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Monthly Archives: June 2011

Every year, 41 million pounds of low level radioactive waste is incinerated in a small town in east Tennessee.  Oak Ridge, a town where nearly 10% of the population lives below the poverty line, has been the dumping grounds for America’s radioactive waste for more than 50 years.  Now, the small town will not only see the incineration of the nation’s low level radioactive waste, but also 1,000 tons of Germany’s.
After seeking approval for nearly two years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted EnergySolutions the right to ship in the waste from Germany.  EnergySolutions, who has been operating in Tennessee for more than 20 years, will drive the waste through Virginia and burn it in Oak Ridge.  The resulting ash is a highly concentrated form of low level radioactive waste that mostly will be shipped back to Germany for disposal.
Oak Ridge’s radioactive history has earned it the nickname as America’s “Atomic City.”   In 1942, the U.S. government chose the town to build materials for the Manhattan Project which led to America’s successful creation of the first atomic bomb.  Ever since, Oak Ridge has served as the hub of the nuclear industry's activity.  In addition to multiple radioactive waste processing companies, Oak Ridge also houses a major office of the Department of Energy.
“Low level [radioactive waste] does not mean low risk” says Don Safer, chairman of the board for the Tennessee Environmental Council.  The industry considers everything to be low level except spent fuel rods and materials remaining after spent fuel rods have been reprocessed to be used as fuel again.  Contaminated clothing, mops, filters, reactors, medical tubes, syringes and laboratory animal carcasses.
In Tennessee, this low level waste is allowed to be dumped in municipal landfills along with household garbage. “They operate under an honor system…They have radiation devices outside. If it triggers, they will reject it but no one actually goes into the load to make sure there’s been no illegal violation of the rules” says Safer.
Despite pressure from local residents, no official health impact studies have been conducted by the state.  "It’s a cover up…Its really pitiful how that type of health information is not available" says Safer.  Now that the U.S. has allowed Germany to bring its waste, Tennessee residents fear it will open the flood gates for waste from the rest of the world.

Photo courtesy of Ed Clark

The Food and Drug Administration says that arsenic, a known carcinogen, can contaminate chicken.    The study showed that Roxarsone, the active ingredient in the arsenic-based feed additive 3-Nitro,  contaminated the liver of chickens.  3-Nitro has been added to the feed of U.S. chickens and pigs since the 1940s and is also sold to farmers world wide. 
For 60 years, both the FDA and the poultry industry maintained that it was not possible for arsenic to contaminate chicken meat because chickens excreted it through it’s feces. But now, FDA's own research shows otherwise.

The FDA studied 100 chickens and found those who had Roxarsone added to their feed contained higher levels of inorganic arsenic in their livers.  Chicken livers that were not given the medicated feed were arsenic free.  Inorganic arsenic is more toxic than naturally-occurring, organic arsenic.  According to the FDA’s Product Safety Information the study did not measure inorganic arsenic levels in chicken muscle.  But total levels of both organic and inorganic arsenic were substantially lower in muscle than in the liver.
The FDA says that the results of the study does not warrant consumers to stop eating chicken.   Chicken livers were found to contain about 1.4 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic, about the same amount in an 8 ounce glass of water, according to the FDA.  In a CBS news interview, Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods said the study raised "concerns of a very low but completely avoidable exposure to a carcinogen."
 Pfizer Inc., who manufactures 3-Nitro, will be pulling the additive off the U.S. market by early July. “Although this was an extremely low level of arsenic, it was avoidable so we decided it was best to take [3-Nitro] off the market” says Rick Chambers, a spokesperson for Pfizer.
Pfizer has not decided however to pull 3-Nitro off the market in other countries. “Theres been no decision to take sales off elsewhere. We would need to have a discussion with local governments to decide what to do” says Chambers.  3-Nitro is currently sold in 19 countries including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Tailand, Pakistan, Guatemala and China.
In addition to health concerns, environmental groups have raised concerns over Roxarsone’s environmental threats.  In Maryland, environmental groups and state law makers have sought a ban on the ingredient because chicken waste – along with the arsenic – is ending up in the Chesapeake Bay.

Despite that the FDA maintains you do not need to change your eating habits, does this news make you consider cutting chicken out of your diet? 

Maryland public high school students now must take environmental classes along with reading, writing and math in order to graduate.  Last week, Governor Martin O'Malley passed the new law, aptly named No Child Left Inside, which requires teachers to incorporate key environmental topics such as conservation and smart growth into coursework.

The law will make the class of 2015, the first class to graduate with environmental literacy. 
The state's districts are responsible for crafting a curriculum for students.  Plans will be submitted to the Maryland State Department of Education every five years to ensure they meet state requirements.  The new requirements will not cost any additional funding or staff, say education officials.
A few of Maryland's public high schools already offer Earth-focused programs such as environmental science electives, but not everyone has access to them. The discrepancy happens when schools put more emphasis on reading and math instead of science to meet No Child Left Behind requirements.  “The focus on high stakes testing had an unintended consequence of hindering teachers to teach only to the test and put less focus on the sciences" says Sarah Bodor, the coordinator for No Child Left Inside.
No Child Left Inside is a nation wide coalition working to improve environmental education in schools.  “It really works. It provides a real world context for all of the core curricular elements. The environment provides an opportunity to extend and apply what [the students are] learning” says Bodor.  

Maryland is now the first state to pass environmental education requirements.  But according to the No Child Left Inside Coalition, it won't be the last.  Nationwide, states are looking to develop their own environmental literacy standards.  Rhode Island, Kansas, Oregon, Maine and Pennsylvania are poised to become the next states to follow suit.
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Congressman John Sarbanes has introduced federal legislation that would provide incentives to states to adopt environmental literacy standards.  The law would provide teacher training in environmental topics and make environmental education eligible to receive money from the Fund for the Improvement of Education.
Environmental literacy is becoming more important for the nation's growing green economy.  In a study conducted by the National Environmental Education Foundation, students who fail in traditional schools often succeed in those who focus on environmental studies.  Test scores not only improve in the sciences, but also in reading, math and social studies. 

Photo courtesy of the EPA

The first Great Migration saw 2 million blacks flee the South for promises of jobs and tolerance in the North.  A century later, we are now seeing another Great Migration back.  In 2009, 44,474 African-Americans left New York State and more than half of them moved South. The percentage of blacks heading South from big cities in the East and Midwest is now at its highest level in decades.

Watch the New York Times story on a family of 10, 3 generations, leaving Queens, NY for a better life in Atlanta.


Few American icons have been so poorly understood and widely appropriated as George Washington Carver. He has been held up as a hero by both the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the NAACP; by Christian fundamentalists and gay rights activists. Living on Earth and Planet Harmony’s Ike Sriskandarajah travels to Macon County, Alabama and discovers that Carver’s real legacy may be his vision for sustainable agriculture.

GELLERMAN: Juneteenth commemorates the abolition of slavery in the United States – first announced in June of 1865. But life for former slaves didn't improve immediately. Many of those newly freed men and women, forced to work as sharecroppers, found a champion in George Washington Carver. Carver was an educator, inventor and botanist – perhaps most famous for his work with the peanut. But he also worked tirelessly to pull black farmers out of poverty through sustainable farming practices, and the work he started at Tuskegee Institute continues today. Ike Sriskandarajah reports for Living on Earth and our sister program, Planet Harmony.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Tuskegee Institute was famously founded by Booker T. Washington, it’s famous for its Tuskegee Airmen and infamous for its syphilis experiments. Before that, this area in Macon County, Alabama was the center of American cotton production. Nearly a half million slaves lived in this “black belt” region – named not for the people but the dark, rich soil they worked. When George Washington Carver stepped off the train from the Midwest in 1896, pests and cotton monoculture had severely depleted the fertile earth – and the people along with it. Carver had grown up a frail, sick child with a voice damaged by illness. But he felt he had been chosen by God to serve. Here he reads from a favorite poem, called “Equipment.”

CARVER: And a man who has risen, great deeds must do/Began his life with no more than you/You’re the handicap you must face/You’re the one who must choose your place.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Carver chose Tuskegee – committing his life to helping the exploited people and exploited land. To him, these were the same target. Sustainable agriculture was his silver bullet. And peanuts were a part of his plan. Legumes were grown as a cover crop to feed the depleted soil with nitrogen. Carver took this bioremediation crop into the lab and came up with countless ways to take the lowly goober to market. His hundreds of innovations brought him fame – but didn’t bring prosperity to the impoverished farmers. Dr. Walter Hill is dean of the Agriculture school at Tuskegee.

HILL: We are going try to complete the job that he didn’t quite finish. Getting back to our people; those poor farmers and families get a better quality of life and at the same time, improve the environment.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Dean Hill took me to the fields to show me what they’re doing. But before that, I went in search of Carver with Dana Chandler, Tuskegee Institute’s archivist.

CHANDLER:Archivist – yeah – whatever that means (Laughs) I want to take you in here, we’ll start in here, actually, show you some things about Carver.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In a basement room, cardboard boxes full of Carver’s belongings are piled up to the ceiling. Chandler squeezes between overstuffed shelves, stopping to point out a microscope from Carver’s lab, a well-worn Bible, and picks up one of Carver’s field notebooks.

CHANDLER: Ike, you want to hold it? I mean, it’s a piece of history, buddy, that nobody has seen in many years.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The notebook smells of smoke – it was rescued from a fire- it’s crinkly and flakes to the touch, but the pages are alive with Carver’s observations about the natural world; notes on crop rotation, tables with soil measurements, crawling with drawings of vines and flowering plants, sketched in pain-staking detail. But there’s little here about peanuts, even though most school children learn about Carver’s 300 uses for the peanut.And it’s inspired countless jokes. Here’s Eddie Murphy on Saturday night Live:

MURPHY (ON SNL): “This tastes pretty good, man. Mind if we take a peek at the recipe?" And Dr. Carver says, "Take a peek? Man, you can have it. Who's gonna eat butter made out of peanuts? No, I'm working on a method to compress peanuts into phonograph needles." (Laughs).

CHANDLER:(Laughs) You know, peanut butter wasn’t invented by Carver – it was not – that’s a common mistake, you know. The peanut was kind of forced on him by the peanut growers (LAUGHS) association. Took advantage of him as the peanut man.

SRISKANDARAJAH: In 1921 the Peanut Association asked George Washington Carver to make a case to Congress for a favorable peanut tariff. So he trekked to Washington with his peanut-based milk, instant coffee, ice creams, dyes, pomade, and entire peanut-inspired meals. As Carver began his show and tell, one Congressman from Connecticut asked if he’d brought any watermelon too. Carver sidestepped the racist dig; “You know,” he said, “we can get along pretty well without dessert.” His expertise and wit won over the committee, won the tariff and won him the status of an American icon.

HERSEY: People can read into him what they want to read into him.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Mark Hersey, an Assistant Professor of history at Mississippi State University just wrote an environmental biography of Carver,“My Work is That of Conservation.” It’s only the third scholarly book on the famous scientist. Hersey met me in a small cemetery, at the heart of Tuskegee’s campus – by Carver’s simple headstone.

HERSEY: (reading) "George Washington Carver died in Tuskegee Ala., January 5, 1943: a life that stood out as a gospel of self-forgetting service. He could have added fortune to fame but, caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful in the world. The center of his world was the south where he was born in slavery some 79 years ago and where he did his work as a creative scientist." SRISKANDARAJAH: The creative scientist’s legacy may be in legumes, but Hersey argues that Carver’s real contribution was conservation. HERSEY: He had a great appreciation for wild areas, a great appreciation for beauty and for forest but he was mostly interested in this sort of lived-in world, and as our population grows, there’s more and more lived-in places. I think he saw more clearly the directions in which the environmental movement would eventually go and has since come.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Carver could be seen as a father of the environmental justice movement, working in impoverished and resource-poor environments. But his brand of science and spirituality is still singular.

HERSEY: Carver could see – he would call it God’s hand – he could see the beauties of nature everywhere. You know, when he was conducting his experiments he would sometimes see the miraculous nature of what was happening.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The place where he worked is now called the George Washington Carver Agricultural Experiment station. Dr. Walter Hill now sits in Carver’s chair as the head of the College of Agricultural, Environmental and Natural Sciences at Tuskegee. We drive up to the windy fields.

HILL: Turn on the car, and we’re getting ready to proceed into the experiment station. And you can even see on our left, you see the fields in front of us, the grasslands, cattle grazing lands, you see the greenhouses in the distance. Now we’re passing the goats. You’re going to see a lot of that.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The dirt road cuts through hundreds of acres of University farmland. Hill pulls over at a part of the farm where Carver conducted his experiments – it’s still an active research site today.

HILL: See if we can get the gate open. This is where we do most of our field crop work.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Dr. Carver developed field techniques to help impoverished sharecroppers – promoting compost, manure, and leaves from the swamp instead of expensive chemical fertilizers. Some farmers prospered, but many of the poorest, most vulnerable left.

HILL: His people, my people – the African American, the black American in the black belt region left the south, seeking better opportunities, but many stayed and the time we are in now, many are returning.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Dean Hill has carried Carver’s vision into the 21st century, and gotten assistance from an unlikely source. Walmart’s “sustainable agriculture initiative” is buying blueberries, tomatoes, peaches, melons, strawberries and peppers from small farms, including some in the black belt. It’s still early, but Dean Hill is optimistic.

HILL: The good thing is that the conversation like that between a giant like that, a global giant and these small farmers is just amazing, just amazing. Boy, you bring joy, happiness into their lives and the people work harder than ever. And the children get to see their parents working hard so they get all excited about it.


HILL: I get excited, man! I’m excited!

SRISKANDARAJAH: As Dean Hill speaks, he paints a vivid picture of Dr. Carver.

HILL: He could walk along a little patch of grass like we see here and he would see a thousand things, whereas we’re here looking and we may see only 10. You know? And, he would get a little closer and in that micro area he’d see another 50. Then he would also turn the soil – he would go deeper.


HILL: Because he understood –and he could project down two, three, four feet down in his mind’s eye and see the horizons – the different colors and shapes that hold water and hold moisture and hold nutrients in different ways. That’s what it’s all about, too, we’ve got to understand the soil, the water, the grass, the air, and we have to understand each other.

SRISKANDARAJAH: He whispers something inaudible to a handful of soil and carefully pats it back into the earth, in the very place where George Washington Carver once dug. For Living on Earth and Planet Harmony, I’m Ike Sriskandarajah. Happy Juneteenth.

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Biodegradable plastic technology enables plastic products to break down with the help of bacteria and other biological processes.  Where as regular plastic can take up to 1,000 years to degrade, biodegradable plastic takes only three to six months.  Manufacturers have hailed it as a green solution to plastic pollution.  But a new study suggests otherwise.
Researchers from North Carolina State University have found that what makes biodegradable plastic so appealing is exactly what gives it the ability to do more harm than good.  Because bio-plastic breaks down so much faster than traditional plastic, methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, is released much more quickly.
For some landfills, the extra methane is no problem, as it can be used to generate energy.  But there are as many landfills that don't.
 The study is not all bad news however. The researchers’ wanted to address the assumption that biodegradable plastic is always better.  In an interview with Discovery News, Morton Barlaz, an environmental engineer who participated in the study, said that the findings do not conclude that biodegradable plastic is less green.  “If you are truly asking which is better or worse, you should look at the emissions from the manufacturing phase plus disposal for whatever materials you’re trying to compare.”
If disposed of properly, biodegradable plastic is in fact greener than conventional.  According to Barlaz, composting biodegradable plastic is the best way to make it worth while.
Something to consider for example is whether or not there is a composting facility near you.  Another factor would be if all of your trash goes to a landfill, does this landfill convert methane into energy?  But the easiest and least complicated way consumers can reduce their plastic pollution footprint, is to simply reduce how much you use and how much you throw away.

The Arkansas towns of Guy and Greenbrier in Faulkner County have suffered through an unprecedented amount of earthquakes since 2009 ever since natural gas companies came to town.  Between October 2010 and February of 2011 more than 700 earthquakes occurred with in six months.  While geologists are looking for answers to this phenomenon, local residents have labeled the culprit: natural gas companies. 
Sam Lane and his wife who lives in Greenbrier, has filed a class action lawsuit against BHP Billiton Petroleum entities, Chesapeak Operating Inc. and Clarita Operating LLC.  Sam Poynter, who is representing Lane says that residents of Faulkner County deserve compensation for the loss of value in their homes, emotional distress and damages.  "I have clients who have $30,000 in structural damage to their homes" says Poynter.
Since 2009, natural gas companies have tapped into Arkansas's natural resource, Fayetteville Shale, by using hydraulic fracturing or "fracking."  During this process,  fracturing fluid, ranging from water, gels, foams and compressed gases,  is injected deep into the ground.  The pressure creates fractures in the Earth that allow more gas to come out of the well and optimize production.  The "frack fluid" is then pressurized and disposed of by injecting it deep into the ground into injection wells.
It is this disposal process that geologists believe could possibly be causing the earthquakes.  David Johnson, a geologist for the Arkansas Geological Survey, says  the earthquakes could be a naturally occurring swarm or a result of salt water injection wells used to disposed of frack fluid.  "Back in the early 80s we had the Enola Swarm with several thousand [earthquakes]…this all predates drilling" says Johnson.   
More than 40,000 earthquakes contributed to the Enola Swarm, but there is still evidence that injection wells could be the culprit.  "There is documentation from back in the 60s where hazardous waste was injected at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Denver that caused earthquakes" says Johnson.  
Whether the gas companies are responsible for causing the earthquakes is still yet to be proven.  Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, Poynter is confident that the court will see a relationship between the injection wells and the earthquakes.  "We're so early [in the lawsuit] we haven't started the discovery process yet…[but] If you just look at the numbers and at the location of these earthquakes a lay person could tell that they're correlated." 

Government researchers from the National Toxicology Program are warning Americans about two everyday chemicals that cause cancer.  After years of battling lobbyists from the chemical industry, formaldehyde and styrene have been added to the government's official Report on Carcinogens.
Formaldehyde is found in dangerous amounts in items such as plywood, particle board, mortuaries and hair salons.  The carcinogen's toxicity made headlines this year back in April when a popular hair straightener burst onto the scene. The Brazilian Blowout Acai Professional Smoothing Solution drew backlash after the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that it contained excessive amounts of the toxin.  Hair dressers and patrons alike reported burning eyes, nosebleeds, vomiting and asthma attacks after using the product.
Researchers also labeled sytrene as cancer-causing but found in such small quantities in consumer products that the risk are low.  Styrene is most commonly found in disposable styrofoam food containers and cups, boats and bathtubs.  People also breathe it in when smelling the "new-car" smell and tobacco smoke, usually in innocuous amounts.  However, makers of car parts, boats and shower stalls and bathtubs are more likely to develop diseases such as leukemia, lymphoma and cancer of the pancreas and esophagus.
The U.S.' lack of regulations and rules for chemicals has a direct impact on how much American consumers are exposed to these chemicals.  Hurricane Katrina victims were needlessly exposed to formaldehyde from the temporary trailers FEMA provided to survivors whose homes were destroyed.  The Environmental Defense Fund found extremely high levels of the toxin in the Chinese-manufactured plywood used to build the trailers.
The incident sparked outrage against FEMA but the outrage should have been directed towards America's lack of standards.  The same plywood that FEMA used for it's trailers could not be shipped to the European Union because of the EU's strict regulations against formaldehyde.  Chinese manufactures a better and safer plywood for Europe and reserves the toxic plywood for Americans because the U.S. law does not demand any better.

The BP gulf oil spill happened a year ago but Louisiana fisherman are not in clear water yet. In addition to the oil there is a dangerous cocktail of raw sewage, pesticides, fertilizers, animal manure, and city runoff choking life in the water, creating what is known as "a dead zone." 
A dead zone is an area in the ocean that becomes depleted of oxygen and lifeless due to pollution. Dead zones have stricken the Gulf of Mexico every summer since the early 1970s because of runoff from farms in the Midwest’s Corn Belt and treated sewage from northern cities.  The pollution travels down the Mississippi river bringing high amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen that fertilizes the sea.
The nutrients cause an enormous algae bloom that takes up the oxygen suffocating fish and forcing all sea life from the area.  Those who cannot move such as shellfish, shrimp and bottom dwellers are killed off.
The largest dead zone in the Gulf struck in 2002 measuring over 8,500 square miles out.  This year's dead zone will likely be 5 to 10 percent larger because of the historic flooding that has swollen the Mississippi river, delivering large amounts of nutrients from farms.
Catches are already looking grim, forcing fishermen farther out to sea to find fish.  Shrimpers are the most concerned.  This year was supposed to be a good season that helped to make up for last year’s destroyed catch due to the oil spill.  But instead, the dead zone is causing shrimp to seek deeper waters further out in the ocean making it harder for fishermen to catch them.
Wilma Subra of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network is working on numerous outreach initiatives to garner the help of the EPA to force farmers to curb their pollution.  “The farmers are unconcerned with the fishing resources in the Gulf and more concerned about their [profits].”  Subra says  the solution to help put an end to dead zones in the Gulf is quite simple:  Midwest farmers need to put in place mechanisms that absorbs the run-off before it reaches the river.  Between last year’s oil catastrophe and this year’s dead zone, Louisiana is hoping the rough waters will calm soon.

Photo by NASA Mississippi Dead Zone

In addition to sliding poll numbers because of a failing economy, the President is facing harsh criticism from environmentalists young and old.
During the 2008 election campaign, environmentalists were elated to have a presidential candidate who seemed to understand their fight.  President Obama campaigned on investing in clean energy, creating jobs through environmental stewardship and reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil
Last month, the White House released it’s energy plan, addressing rising gas prices.  At first glance, the plan boasts lofty goals such as a proposal to rely on “clean energy” for 80% of its energy supply.  But a closer look shows that the administration puts nuclear, clean coal and natural gas on equal footing with wind and solar.
Activists have called nuclear energy outright dirty and dangerous.  “Industry efforts to “greenwash” nuclear energy makes a mockery of clean energy goals….[It’s] the classic jump from the frying pan into the fire!” says Public Citizen, a non-partisan national non-profit that represents consumer interests in Congress, on their website. Clean coal and natural gas raises as much debate as nuclear.
Environmentalists also object to the compromises made in the EPA.  One such proposal was the EPA’s decision to limit emissions and reduce pollution from industrial boilers that power factories, smelters, oil refineries and chemical plants.  The battle over the boilers stretches back to 2004 when Earthjustice filed a suit against the EPA for tougher regulations on manufacturers to protect public health.
The suit prompted the EPA to issue stronger rules last year but was met by intense criticism from the industry claiming that it would kill jobs and cost billions of dollars to implement.  In support of the industry,  President Obama issued an executive order for the EPA to nix any “burdensome regulation.”  Shortly thereafter, the EPA decided to table it indefinitely.
The displeasure amongst young environmentalists does not necessarily reflect the feelings of young voters nationwide however.  In a Harvard Institute of Politics poll, 55% of all voters between the ages of 18 and 25 approve of the President’s job performance.  Amongst college students, the percentage raised to 60%.  But despite high approval ratings, young voters are hesitant to back the President in the 2012 elections.
The most important issue for these voters is the economy.   In February of 2011, 43% feel their economic situation is “very” or “fairly bad” and 22% are currently looking for work.  When asked whether they will vote for him in 2012, only 38% say they will while 25% say they plan to vote for his Republican opponent.  The rest are unsure.  While young voters have stuck beside President Obama, it seems the spirit of “Yes We Can” has faded.

Photos by AP