Why the Bees Are Dying, Part 2: EPA Ignored Its Own Scientists’ Warnings

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In my last post, I looked into in the case of the mysterious bee disappearances: colony collapse disorder. I found that the latest research frames a popular class of pesticides–neonicotinoids–as prime suspects  And we know that these bee die-offs threaten our food security, as well, since we depend on bees to pollinate so many of our crops.

The next question is, how did neonics make it onto the market, and why are they still being sold? Pesticides in general are very common and very rarely a good thing, but not all have the distinction of threatening such a crucial natural service as pollination. Why didn’t the folks at EPA see this coming?

Well, actually, they did.

 The Story

Let’s focus on Bayer’s clothianidin, one of the most common neonics. When Bayer first applied for registration of the chemical in 2003, EPA refused, citing concerns about (guess what?) clothianidin’s impact on bees.

But just two months later, EPA granted clothianidin “conditional registration,” trusting Bayer to conduct its own “chronic life cycle study.” Even as they approved the pesticide for sale, EPA scientists noted clothianidin’s “persistent” and “toxic” effects on bees.

The culprit: clothianidin

Bayer, of course, started rolling out clothianidin that spring. And the life cycle study didn’t show up until 2007. By that time, billions of plants were producing pollen laced with clothianidin.

When the study finally arrived, it essentially claimed that clothianidin was harmless to bees. Experts outside of the government found serious problems with the methodology. Yet, EPA deemed the research “scientifically sound” and quietly gave clothianidin full registration in April 2010.

Now we get to the interesting part. In a leaked memo [PDF] sent on November 2, 2010, two EPA scientists repeated concerns about clothianidin’s “potential for long term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.” Here’s what they said about the Bayer study [emphasis mine]:

…after another review of this field study in light of additional information, deficiencies were identified that render the study supplemental…. Another field study is needed to evaluate the effects of clothianidin on bees through contaminated pollen and nectar. Exposure through contaminated pollen and nectar and potential toxic effects therefore remain an uncertainty for pollinators.

So EPA scientists basically rejected the study that led to clothianidin’s registration. And independent research confirms that neonics are dangerous to bees. But so far, EPA has no plans to reconsider the use of neonics.

That may change soon, since beekeepers and environmental groups are petitioning the agency to ban neonics until a scientifically sound review is completed. If EPA does not respond, the petitioners could sue under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act and the Endangered Species Act.

The Takeaway 

Clearly, neonics should be taken off the market as soon as possible. Beyond the obvious, I  can make two more points based on this story.

First, it is absurd to say EPA should be more “industry-friendly.” The agency was too friendly toward Bayer, and our food security is now threatened as a result. (Granted, a lot of this happend under the Bush Administration. Whether the Obama EPA acts more responsibly remains to be seen.)

Second, the ecological threat of pesticides should be taken seriously, and enforcement  should be a priority. This isn’t about “conservation”; it’s about, quite literally, saving the humans.

What if the FBI had uncovered some terrorist plot targeting a third of our food supply? The defense budget would skyrocket. Congress would pass emergency laws and launch an investigation. John McCain would be calling for war.

Instead, we hear about the EPA bureaucrats strangling the economy. Republicans in Congress want to slash the agency’s budget, and many want to eliminate it altogether. Most recently, Tea Party Representative Stephen Fincher said “We must cut the EPA’s legs off.”

Pardon me for saying that this borders on lunacy.

If anything, EPA needs more resources, not less. In any case, we need much more thorough oversight of potentially devastating pesticides in the future.

What you can do: For more details on this story, I’d highly recommend Tom Philpott’s article for Grist. If you feel the urge to act, you might want to sign this petition asking EPA to prohibit neonics.

 

Image: Cygnus921

Why the Bees are Dying (and Why We Should Be Alarmed)

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Honey bee photoNew research points to pesticides as culprit in mysterious bee die-offs.

We’ve known for a while that bees are in trouble. Since around 2006, beekeepers have been seeing entire colonies disappear, as if they’d been zapped away by aliens.

This phenomenon, dubbed “colony collapse disorder” (CCD), has been attributed to fungi, stress, and malnutrition, among other causes. A number of factors likely play a role. But a growing body of research seems to show that pesticides are the prime culprit.

The trouble stems from one class of pesticide, in particular: neonicotinoids (neonics for short). When seeds are treated with neonics, the chemicals are taken up into the plant’s vascular system and “expressed” in nectar and pollen. As built-in pesticides, neonics turn an innocent corn plant into an insect-killing machine.

Neonics are used on a huge portion of our crops, including almost all of our corn. According to Pesticide Action Network of North America, at least 140 million acres are planted with neonic-treated seeds.

How do neonics affect bees? Tom Philpott has the answer:

The ubiquitous pesticides appear to affect bees in two ways: in big lethal doses that occur at the time of seed planting, when neonic-infused dust wafts around in growing areas; and in tiny doses that happen when bees bring neonic-infused pollen into hives, which don’t kill them immediately but appears to damage their immune systems and homing abilities.

But that’s not all. Harvard scientists recently found that high-fructose corn syrup, fed to bees by beekeepers, can trigger CCD. Since corn plants are treated with neonics, corn syrup contains traces of the pesticide–not enough to kill bees right away, but enough to slowly destroy colonies.

More new research further clarifies the problem:

  • A paper released in the journal Science found that small doses of a neonic hinder bees’ ability to locate their hive “at levels that could put a colony at risk of collapse.”
  • Another Science paper showed that (surprise!) neonics harm bumble bees, as well, causing an 85 percent reduction in the number of queens produced. Maybe that’s why bumble bees in the US have declined 96 percent in the last few decades.
  • study in Environmental Science & Technology looked into the effects of neonic-contaminated dust. The result? “Environmental release of particles containing neonicotinoids can produce high exposure levels for bees, with lethal effects compatible with colony losses phenomena observed by beekeepers.” In other words, bees can die immediately after flying over freshly-sown cornfields.
Should we be worried about bee-killing chemicals? Absolutely, and not just for the bees’ sake. As advanced as modern agriculture is, we still depend on bees to pollinate most of our crops. The economic value of honeybees in the US is in the billions, and it’s estimated that every third bite of food you eat is brought to you by bees. In fact, Einstein once predicted that, if bees went extinct, humans would follow shortly.
Now you might be wondering how these pesticides got approved in the first place (and why they’re still on the market). The answer is a disturbingly familiar government fail, which I’ll cover in my next post.

[Image: William Warby]

Ballot Initiative Could Restore Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite National Park

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Hetch Hetchy valley before dam

Hetch Hetchy, before the dam was built

When you hear “Yosemite,” you probably think of Yosemite Valley, with its world-class waterfalls and famous rock formations. But another valley in Yosemite National Park offers scenery just as stunning.

At least, it would, if it weren’t filled with water. In 1923, Hetch Hetchy, known as “Yosemite’s twin,” was dammed to provide drinking water for San Francisco. Today the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir stores 117 billion gallons of alpine water so pure it’s exempt from filtration rules.

But an initiative launched by Restore Hetch Hetchy (RHH) could see the dam destroyed and the valley restored to its natural state. If RHH can secure 7,400 supportive signatures, Californians will vote on a ballot measure to do just that.

John Muir, the patron saint of the preservation movement, was fiercely opposed to the flooding of Hetch Hetchy. “Dam Hetch Hetchy!” he exclaimed. “As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.” Hetch Hetchy was Muir’s last great fight, and one of the few he lost.

Modern San Francisco residents might not consider themselves “devotees of ravaging commercialism” Yosemite National Park Mapwith “a perfect contempt for Nature,” as Muir put it, but many would probably object to draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. Besides providing water to the Bay Area, the dam generates hydroelectricity that powers buses, light rail, street lighting, and cable cars. From a climate perspective (as opposed to an environmental one), damming Hetch Hetchy might not have been a bad idea.

However, the Reservoir isn’t as essential as many believe. According to RHH,

Hetch Hetchy is only one of nine reservoirs that comprise the San Francisco Public Utility Commission’s water system. Although Hetch Hetchy Reservoir is the most well-known, it stores less than 25% of the system’s water. San Francisco’s water-bank in Don Pedro Reservoir, downstream on the Tuolumne River, holds twice as much water as Hetch Hetchy.

If the dam at Hetch Hetchy were removed, San Francisco would still get water from the Tuolumne River; the water would simply be stored at a different location. So what’s the catch? Mainly the price tag. At up to $10 billion, the project will be a bit unpalatable in a recession. Still, it wouldn’t be unprecedented–hundreds of dams have been torn down in the U.S. over the last fifteen years.

Restoring nearly a century of damage to the Hetch Hetchy valley would be an intensely interesting challenge in itself. Even RHH calls it “the most ambitious and audacious act of environmental preservation in our history.” Yet a restored Hetch Hetchy would attract tourists and their money, helping to relieve the overcrowded Yosemite Valley.

This is a multi-sided issue, one that could potentially pit climate hawks against environmental preservationists. Certainly it will divide the famously green and progressive San Francisco.

What do you think?

 

Learn more: The GuardianRestore Hetch Hetchy

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Green Graffiti by Edina Tokodi Brings Nature to the City

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Urban art installations and murals can challenge authority and subvert establishment, or just decorate a bleak concrete landscape. Sometimes, they can earn their creators wealth and fame. But the most compelling works show us a new way of seeing the world around us. They make us ask questions about our environment and our role in it.

We’ve covered the reverse graffiti trend, which seeks to build a conversation about the urban disconnect (and land a few ad jobs in the process). Today, I want to show you another vision of eco street art: the work Edina Tokodi.

Born in Hungary and now based in Brooklyn, Tokodi brightens the streets of Williamsburg with living moss murals. Check it:

Green graffiti by Edina Tokodi

According to Tokodi’s web site,

Her site-specific installations are inspired by Japanese Zen gardens and informed by the space’s environs, whether organic or man-made. Often sheathed in steel, glass, pavement and stone, the installations provide an unavoidable contrast to their surroundings. It is within this contrasting atmosphere, that her installations invite interaction, thus reclaiming the human bond with nature.

Eco street art by Edina TokodiTokodi is the founder Mosstika, “a NYC based collective of eco-minded street artists, using guerrilla tactics to evoke the call of man back to nature.” By bringing nature into the urban experience, the moss art leads us to wonder, What if this were not concrete and bricks, but trees and grass? How would that change things? 

Eco street art by Edina Tokodi

Just as intriguing are Tokodi’s living portraits–intricate designs made entirely from succulents. Like Impressionist paintings, the patterns seem somewhat abstract up close; at a distance, they come together to form a clear image. Squint and you can almost imagine you’re looking at a photograph.

At its best, a stenciled mural is inherently superficial. Even when designed to show depth, it’s still just a wall with paint on it. Tokodi’s pieces, on the other hand, are part of the physical environment, not just decoration. They are meant to be touched.

You can see more of Edina Tokodi’s green graffiti at Mosstika.com, or on the Behance Network. And, as always, I’m interested to hear what you think about “living” art and the role of street art in our society. Can urban murals go further than expression and affect culture more deeply? How might green art translate to green activism?

[Images: Mosstika on Behance]

Fracking in Alabama’s National Forests? Time to Act

Talladega National Forest Image

Talladega National Forest, located in eastern Alabama, is one of the state’s most valuable natural resources. The forest includes crucial water sources for nearby towns, as well as habitat for threatened and endangered species. It’s also a popular destination for hikers, campers, hunters, and bikers, attracting an estimated 600,000 visitors each year.

Despite all this, the Talladega Forest has been targeted by Big Oil and Gas. On June 14, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans to sell drilling leases for 43,000 acres of the Forest. There may not even be enough gas under the forest to warrant drilling, but, if there is, it might be accessed with hydraulic fracking.

Gas drilling in Talladega National Forest threatens the health of nearby communities. As I’m sure you know, fracking consumes millions of gallons of freshwater–a resource we can’t afford to waste–and produces vast amounts of toxic “flowback” that can contaminate water supplies. Plus, a recent study found that fracking chemicals can reach underground aquifers much faster than previously thought. 

The BLM’s decision to sell leases in the Talladega is based on a 2004 study conducted by the Forest Service. But this study is outdated and woefully inadequate–it doesn’t even mention fracking.
What’s more, selling gas leases in Talladega National Forest could actually be illegal. Mark Kolinski at Wild South (one of the groups fighting the leases) explained,

The USFS and the BLM have not conducted their due diligence in terms of assessing the potential impacts of this heightened level of industrial oil and gas development and may well be in violation of federal law, especially the Endangered Species Act, in this regard. Selling oil and gas leases constitutes an irretrievable commitment of resources and is among the activities regulated under the ESA.

The good news? We still have time to halt the drilling leases in Talladega National Forest and protect nearby communities from exploitation. The local anti-fracking movement is building momentum, and we need your help to secure a victory.

Please sign this petition demanding the BLM stop leasing National Forest land for oil and gas drilling.

This is a federal lands issue, so it doesn’t matter where in the U.S. you live. A win in Alabama will forward the anti-fracking cause nationwide, because it will prove that the value of clean water and healthy ecosystems transcends partisan politics.

So, please take a minute to support our efforts to safeguard the public health from fracking, in Alabama and throughout the country.

If you’d like to get more involved, contact Wild South at 256-974-6166, or at WildSouth.org. And, if you want to delve deeper, you can read the detailed letter of protest filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

New Keystone XL Route Still Threatens Water Supply

Cross-posted from WeArePowerShift.

At the height of the Keystone XL battle, some of the pipeline’s toughest opponents came from Nebraska, where people of all political persuasions were alarmed at the damage a potential spill would cause. And rightfully so: According to the original plan, KXL would have crossed the Nebraska Sandhills, an ecologically-sensitive area that sits above the Ogallala aquifer.

TransCanada just re-applied for a permit to build KXL along an alternate route, one that avoids the Sandhills. But, according to the new plan, the pipeline would still threaten the crucial aquifer. Lisa Song of InsideClimate News reports:

The company’s preferred corridor avoids the Sandhills of southwest Holt County, just as TransCanada promised it would. But it still crosses through northern Holt County, where the soil is often sandy and permeable and the water table is high—the same characteristics that make the Sandhills so vulnerable to the impact of an oil spill.

In some parts of the new corridor, the groundwater lies so close to the surface that the pipeline would run through the aquifer instead of over it. (See map of TransCanada’s preferred Keystone XL route.)

What does that mean for the no-KXL movement? Obviously, a major objection to KXL–that it could poison water for thousands of people–is still completely valid. That means landowners, even those who don’t object to the pipeline on principle, may be powerful allies again, as TransCanada gears up for another battle over the border crossing permit.

However, that permit may soon be useless. A new batch of pipeline projects, none of which require State Department approval, could render KXL redundant.

  • The Bakken Crude Express will carry oil from deposits in North Dakota to the market hub of Cushing, Oklahoma. This pipeline will serve U.S. refineries the same way KXL would, but for about a tenth of the cost.
  • Enbridge, another Canadian pipeline company, plans to reverse the flow of its Seaway pipeline, in order to pump crude from Oklahoma to Texas.
  • Flanagan South, also by Enbridge, will carry oil to Oklahoma and is expected to be in service a year before KXL would be.
  • Meanwhile, Enbridge’s Trailbreaker project, which would ship tar sands oil into New England, seems to beback on the table. Several green groups claim Enbridge is trying to skirt proper review by breaking Trailbreaker into smaller phases.

Round two of the tar sands fight is about to begin. This time, the result may hinge more on the presidential election, since Obama will try to avoid another controversial decision. For his part, Romney has said he is prepared to build KXL himself, if need be. (Presumably, that is why he wears blue jeans at campaign stops.)

If KXL is ever delayed or permanently canceled for any reason, the climate movement can and should claim a victory. After all, they helped draw toxic attention to it, in the first place. From a carbon perspective, though, the “alternatives” are no better. A tar sands pipeline, by any other name, still smells like tar sands.

Image: Tar Sands Action

EPA Announces New Carbon Regulations: What You Need to Know

Coal power plant

Cross-posted from We Are Power Shift.

On Tuesday, the EPA officially announced its long-awaited rules on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — the first ever in U.S. history. According to the standards, new plants can emit no more than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per magawatt of electricity produced. Natural gas plants fall within this limit; coal plants do not.

So what does this mean for coal? At the moment, not much. The key word is new — plants already running are exempt from the regulations. In a move that startled climate advocates, EPA Admin Lisa Jackson declared that there were “no plans to address existing plants,” which, of course, produce the vast majority of the power sector’s carbon emissions.

But here’s the catch: The EPA may be legally obligated to regulate existing coal plants. Grist‘s David Roberts explains,

Once something is deemed a pollutant under the Clean Air Act… then it must be regulated under Section 111 of the act….

Section 111b governs new sources. That’s what was issued today. But when EPA regulates under 111b, that triggers a legal obligation for it also to regulate existing sources under 111d.

So a carbon rule for existing sources should appear sometime in the future, but, as far as the Administration is concerned, there’s no point in talking up more regulations until something’s actually on the table. Thus, “no plans,” at least until after the election. (Of course, under a Republican president, the EPA, if it even existed, would undoubtedly scrap all carbon limits.)

We’ve still taken a step forward. The new EPA carbon rules help the clean energy effort by effectively outlawing new coal-fired plants. In order to meet the requirements, coal plants would have to capture and store their CO2 emissions, and carbon sequestration isn’t available yet on a large scale.

[youtube http://youtu.be/uFJVbdiMgfM]

Interestingly, the coal industry built an entire lobbying campaign around this technology, dubbed “clean coal,” and politicians, including Obama, picked up the term becase they like alliteration. But when faced with actually implementing it, the industry people balk. Apparently, we should keep using coal because coal is clean, but we can’t require coal to be clean because clean coal, in the words of a Peabody Energy spokesman, “doesn’t exist as a commercial technology.” Thanks for clearning that up!

The bottom line: As long as the rule holds, the climate movement doesn’t have to worry about stopping new coal plants. Instead, activists can focus on transitioning old coal energy to renewable sources. We are nearer than ever to a coal-free America.

[Image: Dmitri Klimenko]