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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I heard that a number of beer brewing companies have banded together to support the Clean Water Act. Can you enlighten? -- Mitch Jenkins, Cincinnati, OH

In April 2013 the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) brought together two dozen nationally respected craft beer brewers to launch the Brewers for Clean Water Campaign, which aims to leverage the economic growth of the craft brewing sector into a powerful voice for bolstering clean water protection in the United States.

“Whether brewers are creating ales, pilsners, porters, wits or stouts, one ingredient must go into every batch: clean water,” says Karen Hobbs, a senior policy analyst at NRDC. “Craft brewers need clean water to make great beer.”

While hops, malt and the brewing process itself are also clearly important, water just may be the secret ingredient that gives a specific beer its distinctive flavor. “Beer is about 90 percent water, making local water supply quality and its characteristics, such as pH and mineral content, critical to beer brewing and the flavor of many classic brews,” reports NRDC. “For example, the unusually soft water of Pilsen, from the Czech Republic, helped create what is considered the original gold standard of pilsner beers. The clarity and hoppiness of England’s finest India Pale Ales, brewed since the 1700s in Burton-on-Trent, result from relatively high levels of calcium in local water.” Brewers can replicate the flavors of beers like these and others by sourcing freshwater with similar features or by starting with neutral water and adding minerals and salts accordingly to bring out certain desired characteristics.

Of course, clean water is essential to more than great-tasting beer. “It’s critical for public health and the health of a wide range of industries,” adds NRDC. “Now our streams, wetlands and water supply need our help. Without strong legal protections, they are under threat from pollution like sewage, agricultural waste, and oil spills.”

The popularity of craft brewers’ “microbrews” in recent years is another reason why NRDC has hitched its clean water wagon to the industry. “Craft brewers are closely tied to their communities with a very real understanding of the impacts bad policy can have on regional water sources,” reports the group. “While the participants in the campaign include brewing operations large and small, all have demonstrated a commitment to sustainability in their operations and beer development.”

By taking part in the campaign, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Allagash, Short's, Temperance, Arbor, DryHop, Finch's, Revolution, Flossmoor, Cranker’s, Wild Onion, Right Brain, Half Acre, Goose Island and other craft brewers are helping spread the word in a way that hits home with consumers. For its part, NRDC is urging beer lovers (and other concerned environmentalists) to use the form on its website to e-mail the White House encouraging President Obama to finalize guidelines recently created by the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that call for greater protections for streams and wetlands in important headwaters regions from coast to coast. And consumers should be glad to know that for once drinking beer can actually be good for the environment. So bottoms up!

CONTACT: NRDC Brewers for Clean Water, www.nrdc.org/water/brewers-for-clean-water.

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. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: The recent explosion at a West, Texas fertilizer plant that killed many people really alarmed me. Places like this must exist near many communities around the country. How do I know if my own community might be at risk of a similar disaster? – Mary Cyr, Sarasota, FL

Many people may not realize that what happened on April 17, 2013 in the town of West, Texas—a fertilizer plant with an unreported large stockpile of explosive ammonium nitrate blew up, killing 14 and rendering hundreds of others injured and homeless—could happen almost anywhere.

According to Greenpeace, one in three Americans could fall victim to a similar poison gas disaster by virtue of living near upwards of 12,000 plants that store and use highly toxic substances. “A chemical disaster at just one of these facilities could kill or injure thousands of people with acute poisoning,” the group reports. Greenpeace has identified 483 U.S. facilities where 100,000 people or more would be at risk during a disaster. And one in five of those threatens areas with populations topping one million.

“Even though chemical plant safeguards fail every week, the chemical industry has largely refused to make their plants safer and more secure,” says Greenpeace. “Congress even amended the Clean Air Act in 1990 to try and address this problem, but the amendment has gone largely unused.” The group would like to see the Obama Administration create new regulations under the Clean Air Act that will require such facilities to prevent chemical disasters by switching to safer alternatives.

On the Greenpeace website, one can use an interactive map to determine whether they live in harms way of a potentially dangerous chemical plant. Each plant on the map is surrounded by a red circle marking its “vulnerability zone,” which ranges from less than a mile to 25 miles out, depending on the type and extent of chemicals in use as well as local topography and weather patterns. “Anyone within this zone could potentially be impacted by a toxic chemical release,” adds Greenpeace. “Impacts could range from minor injury to fatality depending on the chemical involved and the extent of exposure.”

Calls by the Department of Homeland Security and Environmental Protection Agency to require the use of safer chemical processes where feasible have fallen on deaf ears among Congressional Republicans loathe to require constituents to pay for costly environmental upgrades. But that could soon change: Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) has introduced a bill that would make negligence regarding chemical reporting a federal crime with consequent harsh penalties. “The chemical reporting laws on the books today are toothless and do little to help us protect communities from chemical explosions,” says Lautenberg. “Facilities that break the reporting rules today essentially get away with just a warning.”


“The good news is that there are many cost-effective, safer chemical processes already in use that eliminate these risks without sacrificing jobs,” says Greenpeace, adding that more than 500 plants have voluntarily switched to safer alternatives over the last decade. The group wants President Obama to invoke executive privilege to tighten regulations on chemical plants that have not done so. Readers can sign on to the group’s online petition calling on the White House to require companies to design and operate chemical facilities in a way that prevents the catastrophic release of poison gases.

CONTACT: Greenpeace chemical plant map, http://usactions.greenpeace.org/chemicals/map.

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. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Could it really be true that we are in the midst of the worst drought in the United States since the 1930s? -- Deborah Lynn, Needham, MA

Indeed we are embroiled in what many consider the worst drought in the U.S. since the “Dust Bowl” days of the 1930s that rendered some 50 million acres of farmland barely usable. Back then, drought conditions combined with poor soil management practices to force some 2.5 million Americans away from the Great Plains, only wreaking further havoc on an already devastated Great Depression economy. The lack of native prairie grasses or cover crops to keep the soil in place meant large swaths of formerly productive agricultural land turned to dust and blew away in so-called “black rollers.” While we have learned a lot about maintaining soil quality since, drought conditions today are nevertheless taking a heavy toll on agricultural productivity, fresh water supplies and the economy—especially as the effects of global warming start to kick in more seriously.

The current drought started in 2012, the hottest year on record in the U.S. with several weeks in a row of 100-plus degree days in various regions. The result was drought conditions for two-thirds of the country. Economists estimate that the dry spell cost Americans some $50 billion in agricultural losses—staple crops including soy, corn and wheat have all been devastated—as well as forest fire destruction and other financial casualties. In fact, this ongoing drought has caused more economic damage all told than Hurricane Sandy. While winter precipitation eased the conditions somewhat, federal researchers believe that more than half the country is still gripped by drought with no foreseeable end in sight and another hot dry summer just around the corner. To wit, California experienced its driest January and February on record, and average winter temperatures across the continental U.S. were 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit above the average for last century.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts that drought conditions are likely to remain in the central and western sections of the U.S. while expanding in California, the Southwest, the southern Rockies and Texas. The Florida panhandle is also expected to see drought conditions moving into summer. Along with crop losses, the expanding drought promises to bring more wildfires to the west as well as to parts of Minnesota and even Iowa.

While it may not feel like we are living in a dust bowl, the drought does affect all of us, primarily in the pocket book. Reduced crop harvests means higher prices for food items of all kind. Likewise, the cost of piping drinking water to our homes’ faucets is on the rise with freshwater reserves becoming a hotter and hotter commodity. And our tax dollars pay for emergency response missions in the case of wildfires and other warming-related weather disasters.

And just as drought conditions affect each and every one of us, we each have the power to help fix the situation by reducing our own carbon footprints. Only through individual and collective efforts to drive and fly less and switch over to renewable non-polluting fuels can we stem the tide of global warming that is either causing or exacerbating what is beginning to feel like a drought with no end.

CONTACT: NOAA, www.noaa.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. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I'm concerned about toxic ingredients in my cleaning supplies, especially now that I have young children. Where can I find safer alternatives? -- Betsy E., Hartford, CT

It is true that many household cleaners contain potentially toxic substances, so parents especially should make an effort to keep them out of the reach of children or, better yet, replace them with safer alternatives.

“We use a wide array of scents, soaps, detergents, bleaching agents, softeners, scourers, polishes and specialized cleaners for bathrooms, glass, drains and ovens to keep our homes sparkling and sweet-smelling,” reports the Organic Consumers Association. “But [many] contribute to indoor air pollution, are poisonous if ingested and can be harmful if inhaled or touched.” The group adds that household cleaning products are responsible for almost 10 percent of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. poison control centers, with more than half of cases involving kids under six years old.

According to the Washington Toxics Coalition, leading offenders include corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners and toilet bowl cleaners. Contact with these chemicals can cause severe burns on the eyes and skin and can damage the throat and esophagus if ingested. The chlorine and ammonia contained in some can each cause similar problems, and the hazardous gases unleashed when they combine can be lethal. Other ingredients to avoid for many reasons include diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), 1,4-dioxane, ethoxylated alcohols, butyl cellosolve (aka ethylene glycol monobutyl ether), and p-nonylphenol.

Meanwhile, the fragrances added to many cleaning products can cause respiratory irritation, headaches and other symptoms in those with chemical sensitivities, allergies or asthma. And since fragrance formulas are considered trade secrets, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose constituent ingredients, leaving even educated consumers in the dark regarding what kind of nasty chemicals they may be spreading around their homes just to, ironically, make their cleaning products smell less chemically.

Fortunately there are plenty of safer alternatives available today, but deciding which ones are truly healthier or just designed to look that way isn’t so easy. That’s where the Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes in. The group’s “Guide to Healthy Cleaning” rates and reviews over 2,100 household cleaning products on the basis of health and environmental safety. EWG lists top products in each cleaning category—from dishwashing and laundry detergents to kitchen and bath cleaning to floor and furniture care—and also offers a “label decoder” that helps consumers learn how to spot trouble on product labels and ingredient lists. Some of the brands that garner high marks from EWG in more than one category include Ecover, Earth Friendly Products, Seventh Generation and Green Shield. Look for these online as well as at Whole Foods or other markets with big selections of healthy or natural products.

EWG also maintains a Hall of Shame where it lists cleaning products that either “greenwash” consumers with misleading label information or contain hazardous ingredients (or are banned abroad but still available in the U.S.). EWG makes all of this information free on its website, but a $5 donation will get you a wallet card packed with tips on how to read home cleaning product labels and shop smarter.

CONTACTS: Organic Consumers Association, www.organicconsumers.org; Washington Toxics Coalition, www.watoxics.org; EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning, www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners.

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. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: The three-year anniversary of the 2010 BP oil spill just passed. What do green groups think of the progress since in restoring the region? -- Mary Johannson, New York, NY

When an undersea oil well blew out 50 miles off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010 and caused an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig above it (killing 11 workers), no one knew that an even bigger disaster was yet to come. Over the next three months, 4.9 million gallons of crude poured into the water before BP could get the wellhead capped to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to BP, which has already spent $14 billion on clean-up and restoration, the Gulf is returning to baseline conditions prior to the disaster. “No company has done more, faster to respond to an industrial accident than BP did in response to the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010,” reports the company.

But not everybody sees the situation that way. Many environmentalists are concerned that, while BP has done a thorough job removing visible oil from the water column and surface, little has been done to repair damage to marine life and ecosystems.

“Three years after the initial explosion, the impacts of the disaster continue to unfold,” says Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). A recent report by the group found that the three-year-old spill is still having a serious negative effect on wildlife populations in the Gulf. For one, dolphin deaths in the region have remained above average every single month since the disaster. In the first two months of 2013, infant dolphins were found dead at six times pre-spill average rates. Says Inkley: “These ongoing deaths—particularly in an apex predator like the dolphin—are a strong indication that there is something amiss with the Gulf ecosystem.”

Gulf dolphins aren’t the only ones suffering. NWF found that more than 1,700 sea turtles were stranded in coastal areas of the Gulf between May 2010 and November 2012—almost three times the pre-spill rate for the animals. Researchers have also detected changes in the cellular function of Gulf killifish, a common bait fish at the base of the food chain. And a coral colony seven miles from the offending wellhead struggles due to oil and dispersants compromising its ability to rebuild itself.

“The oil disaster highlighted the gaps in our understanding of the Gulf of Mexico,” says Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald. “What frustrates me is how little has changed over the past three years. In many cases, funding for critical research has even been even been cut, limiting our understanding of the disaster’s impacts.”

MacDonald and others are optimistic that a federal court will find BP accountable for further damages in a civil trial now underway. NWF says that substantially more money is needed to carry out restoration efforts vital to the biological and economic stability of the Gulf region. “Despite the public relations blitz by BP, this spill is not over,” says NWF’s David Muth. “Justice will only be served when BP and its co-defendants pay to restore the wildlife and habitats of the Mississippi River Delta and the Gulf of Mexico.”


CONTACTS: BP Gulf of Mexico Restoration, www.bp.com/sectionbodycopy.do?categoryId=47&contentId=7081352; NWF, www.nwf.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. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


EarthTalk®
E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Is nature photography good or bad for the environment? – Cal Moss, Camden, ME

Nature photography is a wonderful way to share the beauty and wonder of the natural world with others who don’t have the opportunity to see a given subject first-hand. An obvious benefit of the art is raising awareness about and generating empathy for special landscapes and species. But too much love can be a bad thing if landscapes are trampled and wildlife is frightened—all in the name of leaving only footprints.

The use of photography as a conservation tool dates back as far as photography itself. William Henry Jackson’s photos from his travels with the Hayden Expedition of the 1860s to survey the American West helped convince Congress to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872—and as such played a role in the birth of the worldwide movement to set aside special places as national parks. Ansel Adams carried this torch forward a century later; opening up millions of viewers’ eyes to the splendor of many an iconic western landscape. And more recently wildlife photographers have gotten up close and personal to wild animals large and small so the rest of us can appreciate their beauty out of harm’s way.

But some say there is a dark side to all this exposure of the wild and the natural. In a provocative essay in the Fall 1997 issue of DoubleTake magazine, activist and author Bill McKibben argued that the world has enough wildlife photography and that continuing to invade the lives of animal subjects—given the vast oversupply of images already available—is counterproductive to the goals of preserving biodiversity. He also decried the idealized view of the world that wildlife photography portrays. “How can there really be a shortage of whooping cranes when you’ve seen a thousand images of them—seen ten times more images than there are actually whooping cranes left in the wild?” he asked.

Most wildlife photographers bristle at McKibben’s stance. The real problem with wildlife photography is not that there is too much of it but that photographers…are failing to reflect natural diversity,” argues UK-based nature photographer Niall Benvie. “Far from inhibiting productivity, it needs to be expanded greatly, telling the story of species and locations unknown to readers and viewers.”

But today when the average vacationer with a $500 high resolution digital SLR may just want to capture his own version of that iconic photo he has seen so many times in magazines, it might be folly to hope people won’t love a spot or a species to death. In the U.S., some national parks have begun to limit visitorship at specific photo-friendly spots to make sure that trails don’t get inadvertently widened and native vegetation trampled. And a recent news story about the Kani people of southern India cutting trees and using bright lights and scare tactics to capture wild slender lorises—charismatic wide-eyed primates endemic to the region yet endangered and highly elusive—for “managed” photo shoots with well-heeled visiting photographers only further illustrates how invasive wildlife photography can get.


What the nature photographers of the world, amateurs and pros alike, can agree on is that they want their subject matter to live on. Being respectful of landscapes and wildlife in the quest to “get the shot” is all that’s needed to keep nature photography from becoming a scourge on the environment.

CONTACTS: Niall Benvie,
www.naturephotographers.net/nb1201-1.pdf; “Photographers Threatening the Already-Maligned Slender Loris,” www.enn.com/wildlife/article/45711.

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. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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