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EPA Still Slow to Study Toxic Chemicals, Despite Obama Pledge

David Heath / Center for Public Integrity
5:00 AM ET

It might sound arcane as a presidential priority, but it was a big deal at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Political interference from the Bush White House had delayed or derailed dozens of the EPA’s findings on potential health risks posed by toxic chemicals.

Some of those findings applied to chemicals to which all of us are exposed. Formaldehyde is in our kitchen cabinets and carpet. Arsenic is in our drinking water and rice. EPA scientists had determined that both of these carcinogens were more deadly than previously thought. Yet, officially, the agency remains unable to say so or to do anything about it.

On her first day on the job, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator, sent employees a memo echoing the president’s promise to divorce politics from science. The agency has said it needs to assess 50 chemicals a year to do its job properly. Yet in the Bush years it was averaging only five assessments a year. Jackson quickly rolled out a plan to break through the logjam.

The plan seemed easily achievable. It required no congressional approval and involved tweaking the inner workings of bureaucracy. Republicans never passed any legislation to block it.

Yet the Obama administration’s plan has been a failure. In the past three years, the EPA has assessed fewer chemicals than ever. Last year, it completed only one assessment. Today, the agency has even embraced measures sought by the chemical industry that have led to endless delays.

“Of late, the administration has displayed a disturbing tendency to retreat in the face of a blistering and self-serving industry campaign to stifle this vital program once and for all,” said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who closely follows the EPA’s chemical assessment program.

The story of how this happened is a lesson in how Washington works.

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Humans: the real threat to life on Earth

The global population is projected to pass the 10 billion mark this century. Photograph: Getty, Corbis

Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists

The view from the Amazon Tall Tower Observatory in the middle of the Amazon forest. Researcher say that of the nine processes needed to sustain life on Earth, four have exceeded “safe” levels. Photograph: Reuters

Gardeners on Alert as Pennsylvania Targets Risks of Seed Exchanges

By Kris Maher
Aug. 21, 2014 9:07 a.m. ET

A crackdown by Pennsylvania regulators on a seed exchange at a small library has put gardeners and advocates of locally grown organic food on alert across the country.

Food Supply: 

Life in a ‘degrowth’ economy, and why you might actually enjoy it

October 1 2014, 3.46pm EDT

What does genuine economic progress look like? The orthodox answer is that a bigger economy is always better, but this idea is increasingly strained by the knowledge that, on a finite planet, the economy can’t grow for ever.

This week’s Addicted to Growth conference in Sydney is exploring how to move beyond growth economics and towards a “steady-state” economy.

But what is a steady-state economy? Why it is it desirable or necessary? And what would it be like to live in?

The global predicament

We used to live on a planet that was relatively empty of humans; today it is full to overflowing, with more people consuming more resources. We would need one and a half Earths to sustain the existing economy into the future. Every year this ecological overshoot continues, the foundations of our existence, and that of other species, are undermined.

At the same time, there are great multitudes around the world who are, by any humane standard, under-consuming, and the humanitarian challenge of eliminating global poverty is likely to increase the burden on ecosystems still further.

Meanwhile the population is set to hit 11 billion this century. Despite this, the richest nations still seek to grow their economies without apparent limit.

Like a snake eating its own tail, our growth-orientated civilisation suffers from the delusion that there are no environmental limits to growth. But rethinking growth in an age of limits cannot be avoided. The only question is whether it will be by design or disaster.

Degrowth to a steady-state economy

The idea of the steady-state economy presents us with an alternative. This term is somewhat misleading, however, because it suggests that we simply need to maintain the size of the existing economy and stop seeking further growth.

But given the extent of ecological overshoot – and bearing in mind that the poorest nations still need some room to develop their economies and allow the poorest billions to attain a dignified level of existence – the transition will require the richest nations to downscale radically their resource and energy demands.

This realisation has given rise to calls for economic “degrowth”. To be distinguished from recession, degrowth means a phase of planned and equitable economic contraction in the richest nations, eventually reaching a steady state that operates within Earth’s biophysical limits.

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New York Says No to Fracking: State Bans Drilling Following Grassroots Outcry over Public Health

New York has become the first state in the nation with major natural gas deposits to ban the oil and gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, citing potential risks to public health. Fracking involves blasting sand, water and toxic chemicals deep into shale rock to release oil and gas, a process which can poison water supplies and pollute the air. Following a two-year study, New York Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said fracking was too risky. We speak to biologist, activist and author Sandra Steingraber, co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. Also joining us is Cornell University professor Tony Ingraffea, president of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy.

Energy: 

Fact Check: Is Duke telling "The Truth About Toxicity?"

By Mark Binker

Raleigh, N.C. — As the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes" aired its segment earlier this month examining Duke Energy's coal ash spill on the Dan River, someone in the company's public relations office was busy tweeting.

On of those short missives read, "#CoalAsh: The truth about toxicity" and linked to a fact sheet posted online.

"It's a tool that we've used a community meetings and events," said Paige Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the company.

The sheet, she said, also also been used when addressing local government meetings. It has existed and been posted online for several months, she said, adding that it has had a few tweaks along the way.

Our interest here on @NCCapitol's fact-checking desk is always piqued when we see the words "the truth" about any particular subject, especially complex scientific and economic topics.

"Ash contains low levels of trace elements. Even if you do come into contact with ash, studies have shown you'd have to ingest large amounts to have the potential for experiencing adverse effects," says one of three main bullet points summarizing the page-long explainer.

Although that doesn't exactly make the case for coal as part of a balanced breakfast, despite comparing the amount of arsenic in coal ash to the amount of arsenic in apple juice, the fact sheet does run counter to the image of toxin-laced goop leaching into groundwater and rivers that has been part of the coal ash narrative over the past 10 months.

THE QUESTION: Are the "low levels of trace elements" in coal ash really nothing to worry about, or might this well-crafted piece of corporate communications be downplaying the toxicity issue?

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Water Use: 
Energy: 

Seeds of Truth: Vandana Shiva and the New Yorker


December 15, 2014

by Dr. Vandana Shiva

(A response to the article ‘Seeds of Doubt’ by Michael Specter in The New Yorker)

I am glad that the future of food is being discussed, and thought about, on farms, in homes, on TV, online and in magazines, especially of The New Yorker’s caliber. The New Yorker has held its content and readership in high regard for so long. The challenge of feeding a growing population with the added obstacle of climate change is an important issue. Specter’s piece, however, is poor journalism. I wonder why a journalist who has been Bureau Chief in Moscow for The New York Times and Bureau Chief in New York for the Washington Post, and clearly is an experienced reporter, would submit such a misleading piece. Or why The New Yorker would allow it to be published as honest reporting, with so many fraudulent assertions and deliberate attempts to skew reality.

‘Seeds of Doubt’ contains many lies and inaccuracies that range from the mundane (we never met in a café but in the lobby of my hotel where I had just arrived from India to attend a High Level Round Table for the post 2015 SDGs of the UN) to grave fallacies that affect people’s lives. The piece has now become fodder for the social media supporting the Biotech Industry. Could it be that rather than serious journalism, the article was intended as a means to strengthen the biotechnology industry’s push to ‘engage consumers’? Although creative license is part of the art of writing, Michael Specter cleverly takes it to another level, by assuming a very clear position without spelling it out.

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Food Supply: 

Tropical Fish Moving Toward Poles Due To Climate Change, Could Affect Global Fisheries: Study

A tropical fish farmer holds a dead silver dollar fish. Reuters

By Kukil Bora @KukilBora on October 13 2014 6:03 AM

Climate change and warming of the world's oceans are prompting tropical fish to move toward cooler waters near the poles, according to a study, which predicts that a large number of fish will disappear from the tropics by 2050, if the current trend of changing temperatures continues.

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