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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.

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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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The Contamination of Natural Kaua`i

The Garden Island’s rare plants and wildlife are being put at risk by the toxic chemicals used on GMO test fields

Given its fragile and unusually rich ecology, the Hawaiian island of Kaua`i seems ill-suited as a site for agricultural experiments that use heavy amounts of toxic chemicals. But four transnational corporations — Syngenta, BASF Plant Science, DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences — have been doing just those kinds of experiments here for about two decades, extensively spraying pesticides on their GMO test fields. As a result, the landscape on the southwest corner of the island has become one of the most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture.

 Hawaiian honeycreeper Wikimedia Commons The US Fish and Wildlife Service added 48 species that live only on Kauai to the endangered
species list in 2010, including two different species of the Hawaiian honeycreeper (pictured above).

This poses serious risks for the people of Kaua`i, as I've documented in my earlier report, but even less noticed are the hazards posed to the unique flora and fauna of the island and the coral reefs just off its shores. Each of the seven highly toxic pesticides most commonly used by the GMO giants on Kaua`i — chlorpyrifos, paraquat, atrazine, permethrin, methomyl, alachlor and metolachlor — is known to be toxic to plants, wildlife or both.

The isolated geography of Kaua`i has fostered the evolution of a great diversity of birds, bugs and plants. Kaua`i has more unique species — species that live only on the island — than anywhere else in the world, said Dr. Carl Berg, an ecologist and long-time advocate for clean water with the Kaua`i chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Berg and others fear that these endemic species are being put at great risk of extinction by exposure to the chemicals, though he says he has no idea of the extent of the damage.

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The US Fish and Wildlife Service added 48 species that live only on Kauai to the endangered species list in 2010, including two different species of the Hawaiian honeycreeper, a small bird, and the large Hawaiian picture-wing fly. Also, several protected marine species rest or breed on the island's beaches, including the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal and the threatened green sea turtle. Occasionally, an endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtle will wander close in.  A total of 17 different kinds of dolphins and …more

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The Kaua`i Cocktail

Highly toxic pesticides are being applied to GMO fields on Kaua`i at a heavier rate than on most US farms, an analysis of new data reveals

The Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i has become Ground Zero in the intense domestic political battle over genetically modified crops. But the fight isn't just about the merits or downsides of GMO technology. It's also about regular old pesticides. The four transnational corporations that are experimenting with genetically engineered crops on Kaua‘i have transformed part of the island into one of the most toxic chemical environments in all of American agriculture.

red dust cloud over GMO field in KauaiPhoto by Samuel Morgan ShawSeven of the highly toxic chemicals used on the biotech companies' fields have been linked to a variety of serious health problems ranging from childhood cognitive disorders to cancer. When applied together their joint action can make them even more dangerous to exposed people.

For the better part of two decades, Syngenta, BASF Plant Science, DuPont Pioneer and Dow AgroSciences have been drenching their test crops near Waimea, a small town on the southwest coast of Kaua‘i, with some of the most dangerous synthetic pesticides in use in agriculture today, at an intensity that far surpasses the norm at most other American farms, an analysis of government pesticide databases shows.

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Each of the seven highly toxic chemicals most commonly used on the test fields has been linked to a variety of serious health problems ranging from childhood cognitive disorders to cancer. And when applied together their joint action can make them even more dangerous to exposed people.

Last fall, the Kaua‘i County Council enacted Ordinance 960 (pdf), the first local law in the United States that specifically regulates the cultivation of existing GMO crops, despite an aggressive pushback from the industry, which contends that existing federal regulations suffice.

The GMO field experiments are supervised by the US Department of Agriculture, and the pesticides have the Environmental Protection Agency's stamp of approval. But where some see oversight, others see blinders.

Kaua‘i County, which encompasses the entire island, contends that the federal agencies have ignored the health impacts while allowing the corporations to freely pursue profits, so it has claimed authority to regulate the pesticides used within its borders.

Ordinance 960 creates no-spray buffer zones near schools and other buildings where people live, work or receive medical care, but falls far short of a complete ban of GMO crops. In recent …more

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Canada’s Quest to Mine Bitumen With Steam is Quietly Spelling Disaster

Since 2013 more than 12,000 barrels of steamy bitumen have erupted through fissures in the earth in Alberta

You’ve heard the ads. Beyond the ugly open pit mines lies a different sort of oil sands, intones a friendly Cenovus voice. The difference, goes the ad, consists of some 100 gleaming steam plants in Alberta’s boreal forest where industry can safely recover oil from 450 metres beneath the ground with little impact.

The message is clear: given that 80 per cent of Canada’s bitumen is too deep to be mined, steaming it out of the ground represents a trouble-free Oz, if not a future world of innovative cleanliness.

But it’s all a grand illusion. And you can thank Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., (CNRL) a major bitumen player, for pulling back the curtain.

Alberta Oil Sands Location Tourphoto by EnergyTomorrow, on FlickrA steam mining operation in Fort McMurray, Alberta. This mining process, sometimes called “huff and puff,” forces so much pressurized fluid underground that it lifts the earth by more than a foot.

In the spring of 2013, the company sprouted massive leaks in four locations at their Primrose field in the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. The leaks simply won’t stop, and more than 12,000 barrels of steamy bitumen have since erupted through fissures in the earth as long as 100 meters. 

The uncontrollable event, which has killed many wildlife and forced the partial draining of a 53-hectare lake, now stands as the fourth-largest oil spill in the province’s history. CNRL has spent $40-million to date mopping up the junk crude and hasn’t stopped producing bitumen.

The company’s Cold Lake operation injects highly pressured steam 450 meters into the ground for a month and then pumps like hell from the same wellbore. It is not an earth-friendly operation. This so-called “huff and puff” process forces so much pressurized fluid underground that the operation uplifts the earth by more than a foot. As the frothy bitumen is pumped out, the land then subsides. Satellites can record the heaving and subsiding from space.

All of this movement can play havoc with wellbores. As of 2009, more than one-third of all well-casing failures in the province (more than 1,700) occurred at steam-plant operations in the oil sands.

But continuous steam injection can do more than shear off wellbores. It can also deform a bitumen formation so badly as to “reduce rock strength, induce new …more

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