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Unique Coral Reef at Risk as Oil Companies Prepare to Drill Near Amazon River

Companies estimate 30 percent chance of damage to the newly discovered ecosystem in event of a spill

Oil companies planning to drill near a vast coral reef at the mouth of the Amazon river have calculated that the unique ecosystem has a 30 percent chance of being affected in the event of an oil spill.

photo of ambulancePhoto Jeso Carneiro Oil companies may start drilling near the newly discovered Amazon river reef as early as this summer.

In February BP told The Guardian it planned to start drilling a block it controls by August 2018. Brazilian company Queiroz Galvão also has a block it expects to start drilling from next year.

The unique reef system astonished marine biologists when its existence was widely revealed last year, and is believed it could be the home for dozens of previously unknown species. (Read Earth Island Journal’s report about the discovery here.) But activists warn that an oil spill could irreparably damage the 1,000 kilometer-long ecosystem before scientists have even had a chance to study it.

“It’s unlike any other reef that we know about,” said Sara Ayech, an oil campaigner at the London offices of Greenpeace. “If the companies drill there’s a risk of an oil spill and if an oil spill hits the reef, then we could see parts of it destroyed before we even document them.”

The Brazilian government has estimated that the Foz de Amazonas, or Amazon Mouth area, could hold 15.6 billion barrels of oil. A consortium of oil companies led by French giant Total, and including BP and Brazil’s state-run oil company Petrobras, snapped up five exploration blocks in the area when they were auctioned off in 2013.

In January, Total said it had begun moving equipment to the Amazon area and planned to start drilling this year. The oil reservoirs it hopes to reach are situated in 1,900 meters of water, nearly 200 kilometers from the coast.

Scientists from Greenpeace examined the publicly-available Environmental Impact Study Total submitted to the Brazilian authorities and found references to the possibility of an oil spill reaching the reef.

Reef structures in the area to be drilled “present possibilities of being impacted by oil,” the study said. In winter that possibility could be as high as 30.33 percent, while in summer, 20.93 percent, the study produced for Total by companies Proceano and AECOM said.

As long ago as the 1970s, scientists suspected the existence of a reef hidden under the murky waters of the River Amazon’s mouth. But it was not …more

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Why Climate Change Belongs in the Health Care Debate

We know climate change is affecting the environment, but it’s also threatening people’s health

I’m digging through reports and punditry to make sense of health care reform when I realize that while we’ve been debating single-payer systems and high-risk pools, no one’s talking about the most serious health threat: climate change.

I know what global warming is doing to our ecosystems. My Twitter feed is a stream of climate disaster revelations. Given the serious implications droughts, floods, and fires pose to our health, shouldn’t climate change be part of the health care discussions?

photo of ambulancePhoto Tomás Fano Preparing to protect people from the effects of climate change requires a robust health care system.

Howard Frumkin thinks so. He is a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health, and, by his measure, climate change is the greatest public health threat of our time.

Here’s his perspective on how climate change fits into the latest governmental health care battles.

Stephen Miller: What’s your sense of where we’re at with the current health care bill?

Howard Frumkin: Obamacare isn’t perfect. It’s a cumbersome system. It was a lot better than the status quo; tens of millions of people who were not insured got insurance. The Republican plan would undo that. It’s grotesquely unjust. If you view health care as a right, then it’s exactly the wrong way to go. We do need to reform Obamacare, we need to reduce costs in the system and enhance quality, and we need to achieve universal access.

What kind of health care bill is needed in a world with a changing climate?

In general, preparing to protect people from the effects of climate change means we need a robust health system. That means we need strong health departments that have the ability to do epidemiologic surveillance and do disaster preparedness. And do good communication and education. We need a medical care system that is available to everybody.

Climate change as a risk aggravator — or risk multiplier —makes those things all the more necessary. Anything you do to undercut those things in either the public health system or the clinical care system makes us less able to respond to climate change.

So, if you restrict the level of clinical care that’s available to people, and that’s exactly what these proposed Medicaid cuts would do, then all of the adverse health effects of climate change will hit the population. The poor people who will need medical …more

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DOJ Withdraws Plan for Kentucky Prison on Mountaintop-Removal Site

Proposed prison would have been terrible for prisoner health and local wildlife, say advocates

graphic depicting a prisonLast month the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) withdrew its request for funding for construction of a maximum-security prison atop a former mountaintop-removal coal-mining site in eastern Kentucky.

The proposed $444 million facility, planned for Letcher County, has faced ongoing opposition from environmental and human rights organizations who have expressed a wide range of concerns about potential ecological and health impacts of the project. “Building this prison would have been terrible for the health of prisoners, the surrounding community, and all the wildlife in the area,” Lori Ann Bird, environmental health program director with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said. (Read Earth Island Journal and Truthout’s special investigation into America’s toxic prisons.)

The Human Rights Defense Center, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of people held in US detention facilities, pointed to the history of mining-related pollution in the area — including contamination of drinking water that could be used for the prison. The Human Rights Defense Center also noted the ongoing risk posed by more than a dozen active gas wells near the proposed site, as well as possible radon intrusion linked to coal mining in the area.

photo of mountaintop-removal sitePhoto by Dennis Dimick A mountaintop-removal coal mine near Charleston, West Virginia. The DOJ recently withdrew its request for funding for a prison on a mountaintop removal site in eastern Kentucky.

In a comment filed in response to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ (BOP) 2015 environmental impact statement for the facility, opponents also cited impacts on the local community — including potential water pollution from the prison itself — as well as on nearby habitat and wildlife. Two federally endangered species, the Indiana bat and the gray bat, are found in the region, as are some 60 other species with varying levels of state and federal protections. 

“It’s a pretty huge step toward victory,” Panagioti Tsolkas, cofounder of the Prison Ecology Project, a program of the Human Rights Defense Center, said of the DOJ’s decision to abandon the plan.

Both the Prison Ecology Project and the Center for Biological Diversity point to growing local opposition, in conjunction with a coordinated campaign by advocates, as triggering the withdrawal. “This has been a tremendous effort by a lot of diverse groups coming together to oppose this prison, and shows the powerful impact we can achieve when the community comes …more

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A Million Plastic Bottles Are Bought Around the World Every Minute

World's plastic binge 'as dangerous as climate change,' say campaigners

A million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20 percent by 2021, creating an environmental crisis some campaigners predict will be as serious as climate change.

New figures obtained by The Guardian reveal the surge in usage of plastic bottles, more than half a trillion of which will be sold annually by the end of the decade.

photo of water bottlesPhoto European Union 2012 - European Parliament Annual consumption of plastic bottles is set to top half a trillion by 2021, far outstripping recycling efforts and jeopardising oceans, coastlines, and other environments.

The demand, equivalent to about 20,000 bottles being bought every second, is driven by an apparently insatiable desire for bottled water and the spread of a western, urbanized “on the go” culture to China and the Asia Pacific region.

More than 480 billion plastic drinking bottles were sold in 2016 across the world, up from about 300 billion a decade ago. If placed end-to-end, they would extend more than halfway to the sun. By 2021 this will increase to 583.3 billion, according to the most up-to-date estimates from Euromonitor International’s global packaging trends report.

Most plastic bottles used for soft drinks and water are made from polyethylene terephthalate (Pet), which is highly recyclable. But as their use soars across the globe, efforts to collect and recycle the bottles to keep them from polluting the oceans, are failing to keep up.

Fewer than half of the bottles bought in 2016 were collected for recycling and just 7 percent of those collected were turned into new bottles. Instead most plastic bottles produced end up in landfill or in the ocean.

Between 5 million and 13 million tons of plastic leaks into the world’s oceans each year to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the ocean will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Experts warn that some of it is already finding its way into the human food chain.

Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium recently calculated people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Last August, the results of a study by Plymouth University reported plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel, and shellfish. Last year, the …more

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How a Recycling Headache Offered an Opportunity to Help the Homeless

North Carolina project turns plastic bags into bedrolls

Recycling fanatic Tori Carle used to put all kinds of plastic out for recycling, including plastic bags. Then she became the city recycling educator in Greensboro, North Carolina. In that position, she learned that plastic bags and other plastic film wreak havoc in the recycling sorting process. Plastic bags frequently get tangled in the rotating machinery at materials recovery facilities, which sort mixed recyclables into various saleable commodities. Workers must stop the machinery almost a dozen times every day to remove the tangles. Sometimes the bags even break components of the machines.

photo of plastic bagsPhoto by Wastebuster, Flickr Plastic bags are a recycling headache, but by turning them into plastic yarn, or "plarn," they can be used for crocheting project.

Not long after, Carle discovered from the website Pinterest that plastic bags can be used to make plastic yarn, called “plarn,” which can then be crocheted for use in a variety of different projects.

When it comes to recycling plastics, most of the public focus is on shopping bags. Yet shopping bags are just one type of plastic film Americans acquire on a regular basis. Bread, frozen vegetables, cotton balls, newspapers, and dry-cleaning all come in various types of plastic bags. And almost any of it can be used to make plarn.

In the spring of 2016, Carle approached her boss with a novel educational idea: to organize the first of what turned out to be several workshops at library branches where she would teach people how to make plarn. To her surprise, 21 people showed up. According to Carle, the workshop participants had a number of questions for which she as yet had no answers: “Are we finishing anything to completion today, or are we working on something small we can continue working on at home? Do you have a pattern for it?” In response to their questions, Carle began to search Pinterest for plarn projects that could be easily replicated. One project in particular — posted by members of an Arkansas church who had who had successfully used plarn to crochet bedrolls for the homeless — excited the entire group.

In addition to tackling plastic pollution, the idea addresses a real and serious need. When people sleep on the ground, even if they have a sleeping bag, half of their body remains in contact with a surface colder than their body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia. While experienced campers know to use an insulating …more

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Ozone Hole Recovery Threatened by Fast-Rising Emissions of Paint Stripper Chemical

Restoration will be delayed by decades if dichloromethane emissions are not curbed, research reveals

The restoration of the globe’s protective shield of ozone will be delayed by decades if fast-rising emissions of a chemical used in paint stripper are not curbed, new research has revealed.

Atmospheric levels of the chemical have doubled in the last decade and its use is not restricted by the Montreal protocol that successfully outlawed the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) mainly responsible for the ozone hole. The ozone-destroying chemical is called dichloromethane and is also used as an industrial solvent, an aerosol spray propellant and a blowing agent for polyurethane foams. Little is known about where it is leaking from or why emissions have risen so rapidly.

photo of paint cansPhoto by Time SHeerman-Chase Dichloromethane, found in paint-stripping chemicals, has a relatively short lifespan so action to cut its emissions would have rapid benefits.

The loss of ozone was discovered in the 1980s and is greatest over Antarctica. But Ryan Hossaini, at Lancaster University in the UK and who led the new work, said: “It is important to remember that ozone depletion is a global phenomenon, and that while the peak depletion occurred over a decade ago, it is a persistent environmental problem and the track to recovery is expected to be a long and bumpy one.”

“Ozone shields us from harmful levels of UV radiation that would otherwise be detrimental to human, animal and plant health,” he said.

The new research, published in the journal Nature Communications, analysed the level of dichloromethane in the atmosphere and found it rose by 8 percent a year between 2004 and 2014. The scientists then used sophisticated computer models to find that, if this continues, the recovery of the ozone layer would be delayed by 30 years, until about 2090.

The chemical was not included in the 1987 Montreal protocol because it breaks down relatively quickly in the atmosphere, usually within six months, and had not therefore been expected to build up. In contrast, CFCs persist for decades or even centuries.

But the short lifespan of dichloromethane does mean that action to cut its emissions would have rapid benefits. “If policies were put in place to limit its production, then this gas could be flushed out of the atmosphere relatively quickly,” said Hossaini.

If the dichloromethane in the atmosphere was held at today’s level, the recovery of the ozone level would only be delayed by five years, the scientists found. …more

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Conservation Groups Sue Over Wildlife-Killing Program in California

Advocates push federal agency to consider best science and non-lethal management policies

Last week, Project Coyote partnered with five other wildlife conservation groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Western Watersheds Project, Animal Welfare Institute, and WildEarth Guardians — in suing the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Wildlife Services program over its outdated wildlife-killing plan for Northern California. The organizations argue that federal trappers employed through the program regularly use painful leg hold traps, strangulation snares, poisons, and aerial gunning to kill wolves, coyotes, cougars, and other wild animals, primarily to benefit the agriculture industry. The noprofits further contend that the federal government has failed to properly analyze the impacts of the program as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

photo of coyotePhoto by Josh MoreConservation groups have sued Wildlife Services over its outdated wildlife-killing plan for Northern California.

If successful, the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in San Francisco, would force the USDA to do an environmental analysis of its Wildlife Services program in the northern district of California, and to consider alternative wildlife management policies.

“There's an increasing body of scientific literature showing that the way predators have been managed in the United States is not in line with the best available science, nor is it in line with human values and attitudes about wildlife,” said Camilla Fox, founder and executive director of Project Coyote.

The lawsuit — which covers Butte, Humboldt, Lassen, Mendocino, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Sierra, Shasta, Siskiyou, Sutter, Trinity, and Yuba counties — is one of several legal actions in the Western United States to either stop counties from hiring federal trappers or force the government to alter its predator control policies. Other suits have been brought in Colorado, Oregon, and Wyoming. Most recently, Project Coyote and partners formally petitioned the Wildlife Services program for an immediate ban on the use of M-44 cyanide devices in Wyoming.

Few Americans have ever heard of Wildlife Services, a little-known USDA agency charged with managing wildlife, largely at the behest of ranchers and agribusiness. Since 1931, this agency has been waging war against wildlife with its lethal arsenal.

Officials with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees the wildlife management program, have repeatedly defended use of lethal force.

“As a federal leader in resolving human-wildlife conflict, Wildlife Services uses a responsible and science-based approach to address damage and problems caused by wildlife,” an agency spokesman wrote recently in response to a similar lawsuit by Project Coyote and …more

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