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Congress Poised to Revise Law Regulating Chemicals Used in Commercial Products

Will the bills seeking to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act really protect Americans?

If you think every chemical used in every consumer product on our store shelves has been tested and deemed safe, think again. If you think current laws in the United States explicitly prohibit the use of some of the most hazardous chemicals, such as asbestos, in consumer products, think again.

crayonsPhoto by Laura Gilmore Asbestos in kids crayons — what’s TSCA reform got to do with it?

Last week, new test reports released by the Environmental Working Group Action Fund found asbestos in children’s crayons. This is alarming, given that even small amounts of asbestos exposure can cause serious and even fatal lung disease. What may be even more disturbing is that asbestos’ presence in these crayons is not explicitly prohibited by the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the primary law that regulates chemicals used commercially in the US.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has been struggling to regulate the more than 84,000 chemicals now registered for commerce in the US using this nearly 40-year-old act that hasn’t been updated since it was signed into law in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. Now, after almost six years of wrangling, Congress is poised to act on legislation to reform TSCA. The House has passed its TSCA reform bill (H.R. 2576) and the Senate is expected to vote on its bill (S. 697) perhaps even before Congress breaks for its August recess.

Everyone — from the EPA to environmental health advocates to chemical industry representatives — agrees that TSCA is outdated and ineffective and badly in need of revision. There is also wide agreement that there’s enough momentum behind the issue to make it very likely that the two bills will be voted on before Labor Day and sent to the president’s desk this year.

Yet whether these bills will ensure meaningful improvement in how the US manages chemicals continues to be a matter of considerable debate among those who’ve been watching this process closely. Before wading into the weeds it’s worth stepping back to ask what TSCA does, does not do and what changes the House and Senate bills propose.

The most basic thing that TSCA does is require that the EPA keep a current list of all chemicals used commercially in the US. That list, known as …more

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In the Spirit of Naked Joe

Alaskan wilderness and survival “reality shows” strain for effect. But we’re all in on the mirage anyway.

In 1913, Joe Knowles, a middle-aged newspaper illustrator living in Boston, ventured into Maine’s woods wearing only a jock-strap after bidding farewell to a throng of reporters. Knowles claimed he would survive alone in the wild, relying solely on his wits. He aimed to prove that even though modern man had removed himself from the wild, he was superior to nature. During his foray in the wilderness the Boston Post regularly published notes and drawings he made with charcoal on the bark from birch trees. Two months later, Knowles emerged from the forest wearing clothing fashioned from the skin of a bear he said he clubbed to death. He became an instant national celebrity.

About a hundred years later, I stood in a meadow on Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska watching the antics of a reality television film crew. I had been hired as a guide and packer for the shoot. The film crew had been in country renowned for its density of brown bears for two hours and had yet to see one, so the producer decided to take matters into his own hands.

photo of wrestling brown bears in a field  

“Let’s end this scene with an aggressive bear encounter.” 

Snow-capped mountains rose all around us. A bald eagle circled high above and a raven croaked from deep in the forest. While the cast debated their roles in the encounter, I thought of a friend, a commercial fisherman, who used to homestead nearby.

Years ago, after a day of mending crab pots, I borrowed his skiff to visit the meadow where the fake bear encounter was currently being shot. I putted up the inlet in pouring rain and around a few sea otters as a young, chocolate-colored brown bear eating grass ran into the rainforest. Four bears were said to have been recently killed by guided hunters in the inlet and the season was still open. The meadow was quiet, the wildflowers still at least a week away from blooming. Late in the evening, a gigantic bear, looking more like a draft horse than a bear, emerged and began grazing. I left the skiff tied to a rock and, though it was foolish and disrespectful, approached unarmed on foot. Between mouthfuls of grass, the bear watched indifferently as I …more

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“Climate change will never stop,” Leading Climatologist Says

In Conversation with French scientist Jean Jouzel

Last week climate scientists from around the world met in Paris for the largest scientific gathering in advance of the UN-sponsored climate talks that will be held in the French capital in December. During the conference I was able to sit down for a one-on-one interview with conference chair Jean Jouzel, who also currently serves as the vice chair of the Working Group I panel of the International Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

Photo of Photo by Fabíola Ortiz Jean Jouzel at the Our Common Future Under Climate Change conference last week Paris.

Sixty-eight years old and white haired, Jouzel came from a farming family in Brittany, then left the countryside to study engineering at the Ecole Supérieure de Chimie Physique Electronique de Lyon, and later went on to earn a PhD in the physical sciences. His specialty is paleo-climatology: that is, he studies ice cores to understand the planet’s past climates. Jouzel has co-authored nearly 400 scientific papers, and in 2012 he was awarded the Vetlesen Prize for studies that resulted in a clearer understanding of Earth. The prize is considered the earth sciences equivalent of the Nobel Prize and is delivered every four years since 1959 by the American Foundation of the same name.

Jouzel’s courtly manners didn’t disguise his frustration with the sluggish pace of political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He complained that many countries still have not released their climate commitments — or “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs) in UN parlance — and he made a strong case that developing nations should play a leading role in forming a Paris climate agreement. Still, he remains optimistic. “It is not too late,” he said, “but it is really urgent.” 

What do you expect to get out of this scientific meeting five months before 2015 Paris Climate Conference?

As a member of the French scientific community we thought this meeting could be useful for COP21 in December. Paris will be as special as Kyoto and Copenhagen were. In Copenhagen we had an agreement for the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol and the main result was the shift from a qualitative convention without real objectives toward a 2°C target. Right now we hope COP21 will result in an agreement for beyond 2020. …more

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Insect Feed Could Be the Next Frontier in Animal Agriculture

Bugs may offer an environmentally friendly alternative to soy and fishmeal when it comes to feeding livestock

Philip Taylor knew that when the black soldier fly began mating under artificial light in his hatchery at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in Boulder, Colorado, something important was happening.

“For the mass production of larvae there needs to be a large and consistent source of eggs,” he explains. Taylor, a fellow with Duke University and INSTARR, needs a lot of larvae for his investigation into how insects can be used as an alternative protein source in animal feed.

Photo of Black Soldier Fly HatcheryPhoto by Philip Taylor Taylor is investigating the impact of environmental factors, including light intensity and spectrum, on fly reproduction.

Using ultraviolet light, humidity and temperature, Taylor is trying to influence mating and egg production among the black solider fly. The goal is to mimic the subtropical and warmer temperate climates where these flies naturally occur, and Taylor is confident he’s found the light bulb that provides just the right balance. He says he’s already achieved about an 80 percent reproduction rate, which is the highest he knows of under artificial conditions.

Taylor’s research is motivated by his belief that insects can be the cornerstone of a new-and-improved food system. He’s not alone in touting this great source of protein; putting edible insects on the menu has garnered plenty of media attention recently. Feasting on these healthy little buggers could help feed a growing global population projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and reduce the environmental impact of eating meat.

But if chowing down insects isn’t your cultural norm, the option might sound kind of gross, and so far, insects haven’t really caught on in the United States. Maybe one day most Americans will get there. But, in the meantime, why not use insects as a protein source in animal feed to replace fishmeal and soy?

The good, the bad, the ugly

Growing up on the Chesapeake Bay, Taylor was always outside exploring. As an adult, he’s taught family farmers about crop rotation in Malawi and researched the impact of palm oil cultivation in Costa Rica and Southeast Asia. Through these experiences and his studies in ecology and evolutionary biology, he came to see the act of eating as the most intimate way people interact with nature. But, Taylor says, “The story around …more

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Without Sharks, There Would be No Shark Week

With estimated 100 million sharks killed every year, one third of open ocean sharks are threatened with extinction

When was the last time you saw a shark in the wild?  Few of us ever do. More frequently, we experience sharks from behind the safety of glass in an aquarium, or on television watching the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

Photo of SharkPhoto by Klaus Stiefel A tresher shark in Malapascua, Phillipines.

I have been diving with sharks for decades, and am always seeking opportunities to photograph and write about sharks, and to protect them in the wild. Increasingly, I’ve noticed that it is more and more difficult to find groups of wild sharks to dive with as they are overfished for fins and meat.

The increased scarcity of sharks can be traced in large part to the shark fin trade, which supplies the huge appetite for shark fin soup in Asia. Today, an estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year, many for their fins. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, one third of all open ocean sharks are threatened with extinction.

Shark finning is not only devastating shark populations. A comprehensive study indicates that declining shark numbers are setting off the collapse of ocean ecosystems as the loss of these apex predators disturbs the marine food web. 

The practice of shark finning is outlawed in US waters and approximately 100 other nations, but many countries, including Indonesia and Malaysia, still allow it. Other countries, such as Ecuador and Costa Rica, have shark fin bans on the books, but do not enforce these regulations.

In the United States, although shark finning itself is illegal, the trade in shark fins is not. The good news is that many states are now starting to pass shark fin trade bans, outlawing the possession, sale, trade and consumption of shark fins. So far, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Washington have passed these bans, as have the three US Pacific territories of Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Most recently, Texas became the tenth state to ban the commercial shark fin trade when Governor Greg Abbott signed HB 1579 into law. Texas is the first red state to prohibit the trade of shark fins. Shark Stewards, an Earth Island Institute …more

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Obama Creates Three New National Monuments Protecting Another 1M Acres of Public Lands

New designation preserves areas of historic, cultural, and natural value in California, Nevada, and Texas

Using his authority under the Antiquities Act, President Barak Obama today signed into being three new national monuments in California, Nevada, and Texas. Together, the new monuments protect more than one million acres of public lands. National monument’s are similar to national parks, except that they can be created from any land owned or controlled by the federal government via a presidential proclamation. With these new designations, Obama will have used the Antiquities Act to establish or expand 19 national monuments in the United States. Altogether, he has protected more than 260 million acres of public lands and waters – more than any other president

The new monuments are:

Basin and Range National Monument, Nevada

Photo of Basin and Range National Monument in Nevada Photo by Bureau of Land Management

Less than a two-hour drive from Las Vegas, Nevada’s Basin and Range is an iconic American landscape that includes rock art dating back 4,000 years is an irreplaceable resource for archaeologists, historians, and ecologists. This monument — the largest of the three — will protect about 704,000 acres of public land. Among one the most undisturbed corners of the Great Basin region, this area shelters at least two dozen threatened and sensitive species, including 2,000-year-old bristlecone pines and is the wintering ground for elk, mule deer, pygmy rabbits and the greater sage grouse. Conservationists have long campaigned to save this stretch of land. The protected area also includes artist Michael Heizer’s famous ongoing land art piece, City (1972–present). The monument allows for the continuation of certain historic uses, including livestock grazing and military use.  It will be managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, California

Photo of Berryessa Snow Mountain in CaliforniaPhoto Courtesy of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument 

Rising from near sea level in the south to over 7,000 feet in the north, this 331,000-acre monument lies at the heart of Northern California’s Inner Coast range and includes dozens of unique, biodiverse ecosystems. The area supplies water for millions of people and supports a wide range of outdoor activities, including hiking, hunting, fishing, and camping.  According to a White House press release, a monument designation for this region is likely to increase visitation and could generate an …more

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Thirty Years Later: The Bombing of the Rainbow Warrior

New Zealand journalist David Robie returns with two books commemorating the sinking of Greenpeace’s iconic ship and the nuclear-free Pacific movement

Thirty years ago today French secret agents blew up Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in nuclear free New Zealand. Paris’ covert action, code-named Opération Satanique (Operation Satanic), sank the 131-foot ship in Auckland Harbor, killing 35-year-old Portuguese photographer Fernando Pereira and leaving his eight-year-old daughter Marelle fatherless. The goal of the July 10, 1985 attack was to stop Greenpeace’s flagship vessel from sailing to Moruroa atoll and joining a peace flotilla of New Zealanders and Tahitians to protest at France’s South Pacific nuclear test site.

Photo of Rainbow WarriorPhoto by John MillerThe bombed Rainbow Warrior at Marsden Wharf in Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour.

Since the 1970s, Robie has arguably been to the nuclear-free and independent Pacific movement what John Reed, author of Ten Days That Shook the World, was to the Russian Revolution. Wherever Pacific Islanders have defended their rights and environment, the intrepid island-hopper has been there to report. Now that he is 70, the hard-hitting journalist is taking a reflective look back at a career spent on the frontlines of the anti-colonial, anti-nuclear, eco-struggles of Oceania’s indigenous peoples in two recently released books.

To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Rainbow Warrior’s demise, Auckland-based Little Island Press has published the fifth edition of Robie’s 1986 classic Eyes of Fire: The Last Voyage of the Rainbow Warrior. A book launching is scheduled for today, not far from where the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by state terrorists. The event will include Greenpeace’s “Courage Works,” a special Rainbow Warrior anniversary photography exhibition.

Robie was aboard the Rainbow Warrior during its fateful final mission, evacuating islanders from Rongelap atoll in the Marshall Islands, which had been irradiated on March 1, 1954 “when the Americans exploded the H-bomb Bravo on Bikini atoll,” as Robie wrote in Eyes of Fire. “The bomb was a 15-megaton giant, more than 1,000 times as powerful as the bomb which devastated Hiroshima.” Robie covered “Operation Exodus,” as the Greenpeace ship transported roughly 350 Marshallese atomic exiles from contaminated Rongelap to Mejato and Ebeye at Kwajalein atoll in May 1985. 

Because Robie had spent two-and-a-half months aboard the Rainbow Warrior reporting for top regional outlets — including Radio Australia, Radio New Zealand, New Zealand Herald, New Zealand Times, The Australian and Fiji-based Islands Business — he had the scoop. Robie won New Zealand’s Media Peace Prize …more

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