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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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In the Channel Islands, an Effort to Save Seabirds and Native Flora is Paying Off

The biggest challenge facing the restoration process has been access to freshwater

Encouraging seabirds to recolonize regions of the Channel Islands National Park in California requires more than just erecting artificial nests and hoping they’ll return.  They also need native island flora and the sweet serenade from their own species resonating above sheer, volcanic cliffs.

ScorpionRockPhoto by Chuck GrahamAn island restoration team kayaks out to Scorpion Rock, one of the Channel Islands' rocky outcropping. Ocean sediments in the region now contain the largest known concentration of DDT in the world.

Since 2008, the National Park Service has been aggressively restoring lost habitat for seafaring birds like the nocturnal ashy storm petrels and the seafaring Cassin’s auklets on Santa Barbara Island, and on large rock outcroppings like Orizaba Rock, but especially on Scorpion Rock near the southeast end of Santa Cruz Island.

The project has been funded by the Montrose Restoration Program, which oversees the restoration of natural resources in southern California marine environment that were harmed by DDT and PCBs.  From the late 1940s to the early 1970s, Montrose Chemical Corporation’s DDT manufacturing plant in Torrance, CA,  dumped millions of tons of DDT-contaminated wastewater in the Southern California Bight near Catalina Island. The results were devastating for the pelagic food web. Ocean sediments in the region now contain the largest known concentration of DDT in the world.

In March 2001, following 25 years of litigation, Montrose and three other corporations — that were manufacturing PCBs and releasing their waste into the ocean through the same channels as Montrose — were ordered to pay $140 million in restitution with $40 million going towards restoring natural resources like seabird colonies on the Channel Islands National Park.

CassinsAukletPhoto by Chuck GrahamSince 2008, the National Park Service has been aggressively restoring lost habitat for seafaring birds like Cassin’s auklets.

Twelve species of seabirds nest on the archipelago. Besides Cassin’s auklets and ashy storm petrels, the other 10 species include double-crested, pelagic, and Brandt’s cormorants, pigeon guillemots, Scripps’s murrelets, California brown pelicans, western gulls, black oystercatchers, and two more types of petrels, black and leach’s. Eight of those species utilize Scorpion Rock, which is nearing the end of a major facelift, botanically speaking. 

At one time or another all five islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park experienced ranching, mainly between the 1830s and the late 1980s. When non-native animals are brought to islands non-native plants also come along. Perpetual northwest winds blew seeds onto the islands’ rock outcroppings, …more

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Zimbabwe’s Typhoid Outbreak Worsened by Water Scarcity and Poor Sewage Infrastructure

Outbreak underscores gap between a wealthy elite and those who have fewer choices about where the can source their water from

A typhoid outbreak in Zimbabwe has been claiming lives and infecting dozens over the past few months. The outbreak, which is likely due to an over-stressed sewage system and lack of clean water, is widening the gap between a wealthy elite who can afford to import bottled water to escape disease and those who have fewer choices about where they bathe or how they quench their thirst.

photo of water faucetPhoto by Robert AllenLack of clean water and an overstressed sewage system are likely causes of Zimbabwe's ongoing typhoid oubreak, which as so far infected an estimated 600 people.

Typhoid — a serious bacterial infection that results from consuming contaminated water and food, or from close contact with someone who is infected  — was first detected in Zimbabwe´s capital Harare in December 2016, when a 13-year-old girl succumbed to its complications.

The outbreak is the worst in Harare, the capital city 2 million where authorities have had to activate a typhoid treatment camp. As of early February, there have been two confirmed deaths, and more than 600 suspected cases, the majority in Harare and its adjacent suburbs. 

The cause of the outbreak has been the subject of some dispute, but many experts agree that Harare’s over-stressed sewage system, with pipes designed in the 1960s and some last cleaned in the 90s, is a major part of the problem.

“Raw sewage finds itself flowing unchecked into household pipes because the system for transporting waste is not functioning,” says Jadagu Garikain, an academic at the University of Zimbabwe´s School of Rural and Urban Planning.

The need to upgrade the capital´s sewer system has remained unaddressed since the late 1980s. Given Harare’s growing population, the current infrastructure has outlived its lifespan. “The capital’s main sewer treatment plant can only treat 54 out of its required 154 mega liters per day,” Garikain adds. “Lack of electricity, engineers, [and] chemical agents is the fatal reason.”

Paired with the sewage problem is the issue of access to clean water — an emotionally fraught issue in Harare, one of Africa´s most water-stressed cities. Suburbs can endure three years without seeing a drop ooze out of pipes thanks to a severe shortage of cash to import purification chemicals,  an exodus of qualified water engineers to South Africa, Australia and beyond, and, according to Transparency International Zimbabwe, a government accountability organization, illicit awarding of water contracts to dodgy water companies.

On luckier days, when there is water, …more

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