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Toxic Tailings Pond Breach in Canada Highlights Risks Faced by Proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska

Hundreds of people in British Columbia without water after billions of gallons of mining waste spill into rivers

This week’s devastating tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia sent an estimated 4.5 million cubic meters of mine waste solids and 2.6 billion gallons of mine waste liquids into streams, rivers, and lakes in the headwaters of the Fraser River watershed.  According to the CBC, the volume of the spill would fill approximately 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

It will be some time before we know the full consequences of this mine failure, but just the physical damage as shown by the video above, of the Canadian disaster means the ecosystem will take a long time to recover. In the mean time, area residents are advised not to drink their tap water.

It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the Mount Polley Mine and the proposed Pebble Mine that would be situated at the headwaters of Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Both mines are large, open pit, copper porphyry mines at the headwaters of important salmon streams. Ironically, the company behind the proposed Pebble Mine, the Pebble Limited Partnership, has repeatedly pointed to the Fraser River as an example of a watershed where mining and fish can coexist.

Even more ironic, Knight Piesold, the firm that provided designs for the tailings pond lifts at Mount Polley, also provided the designs for the tailings pond for the proposed Pebble Mine.

While industry and regulators claim that tailings pond failures are rare occurrences, they happen more often than industry would like us to know.  In 2012, Earthworks released a peer-reviewed report that examined 14 out of 16 operating copper porphyry mines in the US representing 89 percent of copper production. We found that full or partial tailings dam failures have occurred at roughly a quarter of them.

Yet the mining industry, and certainly the Pebble Partnership, is often in denial about mining’s environmental impacts. 

Bristol Bay’s wild sockeye salmon fishery is the world’s largest. Almost half the world’s commercial supply of wild sockeye salmon comes from here. The fisheries here support 14,000 jobs and generate approximately $480 million in revenue each year.

To protect Bristol Bay, a unique coalition of groups, including Alaska Native Tribes, commercial and recreational fishermen, churches, jewelers, and chefs, created such a stir about the Pebble Mine that it compelled the US Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an extensive, peer-reviewed …more

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What’s the Secret Behind Germany’s Clean Energy Success?

The US may never beat them in soccer, but we can in renewable energy

Last month, Germany was in the news for all the wrong reasons: in addition to crushing all would-be challengers in the World Cup, Germany and the US are in the midst of a serious diplomatic crisis after the CIA was caught spying on Germany’s intelligence agency, actually paying agents hard cash in return for state secrets.

It is worth pondering whether, in the course of its spying, the CIA noticed that Germany has made itself much more secure, safe, and sustainable by greening its economy and energy production at a breakneck speed. We could use some actionable intelligence to replicate Germany’s Energiewende (or “Energy Transition”), as if the world depends on it. Because it does.

Alemanha x Argentinaphoto by rafael, on FlickrGermany vs. Argentina, 2014

Even more astonishing than Germany’s recent World Cup win is the fact that earlier this summer – on June 9 – 50.6 percent of total electricity demand was met by solar alone. The US defense establishment and media should be asking why Germany – which is not known for its sunshine – is decades ahead of the US in solar. In fact, Germany increased its share of renewables from 6 percent to nearly 25 percent in only ten years. Why is Germany, a land of only 80 million people and without anything remotely resembling an innovation epicenter like Silicon Valley, so embarrassingly ahead of the United States? How is it that in 2012 Germany had 400 Megawatts of solar power capacity per million people, but the US only has 25 MW per million people? Even in sunny Arizona, our top solar state (per capita), they only obtain 167 MW per million people.

Why can’t we do better than that? There are three big reasons that merit reflection.

Without an Imperial Military, Germany Can Afford It

The first reason is that the United States is fiscally kaputt, whereas Germany is the economic engine of Europe. Germany is number two in trade surpluses; the US is number one in trade deficits of all countries. Further, the ratio of government deficits compared to Gross Domestic Product of each country (negative 4.6% in the US and positive 0.2% in Germany) shows that Germany is doing a much better job of fiscal managment than the US. Some in the United …more

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Toledo Water Ban Lifted, But Is the Water Safe and What Caused the Toxic Algae Bloom?

by Stefanie Spear

The City of Toledo issued a “Do Not Drink” advisory to more than 400,000 residents last weekend after chemical tests confirmed the presence of unsafe levels of the algal toxin Microcystin in the drinking water in three counties in Ohio and one in Michigan.

Last night on MSNBC’s the Ed Show, Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant College Program at Ohio State University, discussed the possible causes, including farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants.

“In order to solve this, we have to reduce the amount of phosphorus leaving our farm fields, coming out of our sewage treatment plants, failing septic tanks … The biggest source in the Maumee River, because that river drains four and a half million acres of agricultural land, is agriculture runoff,” said Reutter.

Also speaking on this issue from the Toledo area is Sandy Bihn, executive director of Lake Erie Waterkeeper. She provided me this statement this morning:

The heroes of the devastating Do Not Drink Toledo’s water are the Toledo, Oregon, Carroll Township and Ottawa County water plant operators who took it upon themselves to voluntarily test for the toxin microcystin. Last year, Carroll Township, a city that draws water from Lake Erie, issued a Do No Drink the Water advisory. There was an outcry from water plant operators for federal and state microcystin standards, and testing and treatment guidelines. But, nothing happened. The federal government and the state of Ohio needs to determine what the safe drinking water standard is for microcystin rather than relying on the World Health Organization. For example, the state of Minnesota has a standard of .041 parts per billion, but the World Health Organization’s standard is 1.0 parts per billion.

toledoalgaefishphoto by Lake Erie WaterkeeperMicrocystin is a toxin produced by blooms of freshwater algae, which are a vast and growing problem in Lake Erie – Toledo’s drinking water source.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency with the help of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency needs to create a source water protection plan under the Safe Drinking Water Act for the Toledo drinking water intake. This would put forth a plan to reduce the algae sources of the Toledo drinking water intake. The International Joint Commission has also recommended creating a …more

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California Schools Struggle to Take Advantage of Clean Energy Funding Windfall

Proposition 39 remains more of a promise than a proven success

Rows of smartly-placed solar panels, a green bounty of veggies and herbs planted next to sleek buildings wired with highly efficient lighting systems — to an unknowing visitor of the San Mateo County Community College district, California Clean Energy Jobs Act (aka Proposition 39) has fulfilled its intended purpose in splendid fashion.  “Our district was prepared, we already had the resources and support,” facilities manager Karen D. Powell says. “Other districts were not like us.”

photonamePhoto courtesy of California Solar Schools A solar installation at Mt Diablo High School in Concord, CA. For many school districts,
however, energy efficiency is a luxury when faced with chronic problems like aging buildings
and little to no scheduled maintenance funding.

Touting energy efficiency and education over corporate greed (a wonderful recipe for the liberal Golden State), Proposition 39 was the cool kid on the block during the November 2012 statewide elections, easily passing with 61 percent of the vote. Sponsored by the billionaire-turned-sustainability-philanthropist, Tom Steyer, the proposition closed a corporate tax loophole and redirected the new funds — an impressive $550 million annually — from the General Fund to the Clean Energy Job Creation Fund.

Beginning in 2013, $428 million was made available through a grant program for energy efficiency retrofits in California community college and K-12 districts, with 11 percent allotted to community colleges and 89 percent to K-12 schools. The California Community College Chancellor’s Office and California Energy Commission were charged with distributing funding based on annual proposals and number of full-time students in each district. The remaining funds were set aside for technical assistance and surveying as well as workforce training for disadvantaged youth and veterans.

This was the dream of a green economy, put into action. “People just really didn’t want to see money going out of state anymore. They wanted [money] to stay right here in California and they wanted to see more jobs in California too,” campaign consultant Christopher Lehman says. “Not just any kind of jobs, but green jobs that make California a better place to live and increases the quality of life. It just made all the sense in the world.”

But the vision has proved to be rosier than reality. California public schools were hit hard by the economic downturn. For many districts, energy efficiency is a luxury when faced with chronic …more

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Bear Encounters: Why Feeding a 500-Pound Animal is a Bad Idea

Bruins that associate camps and homes with easy to access food lose their ingrained fear of people

The undulating hills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York are so vast and filled with dense forests that spotting black bears which inhabit these mountains can be a challenge. For most outdoor enthusiasts, simply being among the birch trees and rushing streams, and listening to the lone cries of the dignified loon is pleasure enough. For others, who perhaps expect more of a safari or zoo-like experience, not being able to spot a bear can prove frustrating.

A black bear peeks out of a dumpsterPhoto by Jim MullhauptThat's a cute bear-in-a-dumpster photo for sure, but the consequences of bears getting used to foraging for food near human habitations aren't that pretty.

There is one practice that will likely improve the chances of seeing a bear — putting out food — but it is not recommended by wildlife experts.

Leaving food and garbage around a campsite, as many a weekend visitor to the wilderness has been known to do, attracts the ever-sniffing noses of the resident black bear community. Sure, it means that one gets to spot that elusive bear, but the consequences of such an up-close encounter can prove deadly — for both the human and the bear.

Bears are omnivorous. Most of them will eat anything from nuts to deer to carrion, and they range wide in their search for food. Bruins living around frequently used backcountry campsites as well as communities bordering forested areas quickly figure out that these places can be a source of easy food. They begin visiting campgrounds and wood-side homes regularly looking for handouts or uneaten stuff tossed into garbage bins. The problem is, once bears come to associate these places with easy to get food, they lose some of their ingrained fear of people.

Wildlife experts say that many of the bears implicated in attacks on humans are animals who have become habituated to people because they’ve either received handouts or have scavenged food at campsites and garbage bins or livestock enclosures near rural and suburban homes. As wildlife habitats shrink across North America and at the same time conservation efforts help black bear and grizzly bear populations rebound, human encounters with such “habituated” bears are on the rise.

In 2012, there were more than 120 complaints about aggressive black bears, labeled Class 1 bears, in New York State, according to a …more

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In Review: War of the Whales

A gripping tale of how two environmentalists took on the US Navy to save our ocean’s giants

Joshua Horwitz has come up with an outstanding book about whales, the environment, and the clash between whales and the US Navy. Deeply researched over six years, this well paced and exciting book is both an education in whale and acoustic science and in how environmental issues grow from relative obscurity to become front-page news.

photo of a beached whale, two people examining it showing the scalephoto by Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC (Wikimedia Commons)Whales rely on their acute and highly specialized hearing for communication, navigation, and detecting predators. Underwater sonar pulses used in during Naval exercises disorients and sometimes leads to their death.

War of the Whales is also one of the best books I’ve read that shows how environmentalists and scientists actually work, and how they often can work in tandem to address important issues that would otherwise be ignored by political decision-makers. Most books about the environment will focus on individuals who are interviewed about what should be done, but few authors actually get into the daily nitty-gritty of environmental advocacy – the planning, the choices, the implementation of strategy and the evaluation of the outcome, and then what comes next. And, as noted, Horwitz makes it interesting and involving – the tension in the book never lets up.

War of the Whales opens on a beach in the Bahamas, where researcher Ken Balcomb, one of the world’s authorities on whales, including little-studied beaked whales, is startled to find one of the whales he knew wash up on the beach in front of his house (Balcomb takes photos of whales dorsal fin and back and uses these to identify individuals).  There have been previous strandings of beaked whales, but usually only one at a time between long intervals of years. This whale was one of more than a dozen others of several different species that washed up around the same morning on different beaches in the Bahamas.

Similar large strandings had been recorded previously in Europe and often associated with sea trials run by various world navies, including the US Navy, but the difference was that this time Balcomb was able to remove several of the whales’ heads and preserve them in freezers. An autopsy of the heads proved, for the first time, that the trauma these whales encountered came from sound – specifically underwater sonars booming at immense levels. The …more

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All Together Now!

Environmental organizers busy laying plans for the People’s Climate March

If everything goes according to plan, the People’s Climate March could be the largest climate demonstration in the United States to date. On September 20 and 21, waves of citizens will descend on New York City to show public support for the UN "Solutions Summit" and to demand immediate action to staunch greenhouse gas emissions. I'll be joining them — traveling with a group of protesters on a train from Washington, DC to New York as I cover the march for Earth Island Journal — and last week I attended an organizing meeting in DC to see what I should expect.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto by Bjorn Philip BeerThe diverse and large turnout at a march organizers' meeting in Washington, DC, indicates that the September demonstration in New York has a broad, populist appeal.

As I arrived in the capital, a few big questions occupied my mind. How will this march be different from past climate-related mobilizations? Can this effort succeed in moving the needle of elite and public opinion? Will it lead to drastic emissions reductions?  

What is different about the People’s Climate March became apparent the moment the crowded meeting began. The gathering took place in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, just one stop on an “Organizers Tour” that is traveling up the East Coast spreading the word about the march Paul Revere-style. The assembled group was as varied as it was large. I expected a young crowd, yet there were dozens of silver-haired retirees. Some attendees were policy wonks at major environmental organizations who wanted to participate in a more hands-on way. Others were activist types who had recently been arrested in non-violent direct actions in the DC area. For every seasoned activist I spoke with, there was someone who was taking to the streets for the first time in their lives.

The diversity of this organizers' meeting is mirrored at the national level. Paul Getsos spoke on behalf of the organizing committee for the national People’s Climate March and described a broad coalition of groups that has already emerged. As of this writing, 150 leaders in the faith community in New York have committed to turning out their congregations. Although labor and enviros have their occasional differences, 20 labor unions have already pledged to put boots on the ground. I …more

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