Earthtalk
From E - The Environmental Magazine

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Dear EarthTalk: Why don’t more states mandate deposits on beverage bottles as incentives for people to return them? Most bottles I’ve seen only list a few states on them. – Alan Wu, Cary, N.C.
So-called bottle bills, otherwise known as container recycling laws, mandate that certain types of beverage containers require a small deposit (usually 5 or 10 cents) at checkout beyond the price of the beverage itself. Customers can return the empty containers later and reclaim their nickels and dimes.
The idea is to provide a financial incentive for consumers to recycle and to force industry to re-use the raw materials. According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a California-based non-profit which encourages the collection and recycling of packaging materials (and runs the website BottleBill.org), the benefits of bottle bills include:
Supplying recyclable materials for a high-demand market; conserving energy, natural resources and landfill space; creating new businesses and green jobs; and reducing waste disposal costs and litter.
The 10 U.S. states that currently have container recycling laws recycle at least 70 percent of their bottles and cans; this amounts to a recycling rate 2.5 times higher than in states without bottle bills.
Beverage containers make up a whopping 5.6 percent of the overall U.S. waste stream, so every bottle and can that gets recycled counts toward freeing up landfill space. And CRI reports that beverage containers account for some 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from landfilling municipal solid waste and replacing the wasted products with new ones made from virgin feedstock. So by promoting more recycling, bottle bills indirectly reduce our carbon footprints.
The 10 U.S. states with bottle bills are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Delaware’s legislature repealed its bottle bill after almost three decades on the books last year as the state’s bottle recycling rate had dropped to just 12 percent due to more and more retailers refusing to deal with the hassle of accepting returned containers.
In place of its bottle bill, Delaware enacted a $0.04/bottle recycling fee that will help defray the costs of starting up a curbside recycling pickup system to service the entire state.
“We are extremely disappointed they chose to repeal their law, rather than enforce it,” reported CRI’s Susan Collins, adding that the new fee places a burden on consumers only. “Consumers will be subsidizing the producers and that is unfair.” CRI supports “extended producer responsibility” where producers and consumers together pay for the life cycle costs of product packaging.
Beyond Delaware, the main reason bottle bills haven’t caught on is because of opposition to them by the beverage industry, which doesn’t want to bear the costs of recycling and claims that the extra nickel or dime on the initial cost of the beverage is enough to turn potential customers away.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) found that the beverage industry and its representatives spent about $14 million in campaign contributions aimed at defeating a national bottle bill between 1989 and 1994. Meanwhile, members of a Senate committee who voted against national bottle bill legislation in 1992 received some 75 times more in beverage-industry PAC money than those who voted in favor of the bill.
Contacts: Container Recycling Institute, www.container-recycling.org; USPIRG, www.uspirg.org.
Dear EarthTalk: Most gold mining operations use cyanide to extract gold from surrounding rock. What are the environmental implications of this, and are there alternatives? – J. Pelton, via e-mail
Although “cyanidation” — the use of a sodium cyanide compound to separate a precious metal from finely ground rock — has become less common in other forms of mining, it is still the dominant practice in gold mining. Some 90 percent of gold mines around the world employ cyanidation to harvest their loot.
“In gold mining, a diluted cyanide solution is sprayed on crushed ore that is placed in piles or mixed with ore in enclosed vats,” reports the State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), a project of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife. “The cyanide attaches to minute particles of gold to form a water-soluble, gold-cyanide compound from which the gold can be recovered.”
But of course not all the cyanide gets recovered. Some of it gets spilled, and some is left within mine waste that is often buried underground woefully close to groundwater, leaving neighbors and public health officials worried about its effects on drinking water and on surrounding ecosystems and local wildlife.
“Mining and regulatory documents often state that cyanide in water rapidly breaks down in the presence of sunlight into largely harmless substances, such as carbon dioxide and nitrate or ammonia,” reports Earthworks, a Washington, DC-based non-profit.
“However, cyanide also tends to react readily with many other chemical elements and is known to form, at a minimum, hundreds of different compounds.” While many of these compounds are less toxic than the original cyanide, says Earthworks, they can still persist in the environment and accumulate in fish and plant tissues, wreaking havoc on up the food chain.
In 2000, a breach in a tailings (mining waste) dam at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania resulted in the release of 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-rich waste into the surrounding watershed. Nearly all aquatic life in nearby waters died, while drinking water supplies were cut off for some 2.5 million people.
In the wake of this accident, gold miners around the world have been taking steps to deal with tailings in a safer manner, through the use of special systems designed to prevent cyanide or its breakdown compounds from escaping into the environment. But such precautions at present are only voluntary.
Regulators in the U.S. — the third largest gold producer after South Africa and Australia — don’t require mine operators to monitor cyanide and its breakdown compounds in nearby groundwater and water bodies, so no one knows just how big a problem might be.
One promising alternative to using cyanide in gold mines is the Haber Gold Process, a non-toxic extraction system that tests have shown can result in more gold recovery over a shorter period than cyanidation.
Another alternative is YES Technologies’ biocatalyzed leaching process which proponents say is 200 times less toxic than cyanide. But with cyanidation well-entrenched in the industry and regulators looking the other way, these alternatives face an uphill battle in gaining widespread adoption.
Contacts: State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), www.serconline.org; Earthworks, www.earthworksaction.org; Haber Gold Process, www.habercorp.com/index.php?id=23; YES Technologies’ Cyanide-free Biocatalyzed Leaching, yestech.com/tech/gold1.htm.
EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).
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Dear EarthTalk: Some drycleaners I’ve seen offer “wet cleaning” as opposed to dry cleaning. What’s the difference? Is it better for the environment? – Elizabeth Connelly, Tampa, Fla.
The dry-cleaning industry has come under attack in recent years for its use of perchloroethylene (“perc”), a noxious chemical solvent that does a good job cleaning and not damaging sensitive fabrics but which is also considered a hazardous air contaminant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
It is also a probable human carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Also, exposure to perc can irritate the skin and has been associated with central nervous system disorders.
Drycleaners are required to reuse what perc they can and dispose of the rest as hazardous waste. But there are still concerns about contamination at and around sites that don’t follow best practices. California has banned the use of perc by drycleaners beginning in 2023, and several other states may follow suit.
Given the issues with perc — and the fact that most of the nation’s 34,000 commercial drycleaners still use it — many consumers are demanding greener ways to get their fine clothes and fabrics clean.
So-called wet cleaning — whereby cleaning professionals use small amounts of water, non-toxic detergents and conditioners (instead of perc and other harsh detergents) inside specially designed machines to get fine garments and other fabrics clean — is one of the most promising alternatives.
“The garments are agitated in the computerized wet cleaning machine just enough to extract the dirt and grime, but not enough to alter the structure, size or color,” reports the website Earth911.com.
“The garments are then transferred to a high-tech drying unit that [that] automatically stops once the prescribed level of moisture is reached.” Earth911.com adds that after drying, wet cleaned garments are pressed, hung up and bagged for pick-up by or delivery to customers — just like at the drycleaners.
The EPA is encouraging drycleaners to make the switch to greener solvents through a cooperative partnership with the professional garment and textile care industry.
The agency’s Design for the Environment Garment and Textile Care Partnership recognizes the wet cleaning process as “an environmentally preferable technology that is effective at cleaning garments.”
Another green alternative to perc is also starting to catch on: using pressurized carbon dioxide (CO2) to get fabrics clean. CO2 exists as a gas at low pressure but turns to liquid at higher pressure and can serve as a solvent in tandem with non-toxic soap to get materials clean.
“Clothes are placed in the dry cleaning machine drum and cool CO2 is pumped in until, at high pressure, [it] becomes a liquid,” reports Corry’s, a leading drycleaner in the Seattle area.
“After the wash cycle is complete, the CO2 is filtered, and the pressure is released spontaneously converting the CO2 back to a gas from a liquid. The CO2 then goes back into the holding tank. The clothes are left clean, smelling fresh, cool and perfectly dry.”
There are other greener processes out there as well. If a new cleaner opens up in your neighborhood, chances are they are using something cleaner than perc. Or they should be. So make sure to go in and ask.
Contacts: Earth911.com, www.earth911.com; Design for the Environment Garment and Textile Care Partnership, epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/garment/; Corry’s CO2 Cleaners, www.corrysco2cleaners.com.
Dear EarthTalk: What are the greenest light bulbs to use? I hear there has been a lot of backlash against compact fluorescents because they contain mercury. – Peter Roscoe, Hershey, Penn.
Just a decade ago, incandescent bulbs were just about the only game in town, despite their inefficient use of electricity to generate light and their primitive technology that had not changed since being invented some 125 years ago.
But now that is all changing fast, with phase-outs of incandescents going on in Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Switzerland and the European Union, with Argentina, Russia, Canada and the U.S. following suit shortly.
The U.S. passed legislation in 2007 to increase the efficiency of light bulbs sold in the U.S. by 25 percent or more by 2014, and then by as much as 60 percent more by 2020.
For decades, those concerned with energy savings have been touting the benefits of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) over incandescents. CFLs use only one-fifth of the electricity of incandescents to generate the same amount of light, and they can last six to 10 times longer. But CFLs’ cooler color and inability to be dimmed have made them less desirable.
Another hindrance to the widespread adoption of CFLs has been their higher cost (though most consumers would save plenty in energy costs over the life of a bulb). Also, CFLs contain mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin that is released when the bulbs break. And once CFLs do burn out they must be disposed of properly to avoid releasing mercury into the environment.
Given the issues with CFLs, LEDs (short for light emitting diodes) are beginning to come on strong. These highly efficient bulbs don’t generate heat like incandescents (which helps to keep air conditioning costs down as well) and can last five times longer than CFLs and 40 times longer than incandescents.
Tiny LED bulbs have been around for years in specialized applications (such as stadium scoreboards), but lighting engineers got the idea to cluster them and use reflective casings to harness and concentrate their light for residential use.
In recognition of the LED’s potential, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) set up a special “solid-state” (LED) lighting R&D program to hasten the advance of the technology.
In comparing the total cost to run three different types of 60-watt equivalent bulbs for 50,000 hours (factoring in the cost of the both bulbs and electricity), the EarthEasy website found that LEDs would cost $95.95, CFLs $159.75 and incandescents $652.50.
The 42 incandescent bulbs tested used up to 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity compared to 700 and 300 for CFLs and LEDs respectively.
However, despite the savings most consumers are loath to spend $35 and up for an LED bulb (even though it will save more than $500 in the long run) when a traditional incandescent bulb right next to it on the shelf costs $1.
There are other newer technologies in the works. Seattle-based Vu1 now sells highly efficient bulbs based on its Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) technology, whereby accelerated electrons stimulate a phosphor coating on the inside of the bulb, making the surface glow.
One of Vu1’s 65-watt equivalent bulbs retails for under $20 and uses a similar amount of energy as an equivalent CFL.
And incandescents aren’t out of the efficient lighting race altogether just yet. Top bulb makers recently released new versions that use as much as a third less electricity to operate (complying with 2012’s new federal standards) and are promising newer models still that will run on even less energy.
Contacts: DOE Solid-State Lighting Program, www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/ssl/; EarthEasy, www.eartheasy.com; Vu1 Corporation, www.vu1corporation.com.
EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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From E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest in regard to putting limits on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.? Is there any hope that Obama can get something done? – Bradley Johnson, Helena, Mont.
Our best hope to date was 2009’s American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES).
It is a bill that called for the implementation of a “cap-and-trade” system to limit carbon dioxide emissions by capping overall emissions and allowing polluters to buy or sell greenhouse gas pollution credits — similar to what the European Union has been doing since 2005 to successfully reduce its own emissions — depending upon whether they were exceeding established limits or had succeeded in coming in below them.
According to the bill, U.S. businesses needing to pollute more could buy emissions credits on the open market; those able to reduce emissions could sell their pollution credits on the same trading floor.
Thus there is a built-in incentive to reduce emissions: If you exceed pollution limits you have to keep buying costly credits; and if you can get below limits you can profit from the sale of credits for the difference.
Among the bill’s key provisions was a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020, with a mid-century goal of an 80 percent reduction. Also, billions of dollars would have gone to initiatives bolstering green transportation, energy efficiency and related research and development.
The bill was approved by the House in June 2009 by a narrow 219-212 vote. But Senate Democrats decided they didn’t have enough votes to get a version of the bill passed, and tabled the discussion.
While ACES may not have made it into the law books, its passage by the House was significant as it represented the first time the legislative branch called for sweeping climate legislation. Also, the bill’s provisions served as a guideline for U.S. negotiators heading to Denmark later in 2009 for the COP15 international climate talks (although in the end nothing binding was agreed upon there).
Then, in May 2010 Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman unveiled their own cap-and-trade climate bill for the Senate. Dubbed the American Power Act, it aimed to reduce overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by similar amounts as ACES.
But with the nation still reeling from the effects of BP’s Gulf oil spill — the American Power Act include provisions for offshore drilling — and Senate Republicans leery of any climate legislation, the bill failed to make it to a floor vote.
Some point the finger at a handful of Democratic Senators from coal-producing states for not supporting their party colleagues. Others say Obama wasn’t advocating strongly enough despite his campaign rhetoric on the topic.
“The best one could plausibly hope for in the next Congress, assuming only modest Republican gains, is some sort of weak cap on utility emissions, possibly with some weak oil saving measures, though that would still require Obama to do what he refused to do under more favorable political circumstances — push hard for a bill,” writes commentator Joe Romm of Think Progress, a liberal political blog.
Romm adds that it’s inconceivable to think the next Congress would even contemplate strong climate or clean energy legislation “without Obama undergoing a major strategy change and taking a very strong leadership role in crafting the bill and lobbying for the bill and selling it to the public.”
Contacts: ACES, www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h2454/show; Think Progress, www.thinkprogress.org.
Dear EarthTalk: Are the plastic tiers on food steamers safe for food and for re-heating? Some indicate they are made from #7 plastic. I am very interested in buying a steamer, but not if they are unsafe. What’s the best way to go? – Jim Lichlyter, Jr., Valley Center, Kan.
While you may never know for sure whether the plastic parts in a food steamer will contribute to health problems down the road, why gamble?
Plastic marked with a #7 recycling symbol — signifying mixed sources (polycarbonate) or otherwise hard-to-classify plastics (such as acrylonitrile styrene or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) — is considered one of the riskiest in terms of chemical exposure. Polycarbonates are the most common types of plastic in items marked #7.
And any of these three “feedstocks” just mentioned could contain Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in widespread use since the 1930s to harden plastic.
Researchers have found that exposure to BPA, a known “endocrine disruptor” that can mimic the body’s natural hormones, can lead to neurological and reproductive problems. As a result, public health advocates recommend not using containers marked with #7 for storing, heating or serving food/drinks so as to minimize the amount of BPA in our bloodstreams.
Keeping BPA out of our bodies is an uphill battle: A recent study found that 96 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. have at least trace amounts of BPA in their systems already (and probably the rest of us do as well).
In response to increased consumer awareness about the potential risks of exposure to BPA, many bottle and container makers are now marketing versions of their plastic products that are BPA-free — and the trend has extended to food steamers, with several now available in BPA-free versions, including Oster’s 5712, Black & Decker’s HS1050, and Big & Fast’s Plastic Electric Food Steamer.
Buyers beware: Even some BPA-free steamers have non-stick surface made from PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene, better known as Teflon), another hazardous chemical that health advocates recommend avoiding.
But to complicate matters further, a July 2011 study by a group of Texas-based researchers and published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that just because a plastic product is marked “BPA-free” doesn’t guarantee that it won’t leach other endocrine disrupting chemicals — what the study refers to as “estrogenic activity” or “EA” — into food or drinks:
“Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled — independent of the type of resin, product or retail source — leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA free,” the researchers reported. In some cases, BPA-free products released greater amounts of estrogenic chemicals than even products known to contain BPA.
In light of all this, consumers might want to just opt for food steamers (and food storage and preparation items) made of tried and true plastic-free materials like glass or stainless steel.
Some highly rated non-plastic, non-Teflon food steamers include Secura’s 3-Tier Stainless Steel Food Steamer ($90), Miracle Exclusives’ Stainless Steel Rice Cooker and Vegetable Steamer ME81 ($70), and World Cuisine’s 4-quart Red Enamel Cast-Iron Steamer with a tempered glass colander and a tempered glass lid ($220).
And don’t forget: You can save yourself some money and kitchen storage space by just getting an inexpensive metal steamer basket, collapsible insert or bamboo steamer, available at any cookware store for less than $20.
Contact: Environmental Health Perspectives, ehp03.niehs.nih.gov.
EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: I want to use cleaning products that are healthier for the environment, but I worry that baking soda and the like won’t really get my tub and toilet germ-free. Should I continue using bleach products in the bathroom? – Margaret Pierce, Columbia, Mo.
When it comes to household cleaning products, most mainstream brands make use of chlorine bleach, ammonia or any number of other chemicals that can wreak havoc on the environment and human health.
Ammonia is a volatile organic compound that can irritate the respiratory system and mucous membranes if inhaled, and can cause chemical burns if spilled on the skin.
Bleach contains sodium hypochlorite, which can cause eczema and other skin ailments, as well as breathing difficulties if inhaled. And when it reacts with other elements in the environment, toxic “organochlorines” can form, damaging the ozone layer and causing health issues, such as immune suppression, reproductive difficulties and even cancer.
Fortunately, growing public concern about the health effects of toxic exposure have led to an “explosion of environmentally friendlier and non-toxic products,” says the health information website, WebMD. “There are many products in this category — from laundry detergents and fabric softeners to multi-surface and floor cleaners, to tile and bathroom cleaners — that are … safer for people and the planet.”
WebMD warns that while many are indeed safer, others are “greenwashed,” meaning they are “marketed as natural while still including suspect chemicals.” How does one know? “Get in the simple practice of looking at product labels to see if the cleaning manufacturer is clearly disclosing all ingredients,” reports WebMD. “If it is not…, it could mean the manufacturer is trying to hide a particular suspect ingredient.”
Also, just because a product has an eco-certification printed on its label doesn’t necessarily mean it should be trusted. To make sure, check the Eco-Labels section of Consumer Reports’ Greener Choices website, which gives the low-down on what labels really mean and whether they are backed up by government regulations.
Another good resource is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Household Products Database, which provides ingredient lists for thousands of products on U.S. store shelves.
If you want to play it safe and natural when cleaning your home, WebMD suggests using white distilled vinegar — it kills mold and mildew, eliminates soap scum and sanitizes, all in one fell swoop — to clean windows, tile, cutting boards and countertops.
Another effective yet gentle natural cleaner for countertops and bathtubs is baking soda, especially when mixed with a few drops of mild soap. Borax can be called in for tougher stains. If you’re interested in cleaning greener, there are many sources of natural cleaning recipes online.
Or check out the cleaning products aisle at your local natural food store, where you will find a wide range of cleaning formulations from the likes of Seventh Generation, Ecover, Green Works and Earth Friendly Products (which sells a “Safeguard Your Home” retail pack that includes one each of a window cleaner, an all-purpose cleaner, a dishwashing liquid, an automatic dishwasher gel, a laundry detergent and a fabric refresher), among many others.
Contacts: WebMD, www.webmd.com; Greener Choices, www.greenerchoices.org/eco-labels/eco-home.cfm?redirect=1; Household Products Database, hpd.nlm.nih.gov.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the environmental impact of so many people now using sites like Facebook and spending so much time online? – Bob Yearling, Paris, Texas
The environmental impact of so much online time really boils down to energy usage, which in turn affects the amount of greenhouse gases we pump into our atmosphere.
For one, each of us can help by limiting computer time (whether surfing the ‘net or not) and shutting them down or putting them into sleep mode when we aren’t using them (this can be automated via the computer’s power management control panel).
Also, when shopping for a new computer, consumers and businesses alike can opt for models certified by the federal government as energy efficient with the Energy Star label.
If all computers sold in the U.S. met Energy Star requirements, Americans could pocket $1.8 billion annually in saved energy costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount equivalent to taking some two million cars off the road.
Individual responsibility aside, the creation and management of more efficient data centers by the major online hubs — especially as we enter the age of “cloud” computing whereby most of the software, content and services we look to our computers for resides online and is served to us as-needed — is what can have the biggest impact.
Google, Facebook, and Amazon.com are already deeply committed to the cloud computing model, with Microsoft, Yahoo and others following suit accordingly.
For its part, Google has been a real leader in the building of green data centers, even powering them with renewable energy. The company recently released environmental footprint scores for several of its data centers.
While the energy usage required to run its cloud services (Google Search, Google+, Gmail and YouTube) seems huge in the aggregate — it used 260 megawatt hours to power its data centers in 2010 — it boils down to only 7.4 kilowatt hours worth of energy annually per user.
Google reports that to provide an individual user with its services for a month uses less energy than leaving a light bulb on for three hours. And because the company has been carbon neutral since 2007, “even that small amount of energy is offset completely, so the carbon footprint of your life on Google is zero.”
In an April 2011 report, titled “How Dirty is your Data?,” the non-profit Greenpeace examined energy sources for the 10 largest IT companies involved in cloud computing, finding Apple, Facebook and IBM especially guilty of getting significant amounts of power from coal-fired power plants.
Facebook had come under fire earlier this year when reporters uncovered that the company planned to buy electricity for its brand new eco-friendly data center in Prineville, Oregon — one of the greenest such facilities ever designed and constructed — from a utility that derives most of its power from coal.
Yahoo, Amazon.com and Microsoft scored best in use of renewable alternative energy sources for cloud services.
In the long run, analysts think that the widespread shift to cloud computing will be a great boon to the environment. A report released in September 2011 by Pike Research, “Cloud Computing Energy Efficiency,” predicts that because of the shift to cloud computing and increasing efficiencies, data center power consumption will decrease by 31 percent between 2010 and 2020.
Contacts: Energy Star, www.energystar.gov; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org; Pike Research, www.pikeresearch.com.
EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).
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From E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: I understand that mountaintop removal as a way of coal mining is incredibly destructive. Didn’t a report come out recently that named major banks that were funding this activity? – Seth Jergens, New York, N.Y.
Yes it’s true that many major banks invest in companies that engage in the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining, whereby the tops of mountains are removed by explosives to expose thin seams of recoverable coal.
The wasted earth and other materials are either put back onto the mountain top in an approximation of their original contours, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems and biodiversity, or dumped into neighboring valleys, polluting lakes and streams and jeopardizing water quality for humans and wildlife.
According to the non-profit Rainforest Action Network (RAN), this dumping — especially throughout Appalachia where MTR is most prevalent—“undermines the objectives and requirements of the Clean Water Act.”
The group adds that some 2,000 miles of streams have already been buried or contaminated in the region. “The mining destroys Appalachian communities, the health of coalfield residents and any hope for positive economic growth.”
This past April, RAN teamed up for the second year in a row with another leading non-profit green group concerned about MTR, the Sierra Club, in publishing a “report card” reviewing 10 of the world’s largest banks in regard to their financing of MTR coal mining projects.
The new 2011 version of “Policy and Practice” takes a look at the MTR-related financing practices of Bank of America, CitiBank, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, GE Capital, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, PNC, UBS and Wells Fargo.
What did they find? Since January 2010, the 10 banks reviewed have provided upwards of $2.5 billion in loans and bonds to companies practicing MTR. While some of the banks — Chase, Wells Fargo, PNC, UBS, and Credit Suisse — adopted policies limiting their financing of MTR, few actually pulled funding in place from any such activities upon adopting such policies.
Citibank, despite announcing publicly in 2009 that it would limit its involvement in MTR, doubled its investments in the business in 2010.
RAN and the Sierra Club are also keeping a close eye on UBS which, soon after stating that it “needs to be satisfied that the client is committed to reduce over time its exposure to [MTR],” went ahead and acted as a paid advisor on the merger of Massey Energy, which operated the West Virginia mine where 29 men died last year, and Alpha Natural Resources.
This merger created the largest single MTR company in the country, now responsible for some 25 percent of coal production from MTR mines.
The report card grades each bank based on its current position and practice regarding MTR investments, and calls on the banks to strengthen their policies and cease their financial support for coal companies engaging in MTR.
“The ‘best practice’...is a clear exclusion policy on commercial lending and investment banking services for all coal companies who practice mountaintop removal coal extraction,” says RAN.
RAN and the Sierra Club hope that by exposing the impact these banks are having on the environment through their financing programs, they can help alert the public and policymakers to the need to outlaw MTR coal mining altogether.
Contacts: Rainforest Action Network, www.ran.org; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.
Dear EarthTalk: I’m interested in getting a new tattoo, but recently found out that red tattoo ink contains mercury. Is this true of other tattoo inks as well? Are there any eco-friendly alternatives? – John P., Racine, Wash.
It is true that some red inks used for permanent tattoos contain mercury, while other reds may contain different heavy metals like cadmium or iron oxide. These metals — which give the tattoo its “permanence” in skin — have been known to cause allergic reactions, eczema and scarring and can also cause sensitivity to mercury from other sources like dental fillings or consuming some fish.
While red causes the most problems, most other colors of standard tattoo ink are also derived from heavy metals (including lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic) and can cause skin reactions in some people.
Helen Suh MacIntosh, a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and a columnist for the website, Treehugger, reports that as a result of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the American Environmental Safety Institute (AESI), two of the leading tattoo ink manufacturers must now place warning labels on their product containers, catalogs and websites explaining that “inks contain many heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and others” and that the ingredients have been linked to cancer and birth defects.
Of course, exposure to mercury and other heavy metals is hardly the only risk involved with getting a tattoo. The term tattoo itself means to puncture the skin. Tattoo ink is placed via needles into the dermis layer of the skin, where it remains permanently (although some colors will fade over time).
Some people have reported sensitivity springing up even years after they first got their tattoo; also medical MRIs can cause tattoos to burn or sting as the heavy metals in the ink are affected by the test’s magnetism.
Beyond the long term risks of walking around with heavy metals injected into your body’s largest organ (the skin), getting a tattoo in and of itself can be risky business.
If the tattoo parlor’s needles and equipment aren’t properly sterilized in an autoclave between customers, you could be exposing yourself to hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, mycobacterium, syphilis, malaria, HIV or even leprosy.
“The potential risk of infectious spread from tattooing (particularly due to Hepatitis B) is high enough that it is a practice that should be avoided by pregnant women to safeguard the health of the baby [and that of the pregnant woman herself] whose immune system is down regulated and is much more vulnerable to these types of infection,” reports dermatologist Audrey Kunin, who runs the popular Dermadoctor website.
Dr. Kunin advises to be careful about choosing a tattoo parlor: “Make sure the place is reputable, perhaps check with the health department to see if there have been past claims against the parlor in question if you still have doubts.” She adds that since tattoos are essentially open wounds, they must be cared for properly, especially in the first few weeks, to stave off infection.
Those who want to go ahead with getting a tattoo anyway despite the risks should consider steering clear of colors derived from heavy metals. Dr. Kunin reports that black might be the safest permanent tattoo ink; it is often derived from a substance called carbon black and rarely causes any kind of sensitivity issues.
If your heart is set on red in your tattoo, ask around to see if any tattoo parlors in your area are willing to work with non-metallic organic pigments that lend a red color such as carmine, scarlet lake, sandalwood or brazilwood. There are non-metallic alternatives available for many other popular tattoo ink shades, too.
Contacts: Treehugger, www.treehugger.com; Dermadoctor, www.dermadoctor.com.
EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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Dear EarthTalk: I know that polar bears are losing ice cover due to climate change, but what are other ways that global warming affects wildlife around the globe? – Hanna Bond, Hartford, Conn.
Although perhaps the best known examples, polar bears certainly aren’t the only wildlife species already suffering as a result of global warming.
With the sea ice that they depend upon as hunting platforms and places to rest during long swims quickly melting, polar bears were added to the federal list of threatened species in 2008.
This contentious listing decision was significant in that it represented the first time the federal government acknowledged that global warming was not only having a noticeable effect on the environment but could also be blamed for the decline of particular species.
Environmentalists claimed the listing was reason enough to reign in our carbon emissions sharply, but of course that has yet to happen.

While all organisms on the planet are affected in one way or another by climate change, some are more at risk than others.
“Species with small population sizes, restricted ranges, and limited ability to move to different habitat will be most at risk,” reports the National Audubon Society.
“Similarly, different habitats and ecosystems will be impacted differently, with those in coastal, high-latitude, and high-altitude regions most vulnerable.”
Audubon, which is primarily concerned with birds, recently published a report based on 40 years of data that found some 60 percent of the 305 avian species in North America during winter have been on the move in recent decades — shifting their ranges northward by an average of 35 miles, as habitat shifts thanks to warming temperatures.
The Brant (a coastal bird), the Ring-necked Duck (a water bird), and the American Goldfinch (a land bird), all moved about 200 miles north over the last four decades. While it’s questionable whether some birds will find suitable habitat to the north — we may have paved that piece of land over — the picture looks even more grim for those species not willing or able to abandon old roosts.
Also, Audubon reports that the timing of reproductive events (egg-laying, flowering, spawning) across different interdependent species is occurring earlier than ever “in some cases interrupting delicate cycles that ensure that insects and other food are available for young animals.”
Another leading conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife, details how a long list of other North American fauna is in decline as a result of global warming.
The gray wolf, trout, salmon, arctic fox, desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, Edith’s checkerspot butterfly, golden toad, Hawaiian monk seal, lobster, manatee, painted turtle, penguin, streamside salamander and western toad are just a few of the species on Defenders’ list that are negatively impacted by our profligate fossil fuel use.
Meanwhile, the Wildlife Conservation Society adds the Irrawaddy dolphin of Southeast Asia, the Arctic’s musk ox, the ocean-going hawksbill turtle and others to the list of species that are “feeling the heat” from global warming.
While it may seem futile given the scope of the problem, everyone can still take steps to be part of the solution. Switch out your incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents or, even better, the new generation of LED bulbs.
Bike, walk and take mass transit more; drive your car less. Telecommute when you can. Try to source as much of your food and other goods locally to cut down on carbon-heavy transcontinental freight shipping. If not for yourself, do it for the polar bears, turtles, foxes and toads.
Contacts: National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org; Defenders of Wildlife, www.defenders.org; Wildlife Conservation Society, www.wcs.org.
Dear EarthTalk: Freight companies like FedEx, UPS and all those 18 wheelers on the highways probably generate a lot of pollution and global warming. Is anything being done to address this? – Michael Brown, Washington, D.C.
Freight companies operating in the U.S. and beyond do generate significant amounts of pollution. While transportation technologies and fuels have gotten more efficient in recent years, freight demands have grown considerably over the past two decades.
Today, in the U.S. alone, for example, freight is responsible for about a quarter of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.
Most freight trucks, locomotives and ships run on diesel engines, which are major sources of emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon dioxide (CO2). Repeated exposure to nitrogen oxide-based smog and particulate matter has been linked to a wide range of human health problems, and we all know what CO2 emissions are doing to the planet’s atmosphere and ecosystems in terms of global warming.
According to a 2005 analysis by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHA), heavy duty trucks are the biggest villains, accounting for 77.8 percent of total U.S. freight greenhouse gas emissions. Boat, train and airplane freight contribute10.8, 8.7 and 2.8 percent respectively.
Besides filling up loads completely and keeping equipment well tuned, shippers can reduce emissions via smarter operations and procedures. Software developed by UPS’s Roadnet helps logistics managers re-engineer their fleet routing, preventing tons of emissions and saving millions of dollars and in the process.
Newer Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards aim to reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter pollution from freight operators upwards of 60 percent by 2020. They are a step in the right direction, but the failure of Congress to pass substantive federal legislation limiting CO2 emissions means that a growing freight sector will continue to pump out more and more greenhouse gases.
A recently released report by the tri-lateral North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA’s) Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) lays out a vision for how to make freight — the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in North America after electricity generation — more efficient and less polluting across Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.
The report identifies some scary trends. For example, emissions from freight-related vehicles grew 74 percent between 1990 and 2008 — some 40 percent more than emissions growth from passenger vehicles over the same time span.
Also, while emissions by light duty vehicles are expected to drop 12 percent by 2030, freight truck emissions are expected to grow by 20 percent.
To start turning the freight sector around, CEC recommends that the three countries party to NAFTA start shifting to lower carbon fuels, putting a price on carbon emissions and replacing crumbling infrastructure.
These fixes won’t be cheap, but CEC claims they will save money in the long run and clean up of North American freight altogether.
Contacts: FHA’s “Assessing the Effects of Freight Movement on Air Quality at the National and Regional Level,” www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/air_quality/publications/effects_of_freight_movement; Roadnet Technologies, www.roadnet.com; Commission for Environmental Cooperation, www.cec.org.
EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).
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Freight shipments are responsible for about a quarter of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. Heavy duty trucks are the biggest villains, accounting for 77.8 percent of freight transportation's total. Running mostly on diesel fuel, they are also major emitters of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, which are linked to a wide range of human health problems. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

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Dear EarthTalk: What is “genetic pollution” as it pertains to the bioengineering of animals, fish and plants? And what happens if they cross breed with their wild cousins? –  R. Ahearn, Rome, N.Y.

Genetically modified organisms are those that have been altered by scientists to include genes from other organisms (known as transgenes) that may impart specific benefits.

For instance, crop seeds that have added genes which resist the effects of herbicides can allow farmers to spray their fields liberally with herbicides to kill undesired weeds without the fear of killing their marketable crop along with them.

Genetic pollution is the release into the natural environment of these altered genes, creating the risk that they might breed with wild plants or animals and spread out uncontrollably.

Reports author Jeremy Rifkin in his landmark 1998 book, The Biotech Century: “Some of those releases…could wreak havoc with the planet’s biosphere, spreading destabilizing and even deadly genetic pollution across the world.”

To follow through on the previous crop seed example: If herbicide-resistant, genetically engineered crops were to breed with their wild cousins, it could lead to the creation of super-weeds undeterred by control efforts. The weeds could, in turn, edge out native species and drive them to extinction, causing an overall loss of genetic diversity.

According to Greenpeace, crop genetic diversity is “essential for global food security” and a lack of it can be linked to many of the major crop epidemics in human history, including the Southern corn leaf blight in theU.S.in 1970. They quote noted botanist Jack Harlan who said that genetic diversity is all that “stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine.”

To track the growing problem of genetic pollution, Greenpeace International, along with GeneWatchUK, launched the GM Contamination Register in 2005 (the “GM” stands for Genetic Modification). This free online database details publicly documented incidents of contamination arising from the intentional or accidental release of genetically modified organisms into the environment as well as any accompanying negative agricultural side effects.

Individuals, public interest groups and governments make use of the register to see where, when and how contamination has occurred. So far in 2011 alone more than a dozen cases of contamination — fromAustralia, Asia, Europe and theU.S.— have been reported in the register.

Gene pollution as it pertains to crops is only part of the concern. A Canadian company, AquaBounty, is seeking approval from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to sell genetically modified Atlantic salmon in theU.S.These fish have a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon (native to the North Pacific) and an anti-freeze protein gene from another fish, the ocean pout (native to theNorthwest Atlantic).

The resulting transgenic salmon produce growth hormones all year long — not just during the warmer months like other fish — and as such reach maturity faster than their non-genetically modified counterparts.

“There are concerns about the impact of GM salmon on wild salmon should it escape into rivers or the Atlantic ocean, because it could out-compete wild salmon for food, or breed with them producing offspring that may be less fit to survive,” reports GeneWatch UK.

“This could have serious negative effects on declining or endangered wild salmon populations.”

Contacts: GeneWatch UK, www.genewatch.org; Greenpeace International, www.greenpeace.org/international; GM Contamination Register, www.gmcontaminationregister.org; AquaBounty, www.aquabounty.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Some friends of mine were talking about a book called “Plan B” that proposes a plan for rescuing the environment and ending poverty around the world. Is it a realistic plan or just some utopian pipe dream? –  Robin Jackson, Richmond, Va.

What started as a book has grown into a movement known as “Plan B” which presents a roadmap for achieving worldwide goals of stabilizing both population and climate.

According to Lester Brown, author of the 2003 book, Plan B (and three subsequent updates) and founder of the non-profit environmental think tank, Earth Policy Institute, the plan is based on replacing the fossil-fuel-based, automobile-centered, throwaway economy with a new economic model powered by abundant sources of renewable energy.

Brown argues for transportation systems that are diverse and aim to maximize mobility, widely employing light rail, buses and bicycles. “A Plan B economy comprehensively reuses and recycles materials,” he says. “Consumer products from cars to computers are designed to be disassembled into their component parts and completely recycled.”

Brown even proposes a budget for eradicating poverty, educating the world’s youth and delivering better health care for everyone. “It also presents ways to restore our natural world by planting trees, conserving topsoil, stabilizing water tables, and protecting biological diversity,” says Brown.

“With each new wind farm, rooftop solar water heater, paper recycling facility, bicycle path, marine park, rural school, public health facility, and reforestation program, we move closer to a Plan B economy.”

Plan B is an integrated program with four interdependent goals: cutting net carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020, stabilizing population at eight billion or lower, eradicating poverty, and restoring the Earth’s natural systems. Where Plan B really hits home is in the numbers: Brown puts realistic dollar values on the various aspects of his plan and compares these costs with current military spending.

Needless to say, restoring the environment and economy looks like a bargain when viewed against what the developed nations of the world spend on being ready for battle.

The beauty of Plan B is that it is feasible with current technologies and could well be achieved by 2020 with a concerted international effort. Brown reportedly wrote the latest incarnation of Plan B as a warning call for leaders of the world to begin “mobilizing to save civilization” given that time is more than ever of the essence.

Luminaries from Bill Clinton to E.O. Wilson to Ted Turner have spoken highly of Plan B, and at least one university (Cal State at Chico) has made the latest version of the book (Plan B 4.0) required reading for all incoming freshmen.

Those looking for more up-to-date information on the evolution of the Plan B model and progress toward its goals should tune into the website of the Earth Policy Institute, the think tank started by Brown in 2001 and currently used as a central node in the growing network of thousands of entities and individuals around the globe supportive of making Plan B into reality.

Prior to founding Earth Policy Institute, Brown was well known in environmental and policy circles for his work with the Worldwatch Institute, a pioneering environmental think tank he launched back in 1974.

Contact: Earth Policy Institute, www.earth-policy.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine ( www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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Dear EarthTalk: Are as many cats and dogs being euthanized these days as back in the 1970s and 1980s, when indiscriminate breeding led to explosions in pet populations? – Mary H., Knox, Tenn.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the leading non-profit devoted to animal welfare, reports that in the 1970s American shelters euthanized between 12 and 20 million cats and dogs every year, at a time when there were 67 million pets in U.S. homes.

According to statistics gleaned from the Asilomar Accords, which tracks animal shelter care and euthanasia numbers, U.S. shelters today euthanize 3 to 4 million animals, while there are more than 135 million cats and dogs in American homes.

“This enormous decline in euthanasia numbers — from around 25 percent of American dogs and cats euthanized every year to about three percent — represents substantial progress,” reports HSUS. “We will make still greater progress by working together to strike at the roots of animal overpopulation.”

These numbers are only estimates, as there is no centralized reporting protocol for shelters. However, the Asilomar Accords method is gaining momentum as a standard for more accurately tracking animal shelter care and euthanasia numbers; it posts annual statistics for some 150 different U.S. shelters on its website.

And what exactly are the roots of the problem? Foremost is irresponsible breeding — pet owners failing to get their animals spayed or neutered, leading to unwanted offspring. Some 35 percent of U.S. pet owners do not spay or neuter their pets, despite increasing public awareness about the pet overpopulation issue.

Another factor is low adoption rates: Only 20 percent of the 17 million Americans who get a new pet each year opt for a shelter pet; the vast majority buys from pet stores, breeders, or through other private arrangements.

And 6 to 8 million pets are given up to shelters or rescue groups every year for one reason or another, leaving these organizations with many more animals than they can place in homes.

Beyond these factors, HSUS also cites our society’s “disposal pet” ethos, whereby owners are quick to relinquish their pets for any number of reasons. The majority of shelter pets are not overflowing litters of puppies and kittens, but companion animals turned in by their owners.

“To solve this problem, we would need to effect a cultural change in which every individual fully considers all of the responsibilities and consequences of pet ownership before adopting, and then makes a lifetime commitment to their pet,” relates HSUS.

The National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy is a coalition of 11 of America’s foremost animal welfare organizations concerned with the issue of unwanted pets in the United States. The Council and its partner groups, including HSUS, work to promote responsible pet ownership and reduce pet overpopulation through public education, legislation and support for sterilization programs.

As to what individuals can do, HSUS recommends spaying or neutering their dogs and cats, adopting from shelters or rescue groups, and considering all the ramifications of pet ownership before deciding to take on a cat or dog in the first place.

Contacts: HSUS, www.hsus.org; Asilomar Accords, www.asilomaraccords.org; National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy, www.petpopulation.org.

EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).

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 Dear EarthTalk: What is “nonpoint source pollution?” How much of a problem is it and how can it be controlled? – Devon Corey, New York, N.Y.

Unlike pollution that comes from specific industrial factories, sewage treatment plants and other easily discernible “points,” nonpoint source pollution comes from many diffuse sources, but in the aggregate creates a formidable challenge for municipal, state and federal environmental and water control authorities.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nonpoint source pollution is “caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground [where it...] picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and ground waters.”

Some of the most common pollutants in nonpoint source pollution include excess fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides from agricultural lands and residential areas and oil, grease and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production.

Sediment from construction, mining and agricultural sites as well as salts, acids, bacteria and atmospheric deposition from myriad sources also play a role.

While its effects vary region to region, nonpoint source pollution is likely the largest threat to our water quality. The U.S. has made “tremendous advances in the past 25 years to clean up the aquatic environment by controlling pollution from industries and sewage treatment plants,” says the EPA.

“Unfortunately, we did not do enough to control pollution from diffuse, or nonpoint, sources.” The EPA also calls nonpoint source pollution the U.S.’s “largest source of water quality problems” and the main reason 40 percent of our rivers, lakes and estuaries “are not clean enough to meet basic uses, such as fishing or swimming.”

Because it comes from so many sources, regulating nonpoint source pollution is almost impossible, so it really comes down to individuals taking steps to minimize the pollution generated by their actions.

The EPA reports that we can all do our part by: Keeping litter, pet waste, leaves and debris out of street gutters and storm drains, which usually drain right into nearby water bodies;

Applying lawn and garden chemicals sparingly;

Disposing of used oil, antifreeze, paints and other household chemicals properly, that is, at your nearest hazardous household waste drop-off, not in storm drains;

Cleaning up spilled brake fluid, oil, grease and antifreeze, not hosing them into the street where they will eventually reach local waterways; and

Controlling soil erosion on your property by planting ground cover and stabilizing erosion-prone areas.

Beyond what we can do individually, local, regional and state governments also can help reduce nonpoint source pollution by enacting and enforcing building codes and other rules that can reduce outflows.

The voluntary reduction in phosphates in dishwashing detergents in the U.S. last year, for example, was a big step in reducing the nutrient load into our streams and lakes.

Some municipalities have gone so far as to mandate erosion and sediment control ordinances requiring the construction of natural buffers in building and landscaping projects to filter out pollutants before they reach local watersheds.

If your community doesn’t have similar rules in place, encourage your local officials to enact them.

Contact: EPA’s Nonpoint Source Pollution Page, www.epa.gov/owow_keep/NPS.

Dear EarthTalk: I remember that medical waste, washing up in New Jersey, I believe, was a big issue in the late 1980s. Is it still today? Walter Maliszewski, Camden, N.J.

Medical waste washing up on New Jersey beaches was a big problem in the late 1980s, closing beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the New Jersey shore. Officials scrambled for months to figure out where the waste was coming from and eventually zeroed in on New York City’s Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island.

Sub-optimal systems there were not successfully containing medical waste and other garbage on site. And New Jersey beaches — and vacationers and business owners — were paying the price.

Although no one was injured or exposed to disease by the washed up waste, the public was especially alarmed, given the HIV/AIDS crisis gripping the Nation at that time. New York City was required to pay $1 million for past pollution damages and had to shoulder the cost of clean-up at Jersey Shore beaches as well.

The resulting loss of tourism cost business owners throughout the affected region as much as 40 percent of their revenue, with total losses estimated at well over $1 billion. Some New Jersey business owners remain upset that New York wasn’t forced to pay them reparations for lost revenue as well.

In the wake of the scare, Congress enacted the Medical Waste Tracking Act in 1988, requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a program to better track medical waste from cradle-to-grave, so that it didn’t end up fouling beaches or any other environments.

While the program was not renewed when it expired in 1991, it served as a model for how states and municipalities could better track potentially dangerous medical waste while also helping medical facilities institute systems and processes for making sure they knew where their waste was going and that it would be disposed of responsibly.

Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey have coordinated on setting up and maintaining their own systems to stem the so-called “syringe tides.” The cornerstone is a multi-agency program designed to intercept debris within New Jersey Harbor before it can get to tourist-crowded Jersey Shore beaches.

Thanks to the plan — which relies on surveillance by environmental groups as well as routine and special clean-up sweeps by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the implementation of a communications network to facilitate the reporting of incidents and quick responses — beach closures declined from more than 70 miles in 1988 to less than four miles in 1989, with closures remaining at similarly low levels ever since.

Of course, medical waste is hardly the only problem facing America’s beaches and coastal waters. According to the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), bacterial contamination from sewage treatment outflows, contaminated storm water and other sources caused more than 24,000 beach closures or advisories across the country in 2010 alone.

NRDC reports on water quality at U.S. beaches every year in its series of “Testing the Waters” reports. Pressure from the group has helped spur the EPA to agree to overhaul Clean Water Act regulations pertaining to urban and suburban storm water runoff and update decades-old beach water quality standards by 2012.

These improvements should help to keep beaches from the Jersey Shore to the Great Lakes to California, and points in between, clear of debris and safe for swimmers of every stripe. 

 

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A new bill, passed by the House of Representatives and awaiting vote in the Senate, aims to strip the EPA of its authority over individual state’s water quality. Here shown is the Cuyahoga River on fire in 1952. When it happened again in 1969, it helped kick start the modern environmental movement, including the establishment of the Clean Water Act and the founding of the EPA. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Dear EarthTalk: The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of its authority over state water quality. Why did they do this, what are the ramifications and what do leading green groups have to say about it? – Joseph Emory, York, Penn.

The legislation in question, the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011 (H.R. 2018), passed the House of Representatives this past July with strong support from Republicans and will likely be voted on by the Senate in the Fall.

It aims to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (also known as the Clean Water Act (CWA), in order to give authority over water quality standards back to the states.

The bill’s backers — including most House Republicans and lobbyists for the mountaintop coal mining industry and factory animal farms — claim it will bring jobs to Appalachia and other distressed regions of the country, where they say economic growth has been crippled by stringent environmental regulations. The bill would prevent the EPA from overruling decisions made by state regulatory agencies.

“By second-guessing and inserting itself into the states’… standards and permitting decisions, EPA has upset the long-standing balance between federal and state partners in regulating the Nation’s waters and undermined the system of cooperative federalism established under the CWA, in which the primary responsibilities for water pollution control are allocated to the states,” says GOP.gov, the website of the Republican majority in Congress.

“EPA’s actions have created an atmosphere of regulatory uncertainty for the regulated community and have had a chilling effect on the Nation’s economy and job creation,” the website states. But those opposed to the bill, including the White House and many Congressional Democrats, say that its provisions would undermine stringent federal water quality protections some four decades in the making.

“H.R. 2018 could limit efforts to safeguard communities by removing the Federal Government’s authority to take action, when State water quality standards are not protective of public health,” said the White House after the bill passed in the House by a count of 239-184.

Such changes, they added, could adversely impact public health and the environment through increased pollution and degradation of water bodies that provide drinking water, recreation and tourism opportunities, and habitat for fish and wildlife.

For their part, environmental groups couldn’t agree more. “Make no mistake: This bill would take the environmental cop off the beat and put at risk drinking water for millions of people, the habitat for scores of wildlife, and the jobs and economic growth that depends on a safer, cleaner environment,” said Larry Schweiger of the non-profit National Wildlife Federation.

Schweiger adds that if enacted, the bill would take us “back to a time when rivers caught fire because of rampant pollution.”

Environmentalists are optimistic that backers won’t have enough Senate votes to pass the bill. Meanwhile, President Obama has pledged to veto any such legislation that does make its way across his desk.

But political winds shift quickly inside the Beltway, and only time will tell if the bill will gain enough support to withstand a veto. The quality of the Nation’s water supply hangs in the balance.

Politics

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By Nusayba Hammad, Communications Director, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (nusayba@uscpr.org) WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an act unprecedented in recent history, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand...
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