Tag Archives: disaster

Eroding Alaska village to seek disaster declaration

A western Alaska village is eroding due to climate change and officials plan to ask President Barack Obama for a disaster declaration so that federal funds can be pursued to relocate residents.

Engineers predict as many as six Newtok homes will be lost by fall followed by the village school in 2018, reported Alaska’s Energy Desk.

The Denali Commission works to coordinate the relocation of Alaska villages.

“I’ve worked all across rural Alaska for 31 years, been to over 100 communities. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said commission co-chair Joel Neimeyer.

The village has about 350 residents. A new village site is located upriver.

Newtok Village Council attorney Mike Walleri said slower federal funding options would come through after the village needs it.

“We just simply don’t have time,” Walleri said, noting that message is what he stressed during a trip to Washington, D.C.

“Most people had not been aware that Newtok could not take advantage of what they call the catalog of federal assistance, simply because the village will be destroyed before the normal federal assistance can be applied for and implemented into the field,” he said.

He said the tribe plans to request the disaster declaration this month.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is designed to address disasters like hurricanes rather than the slow-moving danger of erosion.

Obama would need to decide whether to grant the declaration before Congress can consider appropriating funds.

Walleri said costs are estimated at $80 million.

Study: Warming to cause 3 times more extreme downpours in U.S.

Extreme downpours will happen nearly three times as often in the United States by the end of the century, and six times more frequently in parts of the Mississippi Delta, according to a new study.

Scientists have long pointed out that warmer air holds more moisture, so man-made climate change will increase the frequency of extreme downpours. That increase has already started , they say, but new work with much stronger computer simulations shows just how bad it will get, and where.

The high-resolution computer simulation — about 25 times better than other computer models — projects at least a fivefold increase in downpours in the Gulf Coast, Atlantic Coast and Southwest, according to a study in Monday’s journal Nature Climate Change .

Study lead author Andreas Prein, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research , said the entire United States will average a 180 percent increase in these types of downpours by 2100. The Midwest and parts of the West Coast are expected to see the smallest increases.

Previous projections haven’t been as detailed because they could not take into consideration small scale weather events like thunderstorms. The new computer simulations can, Prein said. He looked at the type of thunderstorms that are in the top one half of 1 percent of rainmakers.

“It’s much more likely that you’ll get hit by very strong thunderstorms, very strong downpours in the future climate,” Prein said. “What this means in the future is you might have a much higher potential for flash floods. This can have really big impacts.”

Outside experts praised the study.

“The paper elegantly shows why these heavy downpours increase in frequency when the air is moist but decrease when the air is dry,” said Stanford University climate scientist Chris Field. “With high warming through the century, this paper projects that most of the U.S. (gets) scary increases in the frequency of downpours.”

On the web

Nature Climate Change: http://www.nature.com/nclimate

If Samsung isn’t recycling Galaxy Note 7 phones, will they be dumped?

Samsung’s lack of transparency on the disposal of Galaxy Note 7 leaves tons of precious minerals at risk of being discarded into the environment.

According to calculations by Oeko-Institut, a research and consultancy institution based in Germany, 4.3 million smartphones contain more than 20 metric tonnes of Cobalt, approximately more than one ton of tungsten, one ton of silver, 100 kilograms of gold and between 20 and 60 kilograms of palladium.

These materials could be recovered but would instead end up harming the environment if Samsung doesn’t repurpose or reuse these precious minerals.

Samsung has yet to make an official statement fully explaining the causes of the fault, despite a global recall of the Galaxy Note 7 and offering replacements. It has said that it will not recycle the phones and has still not offered any clarity on what it will do with the returned phones.

“Samsung now has an opportunity to set an example to the industry: will it recover and reuse the precious metals and other valuable materials in these 4.3 million devices and avoid an environmental disaster or will it simply dump them?” said Jude Lee, Senior IT Campaigner at Greenpeace East Asia. “We are launching a global petition challenging Samsung to not dump the phones and instead take this chance to totally rethink how it designs and produces its products.”

Millions of phones were recalled worldwide after a number of high profile cases of exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 devices.  In April 2016, Samsung expected to sell 14 million  Galaxy Note 7 devices within the first two months since its official launch. Samsung has currently produced 4.3 million devices and sold 1.8 million in more than 10 countries including South Korea, USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, and China.

In the USA — the country with the highest amount of phones sold with a total of 1 million — Samsung mentioned that their existing mobile takeback program does not apply to the Galaxy Note 7, but has not stated how they will deal with the phones, or whether the phones will go through recycling or smelting programs.

The Galaxy Note 7 incident reflects the disposable economic model of many smartphone manufacturers and is having a negative impact on the brand’s reputation. Dumping millions of phones also raises the issue of Samsung’s transparency and claims to support a ‘circular economy’, and of the responsibility associated with resource efficiency.

In 1995, following a defect in their newly produced Anycall phones, Samsung disposed of 150,000 phones and set them alight. The Korean company might do the same to regain consumer trust, but Greenpeace urges Samsung to step up and use this crisis as an opportunity to adopt a more forward-thinking approach.

“This incident shows how fragile and wasteful our current system of production is – a system that hasn’t changed since the industrial revolution. Samsung has an opportunity to rethink its production model – one that would improve recovery of precious metals and rare earth minerals, to design products that can be more easily repaired, recycled or reused,” said Lee.

In August, Greenpeace East Asia released results of a consumer survey which found that many people believed that phone manufacturers should be responsible for providing people with the means to recycle their phones. Over half of respondents across the countries surveyed agree that manufacturers are releasing too many new models every year.

Greenpeace is calling on Samsung to not dump or burn the devices and minimise the environmental impact by finding alternative ways to reuse the resources. It must also be transparent and publish its plan on how it intends to deal with dismantling and disposing these phones.

Flood watch: Melting glaciers pose threat beyond water scarcity

The tropical glaciers of South America are dying from soot and rising temperatures, threatening water supplies to communities that have depended on them for centuries. But experts say that the slow process measured in inches of glacial retreat per year also can lead to a sudden, dramatic tragedy.

The melting of glaciers like Peru’s Pastoruri has put cities like Huaraz, located downslope from the glacier about 35 miles away, at risk from what scientists call a “glof” — glacial lake outburst flood.

A glof occurs when the weak walls of a mountain valley collapse under the weight of meltwater from a glacier. Recent examples include the rapid draining in 2013 of a lake at Chile’s Ventisquero glacier in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, six years after another, nearby lake essentially disappeared there.

Those sites are in remote, sparsely populated Patagonia. But if the glacial Palcacocha lake collapsed, it could cause a damaging flood, say experts in Peru, sort of like a smaller, modern cousin of the ancient glof that is thought to have carved the English Channel.

“As glaciers disappear around the world, there is less water available for use for hydroelectric power, as a renewable resource for agriculture, for human consumption,” said Benjamin Orlove, a professor of international and public affairs at Colombia University in New York. “The glacier retreat also brings many disasters. Entire slopes are destabilized, creating landslides that travel many miles and have destroyed entire towns.”

Benjamin Morales Arnao, the head of Peru’s National Institute for Glacier Research, said that while the country’s glaciers “are a source of life, due to their water resources and biodiversity … these glaciers are also a source of glacial catastrophes.”

The problem is that glacial lakes are often fragile structures, created when rocks and rubble carried by a glacier form a moraine that dams up its water outflow. The dam can also be created by chunks of a glacier’s own ice. These inherently unstable structures can collapse quickly, especially in a place like Peru that is prone to frequent, violent earthquakes.

At a recent conference on the glacier retreat in Peru, Morales Arnao said that Huaraz, a city of about 100,000 people, is particularly at risk from Palcacocha lake, just 12 miles (20 kilometers) up the mountain above the city, and called for resources to mitigate the risk. Dams, spillways and other waterworks have helped in other places.

Massive glofs have occurred regularly in sparsely populated parts of Iceland and other nations.

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional intergovernmental research center that serves the eight countries of the Himalayas, said that in Nepal — whose proximity to the highest and largest meltwater sources in the world makes it particularly vulnerable — “little attention was paid to the phenomenon until the sudden outburst of the Dig Tsho,” a relatively small meltwater lake in the Mount Everest National Park.

On Aug. 4, 1985, the lake’s moraine dam collapsed, and all its water drained into a downstream valley in four hours, causing losses as far as 30 to 35 miles (50 to 60 kilometers) downstream.

A large ice and rock avalanche had cascaded into the lake, creating a wave that spilled over the moraine and caused it to collapse, the center’s report said. “It discharged an estimated 6 to 10 million cubic meters (as much as 2.6 billion gallons) of water into the valley below.”

Digging stone- or cement-lined channels through glacial dams is one solution to the threat. Many moraine dams collapse because meltwater erodes them by seepage or over-topping them. Stopping global warming that is increasingly causing glaciers to melt is another.

Experts at the International Forum on Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems held in Huaraz this summer concluded that the world is going to have to plan on melting glaciers, at least for the time being.

“The processes of climate change and glacial melting are irreversible,” the forum said in its conclusions. “We have to carry out actions to adapt, and mitigate the risks.”

“The long-term solution is for the world to shift to different energy sources, sources that are renewable, sources that do not emit gases that cause climate change,” Orlove said. “In the short term we have to find adaptations, like installing early warning systems for disasters in the most sensitive areas.”

Officials: Pipelines linking Lake Michigan and Huron too weak

Michigan officials say Enbridge Energy Partners had violated a legal requirement by having too much unsupported space along its twin oil and liquified natural gas pipelines running beneath the environmentally sensitive waterway that links Lakes Michigan and Huron.

Enbridge found similar problems two years ago with the pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac and said it had taken steps to ensure they would not happen again, but recent findings “have refuted that prediction,” Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and other officials said in a letter to the Canadian company.

The pipes are a small section of Enbridge’s 645-mile-long Line 5, through which 23 million gallons of crude oil and liquid natural gas move daily between Superior, Wisconsin, and Sarnia, Ontario.

Environmental groups have pushed to shut down the underwater pipes, saying a rupture could do catastrophic damage to the Great Lakes.

The company insists the pipes have never leaked and are closely monitored.

“The violation notice issued today by state leaders should serve as a wake-up call,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “Due to the risk the Line 5 pipeline poses to our Great Lakes, we must stop oil from flowing along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac as quickly as is feasible.”

Enbridge spokesman Ryan Duffy said the pipes were stable and the need for more supports did not signal a safety threat.

“Our inspection process did what it’s designed to do,” he said.

Some sections of the underwater pipes rest directly on the lake bottom, while others are supported by steel anchors held in place by screws drilled into the lakebed. An easement granted by the state when the lines were laid in 1953 requires that no section of the pipelines longer than 75 feet be without support from either the ground or an anchor.

But during a June inspection with a remote underwater vehicle, Enbridge discovered four locations where unsupported sections exceeded the limit by a foot or two, Duffy said.

“Enbridge is legally responsible not only for promptly correcting this violation of the easement, but taking effective measures for preventing any more recurrences of this problem,” said the letter signed by Schuette; Department of Environmental Quality Director C. Heidi Grether; and Keith Creagh, director of the Department of Natural Resources.

The spacing problems were caused by sediment erosion that created open areas beneath the pipes, Duffy said. Enbridge has applied for a DEQ permit to install anchors in the four spots that were detected and 15 others that could exceed the 75-foot limit as future erosion occurs, he said.

“The Great Lakes is a dynamic environment and we anticipated that at times there can be changes to the lake bottom,” Duffy said.

But the state officials said the company had found other spacing issues during its last underwater inspection in 2014. At that time, Enbridge installed 40 more anchors and said it had developed a “predictive maintenance model” that would ensure the 75-foot limit would not be exceeded again.

The officials instructed Enbridge to explain why its model had failed and come up with a better plan within two weeks. One possible improvement would be more frequent inspections and support installations, they said.

Enbridge agreed to stepped-up inspections of the Straits of Mackinac pipelines last month under a $176 million settlement with the federal government from a 2010 rupture of another pipeline that polluted the Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan, the costliest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Test finds Chernobyl residue in Belarus milk

On the edge of Belarus’ Chernobyl exclusion zone, down the road from the signs warning “Stop! Radiation,” a dairy farmer offers his visitors a glass of freshly drawn milk.

Associated Press reporters politely decline the drink but pass on a bottled sample to a laboratory, which confirms it contains levels of a radioactive isotope at levels 10 times higher than the nation’s food safety limits.

The authoritarian government of this agriculture-dependent nation appears determined to restore long-idle land to farm use — and in a country where dissent is quashed, any objection to the policy is thin.

That finding on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the world’s worst nuclear accident indicates how fallout from the April 26, 1986, explosion at the plant in neighboring Ukraine continues to taint life in Belarus. The authoritarian government of this agriculture-dependent nation appears determined to restore long-idle land to farm use — and in a country where dissent is quashed, any objection to the policy is thin.

The farmer, Nikolai Chubenok, proudly says his herd of 50 dairy cows produces up to two tons of milk a day for the local factory of Milkavita, whose brand of Parmesan cheese is sold chiefly in Russia. Milkavita officials called the AP-commissioned lab finding “impossible,” insisting their own tests show their milk supply contains traces of radioactive isotopes well below safety limits.

Yet a tour along the edge of the Polesie Radioecological Reserve, a 2,200-square-kilometer (850-square-mile) ghost landscape of 470 evacuated villages and towns, reveals a nation showing little regard for the potentially cancer-causing isotopes still to be found in the soil. Farmers suggest the lack of mutations and other glaring health problems mean Chernobyl’s troubles can be consigned to history.

“There is no danger. How can you be afraid of radiation?” said Chubenok, who since 2014 has produced milk from his farm just 45 kilometers (28 miles) north of the shuttered Chernobyl site, and two kilometers (a mile) from the boundary of a zone that remains officially off-limits to full-time human habitation. Chubenok says he hopes to double his herd size and start producing farmhouse cheese on site.

His milk is part of the Milkavita supply chain for making Polesskiye brand cheese, about 90 percent of which is sold in Russia, the rest domestically. The World Bank identifies Russia as the major market for Belarusian food exports, which represent 15 percent of the country’s export economy.

Since rising to power in 1994, President Alexander Lukashenko — the former director of a state-owned farm — has stopped resettlement programs for people living near the mandatory exclusion zone and developed a long-term plan to raze empty villages and reclaim the land for crops and livestock. The Chernobyl explosion meant 138,000 Belarusians closest to the plant had to be resettled, while 200,000 others living nearby left voluntarily.

One of the most prominent medical critics of the government’s approach to safeguarding the public from Chernobyl fallout, Dr. Yuri Bandazhevsky, was removed as director of a Belarusian research institute and imprisoned in 2001 on corruption charges that international rights groups branded politically motivated. Since his 2005 parole he has resumed his research into Chernobyl-related cancers with European Union sponsorship.

Bandazhevsky, now based in Ukraine, says he has no doubt that Belarus is failing to protect citizens from carcinogens in the food supply.

“In Belarus, there is no protection of the population from radiation exposure.”

“We have a disaster,” he told the AP in the Ukraine capital, Kiev. “In Belarus, there is no protection of the population from radiation exposure. On the contrary, the government is trying to persuade people not to pay attention to radiation, and food is grown in contaminated areas and sent to all points in the country.”

The milk sample subjected to an AP-commissioned analysis backs this picture.

The state-run Minsk Center of Hygiene and Epidemiology said it found strontium-90, a radioactive isotope linked to cancers and cardiovascular disease, in quantities 10 times higher than Belarusian food safety regulations allow. The test, like others in resource-strapped Belarus, was insufficiently sophisticated to test for heavier radioactive isotopes associated with nuclear fallout, including americium and variants of plutonium.

The Belarusian Agriculture Ministry says levels of strontium-90 should not exceed 3.7 becquerels per kilogram in food and drink. Becquerels are a globally recognized unit of measurement for radioactivity.

The Minsk lab informed the AP that the milk sample contained 37.5 becquerels. That radioactive isotope is, along with cesium-137, commonly produced during nuclear fission and generates most of the heat and penetrating radiation from nuclear waste. When consumed, scientists say strontium-90 mimics the behavior of calcium in the human body, settling in bones.

Milkavita chief engineer Maia Fedonchuk rejected the findings.

“It’s impossible. We do our own testing. There must have been a mix-up,” she said, adding they test samples from every batch of milk they receive from Chubenok and do an “in-depth” analysis every six months. She said the plant’s own lab analysis indicates its overall milk supply contains an average of 2.85 becquerels per kilogram.

A person who answered the telephone at the press office of the Belarusian Emergency Situations Ministry, which is tasked with dealing with the fallout of the nuclear disaster, said they would not comment on the AP’s findings.

Health officials say the danger level posed by low levels of radioactive isotopes depends greatly on length of exposure and individual physiology. Notably, the regional free-trade bloc that includes Belarus and Russia permits higher levels of strontium-90 in goods of up to 25 becquerels per kilogram, still lower than that detected in the AP-commissioned test.

The question is whether anyone in authority is positioned to identify the true level of risks in produce from farms on the frontier of Belarus’ prohibited zone.

The deputy director of Belarus’ Institute of Radiobiology, Natalya Timokhina, said Belarus permits food producers to conduct their own food safety monitoring and lacks the lab equipment necessary to identify the presence of americium, which is estimated to be present in about 2 percent of Belarus’ top soil and is expected to remain a health risk for another 270 years.

“One-time ingestion of contaminated food is not very dangerous,” Timokhina said. “What’s dangerous is the accumulation of radionuclides in the body.”

Ausrele Kesminiene, a doctor in the cancer research unit of the World Health Organization, said the consumption of radioactive food is linked chiefly to the development of cancer in the thyroid, a gland in the neck that produces body-regulating hormones. Thyroid cancer is typically not fatal if diagnosed early.

WHO officials say they are dependent on reports from sister agencies in Belarus to alert them to cancer clusters or other signs of unresolved Chernobyl-related dangers. Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman in Geneva, said the agency had no authority to regulate or oversee food safety _ even products exported to other countries _ because that is a domestic responsibility.

“Radiation effects and the development of cancers and the effects on the region are something which go on over a long, long period. So we haven’t seen the end of it,” Hartl said. “Undoubtedly there is going to be some increase in cancers.”

Hartl said WHO officials have not received “any red flags” from Belarus.

Environmentalists critical of Belarus’ Chernobyl cleanup record says that’s hardly surprising, since the government has funded no machinery to scrutinize corrupt practices in the food industry. As a result, they say, no Belarusian food maker has ever been prosecuted for using ingredients or producing goods containing excessive levels of radioactive materials.

Irina Sukhiy, founder of the Belarus ecological group Green Network, said workers in food-industry factories have confidentially told her that ingredients and products are blended to dilute the impact of potentially radioactive ingredients from Belarusian suppliers bordering Ukraine. Such alleged mixing, she said, reduces the level of potentially carcinogenic isotopes in dairy products and processed meat below “the allowable dose, but it is still hazardous to health.”

The division of the Belarusian Emergencies Ministry responsible for cleaning up the consequences of Chernobyl says that the rate of thyroid cancer in children runs 33 times higher than before the nuclear blast. It says thyroid cancer rates run several times higher in adults.

Farmers working both on the edge of, and inside, the prohibited zone say they see no obvious signs of nuclear dangers, have been given no guidelines on reducing the risk of permitting radioactive isotopes into the food chain, and aren’t worried about this.

Chubenok, the dairy farmer, said he had never heard of the sorbent substance Ferocin, known as Prussian Blue, which farmers in Ukraine feed their cattle to accelerate the removal of the cesium-137 isotope from their digestive tracts.

A tractor driver on one of his neighboring farms, where an abandoned village has been demolished to make way for fields of grain, says he’s never seen an official testing for radiation levels in the soil. But Leonid Kravchenko said there was no reason for alarm.

“Nobody’s in danger,” he said.

Driving toward Chernobyl and into the nearby Radioecological Reserve required AP journalists to negotiate painstaking government permission. Inside the zone, Belarus has authorized an experimental farm to operate for the past decade. Today it contains 265 horses, 56 cows and apiaries buzzing with honey bees.

The farm director, Mikhail Kirpichenko, said he’s permitted to pursue commercial ventures, including the sale last year of 100 horses to a Belarusian manufacturer of kumys, a popular beverage in swathes of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Kumys is produced from fermented mares’ milk.

“We’re not afraid of radiation. We’ve already gotten used to it,” said Kirpichenko, who suggested that his horses had to pass a basic eyesight test to confirm their good health.

“Horses aren’t being born with two heads or without legs. There are no such mutations,” he said. “This Chernobyl syndrome passed long ago.”

Associated Press reporters Jim Heintz and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Pietro DeCristofaro in Geneva and Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin contributed to this story.

 

Crisis continues 5 years after Fukushima meltdowns

The massive earthquake struck offshore, triggering a devastating tsunami. Thousands died in the disaster and three reactors at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant went into meltdown, exposing some 32 million people to radioactive fallout.

“There is no end in sight for communities in Fukushima,” said Junichi Sato, executive director of Greenpeace Japan. “What started as a natural disaster turned into one of the worst industrial accidents in human history and a reminder that humanity must urgently turn its efforts toward safe, clean renewables.”

Five years after the fires and explosions, some 100,000 people remain displaced, decontamination is far from complete, cleanup costs ballooned to $118 billion, the amount of radioactive waste and water builds with no solution for disposal and health studies show an alarming spike in thyroid cancer among Fukushima’s children.

The nuclear disaster compromised food supplies and affected flora, fauna and especially fisheries in Fukushima Bay, where contaminated water continues to flow.

The plant will never return to operation and decontamination seems nearly impossible — radiation levels are too high to enter the reactor housing. Radiation is even killing the robots built for the dirty work.

What has been learned at Fukushima?

“Although the probability of nuclear accidents is thought to be very low, the consequences are extraordinary and devastatingly high,” University of Chicago professor Kennette Benedict recently wrote in an essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “The disruption to individual health, to families, to communities, to energy supplies, to economies and to societies has long-lasting effects.”

In Japan, 53 percent of citizens oppose the resumption of the country’s nuclear energy program.

A slightly larger percentage is registering opposition to nuclear power in the United States, even as the U.S. government and Wisconsin Legislature move to encourage an expansion of nuclear energy.

In Wisconsin

Six years ago, on the 24th anniversary of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in Ukraine, Wisconsin residents celebrated the defeat of a Republican effort to repeal what’s called the “nuclear moratorium law.”

The law actually did not create a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants. Instead it required that any proposed nuke plant be economical for ratepayers and have a permanent storage site for spent nuclear fuel and other waste.

Environmentalists, after turning back a repeal, claimed a victory six years ago. Not so this year.

The Legislature has sent Gov. Scott Walker another repeal bill intended to ease the path to constructing nuclear plants.

And Walker is likely to sign the measure, which predictably has strong support from business and labor and strong opposition from environmental groups.

The legislation will remove the requirement that new nuclear power plants have a plan for storing and disposing of their waste, according to the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, part of the coalition that rallied against the bill.

Additionally, the legislation will add nuclear energy to the list of preferred energy options in the state, even though Wisconsin’s Energy Priorities Law was intended to promote the cleanest and cheapest forms of energy.

The legislative effort had some small support in the environmental community, but largely was opposed by activists who encouraged lawmakers to focus instead on wind, solar and geothermal energy.

These environmentalists also warned passage of the bill could lead to the state becoming a depository for nuclear waste.

A letter to lawmakers from the Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free Coalition stated, “In the 1980s, the Department of Energy ranked Wisconsin’s Wolf River Batholith as No. 2 for a second high-level nuclear waste repository. A 2008 DOE Study on the Need for a Second Repository listed Wisconsin as one of the top potential states based on our granite geology. After the cancellation of the potential Yucca Mountain repository [in Nevada], the DOE is desperate to find an alternative.” Signatories included representatives of Clean Wisconsin, Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, Wisconsin Resources Protection Council and the Sierra Club-John Muir Chapter.

Anti-nuke sentiment growing

The Sierra Club is unequivocally opposed to nuclear energy. The organization’s nuclear-free future statement says, “Although nuclear plants have been in operation for less than 60 years, we now have seen three serious disasters,” referring to Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. “Nuclear is no solution to climate change and every dollar spent on nuclear is one less dollar spent on truly safe, affordable and renewable energy sources.”

The Sierra Club’s nuclear-free campaign emphasizes:

• What to do with the long-lived waste remains unresolved.

• Uranium mining has contaminated large sections of the southwestern United States and other areas in the world.

• Almost all older plants leak tritium and other radionuclides into groundwater.

• Nuclear power has a huge carbon footprint due to energy needs in uranium mining, milling, processing, conversion and enrichment, formulation of fuel rods and construction of plants.

A new Gallup Poll indicates that 54 percent of Americans are on Sierra’s side.

Gallup began asking about nuclear energy in 1994 but not until this poll has a majority opposed nuclear power.

Gallup found Republicans more likely to favor nuclear power than Democrats or independents, but support is down all around.

Gallup, in its analysis, suggested the drop in support had more to do with relatively low gasoline prices than fear of a nuclear accident.

Yet environmental leaders say people should be afraid — as the impact of a Fukushima-like nuclear disaster cannot ever be fully mitigated.

“All of Fukushima’s lessons warn against a nuclear industry that protects its profit margins over public safety margins,” said Paul Gunter of the nonprofit Beyond Nuclear.

Forever in Fukushima?

Greenpeace, in mid-March, released Radiation Reloaded, a report on the ecological impact in Fukushima that documented:

• High radiation concentrations in new leaves on cedars.

• Mutations of fir trees with rising radiation levels.

• Heritable mutations in pale blue grass butterfly populations.

• DNA-damaged worms in highly concentrated areas.

• Apparent reduced fertility in barn swallows.

• Decreased abundance of 57 bird species with higher radiation levels.

• High levels of cesium contamination in freshwater fish.

• Radiological contamination of coastal estuaries.

“For the foreseeable future, Fukushima-contaminated ecosystems will continue to be radiation loaded. And reloaded,” the Greenpeace report stated, noting how man-made radioactive elements are taken up by plants and animals, cycled and recycled.

The findings were based on 25 radiological investigations in Fukushima and independent research in the area.

Greenpeace also drew from research into the 1986 disaster at Chernobyl.

“The government’s massive decontamination program will have almost no impact on reducing the ecological threat from the enormous amount of radiation from the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” said Kendra Ulrich, senior nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace Japan. “Already, over 9 million cubic meters of nuclear waste are scattered over at least 113,000 locations across Fukushima prefecture.”

Benedict, the University of Chicago professor, summarized the nuclear power dilemma: “The products of nuclear fission, including melted fuel as well as other radiation-contaminated materials, will require continuous care and storage for tens of thousands of years. The question is whether any society has the capacity to safely deal with this fire that will not go out.”

Fukushima, then and now

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami sent the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan into multiple meltdowns and exploded containment buildings.

A look at the disaster and recovery:

• 164,865: Fukushima residents who fled their homes after the catastrophe.

• 97,320: Number of residents who haven’t returned.

• 53: Percent of Japanese citizens who oppose the restarting of nuclear power plants in the country.

• 760,000: Metric tons of contaminated water stored at the Fukushima plant.

• 10.7 million: Number of 1-ton bags containing radioactive debris and other waste collected from outside the plant.

• 33,000 workers: Decommissioning and decontaminating outside the plant.

— AP

Obama declares state of emergency over Flint’s water

President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Michigan over the weekend and ordered federal aid for state and local response efforts in the county where the city of Flint has been contending with lead-contaminated drinking water.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had asked the president to declare both an emergency and an expedited major disaster in Genesee County to protect the safety of Flint residents.

Obama is authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts there, the White House said in a statement.

The action is being taken to “lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in Genesee County,” it said.

Snyder sent the Michigan National Guard to distribute bottled water and other supplies in the area earlier this week.

A financially struggling city, Flint was under control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched its source of tap water from Detroit’s system to the nearby Flint River in April 2014 to save money.

Flint, which is about 60 miles northwest of Detroit, returned to using that city’s water in October after tests found elevated levels of lead in the water and in the blood of some children.

UPDATE:

Rev. Jesse Jackson said on Sunday that Flint, Michigan is a “disaster zone” and could be the next epicenter in the fight for economic and social equality as the city struggles through a crisis with lead-contaminated drinking water.

“We have been treated like we don’t matter because we are from Flint,” said Melissa Mays, a member of the Coalition for Clean Water during the rally. “It’s our job to stand up and say no, we’re done. We’re not going to put up with this anymore.”

The more corrosive water from the Flint River leached lead from the city pipes more than Detroit water did, leading to the current problems.

Last week, the Michigan attorney general said his office would investigate whether any laws were violated in Flint related to the crisis. His probe follows one launched earlier by the U.S. Attorney in Detroit.

Some Flint residents sued Snyder, other officials, Michigan and the city on Jan. 7 in Genesee County court and are seeking class action status covering all residents.

Other Flint residents late last year filed a federal lawsuit. Genesee County also has seen a spike of Legionnaires’ disease resulting in 10 deaths that may or may not be related to the water crisis, state officials previously said.

Sinking land in California costing billions of dollars

A canal that delivers vital water supplies from Northern California to Southern California is sinking in places. So are stretches of a riverbed undergoing historic restoration. On farms, well casings pop up like mushrooms as the ground around them drops.

Four years of drought and heavy reliance on pumping of groundwater have made the land sink faster than ever up and down the Central Valley, requiring repairs to infrastructure that experts say are costing billions of dollars.

This slow-motion land subsidence – more than one foot a year in some places – is not expected to stop anytime soon, experts say, nor will the expensive repairs.

“It’s shocking how a huge area is affected, but how little you can tell with your eye,” said James Borchers, a hydro-geologist, who studies subsidence and says careful monitoring is necessary to detect and address sinking before it can do major damage to costly infrastructure such as bridges and pipelines.

Land subsidence is largely the result of pumping water from the ground. As aquifers are depleted, the ground sags.

The most severe examples today are in San Joaquin Valley, where the U.S. Geological Survey in 1975 said half of the land is prone to sinking. USGS researchers later called it one of the “single largest alterations of the land surface attributed to humankind.”

A sparse mountain snowpack in California’s driest four-year span on record has forced farmers in the Central Valley, the nation’s most productive agricultural region, to rely on groundwater to irrigate their crops.

Drought has spawned a well-drilling boom with some tapping ancient aquifers 3,000 feet down.

In wet years, groundwater provides about 40 percent of water used in California, but in times of drought, groundwater can amount to 65 percent of the state’s water supply.

Decades of over-pumping have destroyed thousands of well casings and buckled canal linings. To keep water flowing through low spots, irrigation districts raise the sides of sagging canals so they can increase the water level and maintain a gravitational flow.

As a result, at least one bridge now sits below the waterline. Chris White, general manager of the Central California Irrigation District in Los Banos, said replacing it is expected to cost $2.5 million. Rebuilding another canal recently cost $4.5 million.

Putting a grand total on damage from subsidence in California is tricky because irrigation districts don’t often single out repairs required by subsidence from general upkeep, said Borchers, who estimates long-term costs as being “probably in the billions.”

Subsidence has been a problem for decades, and it’s accelerating. Last year near Corcoran, the land sank 13 inches in eight months, researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory found by comparing images collected over time from satellites and airplanes.

Parts of the California Aqueduct, a massive canal that delivers water 400 miles to Southern California, also sank by nearly 13 inches, the NASA research shows.

This has cost the state of California “tens of millions of dollars” in repairs to the aqueduct in the last 40 years, and officials expect to spend that much in the future, said Ted Thomas, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Water Resources.

California became the last state in the West to regulate groundwater when Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed legislation ending a Gold Rush-era policy that generally let property owners take as much as they wanted. But local agencies have until 2040 to put groundwater management plans into effect.

Farmers and irrigation districts are not the only ones taking note of sinking land. Spokesman Greg Snapper said Pacific Gas & Electric Co. has not sustained any broken natural gas pipelines from sinking land in the Central Valley, but it monitors the lines and this year started using NASA’s satellite research as part of that effort.

A 60-mile stretch of California’s High Speed Rail track, designed to whisk passengers through the Central Valley in excess of 200 mph, will be built on a bed of rocks. This design is more forgiving and easier to maintain and repair if the land sinks than other stretches built on highway-like slabs, said Frank Vacca, the rail authority’s chief program manager.

Sinking land has stopped work on part of a historic project to return water flows to an irrigation-depleted section of the San Joaquin River. Before construction of a passageway for fish can begin, officials need to assess how fast the land will sink in the future, said Alicia Forsythe of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

With a wet El Nino winter forecast, geologists also worry that subsidence in a flood control channel elsewhere on the river may cause water to pool, prompting flooding rather than flow toward the sea.

“We haven’t had to use it for a while,” said Michelle Sneed, a USGS subsidence researcher. “We’ll see how that’s going to perform this year, if it’s called upon.”

Ron Kind urges House vote on rail safety bill | 3rd derailment in Midwest in 3 days

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind on Nov. 9 urged the House leadership to immediately bring his rail safety legislation to a floor for a vote.

Kind’s call comes after two train derailments in Wisconsin over the weekend and one in Des Moines on Nov. 9.

“The derailments this weekend in Alma and Watertown showed once again the negative impact increased rail traffic is having on our communities and environment. Fortunately, no injuries were reported at either derailment, but dozens of people were forced to temporarily evacuate their homes and nearly 20,000 gallons of ethanol spilled into the Mississippi River,” the Democratic congressman said in a statement to the press. “The increase in rail traffic shows no signs of stopping, which is why we must take immediate action to prevent future derailments. I am calling on House leadership to hold a vote on my legislation which will provide for stronger rail safety standards and will increase oversight.” 

On Nov. 9, crews in Wisconsin were working to clear freight cars from rail tracks and contain spilled crude oil and chemicals after derailments in the state.

A Canadian Pacific Railway train loaded with crude oil derailed in Watertown on Nov. 8. One car spilled hundreds of gallons of crude oil and caused the evacuation of a neighborhood. 

On Nov. 7, 25 BNSF train cars including tankers derailed, spilling as much as 20,000 gallons of ethanol from five tankers along the shores on the Mississippi River near Alma in western Wisconsin, according to the AP.

BNSF said railroad crews stopped the leaks from five tanker cars and placed containment booms along the shoreline.

Then, on Nov. 9, nearly two dozen cars derailed when a coal train hit a road grader.

Accidents involving shipments of hazardous fuels by rail have spiked over the past decade, corresponding with a sharp rise in the production of ethanol from the Midwest and oil from the Bakken crude region of North Dakota and Montana.

At least 26 oil trains and 11 ethanol trains have been involved in major fires, derailments or spills during the past decade in the U.S. and Canada, according to an Associated Press tally from data kept by transportation agencies and safety investigators from the two nations.

The most devastating, in July 2013, killed 47 people and destroyed much of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when an unmanned, out-of-control train hauling Bakken oil crashed and exploded in the city’s downtown.

The Crude-by-Rail Safety Act sponsored by Kind would prohibit the use of unsafe DOT-111 tank cars, such as the ones involved in the Alma derailment, according to Kind’s office.