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Planning a Day at the Beach? Check the Water Quality First

Ten percent of America’s beach waters fail to meet EPA’s new safety standards, says NRDC report

Towel, check! Sunscreen, check! Flip flops, check! Water quality testing kit, check? According to a report released today, summer getaways to the sandy shoreline may be more damaging to personal health than good.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s 24th annual beach report, Testing the Waters, has found that 10 percent of all water quality samples collected last year contained bacteria levels that failed to meet the US Environmental Protection Agency’s new benchmark for swimmer safety. Samples were collected from nearly 3,500 US coastal and Great Lakes beaches. The findings confirm that serious water pollution persists at many American shores.

A busy beach scenePhoto by courtesy NRDCThe beach at Tybee Island North in Georgia's Chatham County made it to this year's superstar list. The report uses the EPA’s newly-created “Beach Action Value” as a benchmark.

Using the EPA’s newly-created “Beach Action Value” (BAV) as a benchmark, the report identified 35 popular “superstar” beaches with excellent water quality, and flagged 17 “repeat offenders” that exhibited chronic water pollution problems. (See chart)

According to the EPA, 3.5 million Americans contract illness from contact with raw sewage in public recreational waters each year. Many public health experts predict, however, that this number is actually much higher. “People who get sick from swimming in polluted recreational waters are not always aware of the cause of their illness and do not report it to doctors or local health officials,” the report states.

The main source of beach water contamination in the United States is storm water runoff. After big rainstorms, overworked drainage systems overflow and untreated sewage seeps into nearby waterways, placing beachgoers at acute risk of bacterial and viral disease. Children, the elderly, and pregnant women are most susceptible to illness from beach water pollution.

When deciding whether to issue precautionary public health warnings prior to 2013, state beach authorities relied on set, and rather lax, EPA water quality standards. These standards were inadequate, the report says. Under the old benchmarks, the EPA found it acceptable for 36 out of every 1,000 beachgoers to become ill with gastroenteritis, an intestinal and stomach infection that causes vomiting, nausea, and/or stomachache.

The EPA’s new Beach Action Value is lower than the value previously used, reducing the acceptable risk of exposure to 32 out of every 1,000 beachgoers. The BAV is not regulatory and only meant to provide guidance …more

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A Spark of New Energy in Africa

Graduate students craft a plan for the future of Africa’s power grid

Grace Wu and Ranjit Deshmukh grow vegetables in their garden, bicycle to school each day, and are rarely seen in clothes more formal than blue jeans and t-shirts. Though they seem to live a quiet life, these two graduate students from UC Berkeley are helping to design renewable energy systems employed on a continent-wide scale half a world away.

photo of children looking at a solar generatorphoto by Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), on FlickrSolar generator in Benin

Last year, Wu designed a computer program to site solar and wind energy development in the western United States. Then she and Deshmukh refined the model to map renewable electricity potential in India. Now the International Renewable Energy Agency, an intergovernmental group that represents more than 100 countries across the globe, is contracting the pair as technical research partners for a new project to green Africa’s power grid.

In collaboration with researchers at the agency and at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Wu and Deshmukh are working with officials from 22 countries in eastern and southern Africa to identify zones that are well-suited for development of electricity production from wind, solar, and geothermal energy. “This is part of a multi-step process that aims to increase the amount of renewable energy in the African grid,” Wu says.

This isn’t a typical academic project that languishes in the ivory tower. Stakeholders in the 22 different governments affiliated with the project “have the potential and the actual desire to implement the work we’re doing,” Wu says.

It’s no surprise that African nations are looking to produce more power. Frequent electricity shortages stifle economic growth and limit quality of life. If the energy currently generated on the continent were equally distributed, it would only be enough to turn on one standard light bulb per person for a scant three hours a day. In many parts of eastern and southern Africa, hospitals and industries resort to using diesel generators during blackouts.

“Africa is in infrastructure dire straits,” Wu says. “They don’t have enough infrastructure for the kind of growth that they want to achieve.”

Though most of Africa currently runs on coal, international organizations like the Inernational Renewable Energy Agency and the African Development Bank are encouraging the continent to use more renewable energy. In eastern …more

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Feds Considering Allowing Fracking Near World Heritage Site, Chaco Canyon

Oil extraction would threaten archaeological treasures

Most people think that US National Parks and UNESCO World Heritage sites would be buffered from industrial extraction like fracking for oil. But during the last two weeks of May, we were at Earthworks were forced to think again and reconsider if that assumption is true.

Fajada Butte in Chaco CanyonPhoto by John FiveashThe Bureau of Land Management is amending its land management plan to flitate oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin that's home to the Chaco Canyon National Historic Park.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is writing a new management plan for a multi-million acre swatch of public lands in northwestern New Mexico. Contained within this area is the treasured Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. One of less than a dozen UNESCO sites in the western United States, Chaco Canyon includes the ruins of what were the largest buildings in North America 1,000 years ago.

The hub of the Chacoan society is a series of well designed villages that at one point housed some 6,000 people who navigated the surrounding countryside using perfectly straight roadways etched into the landscape. Chaco Canyon is called the “American Cradle of Civilization,” and the descendants of the Chaco culture include several modern Southwest tribal nations. The Chaco ruins are considered sacred sites by the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples.

The Chacoans, of course, didn’t know that their communities were built atop the Mancos Shale, or that one day the US government would prioritize oil over culture and communities.

The BLM plan is being amended to help facilitate oil and gas development — particularly fracking — in the San Juan Basin. In response, Earthworks and partners took action, sending alerts through our networks encouraging the boss of the BLM — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell — to use her authority to protect the lands surrounding Chaco Canyon from oil and gas development. In just a few weeks, 173,000 people took action, flooding the BLM's inboxes, as well as those of other lawmakers within the region, with a simple message: “protect these unique places from oil and gas development.”

photoname Photo by John/FlickrThe Chaco Canyon is called the “American Cradle of Civilization,” and the Chaco ruins are
considered sacred sites by the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples.

This more

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Louisiana Levee Authority’s Suit Against Oil & Gas Companies Survives Move to Kill It

Governor Bobby Jindal’s effort to quash the environmental damages claim might backfire

A New Orleans area regional levee board voted yesterday to continue pursing an environmental damages lawsuit against 97 (yes, 97!) oil, gas, and pipeline companies. The vote — which came almost two weeks after Governor Bobby Jindal signed off on a bill that strips the levee board of the power to file such lawsuits — was a boon to environmentalists and a bust for opponents, who had hoped the board would dismiss the lawsuit and end its contentious yearlong battle with the Louisiana governor.

levee with oil pipelinePhoto by Miles Wolf Tamboli/FlickrThe levee agency's suit argues that the damage caused by oil and gas drilling and by building pipelines has affected the levee system's ability to block storm surges caused hurricanes.

The drama began in July 2013 with a creatively crafted lawsuit filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East Board (SLFPA-E). The suit asserts that 10,000 miles of oil and gas canals and pipelines have been cut through Louisiana coastal lands, and draws attention to the essential role these coastal regions play as a frontline defense for New Orleans communities against hurricane-induced flooding.

“The oil and gas industry is responsible, conservatively, for 600 miles of coastal land loss,” said Steve Murchie, campaign director with the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental group committed to protecting and restoring the natural resources of the Gulf Region. “We have a $50 billion coastal restoration project that will probably cost closer to $100 billion to get done.”

According to the legal petition filed in the case, “Oil and gas activities continue to transform what was once a stable ecosystem of naturally occurring bayous, small canals, and ditches into an extensive — and expanding — network of large and deep canals that continues to widen due to Defendants’ ongoing failure to maintain this network or restore the ecosystem to its natural state…The product of this network is an ecosystem so seriously diseased that its complete demise is inevitable if no action is taken…. The consequent ecological degradation to these areas has produced weakened coastal lands and extensive land loss. This in turn has created markedly increased storm surge risk, attendant flood production costs, and, thus, damages to Plaintiff.”

In the petition, the board requests that all 97 defendants undertake significant coastal restoration activities.

Environmental advocates describe the lawsuit as a ray of hope in an often-bleak …more

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National Aquarium Considering Ending Its Captive Dolphin Exhibit

Move could be an industry game-changer

In hindsight, “good” ideas often fail to meet expectations. A 1980s-style perm, the 2013 Baz Luhrmann production of The Great Gatsby and, though still under intense debate, the exhibition of captive dolphins.

In May, John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, announced in an open letter that the aquarium is in the midst of some soul searching about the future of its captive dolphin exhibit. “We will host a summit to convene animal care experts, veterinarians, and biologists to determine the feasibility of a variety of potential solutions, including designing and building a dolphin sanctuary in an ocean-side setting and exploring in detail the requirements for operating such a facility,” Racanelli wrote.

Baltimore Aquariumphoto by Lance McCord, on FlickrDolphins in the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland

Although the National Aquarium has not definitively announced the release of its dolphins, aquatic entertainment parks such as Sea World are already feeling the heat. “If the National Aquarium takes this step and releases their dolphins into an ocean sanctuary, there will be a huge intensification of pressure on Sea World to do the same,” says David Phillips, executive director of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project. “This would be a game changer for sure.”

Popular films such as Blackfish and The Cove have illustrated to millions of people the harmful psychological and physical stress endured by captive whales and dolphins. This growing public awareness has prompted the National Aquarium (as well as aquariums across the country) to rethink the educational and financial merits of exhibiting captive dolphins.

“These entertainment parks have no place in the twenty-first century. We know the level of awareness these animals have,” says Rachel Carbary from the activist campaign Empty the Tanks Worldwide. “These are incredibly social, intelligent beings that are being used to make money. It is animal slavery. I do think that the attitude towards this issue has changed greatly over the past few years. I think it has a great deal to do with the fact that marine mammal captivity is finally being talked about.”

The National Aquarium has taken note of this shift in public opinion. “We have experienced a significant evolution in the audience we serve: it has become younger, more concerned about the health of our planet, and less …more

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Feeding Hawai‘i

Could small, biodiverse farms help the Aloha State transition to growing enough food to feed itself?

For Chris Kobayashi and her husband, Dimi Rivera, it all started with Japanese cucumbers. “In 1997 we said, ‘OK, let’s grow Japanese cucumbers, but let’s grow it organically,’” Kobayashi tells me as we walk around her farm in Hanalei Bay on Kaua‘i’s North Shore. “You know, because they are crispy, crunchy, and yummy and you can eat the skin and everything,”

Chris Kobayashi and Dimi Rivera pulling up taroPhoto by Ian UmedaChris Kobayashi, her husband, Dimi Rivera (extreme left) and a friend harvest taro on their 10-acre farm on Kaua‘i. Kobayashi says transitioning to small-scale, agroeological farms will be a lot of hard work, but will lead to a vibrant local economy.

The couple knew that it would be a tough vegetable to grow. Cucumbers (and melons) are prone to extensive damage from fruit flies in Hawai‘i. So they covered every single cucumber that came up with plastic bags. “We’d charge a dollar for each at the farmers’ market,” says Kobayshi. “We set up a sign on that said ‘Japanese Cucumbers, $1.’ We offered samples and people got hooked because it’s so crunchy. Then they started asking, do you have any kale? I was like, ‘Kale? What is that?’ So that’s how we started growing other kinds of veggies. It was just all an organic thing that happened. None of this was planned.” Today, Kobayashi’s family’s 10-acre Waioli Farm, named after the stream that runs beside it, grows produce using organic practices — mainly taro, which they supply to families and traditional poi (taro paste) makers on O‘ahu and the Big Island, but also some fruits and vegetables for their local farmers’ market stand.

what the fork logo

Kobayashi, whose family has been growing taro commercially for generations, is a member of Hawai‘i SEED, a coalition of grassroots citizen groups and food activists that is working to promote ecological food and farming in Hawai‘i. I met with her when I went to Hawai‘i to report on the growing citizens’ movement against the genetically modified seed industry in the islands. (Read my in-depth story on the issue here.) To be more specific, I met with her, and several other small scale farmers on Kaua‘i and O‘ahu, in an effort to understand whether there were indeed any viable alternatives to industrial-style farming in Hawai‘i. …more

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Green Group Warns Keystone XL May be Vulnerable to Terrorist Attack. But Will the Warning Backfire?

NextGen report could lead to a blowback against peaceful protesters

NextGen Climate, the environmental advocacy group launched by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, says the Keystone XL pipeline, if built, would be vulnerable to a terrorist attack. In a recently published report authored by a former Navy Seal, the organization argues that because of the pipeline’s high profile it would be an attractive “soft” target. It’s an odd argument for an environmental organization to be making — and one that may make it harder for activists to do their work.

NextGen’s report is essentially calling for the militarization of the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure in which photographing, protesting, or visiting gas wells or pipelines could be interpreted as a threat to national security. Ultimately, though it may not be NextGen’s intention, this means less transparency and public oversight of projects like the Keystone XL pipeline. It also means citizen watchdogs are at greater legal risk if they decide to photograph or document oil and gas drilling activity.

Tom Steyer Photo by Stuart Isett/Fortune GreenThe report by billionaire activist Tom Steyer’s group is essentially calling for the militarization
of the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure.

NextGen Climate’s “threat assessment” peddles an argument often made by the oil and gas industry itself — that because of ever looming threats to critical infrastructure the vigilant policing of rigs, pipelines, and refineries is necessary. “The very nature of Keystone XL’s newsworthiness, should it ever be built, increases its attractiveness as a target to terrorists,” according to the report. “That simple fact … should clue in pipeline owners and government officials to the very real possibility of intentional attack. They should plan, prepare, and regulate accordingly.”

Similar arguments have been used to justify the now-routine sharing of intelligence between local, state, and federal law enforcement and the fossil fuel industry. The Department of Homeland Security’s Critical Infrastructure Partnership Advisory Council has a special oil and natural gas sub sector which facilitates communication between law enforcement and industry. The FBI has its own Oil and Natural Gas Crime Issues Special Interest Group , described by the agency as “a strategic partnership established to promote the timely and effective exchange of information between the FBI and the US oil and natural gas private sector.” In 2010 the FBI issued an intelligence bulletin warning of the threat of “environmental extremism” to the energy industry. …more

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