. 

The hazards of C-8 were first revealed to the public as a result of legal battles waged by attorneys in this case since 1998. Internal DuPont documents uncovered during litigation showed that for decades, DuPont was aware the chemical was dangerous, escaping into the environment, and could be replaced — but that executives deliberately chose to keep using C-8 for years because it was cheaper than alternatives.

Over a span of decades, hundreds of thousands of pounds of C-8 was dumped by DuPont into the Ohio River, where it found its way into the drinking water of some 70,000 area residents. 

"No settlement can restore the health of the thousands of victims of DuPont’s C-8," says Harold Bock, who lives close to the Washington Works plant and advises Keep Your Promises, a grassroots organization focused on C-8 exposure, "but we at Keep Your Promises are heartened to know that this long-awaited justice for these 3,550 members of our community is now within arm’s reach."

DuPont and Chemours agreed to each pay half of the overall settlement, which provides a total of $670.7 million in cash to the plaintiffs, plus up to $250 million in additional payouts over the next five years.

DuPont told investors in October that the lawsuits included roughly 30 wrongful death claims, 270 claims of kidney or testicular cancer, and over 1,300 claims of thyroid disease.

Both companies admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement agreement, but will pay expected damages of roughly $1.5 million to each plaintiff with cancer, attorneys in the case said, and lesser amounts to those with other conditions. The …more

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More Near-Disasters Like Oroville Are Very Likely in the Future, Say Experts

Despite increasing evidence of climate impacts, state isn’t considering climate change for new dams and water storage projects that are in the works

As the skies continued to open up over the past few days and evacuations were being ordered in many parts of Northern California, like many others in this state, I couldn’t but wonder if other dams in California could run into the same kind of problems as Oroville dam in Butte County, where heavy rainfall during what’s turning out to be California’s wettest season on record, surpassed the dam’s capacity.

Oroville Dam spillPhoto by Photo by Cal OESThe 770-foot-tall dam Oroville Dam in northern California, the nation’s tallest, ran into problems with both it’s main and emergency spillways, prompting the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people living in low-lying communities downstream on February 12.

To recap: The 770-foot-tall dam, the nation’s tallest, ran into problems with both it’s main and emergency spillways, prompting the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people living in low-lying communities downstream on February 12. The dam’s water level has dropped since then and most people have returned home. But they have been told to remain vigilant given more rains are predicted for California this winter. Meanwhile, as of yesterday, numerous other reservoirs across the state are almost at capacity. 

California has always alternated between periods of drought and extreme precipitation that can lead to massive flooding. But the key difference now is that climate change is intensifying the risk of floods and mudslides by inducing even more erratic and intense precipitation events. Can our state’s more than 1,400 dams withstand the pressure of these changing climate patterns? What needs to be done to ensure there aren’t similar problems as Oroville’s with other dams? What about the new dam projects or reservoir expansion projects that are being planned? Are they going to be climate ready?

To help shed some light on these questions I recently spoke with water experts Deborah Moore and Eric Wesselman. More was a commissioner with the World Commission on Dams, an international body that investigated the performance of dam projects across the world. She’s also a board member of International Rivers, an organization that works to protect rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them. Wesselman is executive director of Friends of the River, which works to protect and restore California Rivers by influencing public policy and inspiring citizen action.  The main takeaway from our multiple conversations — over the phone and during Terra Verde, a radio show I co-host once a month — near-disasters (or worse) like Oroville are …more

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Fish Under Threat from Ocean Oxygen Depletion, Finds Study

Oxygen levels in oceans have fallen 2% in 50 years due to climate change, affecting marine habitat and large fish

The depletion of oxygen in our oceans threatens future fish stocks and risks altering the habitat and behavior of marine life, scientists have warned, after a new study found oceanic oxygen levels had fallen by 2 percent in 50 years.

The study, carried out at Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Germany, was the most comprehensive of the subject to date. The fall in oxygen levels has been attributed to global warming and the authors warn that if it continues unchecked, the amount of oxygen lost could reach up to 7% by 2100. Very few marine organisms are able to adapt to low levels of oxygen.

lone nurse sharkPhoto by David/FlickrLarge fish like sharks will be driven into ever narrower bands of oxygen-rich water near the surface, leading to more competition for food sources.

The paper contains analysis of wide-ranging data from 1960 to 2010, documenting changes in oxygen distribution in the entire ocean for the first time. “Since large fish in particular avoid or do not survive in areas with low oxygen content, these changes can have far-reaching biological consequences,” said Dr Sunke Schmidtko, the report’s lead author.

Some areas have seen a greater drop than others. The Pacific – the planet’s largest ocean – has suffered the greatest volume of oxygen loss, while the Arctic witnessed the sharpest decline by percentage. “While the slight decrease of oxygen in the atmosphere is currently considered non-critical, the oxygen losses in the ocean can have far-reaching consequences because of the uneven distribution,” added another of the report’s authors, Lothar Stramma.

It is increasingly clear that the heaviest burden of climate change is falling on the planet’s oceans, which absorb more than 30 percent of the carbon produced on land. Rising sea levels are taking their toll on many of the world’s poorest places. Warming waters have devastated corals – including the Great Barrier Reef – in bleaching events.

Acidic oceans, caused by a drop in PH levels as carbon is absorbed, threaten creatures’ ability to build their calcium-based shells and other structures. Warming waters have also caused reproductive problems in species such as cod, and triggered their migration to colder climates. Lower oxygen levels in larger parts of the ocean are expected to force animals to seek out ever shrinking patches of habitable water, with significant impacts on the ecosystem …more

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