Emissions rise from Duke Energy's coal-fired power plant in Asheville, N.C., in September 2018. Photo: Charles Mostoller / Bloomberg News

By Dino Grandoni and Juliet Eilperin
13 October 2018

(The Washington Post) – The Environmental Protection Agency moved this week to disband two outside panels of experts charged with advising the agency on limiting harmful emissions of soot and smog-forming pollutants.

The agency informed scientists advising the EPA on the health impacts of soot that their “service on the panel has concluded,” according to an email shared with The Washington Post. Experts being considered to sit on a separate board evaluating ground-level ozone also received an email from the EPA saying it will no longer form the panel, which had yet to meet. The EPA had asked for nominations in July.

The decision to dissolve the panels is part of a broader effort by the EPA’s leadership to change the way the agency conducts and assesses science. Those efforts include trying to limit what counts as health benefits when crafting air rules and incorporate into rulemaking only studies that make their underlying data public.

In the past, each panel had roughly two dozen researchers who reviewed the latest air pollution science and made recommendations on how to set new air standards for a specific pollutant the agency is legally obligated to regulate. These experts, who came from a variety of fields, often encouraged the EPA to impose tougher limits on the six pollutants for which it sets nationwide standards.

Now, under acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, the EPA has instead decided to let a seven-member group called the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) alone perform those assessments and make recommendations to the agency’s political leaders. Previously, CASAC and the now-scrapped panels worked together to craft findings. […]

Environmentalists sharply criticized the decision as another instance of the Trump administration’s curtailing the use of science that contradicts the president’s pro-industry agenda. They argue that the committee’s small size, skewed composition and lack of expertise would make it nearly impossible to fully vet the vast body of pollution science related to public health.

“By removing science and scientists, they are making it easier for the administration to set a weaker standard” said Gretchen Goldman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

The EPA just selected five new members of the CASAC. Most of the committee’s members come from state or local governments in conservative parts of the country, including Alabama, Georgia, Texas and Utah, rather than from universities.

In a statement Wednesday, Wheeler praised the “highly qualified” group for having “a diverse set of backgrounds in fields like toxicology, engineering, medicine, ecology, and atmospheric science.”

But Christopher Zarba, who formerly directed the EPA office that coordinates with that and other scientific committees, said “there are fewer academics” than before. Researchers from academia, he said, “bring an essential science perspective to the review process.”

The lack of academics is consistent with past policy from Trump’s EPA. Last year, the agency barred academics who received EPA grants from serving on science panels. That effectively gave experts from industry and state governments more room to participate instead.

John Walke, who directs the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean air work, highlighted on Twitter the “alarming, outlier view” of one of those state officials appointed to the board. [more]

EPA scraps pair of air pollution science panels

Lake Malbena and Halls Island in Tasmania. A state body raised concerns about a proposed tourism development that’s been given the go-ahead. Photo: Richard Webb

By Adam Morton
16 October 2018

(The Guardian) – One of the first acts of the Morrison government was to greenlight a private tourism development with helicopter access in Tasmanian world heritage wilderness against the recommendation of an expert advisory body.

The decision, signed by an environment department assistant secretary on 31 August on behalf of the environment minister, Melissa Price, signalled the luxury camp on remote Halls Island in Lake Malbena was not a threat to matters of national environmental significance and did not need approval under federal laws.

The plan – including a communal building, three accommodation huts, walkways and toilets – is strongly supported by the Tasmanian government. It is at the centre of a debate over the extent to which tourism developments should be allowed in the state’s national parks and the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which makes up about 20% of the island.

But a leaked letter tabled in Tasmanian parliament by the state Greens leader, Cassy O’Connor, shows the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council, a state body appointed to give independent advice to the state and federal governments on protected areas, did not support the camp going ahead.

In advice dated 13 July, the council’s chairman, Malcolm Wells, raised concerns about allowing private commercial use of a world heritage area, a plan to erect permanent structures masquerading as standing camps, the impact of frequent helicopter flights and the potential for conflict with others using the area.

The council said although the project was described as a small standing camp, in reality it would involve several buildings, putting it at odds with the area’s “self-reliant recreation” zoning. It challenged claims by the proponent, Wild Drake, that the site would be “rested” in winter to allow sensitive vegetation in the area to recover.

“This appears to be a pretence at suggesting that the proposed buildings are a ‘standing camp’ that is not accessed all year. However, this is undermined by the next statement that up to five commercial trips (a total of 20 days) may run over this ‘resting’ period,” Wells wrote.

The Wilderness Society Tasmanian campaign manager, Vica Bayley, said it was gobsmacking that Canberra would not fully assess a proposal in a world heritage area when a statutory body had recommended it not go ahead. He said national environment laws were transparently inadequate.

“The evidence that the government has ignored its own experts makes a mockery of commitments to meet world heritage obligations,” Bayley said. [more]

Morrison government greenlights luxury camp in Tasmanian world heritage area despite expert advice

Most of the roof has been torn from an airplane hangar, and debris litters Tyndall Air Force Base, severely damaged after Hurricane Michael, on Wednesday, 17 October 2018. Photo: Scott Olson / Getty Images

By Amanda Morris
20 October 2018

(NPR) – Swimming in St. Andrew Bay was the first thing Jillian Arrowood wanted to do when she moved into her new home on Tyndall Air Force base on 8 October 2018. She and her two daughters had just joined her husband William, her son, and her father-in-law, an Army retiree who had recently had a stroke, in their new home by the water.

Her 12-year old daughter didn't have a bathing suit, but was so excited that she jumped in the water with her clothes on. It felt like a perfect day: 85 degrees, sunny, and slightly breezy. There was no indication of the bad weather that was headed their way.

Just as the sun was setting, a nearby airman who had been fishing told them that Tyndall received evacuation orders. Less than six hours after Jillian and her daughters arrived on base, the Arrowood family was packing up to leave, and haven't been back since.

They are one of hundreds of military families that have been displaced from Tyndall Air Force base as a result of Hurricane Michael. The eye of the Category 4 storm cut straight through the base on Wednesday, 10 October 2018, causing catastrophic destruction. The storm reduced houses to splinters, blew off roofs, and busted open hangars where top-grade aircraft such as F-22 planes were housed.

In total, Brig. Gen. Edward Thomas, the Air Force Director of Public Affairs, estimated that there were over 860 housing units on the base, and about 11,000 airmen and their families assigned there.

Robert Hill surveys the damage within his living room on Wednesday, 17 October 2018 at Tyndall Air Force Base, after Hurricane Michael hit the base last week. Support personnel from Tyndall and other bases were on location to support Airmen returning to their homes to assess damage and collect personal belongings. Photo: Kelly Walker / U.S. Air Force

He likened the damage to that seen on the Keesler Air Force base after Hurricane Katrina. He used Keesler as a comparison when estimating how long restorations would take.

"I think it would be fair to say it will be years to make Tyndall look like it did before the hurricane hit," he said at a Tyndall press conference this week.

While resumption of training missions could happen in mere months, he said a return to normal living on base does not look likely anytime soon. Those who have been displaced from Tyndall are stuck in limbo, uncertain of what will happen next. [more]

'It Will Be Years' Before Life At Tyndall Air Force Base Returns To Normal

After a sewage leak caused by Hurricane Michael, a dead fish floats on the Apalachicola River in Apalachicola, Florida, U.S., 18 October 2018. Terray Sylvester / REUTERS

By Terray Sylvester
18 October 2018

APALACHICOLA, Florida (Reuters) – A sewage spill from a Florida wastewater plant during Hurricane Michael into a river feeding environmentally fragile Apalachicola Bay is suspected of causing mass fish kills downstream, state officials said on Thursday.

Experts say the discharge of 80,000 gallons of partially treated sewage into the Apalachicola River marks the latest blow to a once-productive estuary struggling to recover from an earlier collapse of its oyster and fishing industry.

The discharge came from a sewage plant in Wewahitchka, about 80 miles east of Tallahassee.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Shannon Hartsfield, a fourth-generation oysterman who is head of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association, of the spill.

Hartsfield told Reuters he had seen thousands of dead fish in the river about 20 miles downstream from the site of the spill.

On the waterfront in the town of Apalachicola, at the mouth of the river, the stench of sewage in the air was strong on Thursday.

Apalachicola Bay and the estuary system surrounding it once produced 10 percent of the U.S. oyster catch and 90 percent of Florida’s harvest, along with abundant harvests of shrimp, crab and fish.

Michael Dasher, a fishing boat captain, said he first noticed sewage in the bay late Wednesday afternoon.

“It was horrible down here. You couldn’t hardly breathe,” he told Reuters. “It smells like pure crap.” […]

A spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, Dee Ann Miller, said power and potable water to the town of Wewahitchka have since been restored and the spill has ceased.

“There’s going to be physical damage to the marsh habitat, sea-grass habitat, all the foundation habitats that are needed for the bay,” he said. [more]

Sewage spill from Hurricane Michael suspected in Florida fish kills

Sea surface temperature anomalies highlight the expansive blob of warm water around Alaska in October 2018. Graphic: earth.nullschool.net

By Ian Livingston
18 October 2018

(The Washington Post) – Throughout early fall, Alaska has been oddly warm and pleasant. The cause of the freakishly nice weather has been massive high pressure anchored over and around the state. One of the strongest on record for fall, this sprawling dome of warm air has helped keep the usual transition to cold stunted.

Since days are still long in early fall across Alaska, the sunny September (and into October) skies have also allowed ocean temperatures in the Northeast Pacific to rise significantly, as well. This has led to a return pool of abnormally warm ocean water in the Northeast Pacific known as “the blob," and just in time for Halloween!

But scientists are unsure whether the blob will remain a fixture or fade away. If it manages to linger into the winter, the consequences for the Lower 48 could be profound.

Although the blob is focused over the Northeast Pacific and the Gulf of Alaska, it has played a substantial role in the development of extreme weather patterns over the Lower 48 when it has formed in the past. Generally, it has been linked to abnormally warm and dry conditions in the West, and cold and stormy conditions in the East.

When the blob is in place, the jet stream, which both divides warm and cold air and acts as super highway for storms, tends to veer north over the top of the blob. This results in a big ridge of high pressure forming over western North America, which brings mild weather and blocks storms.

The blob’s presence was linked to the persistence and intensity of the drought in California from 2013 to 2015. It also ″was blamed for contributing to 2015 being the hottest year on record in Seattle,” according to Scott Sistek, a meteorologist with KOMO in Seattle. […]

After Alaska’s stunningly sunny September, warmer-than-normal conditions have persisted into October, despite some change in the pattern, which is now delivering more in the way of clouds and precipitation. […]

“The onset of autumn in Alaska — the wettest part of the year for south-central and southeast Alaska — has been slow to arrive by four weeks or so,” said Dave Snider of the National Weather Service forecast office in Anchorage.

Anchorage has yet to witness a freeze. Although the city could see its first freeze in about a week, that will be about 10 days to two weeks past the old record for latest, a substantial gap.

“Nome should have 20 freezes by now. This year just one," Brettschneider said. "Anchorage should have 20 days with temperatures below 38 degrees. This year, zero. So it’s not just the lack of a freeze, it’s that everything about the air mass is exceptional and persistent.”

Another oddity? Fairbanks has yet to see any snow so far this season, the latest on record. [more]

Persistent Alaska warmth this fall has brought back ‘the blob.’ If it lasts, it could mean a wild winter in the Lower 48.

UK plastic exports, 2018. British exporters claim to have shipped over 35,000 tonnes more plastic than HM customs recorded leaving in 2018. Data: HMRC plastic export and National Packaging Waste Database, Environment Agency. Graphic: The Guardian

By Sandra Laville
19 October 2018

(The Guardian) – The plastics recycling industry is facing an investigation into suspected widespread abuse and fraud within the export system amid warnings the world is about to close the door on UK packaging waste, the Guardian has learned.

The Environment Agency (EA) has set up a team of investigators, including three retired police officers, in an attempt to deal with complaints that organised criminals and firms are abusing the system.

Six UK exporters of plastic waste have had their licences suspended or cancelled in the last three months, according to EA data. One firm has had 57 containers of plastic waste stopped at UK ports in the last three years due to concerns over contamination of waste.

Allegations that the agency is understood to be investigating include:

  • Exporters are falsely claiming for tens of thousands of tonnes of plastic waste which might not exist
  • UK plastic waste is not being recycled and is being left to leak into rivers and oceans
  • Illegal shipments of plastic waste are being routed to the Far East via the Netherlands
  • UK firms with serial offences of shipping contaminated waste are being allowed to continue exporting.

UK households and businesses used 11m tonnes of packaging last year, according to government figures. Two-thirds of our plastic packaging waste is exported by an export industry which was worth more than £50m last year.

The exporters make millions by charging retailers and manufacturers a fluctuating tonnage rate for plastic waste recovery notes – currently £60 a tonne. Retailers buy these plastic export recovery notes – Perns – to satisfy the government they are contributing something to recycling plastic packaging waste.

But the system – which was heavily criticised as open to fraud and abuse by the National Audit Office this summer – relies on companies making self declarations about how much packaging they are exporting.

The Guardian understands information has been passed to the EA – the regulators – which shows huge discrepancies between the amount of packaging exports recorded by HM customs, compared to the amount UK exporters claim to have shipped.

The data, analysed by the Guardian, reveals British export firms claim to have shipped abroad 35,135 tonnes more plastic than HM Customs has recorded leaving the country. [more]

UK plastics recycling industry under investigation for fraud and corruption

Map of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S., 2000-2017. Graphic: Visual Capitalist

By Nick Routley
13 October 2018

(Visual Capitalist) – Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, who are now more likely to die from a drug overdose than from car accidents or firearms. The United States has the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of drug-related deaths in the world.

While opioid abuse is a nationwide problem, there are specific areas that are being hit harder by this epidemic. Using the location data above, from NORC at the University of Chicago, we can see clusters of counties that have an extremely high rate of overdose deaths. Between 2012 and 2016, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio saw a combined 18,000 deaths related to opioid abuse.

A sharp increase in prescribed opioid-based painkillers and the rise of illegal fentanyl – which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin – has unleashed the worst public health crisis in American history.

It’s a problem that can be tough to understand, but by delving into the data, some key observations emerge.

Doctors prescribed a lot of pain killers

Beginning in the 1980s, prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone were heavily marketed as a treatment for pain, and at the time, the risk of addiction to these substances was downplayed. Opioid prescriptions nearly tripled between 1991 and 2011. […]

Fentanyl is killing a lot of people

If doctors have been prescribing opioids for decades, what is causing this recent spike in overdoses? The answer, for the most part, is fentanyl.

This synthetic opioid presents a problem because it’s extremely potent – it only takes about 2 milligrams to overdose on the drug. Since much of the fentanyl on the market is sourced illegally, doses can and do exceed this amount on a regular basis.

As a result, overdose deaths related to opioids have skyrocketed in recent years:

U.S. opioid overdose deaths, 2015-2018. Graphic: Visual Capitalist

The hard truth is that, unless bold action is taken, the opioid epidemic is projected to claim nearly 500,000 lives over the next decade. [more]

Opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. projected to the year 2025: 10 projected scenarios. Graphic: Talia Bronshtein / STAT

These are the shocking numbers behind America's opioid epidemic

By Barbara Kollmeyer
18 October 2018

(MarketWatch) – Much has been made about how much wealth is sloshing around in U.S. households and the significance of that fact.

Our call of the day pulls no punches as it warns that all of that oft-referenced increase in affluence has been artificially inflated by the Fed, which is ultimately bad news for the economy and the stock market. Here’s how Jesse Colombo, analyst at Clarity Financial, explains it:

“The U.S. household wealth boom since the Great Recession is a sham, a farce and a gigantic lie that is tricking everyone into believing that happy days are here again even though the engines that are driving it are bubbles that are going to burst and cause a crisis that will be even worse than the 2008 crash,” Colombo said in a video he posted via the Real Investment Advice blog.

There has been a fair bit of buzz on the topic since data this summer that showed household wealth topped $100 trillion for the first time in June. Colombo’s isn’t the only invective against bloated U.S. wealth and how it could go terribly wrong, but the commentary delivers, perhaps, the most potent argument to date, including charts, such as the following, that illustrates the degree to which wealth has been outpacing economic expansion:

U.S. household net worth vs. nominal GDP, 1951-2018. Data: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis / Fed Board of Governors. Graphic: Jesse Colombo

Wealth that gallops past economic growth is a “telltale sign that the boom is artificial and unsustainable, he said. The last two times the share of household-wealth growth exceeded gross domestic product, or GDP, was during the late 1990s dot-com bubble and the mid-2000 housing bubble, he notes. “Both of which ended in tears,” he said.

And that means the coming crash could be even more painful, warns Colombo. [more]

Analyst who predicted the 2008 crash warns of bubble brewing in U.S. household wealth

Afghan people line up to fill containers with water in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the western city of Herat. A deadly drought in Afghanistan is causing a humanitarian crisis that has displaced more people in 2018 than the war between the government and the Taliban. Photo: AFP

By Secunder Kermani
17 October 2018

(BBC News) – A deadly drought in Afghanistan is causing a humanitarian crisis that has displaced more people this year than the war between the government and the Taliban. The BBC's Secunder Kermani reports from Herat.

Shadi Mohammed, 70, wells up with tears as he walks through the makeshift camp on the outskirts of the western city of Herat, where he lives with his family.

"We are thirsty and hungry. We took what little we could with us, but lost most of it on the way. Now we have nothing. Eight of us live in this small tent," he says.

"My wife and my brother died. Half of our children are here. The other half were left behind."

Mr Mohammed is one of an estimated 260,000 people who have been forced from their homes in northern and western Afghanistan because of a severe drought in the region. […]

Qadir Assemy from the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP) is helping co-ordinate the relief effort in Herat, which has seen an influx of people fleeing their homes.

"It's very challenging because of the scale of the disaster," he tells the BBC. "We haven't seen such a large scale disaster in the last 18 years." […]

One woman sitting with four young children tells me she has recently arrived from the northern province of Faryab. […]

"There was no rain for more than a year. Everything dried up. We didn't even have water to give to our children. On top of that there was fighting between the Taliban and the army. It was chaos."

Others described being forced to sell their livestock or borrow money simply to survive. Agriculture is one of the country's main sources of income. [more]

Afghan drought 'displacing more people than Taliban conflict'

An Afghan boy and girl carry water containers in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of the western city of Herat. A deadly drought in Afghanistan is causing a humanitarian crisis that has displaced more people in 2018 than the war between the government and the Taliban. Photo: AFP

GENEVA, 11 September 2018 (Reuters) - A total of 275,000 people have been displaced by drought in western Afghanistan - 52,000 more than the number uprooted by conflict this year - with over two million threatened by the effects of water shortages, the United Nations said.

Reports from the U.N. and aid charities described farmers lacking seeds to sow following crop failures in some areas and livestock dying for the want of anything to eat.

Afghanistan, a country where nearly 20 million people rely on farming, has suffered a 45 per cent fall in agricultural output this year as the drought has bitten, officials at the ministry of agriculture have said.

In a regular update, the U.N. humanitarian office reported that 120,000 people fleeing the drought arrived in Qala-e-Naw city in Badghis province in the week of 9 September 2018.

A second U.N. report, with data covering August, said more than 100,000 people may have moved to Herat city for the same reason by the end of last month. It estimated 2.2 million Afghans would be affected by the drought this year.

In Qala-e-Naw, where there are an estimated 66,500 drought-displaced people, supplies and humanitarian aid are already insufficient to meet the needs of newly arrived families.

The U.N. cited an assessment by aid charity World Vision International that 99 percent of people in Badghis said their food situation was worse or a lot worse than a year ago.

“The assessment also indicates that most farmers lost last season’s harvest and nearly all of them lack seeds for new planting season,” the U.N. report said, noting reports that about 40 per cent of livestock has been lost in Badghis due to a lack of pasture and fodder.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a U.S. funded food security monitoring service, said in a report on Aug. 31 that the number of Afghans in a food “crisis” was atypically high.

“Crisis” is step three on a five step scale, where four is “emergency” and five is “catastrophe” and possible famine. [more]

More Afghans displaced by drought than conflict, U.N. says


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