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‘Reef stars’ restored Indonesia’s blast-damaged corals in just 4 years

Tue, 03/26/2024 - 01:15

Out among a scattering of islands spilled like beads into the Indonesian shallows, an extended experiment in coral restoration has revealed something marvelous: With a tender touch and a community to care for it, a reef can fully recover from the devastation of blast fishing in just four years.

The Spermonde Archipelago, which lies a dozen miles off the coast of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, was long home to some of the most dynamic reefs in the world, where schools of fish rainbowed over coral blanketing the seafloor. But dynamite fishing turned swaths of those wonders into wastes. That was until 2018, when academics, government agencies, nonprofits, and local communities came together to restore them with a novel approach developed over years of testing and refinement. Now, a team of marine biologists and reef ecologists has released the first results in a suite of studies investigating the program’s achievements. The study, published earlier this month in Current Biology, shows that the method can help reefs rebuild in just a few years.

“We do always refer to corals, in particular in reefs, as these slow-growing ecosystems that take a long time to recover, which they are,” said Rebecca Albright, a coral biologist at the California Academy of Sciences who was not involved in the study. “So showing that they can regain rapid growth within four years is very encouraging.”

Promoting this recovery in Sulawesi is particularly important, because the island sits at the center of the Indonesian archipelago and in one corner of the Coral Triangle. This region, and Indonesia in particular, is home to the largest concentration of reefs and coral habitat in the world. Yet many of these vibrant ecosystems were pulverized by decades of fishers dropping explosives into the water to concuss fish they could then scoop out of the sea. With loose rubble then left to tumble in the currents, corals had little hope of recovering on their own. Any coral spawns that might settle and grow were liable to be crushed by errant rocks.

To overcome this, the Mars Coral Reef Restoration Program — a nonprofit funded by the Mars corporation known for M&Ms, Twix, and Snickers — brought together restoration experts who developed what they call the reef star: a six-legged steel spider coated in sand, to which coral fragments harvested from nearby healthy reefs or found rolling with the tides are strapped. Restoration workers, often members of local communities, deploy them across dozens of sites. These webs provide the protection and stability the transplants need to grow, while also settling the debris created by blast fishing. Without such help, researchers believe that corals — those strange yet essential sea creatures — might never have returned to the damaged areas.

Within a year of placing the reef stars, the fragments grew into colonies. By year two, the branches of neighboring colonies knit into a marine embrace. By 2023, the former fragments had grown into orange bushels, broad yellow pads, and twisting pink tentacles that trains of fluorescent fish explore.

A diver installs a reef star in a degraded coral reef to stabilize loose rubble and kickstart rapid coral growth. The Ocean Agency

Scientific analysis confirmed what the eye could see. By measuring something called a carbonate budget — a way of understanding how well a colony can grow its limestone skeleton in the face of erosive forces like fish, divers, and passing vessels — researchers found that the rate of growth for sites established just four years before matched that of healthy, undamaged coral growing nearby.

Studying this growth helps scientists to understand how well a reef fulfills its role as the star of a healthy ecosystem providing habitat for marine life. “The 3D structure of the reef is basically the city where these animals live,” said Ines Lange, a coral reef ecologist and lead author of the paper. “So providing an actively growing three-dimensional structure is the basis for this whole ecosystem.”

The rate and state of growth also reveals whether the reef can be expected to once again protect coastlines from storm surges and coastal erosion — and grow quickly enough to keep up with rising seas to continue doing so. The results show that won’t be a problem around South Sulawesi. Other restoration efforts, like those in the Florida Keys, tend to string up a few strands of coral fragments or pepper the seafloor with them in a way that felt, for Lange, “like a little tiny garden.” But at the Mars program sites, “It’s like they put a forest there.”

“I think it was the first time I saw a restoration site that was a proper reef,” she said.

These sea groves are populated primarily by branching, arborescent coral sprouting from the reef star arrays in the coastal shallows. They’ve created a terrain flourishing with life that turns the aquamarine waters into a Technicolor dreamscape. Overall, the method has proven itself even to those watching it unfold from afar.

“The Mars project has set the bar really high for how you can do evidence-based reef restoration,” said Lisa Boström-Einarsson, a coral reef ecologist with the University of Exeter. 

Though not affiliated with the study, Boström-Einarsson has collaborated with two of its authors on a previous paper. Unsurprisingly, the world of coral reef conservation remains small, despite the great need for its work.

Four years ago, Boström-Einarsson compiled a systematic and comprehensive review of reef restoration projects, which she is in the process of updating based on the progress made in such efforts globally in the intervening years. That background led her to conclude, after reading Lange’s paper, that “it’s a gold-standard study on a gold-standard project.”

A healthy coral reef in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Ines Lange

Still, Mars’ reef stars are suited best to sites like South Sulawesi, where the trauma is physical. When reefs have been broken by widespread blast fishing or gored by ship groundings — of which there are hundreds every year — the study shows the devices can help heal those injuries. But in areas like the Great Barrier Reef, which has been marred by recurrent bleaching events that offer little of the reprieve reefs need to recover, they can only do so much; the repeated heat waves spurred by elevated temperatures make the water itself hostile to coral. Nonetheless, the Mars program launched an effort late last year to adapt its approach for Australia’s iconic reef. The kinds of coral most sensitive to warming are also those best fit for the Mars method.

In the waters of South Sulawesi, the restoration team favored branching corals, both because they make up the bulk of the healthy reefs in the region and because they grow quickly — Boström-Einarsson called them “weedy coral.” But the treelike Acropora can’t stand the heat the way their massive, slow-growing cousins the brain coral can; Acropora are among the first to bleach when temperatures climb. So, while the marine meadows at the restoration sites have prospered in recent years, more remains to be done to make them resilient to warming seas.

“You can put a bunch of coral back out into place, but that doesn’t mean you’re building a resilient reef,” Albright said. “You have to have diversity.”

Lange said the Mars program is bolstering the ecosystems’ resilience, transplanting massive corals and providing the surfaces they need to establish, settle, and mature. This is just one area that reflects the responsive approach Boström-Einarsson said the Mars program has brought to its efforts by listening to scientists, considering their evidence, and tapping their expertise.

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But to avoid what Boström-Einarsson called “scientific colonialism” — in which researchers from well-funded institutions visit under-resourced areas to collect data before scurrying home — the Mars program has built partnerships with local communities and universities. They are involved in everything from building the reef stars and installing them to maintaining and monitoring restoration sites, all of which gives them a sense of ownership over the project by making them guardians of the reefs.

And that may be one of the most important outcomes of a project like this. After all, coastal communities in places like South Sulawesi benefit most from rebuilding the reefs that protect them from the storms and surging seas that climate change brings. But the researchers acknowledged that restoration efforts like these are but Band-Aids: They aren’t a substitute for abating emissions and mitigating climate change so reefs can escape the endless onslaught of bleach-inducing, coral-killing heat waves.

“We’re not saying we can repair all the coral reefs in the world with this method,” Lange said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something on the scale that we can to change something for a local community, because it makes a huge difference for them.”

So, if for that reason alone, these efforts matter — even in the wake of a warming world.

Correction: This story originally misspelled Lisa Boström-Einarsson’s last name.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline ‘Reef stars’ restored Indonesia’s blast-damaged corals in just 4 years on Mar 26, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Florida is about to erase climate change from most of its laws

Mon, 03/25/2024 - 01:45

In Florida, the effects of climate change are hard to ignore, no matter your politics. It’s the hottest state — Miami spent a record 46 days above a heat index of 100 degrees last summer — and many homes and businesses are clustered along beachfront areas threatened by rising seas and hurricanes. The Republican-led legislature has responded with more than $640 million for resilience projects to adapt to coastal threats. 

But the same politicians don’t seem ready to acknowledge the root cause of these problems. A bill awaiting signature from Governor Ron DeSantis, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race in January, would ban offshore wind energy, relax regulations on natural gas pipelines, and delete the majority of mentions of climate change from existing state laws. 

“Florida is on the front lines of the warming climate crisis, and the fact that we’re going to erase that sends the wrong message,” said Yoca Arditi-Rocha, the executive director of the CLEO Institute, a climate education and advocacy nonprofit in Florida. “It sends the message, at least to me and to a good majority of Floridians, that this is not a priority for the state.”

As climate change has been swept into the country’s culture wars, it’s created a particularly sticky situation in Florida. Republicans associate “climate change” with Democrats — and see it as a pretext for pushing a progressive agenda — so they generally try to distance themselves from the issue. When a reporter asked DeSantis what he was doing to address the climate crisis in 2021, DeSantis dodged the question, replying, “We’re not doing any left-wing stuff.” In practice, this approach has consisted of trying to manage the effects of climate change while ignoring what’s behind them.

The bill, sponsored by state Representative Bobby Payne, a Republican from Palatka in north-central Florida, would strike eight references to climate change in current state laws, leaving just seven references untouched, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Some of the bill’s proposed language tweaks are minor, but others repeal whole sections of laws.

For example, it would eliminate a “green government grant” program that helps cities and school districts cut their carbon emissions. A 2008 policy stating that Florida is at the front lines of climate change and can reduce those impacts by cutting emissions would be replaced with a new goal: providing “an adequate, reliable, and cost-effective supply of energy for the state in a manner that promotes the health and welfare of the public and economic growth.”

Water floods part of a street that runs near the Strait of Florida during the seasonal king tides in October 2019 in Key West, Florida. Researchers say the Florida Keys will see increased flooding as sea levels continue to rise. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Florida politicians have a history of attempting to silence conversations about the fossil fuel emissions driving sea level rise, heavier floods, and worsening toxic algae blooms. When Rick Scott was the Republican governor of the state between 2011 and 2019, state officials were ordered to avoid using the phrases “climate change” or “global warming” in communications, emails, and reports, according to the Miami Herald

It foreshadowed what would happen at the federal level after President Donald Trump took office in 2017. The phrase “climate change” started disappearing from the websites of federal environmental agencies, with the term’s use going down 38 percent between 2016 and 2020. “Sorry, but this web page is not available for viewing right now,” the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate change site said during Trump’s term

 

 

Red states have demonstrated that politicians don’t necessarily need to acknowledge climate change to adapt to it, but Florida appears poised to take the strategy to the extreme, expunging climate goals from state laws while focusing more and more money on addressing its effects. In 2019, DeSantis appointed Florida’s first “chief resilience officer,” Julia Nesheiwat, tasked with preparing Florida for rising sea levels. Last year, he awarded the Florida Department of Environmental Protection more than $28 million to conduct and update flooding vulnerability studies for every county in Florida.

“Why would you address the symptoms and not the cause?” Arditi-Rocha said. “Fundamentally, I think it’s political maneuvering that enables them [Republicans] to continue to set themselves apart from the opposite party.” 

She’s concerned that the bill will increase the state’s dependence on natural gas. The fossil fuel provides three-quarters of Florida’s electricity, leaving residents subject to volatile prices and energy insecurity, according to a recent Environmental Defense Fund report. As Florida isn’t a particularly windy state, she sees the proposed ban on offshore wind energy as mostly symbolic. “I think it’s more of a political kind of tactic to distinguish themselves.” Solar power is already a thriving industry that’s taking off in Florida — it’s called the Sunshine State for a reason.

Greg Knecht, the executive director of The Nature Conservancy in Florida, thinks that the removal of climate-related language from state laws could discourage green industries from coming to the state. (And he’s not ready to give up on wind power.) “I just think it puts us at a disadvantage to other states,” Knecht said. Prospective cleantech investors might see it as a signal that they’re not welcome. 

The bill is also out of step with what most Floridians want, Knecht said. According to a recent survey from Florida Atlantic University, 90 percent of the state’s residents accept that climate change is happening. “When you talk to the citizens of Florida, the majority of them recognize that the climate is changing and want something to be done above and beyond just trying to build our way out of it.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Florida is about to erase climate change from most of its laws on Mar 25, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

In Utah, climate concerns are now motivating candidates

Sun, 03/24/2024 - 06:00

This story was originally published by Capital and Main.

Driving on Interstate 215 south of Salt Lake City in late January, I couldn’t help but notice the bumper stickers on the pickup truck in front of me. One featured a rattlesnake and the classic motto “Don’t tread on me,” which dates to the Revolutionary War but has been co-opted by many right-wing ideologues. And the other featured a map of a shrinking lake and the words “Keep the Salt Lake Great,” the motto of a local environmental group focused on protecting Utah’s rivers and ecosystems. 

Those dual views perfectly capture the ethos of Utah, a deep red state whose natural beauty is being threatened by more intense heat waves and extreme drought. A proud coal- and oil-producing state, it’s led by conservative lawmakers, and recent national surveys show it’s one of the most Republican states in the country. Back in 2010, the Utah Legislature even passed a resolution that essentially wrote climate change denial into state policy by urging the EPA to “cease its carbon dioxide reduction policies, programs, and regulations until climate data and global warming science are substantiated.”

But since then, Utah has been impacted by climate change more than most states — over the last 50 years, temperatures in the state have risen at about twice the global average, and it has faced worsening drought, wildfires, flash floods and extreme heat waves. The impact has been devastating on the health and well-being of residents, with decreasing productivity of farms and higher rates of respiratory disease and asthma, along with other heat-related diseases.

And climate change has seriously damaged one of the state’s natural wonders — that map on the truck driver’s bumper sticker reveals how climate change has shrunk the Great Salt Lake’s footprint by half in the last decades due to the reduced flow of mountain streams that feed the lake and higher demand for freshwater for new development and agriculture.

The crisis has also increased climate awareness in the state, with half of residents in a recent survey saying that climate change is an extremely or very serious problem and 64 percent saying they’ve noticed significant effects from climate change over the past 10 years. 

“For voters, climate has become a bigger issue than it has been in the past,” said Josh Kraft, government and corporate relations manager for Utah Clean Energy, a public interest group that launched a historic compact in 2020 that brought together more than 100 of the state’s political and business leaders to stimulate support for clean energy and energize conversations on climate action and clean air solutions.

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That bipartisan concern with climate change is now impacting politics in the state — where two self-professed climate candidates are running to replace Mitt Romney in the U.S. Senate. In total, there are five GOP candidates polling higher than 3 percent and three Democratic candidates running in the June 25 primary.

In the Republican primary, the frontrunner, U.S. Rep. John Curtis, is highlighting the need to address the climate crisis, pushing for more support for clean energy. He founded and leads the Conservative Climate Caucus in Congress and blames his party for not taking climate change seriously. 

“We want to work together as Republicans and Democrats, because at the end of the day, we all care about leaving the Earth better than we found it,” Curtis recently told the Sierra Club. “That’s how I talk about it — who doesn’t want to leave the Earth better than we found it?”

But climate activists are doubtful, claiming that Curtis is too reliant on industry-friendly solutions such as carbon capture and opposes some of President Biden’s signature climate accomplishments, including the Inflation Reduction Act. 

In the Democratic primary, mountaineer and environmental activist Caroline Gleich has made climate action and air quality a key focus of her campaign. She rallied lawmakers in the state to take action to increase water flow to the Great Salt Lake as part of a larger climate agenda that includes cutting subsidies for fossil fuels, taking advantage of Inflation Reduction Act funds aimed at increasing the use of renewable energy in the state, and protecting public lands. “Our mountains, our air, our rivers and lakes, our lives deserve respect,” Gleich has repeatedly said. 

Yet she sees a disconnect between public support for climate action and the policies pursued by the state’s political leadership, noting that the Legislature recently voted to increase the tax on EV charging and to reduce the tax on gasoline. “And when you look at who’s funding these candidates, you see there’s a huge amount of oil and gas and fossil fuel companies giving money to them,” Gleich said.

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Indeed, Curtis is a major recipient — his district includes an area known as Carbon County due to its abundance of coal and natural gas, and he has accepted $265,000 from oil and gas industry-linked political action committees since 2017. Curtis did not return calls from Capital & Main for comment.

Gleich’s view is echoed by Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group that distributes the Great Salt Lake bumper stickers. “We’re in a state of climate change denial — politicians might say that it’s real in an election year, but if we start asking them if we should embrace climate adaptive policies, they say no. They assume that any crisis is decades away.”

Frankel is encouraged by the growing public concern over climate issues, such as the shrinking Great Salt Lake — the largest remaining wetland ecosystem in the American West — and the growing frustration with the lack of action. 

“The state of Utah has refused to embrace any kind of meaningful policy plan to raise lake levels,” he said, predicting that “it will have to get worse before it gets better.”

As elsewhere in the country, younger voters in the state seem to be more galvanized than older voters about the issue and demanding action. At a climate strike on the steps of the Utah state house last year, activists condemned the Legislature for not making serious efforts to reduce emissions. A legislator’s move to slash emissions at U.S. Magnesium, which harvests lithium and magnesium from the Great Salt Lake, was scaled back to a mere study of the effects of pollutants created in the process. 

“Young people are disproportionately affected by eco-anxiety because it’s their future,” said Gleich, who at 38 is the youngest candidate in the Senate race. “That is what is on the line in this election.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline In Utah, climate concerns are now motivating candidates on Mar 24, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

How Biden’s infrastructure plan created a ‘climate time bomb’ in Black neighborhoods

Sat, 03/23/2024 - 06:00

This story was originally published by Capital B.

Nearly 45 years ago, the Acres Homes area north of Houston was the largest unincorporated Black community in the South, a thriving 9-square mile area where homeownership was the norm. That was until the city of Houston annexed it, and the Interstate 45 highway was built through its heart. 

In the aftermath, the community’s poverty rate has jumped to almost double the city’s average, and health ailments from pollution have increased. 

President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law, one of the nation’s most significant investments in curbing climate change, was supposed to consider the history of areas like Acres Homes in an attempt to make communities whole again. 

By creating a pathway to building the clean energy economy, from expanding electric school bus fleets to subways and mass transit options, it would also serve as a way to reverse the well-documented history of how the country’s highways ripped apart Black communities. As residents were displaced, homeownership chances were stunted, and Black people were left overexposed to pollution from cars and trucks and became most likely to die in car crashes.

Instead, the law is actually increasing pollution and contributing to the continued disruption and displacement of Black communities, according to a new report by the climate policy group Transportation for America.

According to the new report, what has primarily happened is a repeat of that history: freeways, highways, and more roads. Out of the more than 55,000 projects totaling roughly $130 billion implemented through the $1.2 trillion spending package, nearly half of the spending has been allocated to highway expansion.

The widening of Houston’s Interstate 45 highway expands a decades-long displacement of the region’s Black middle class, transit advocates said. Adam Paul Susaneck and Segregation by Design

However, less than three weeks following the report’s release, the Biden administration announced a $3.3 billion spending plan to “reconnect and rebuild communities” in more than 40 states disconnected by highways throughout the 20th century. Some of the spending’s most prominent focuses include Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, where public transit options will increase and some highways will be capped.  

Still, the spending pales in comparison to recent allocations to expand freeways.

Last year, the Biden administration supported a nearly $10 billion expansion of that same highway that tore through Acres Homes. The expansion led to the demolition of almost 1,000 homes in a majority Black and Latino community. 

It’s a mistake we’ve seen time and time again in this country, said Cherrelle J. Duncan, director of community engagement at LINK Houston, a policy organization focused on improving transit options in Houston’s Black and brown communities. 

“Highways and expanding them don’t make your communities easier or lessen traffic. It doesn’t make your cars move faster,” she explained. “All it does is increase our air pollution, our noise pollution, and it also just terribly affects Black communities and brown communities by pulling resources, and also making them quite literally bypass and drive right past our communities.”

A study by Air Alliance Houston, a nonprofit environmental justice group, found that levels of benzene, a carcinogen, will more than double at some schools along the expanded highway.

Nationwide, the highway investment will practically wipe out any positive climate benefits from other spending priorities. The simple result, the report found, is that the U.S. will generate more emissions from transportation, already its largest source of planet-heating gases, than if the bill hadn’t ever passed. By 2040, the pollution created from these projects will be equivalent to running 48 coal-fired power plants a year. 

The spending so far has created a “climate time bomb” that will also perpetuate the displacement of Black communities, the report concluded. 

It is even known to exacerbate climate concerns, like in Elba, Alabama, where Capital B reported on how a new highway expansion intensified a flooding crisis in a rural Black community, leading to fears that residents would be flooded out of their homes and displaced. 

Last month, a coalition of 200 climate organizations called for a national moratorium on highway expansions, particularly due to the harm they’ve caused in Black and brown communities. 

“We’re seeing how infrastructure literally tears us apart,” Duncan said. “We’ve created a division between communities so that we’re no longer able to interact with each other while making it harder to build climate resilience, to stop floods, or flee in times of disaster.” 

Why does this keep happening?

While the Department of Transportation under the Biden administration recommended that states prioritize repairing roads over expanding them and urged states to consider the impact on communities of color reeling from decades of division by highways, the spending bill granted states considerable discretion in allocating funds. 

As with many of Biden’s policies, it prompted a backlash from Republicans in Congress and was mostly overlooked by states such as Texas and even California, which received the most funds through the spending bill. At the same time, there has been little interest in improving access to public transit, which has taken a hit nationwide after the pandemic lowered commuter revenue. 

In Houston, Duncan has seen firsthand how the country’s renewed investment in highways over other transit options is disrupting a new generation of Black children. 

“If you have car-centric infrastructure,” Duncan said, “you’re simply going to have significantly worse air pollution, going to have more car crashes, and it’s all going to be centered in Black communities.” 

As Capital B reported last year, Black people are almost twice as likely as white people to die in car crashes.

The struggle to reconnect communities

There have been attempts nationwide to reconnect Black communities disrupted by freeways. In Detroit, for example, where a vibrant Black community was destroyed for a highway in the 1950s, there is a plan to eliminate the highway. The Biden administration has allocated $105 million to the project.

However, the plan is to replace the highway with a street that is six lanes wide and divided by a median for most of its length. Transit advocates say the current design is still too focused on the concerns of drivers. 

This pathway of “boulevardization” in communities disturbed by highways has been the main tactic implemented by cities across the country. This approach involves removing highway structures entirely and replacing them with urban boulevards, but as in the case of Detroit, it can still prioritize cars rather than city residents. In some cases, it has even led to gentrifying and displacing the very communities it aims to support.

Oakland lost dozens of Black households to the Cypress Freeway. By the time the city attempted to address the issue in the 1990s, it was too late. ourtesy of Adam Paul Susaneck and Segregation by Design

One of the earliest examples of boulevardization, which took place in Oakland, California, in the early 1990s and has been used as a prime example of the process’s success, actually led to the neighborhood’s Black population dropping by a third as the median household income increased by 55 percent between 1990 and 2010

It’s a perfect example of intention never being actualized because Black communities aren’t being listened to, Duncan said. 

“It’s critically important for every agency and city organization to involve diverse voices when it comes to planning transportation,” Duncan said. “If you are going to actively rip apart our communities and actively separate them by highways, the least that you can do is truly listen and engage them to ensure that these project fixes and policies don’t overlook us again.” 

Over the past year, Duncan’s organization has worked to collect community input for similar highway removal attempts and calls for investment in walkability and public transit; she hopes leaders will listen.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How Biden’s infrastructure plan created a ‘climate time bomb’ in Black neighborhoods on Mar 23, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

In Denver, e-bike vouchers run out as fast as Taylor Swift tickets

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 01:45

At 11 a.m. on the last Wednesday of February, Denver opened the first application window of the year for its e-bike rebate program, which offers residents upfront rebates of $300 to $1,400 for a battery-powered bicycle. Within three minutes, all of the vouchers for low and moderate income applicants had been claimed. By 11:08 a.m., the rebates for everyone else were gone too, and the portal closed. 

Even in its third year, Denver’s ambitious campaign to get residents to swap some of their driving for riding remains as popular as ever. “It’s exciting that people are really interested in this technology,” Mike Salisbury, the city’s transportation energy lead, told Grist. “Every trip we can convert to an e-bike will be a big climate win.”

Transportation is among the biggest sources, if not the biggest source, of a city’s carbon emissions. To cut that footprint, officials often turn to costly, intensive transit projects and building out electric vehicle infrastructure. Denver is doing those things, but also propping up smaller forms of mobility. It spent more than $7.5 million in just two years on e-bike vouchers, supporting the purchase of nearly 8,000 of the battery-powered bicycles, which can zip along at up to 28 mph, power up hills, and carry passengers or cargo. 

“We’re just very bullish on e-bikes,” said Salisbury. “They have this huge potential to replace vehicle trips.” 

The vouchers are saving some 170,000 miles in car trips per week and around 3,300 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to the city. Its Office of Climate Action, Sustainability, and Resiliency calls it “one of the most effective climate strategies that the city and county of Denver has deployed to date.” 

There are about 160 of these incentive programs across the U.S. and Canada, and while Denver wasn’t the first to implement one, the size and success of its undertaking has attracted the attention of other governments and utilities. Congress is taking note as well: California Representative Jimmy Panetta reintroduced the federal Electric Bicycle Incentive Kickstart for the Environment Act, or E-BIKE Act, which would offer a 30 percent federal tax credit for e-bike purchases, last year. 

Funded through a voter-approved $40 million Climate Protection Fund, which directs a portion of the city’s sales tax toward decarbonization initiatives, the program offers income-based rebates that can be redeemed at designated bike shops. Providing the discount at the register helps those who might otherwise be unable to afford the upfront cost, which typically begins around $1,200 and can reach several thousand dollars. 

Residents making less than 60 percent of the area median income of around $52,000 can get $1,200 for a standard e-bike and $1,400 for a cargo model (useful for carrying gear, making deliveries, or hauling kids). Moderate-income recipients receive between $700 or $900, and everyone else can get $300 or $500. Online applications open several times each year and vouchers are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Denver residents redeem the rebates of $300 to $1,400 directly at designated bike shops, alleviating the need to make a hefty upfront payment. Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post via Getty Images

The goal is to reduce emissions from the transportation sector, Denver’s second-largest contributor of greenhouse gases, by targeting short vehicle trips. According to Salisbury, 44 percent of residents’ trips are under 5 miles and most are under 10, feasible distances to travel on an e-bike.

“E-bikes aren’t going to replace every single trip for every single person,” he said. “But there’s this huge potential to replace, especially in an urban environment, shorter distance trips that someone is making by themselves. Or they can use an e-cargo bike to take their kids to school.”

That’s one of the many ways Jeff Gonzales, a marketing professional and father living near the University of Denver, uses the power-assisted bike that he bought two years ago with the help of a voucher. 

At the time, Gonzales drove a customized Toyota Tacoma pickup. “It was awesome, but it was a gas guzzler,” he told Grist. Gas was so expensive that he and his wife were trying to minimize their driving as much as possible. But their two toddlers were getting too heavy to tow with the family’s bike trailer, affectionately called “the chariot.” When an employee at his local bike shop mentioned the rebates for power-assisted bicycles, he decided to take one for a test ride. 

“I was like, ‘This is pretty cool,’ and then I asked them, ‘Can I hook the chariot behind it?’ They said ‘Absolutely.’” Gonzales sold his truck, applied for a voucher, and bought the bike. He began riding it to the grocery store, taking the kids to school, and even making the 24-mile round-trip commute to his office twice a week. 

“That first summer we had it, I think there were times that we didn’t get in the car for about two weeks at a time,” he said. 

After selling his pickup truck, Jeff Gonzales began using an e-bike to take his kids to school and commute to work. Courtesy of the City of Denver / Jeff Gonzales

In a 2023 survey of voucher recipients, 43 percent of respondents cited commuting as their primary reason for getting an e-bike, and 84 percent said the machines replaced at least one vehicle trip per week. The city estimates that recipients are eliminating a weekly average of 21 miles in their cars. 

Commuting on two wheels often allows riders to avoid traffic or take more direct routes than those offered by public transit. “People are sharing feedback with us on how it’s enabled them to get to their job much faster, easier, at a much lower cost, without having to make two or three transit transfers to get to a place,” said Salisbury. 

Gonzales said he often finds biking to work quicker, but even when the ride doesn’t save time, it’s more enjoyable. “It sucks to sit in traffic,” he said. “I’d rather be moving on a bike, and if I get tired, I can increase the power level, but I’m still moving.”

The clean energy nonprofit RMI found that if the country’s 10 most populous cities shifted a quarter of all short vehicle trips to e-bike rides, they could save 4.2 million barrels of oil and 1.8 million metric tons of CO2 in one year. That’s the equivalent of taking four natural gas plants offline. As an added bonus, those riders also would save a combined total of $91 million per month in avoided fuel and vehicle maintenance costs, according to RMI. 

But a recent study from Valdosta State University and Portland State University questions the cost effectiveness of achieving greenhouse gas emissions this way. “Even when e-bike incentive programs are designed cost-effectively,” the authors concluded, “the costs per ton of CO2 reduced still far exceed those of alternatives or reasonable social costs of GHG emissions.” A rebate program can still be beneficial, the study concludes, but may need to be justified through its additional benefits, like promoting exercise and relieving traffic congestion.

Salisbury said the report’s critique overlooks how cities must tackle emissions in multiple ways. “There are lots of other things the city is working on, like building bus rapid transit and other infrastructure, but those take a long time,” he said. “If we want to see reductions as soon as possible, we need to look at programs that can contribute to that right away.”

Read Next Why e-bike companies are embracing recycling while fighting repair

He also pointed out that increasing access to e-bikes takes specific aim at one of the city’s most difficult sectors to decarbonize. “Yes, it’s cheaper to invest in a solar array, but that’s not going to do anything for transportation emissions.” 

That’s not to say that getting residents to swap four wheels for two is as simple as doling out a voucher. E-bikes require infrastructure, including bike lanes that can accommodate both motorized and analog riders, as well as places to charge and safely store bikes. 

In the past five years, the city has added 137 miles of “high-comfort” bike lanes. Last month, it launched the Denver Mobility Incentive Program, offering grants to nonprofits and other organizations to install bike storage lockers, places to plug in, and even set up e-bike libraries where residents can borrow rides for free. 

“It’s all part of an ecosystem,” said Salisbury. “Dropping 8,000 e-bikes on the road would be much less effective if we didn’t have that co-developed infrastructure.”

Gonzales uses that infrastructure when he has to cut through busy downtown Denver to reach his office. “About 90 percent of the time I’m on protected bike lanes,” he said. “It makes me feel a lot more comfortable about biking 12 miles across town.” 

As part of its strategy to encourage bike commuting, Denver has added about 137 miles of “high-comfort” bike lanes in the last half decade. Hyoung Chang / The Denver Post via Getty Images

The city has also had to grapple with how to ensure that all residents can access the program. While more than 44 percent of the vouchers have gone to low-income applicants, the first-come, first-served application process has been criticized for favoring people with the time and computer access to log on as soon as the portal opens. And so far, the racial demographics of the recipients has not proven reflective of the city’s population. In 2023, only 8 percent of survey respondents were Latino and 3 percent were Black, while Denver’s population is 29 percent Latino and almost 9 percent Black. Despite offering up to $1,400 for adaptive bikes, the program has only distributed about 20 so far. 

In response, Denver has worked with community-based organizations to funnel rebates directly to people who might not know about or be able to apply for them. It plans to distribute 600 vouchers through such groups this year. 

The people least able to access the program may also be the ones who would put it to the most use. Survey results have indicated that applicants who received vouchers through community organizations are replacing 80 percent more vehicle miles than standard-voucher recipients. 

This also marks the first year that Denver will offer a specific rebate amount for moderate-income applicants, an attempt to address the “missing middle” of people who earn closer to the city’s median income but need a bit more help to afford a ride.

What the city will continue to struggle with this year is a demand for all levels of vouchers that far exceeds supply. The next round of applications will open on April 30. 

One of those applications might come from the Gonzales family. With a third baby now in tow, they’re thinking of getting a second power-assisted bike to transport the whole family. “When the little man gets bigger, we’d probably get another,” said Gonzales, especially if the city is still offering vouchers. “They’re not the cheapest things in the world, so the rebate program certainly helps.” 

toolTips('.classtoolTips1','Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other gases that prevent heat from escaping Earth’s atmosphere. Together, they act as a blanket to keep the planet at a liveable temperature in what is known as the “greenhouse effect.” Too many of these gases, however, can cause excessive warming, disrupting fragile climates and ecosystems.'); toolTips('.classtoolTips2','The process of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that drive climate change, most often by deprioritizing the use of fossil fuels like oil and gas in favor of renewable sources of energy.');

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline In Denver, e-bike vouchers run out as fast as Taylor Swift tickets on Mar 22, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

A loophole in the EPA’s new sterilizer rule leaves warehouse workers vulnerable

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 01:30

This story was produced in partnership with Atlanta News First.

Thousands of warehouse workers across the U.S. are likely regularly exposed to the cancer-linked chemical ethylene oxide. More than half of the country’s medical equipment is sterilized with the compound, which the EPA considers a carcinogen. Ethylene oxide evaporates off the surface of these medical products after they’ve been sterilized, creating potentially dangerous concentrations of air pollution in the buildings where they’re stored.

By and large, the EPA does not regulate these buildings — in fact, regulators don’t even know where most of them are. The Office of Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency in charge of worker protection that is known by its acronym, OSHA, has also done relatively little to evaluate worker exposure in these warehouses. But last week, OSHA opened a new investigation into a Georgia warehouse that stores medical devices sterilized with ethylene oxide, raising questions about whether the federal government is beginning to respond more quickly to these risks. 

On March 13, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Douglas County sheriff’s office assisted OSHA in executing a search warrant at a warehouse leased by the medical device company ConMed in Lithia Springs, 17 miles west of Atlanta. The surprise inspection was initiated almost two weeks after a Grist and Atlanta News First investigation revealed that workers employed by ConMed had been unknowingly exposed to the chemical. Ambulances were routinely called to the facility as workers convulsed from seizures, lost consciousness, and had trouble breathing.

The workers sued the company in 2020, but the lawsuit was ultimately dropped earlier this year after a judge dismissed some of their claims, citing state labor laws. (Under Georgia law, once employees seek workers’ compensation from the state, they are barred from suing employers separately.) ConMed denies the lawsuit’s allegations that it knowingly exposed workers to ethylene oxide and maintains that no individual medical emergency can be tied to exposure to the chemical. A company representative told Grist that it is “committed to fully complying” with all applicable regulations and conducts monthly ethylene oxide testing for its employees to review.

“Given our many years of full cooperation with OSHA, as well as the fact that OSHA has inspected our Lithia Springs facility five times since 2019, ConMed was surprised by the manner in which OSHA elected to inspect the facility on March 13,” a company representative told Grist in an email.

Ethylene oxide is a powerful fumigant, but it poses significant health risks and is linked to lung and breast cancers as well as diseases of the nervous system. Once medical devices are treated with ethylene oxide, the chemical continues to evaporate off the surface of the product as it moves through the supply chain. While the devices are trucked to warehouses, stored, and then shipped to hospitals, the products continue to quietly off-gas ethylene oxide, putting workers who come into contact with it at risk. 

Read Next An invisible chemical is poisoning thousands of unsuspecting warehouse workers &

In a new rule it published last week, the EPA said that it will begin regulating toxic emissions from warehouses located on the same site as the sterilizer plants that actually apply the chemical. However, the agency argued that constraints stemming from the regulatory definition of the sterilization industry mean that offsite warehouses will be excluded from oversight. Even if the agency could clear that bureaucratic hurdle, it does not have “sufficient information to understand where these warehouses are located, who owns them, how they are operated, or what level of emissions potential they may have,” in the agency’s words.

What little the EPA knows about the threat from offsite warehouses was gleaned from a study conducted by state regulators in Georgia. That effort initially identified seven off-site warehouses and found that at least one of the state’s warehouses was emitting more ethylene oxide than the sterilization plant that first treats the medical products before sending them out for storage. Federal officials will begin gathering data on warehouses, according to the new EPA rule, and use it to determine whether a completely new regulation governing storage facilities should be developed. Such a process could take years, according to experts who spoke to Grist. All the while, warehouse workers across the country will continue to inhale ethylene oxide, in many cases without their knowledge. 

“Up until eight years ago, a lot of people had no idea that the sterilizer facility, which looks like your regular office park facility, was poisoning them,” said Marvin Brown, an attorney with the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice. “Now we have this additional issue of these warehouses that are continuing to poison people, and most people have no idea that they live next to one or work at one.”

Brown and other experts Grist spoke to said the agency could take one of two approaches to regulating warehouses. It could expand the definition of regulated facilities under the sterilizer rule it finalized earlier this month, or it could create a new category of facilities that covers warehouses and develop a separate rule. Both come with challenges. 

Reopening a new rule that has already been finalized is tricky, according to Scott Throwe, a former EPA enforcement official who worked on a number of rules that the EPA rolled out in the decade after amendments to the Clean Air Act were passed in 1990. “It’s a huge can of worms,” he said. “Once you open a rule, then you have to fix this and you have to fix this. It snowballs.”

Alternatively, the EPA could draft a new rule entirely, he added, but the agency is unlikely to do that either, because of the sheer amount of effort such a process would take. Throwe said that the EPA’s decision not to include offsite warehouse regulations in its new rule means that the agency doesn’t have either the time, the resources, or the will to tackle those emissions at this time.

“They’re going to declare victory on this one and move on,” he said. “They ain’t reopening that rule unless someone sues them.”

A spokesperson for the EPA said that the agency has an “incomplete list” of warehouses and that it has not conducted any risk assessments of them. As a next step, the agency expects to follow up with sterilization companies that did not provide detailed information about the location of their warehouses in response to a 2021 request. Once those responses are received, the agency plans to conduct emissions testing at some of the warehouses. If the agency decides to pursue a separate rule for warehouses, that process could take four to five years, the spokesperson said. 

More than 50 percent of all U.S. medical supplies are sterilized by ethylene oxide. Getty Images

The rule governing medical sterilization facilities was one of the first industry-specific air quality regulations that the EPA ever crafted. In its amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990, Congress published a list of 189 toxic air pollutants and asked the agency to develop regulations for each industry emitting at least one of them. Officials published the first standards for medical sterilizers in 1994 with little fanfare, according to Throwe. At the time, regulators and toxicologists were unaware of the true risks of ethylene oxide, which was used to fumigate a range of materials, from books to spices to cosmetics. With the new law giving the agency just a decade to craft dozens of new regulations, officials rushed the process, sacrificing the efficacy of some standards along the way.

“It was like drinking from a firehose,” Throwe said. “Unrealistic statutory deadlines became court-ordered deadlines.”

Drafting new regulations for a polluting industry, regulators quickly learned, was a lot of work. In addition to collecting and analyzing copious amounts of data on a particular type of plant’s emissions and configuration, officials had to consult engineering experts to understand what kinds of technologies they could ask companies to use to control their emissions. Decades later, the process for revising these regulations to better protect exposed communities is no different. It took the EPA almost a decade to publish its new sterilizer regulations, and it did so under a court-ordered due date after missing a previous deadline to update the rule. If the agency were to issue a new rule for warehouses, the time and resource commitment would be steep, Throwe said.

While the EPA is not responsible for worker safety, it has found a roundabout way to increase protections for those coming in close contact with ethylene oxide. Since ethylene oxide is a fumigant, the agency is also pursuing separate oversight under a federal pesticide law. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act requires the agency to evaluate pesticides every 15 years and determine where, how, and how much of a given pesticide may be used. In April, the EPA proposed a new set of requirements including reducing the amount of ethylene oxide used for sterilization and mandating that workers wear protective equipment while engaging in tasks where there is a high risk of exposure to the chemical. Since the law applies to all facilities where ethylene oxide is used — not just sterilization plants — warehouse workers could benefit from the requirements once it is finalized.  

Some state and local agencies are proactively regulating warehouses themselves. After the Georgia Environmental Protection Division found that one warehouse was estimated to emit about nine times as much ethylene oxide as the facility that sterilized it, the agency began trying to find similarly dangerous warehouses. After scouring the internet and reaching out to companies, the agency identified four warehouses that were emitting more ethylene oxide than permitted under state law. The agency is now in the process of issuing permits and requiring controls for those facilities. 

In Southern California, which has a large concentration of sterilization facilities, the local air quality regulator has included requirements for offsite warehouses in a rule that primarily targets sterilization plants. The rule categorizes warehouses into two tiers — those with an indoor space of 250,000 square feet or more and those with between 100,000 and 250,000 square feet. Depending on the size of the facility, the warehouses are subject to different reporting and monitoring requirements. In the course of developing the rule, the agency identified 28 warehouses that fall into one of these two tiers. The agency finalized the rule in December, and larger warehouses will be studied for a year to determine whether they emit significant amounts of ethylene oxide.

Editor’s note: Earthjustice is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A loophole in the EPA’s new sterilizer rule leaves warehouse workers vulnerable on Mar 22, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Plastic chemicals are inescapable — and they’re messing with our hormones

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 01:15

If you were to create a recipe for plastics, you’d need a very big cookbook. In addition to fossil fuel-based building blocks like ethylene and propylene, this ubiquitous material is made from a dizzying amalgam of more than 16,000 chemicals — colorants, flame retardants, stabilizers, lubricants, plasticizers, and other substances, many of whose exact functions, structures, and toxicity are poorly understood.

What is known presents many reasons for concern. Scientists know, for example, that at least 3,200 plastic chemicals pose risks to human health or the environment. They know that most of these compounds can leach into food and beverages, and that they cost the U.S. more than $900 billion in health expenses annually. Yet only 6 percent of plastic chemicals — which can account for up to 70 percent of a product’s weight — are subject to international regulations.

Over the past few months, a flurry of studies and reports have highlighted one group of substances as particularly problematic: “endocrine-disrupting chemicals,” or EDCs. These chemicals, released at every stage of the plastic life cycle, mimic hormones and interfere with the metabolic and reproductive systems. They were recently found in samples of plastic food packaging from around the world, and a study published last month linked them to 20 percent  the United States’ preterm births

The unchecked production, distribution, and disposal of plastics and other petrochemical-based products has led to “a perpetual cycle of human exposure to EDCs from contaminated air, food, drinking water, and soil,” Tracey Woodruff, a professor of reproductive sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month. Philip Landrigan, a public health physician and professor of epidemiology at Boston College, told Grist that the crisis has “quietly and insidiously gotten worse while all attention has been focused on the climate.”

Although some policymakers have taken steps to protect people from EDCs — the European Commission, for example, in 2022 proposed stricter labeling regulations that would require companies to alert consumers of their hazards — many in the field believe the overarching response has been incommensurate with the scale of the crisis. Because so many plastics and petrochemical products are traded internationally, some endocrinologists and public health authorities believe a global approach is needed. 

“This is an international problem that is affecting our world and its future,” said Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Texas, Austin.

Plastic covering a beach in Lima, Peru. Ernesto Benavides / AFP via Getty Images

Gore and others are appealing to the negotiators of the U.N. global plastics treaty, who meet for their next round of talks next month in Ottawa, Canada. There is increasing interest among delegates for a treaty that not only protects the environment, but public health — a step that the international nature of the EDC problem makes clear must be taken.

The endocrine system is complex, involving a series of glands throughout the body that secrete chemical messengers called hormones. These molecules lock onto a cell’s receptors to induce some kind of response: perhaps the production of another hormone, or the correction of a nutrient imbalance. Endocrine hormones control a long list of necessary human functions like growth, metabolism, reproduction, lactation, and managing blood sugar —  any malfunction, let alone absence, of these processes can lead to health problems like infertility, diabetes, hypertension, and death.

EDCs tamper with the endocrine system, often by mimicking hormones to trigger the corresponding response, or by blocking them to prevent it from happening at all. Research has identified at least 1,000 of these substances in pesticides, inks, building materials, cosmetics, and plastic products, but the nonprofit Endocrine Society, whose members include physicians and scientists, calls this “only the tip of the iceberg” due to the enormous number of chemicals yet to be tested.

Some of the most common or familiar EDCs found in plastics include phthalates, used to make the material more flexible; bisphenol A, or BPA, used to make strong, clear products; and PFAS, a class of more than 14,000 chemicals used to make food containers, outdoor clothing, and other products oil- or water-repellent. Other EDCs of concern include organophosphate ethers, benzotriazoles, and PBDEs, all of which are used to make plastic products fire- and light-resistant. 

What makes this particularly worrisome is that humans can be exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals simply by touching plastic, inhaling microplastics within dust, and eating food or drinking water that has been in contact with plastic. According to one 2022 study, more than 1,000 chemicals — including many EDCs — commonly used in packaging like takeout containers can migrate into food. A separate study from 2021 found that more than 2,000 chemicals can leach from a single plastic product into water.

As noted in a report published last month by the Endocrine Society and the nonprofit International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN, exposure to endocrine-disrupting substances can occur throughout the plastic life cycle. Fracking for oil and gas — the material’s main ingredients — uses more than 750 chemicals, many of which are known or suspected endocrine disruptors, and people living near these operations may have an elevated risk of developmental or reproductive problems. More EDCs are released during plastics manufacturing, sometimes in air and water emissions, other times on the backs of nurdles, tiny plastic pellets that can be shaped into larger products. These pebble-sized pieces often spill directly from factories or during transportation, and can release their chemicals once in the environment.

Volunteers pick up plastic nurdles at a beach in Tarragona, Spain. Josep Lago / AFP via Getty Images

At the end of the plastic life cycle, incinerators and landfills can release PFAS, dioxins, PCBs, and other endocrine disruptors as air or soil pollution — some of which may contaminate nearby food supplies. Littered plastics tend to make their way into the ocean, where they break down into microplastics and leach some of those same EDCs, along with others like dibutyltin and mercury.

Those facing the greatest risk tend to be residents of low-income communities and people of color. “They’re more likely to be living in areas where there’s more pollution,” Gore said — like from nearby plastics manufacturing facilities or waste disposal sites. Plus, she added, low-income families often live without easy access to fresh produce and are more dependent on foods packaged in plastic. “We know people of lower socioeconomic status have disproportionate exposures.”

Reducing exposure to endocrine disruptors presents a challenge for several reasons. The biggest is the U.S. and other countries’ lax approach to chemical regulation, which doesn’t usually require that new compounds be tested for endocrine-disrupting properties or other safety concerns before they can enter production and get incorporated into products. “Right now we operate on the basis that all chemicals are innocent until proven guilty,” Landrigan told Grist.

Even when scientists agree that something is harmful, bureaucratic delays and industry lobbying often impede regulation. The Toxics Substances Control Act, or TSCA — the United States’ main chemical law — has for example only banned a handful substances in the nearly 50 years since it was passed, a period in which at least 100,000 new chemicals have entered the market, according to Landrigan. This is partly due to the unrealistic expectation that scientists draw a direct, causal link between a substance and specific health effects, which would require unethically exposing people to toxicants and observing the outcomes.

Another unfortunate side effect of that expectation is a phenomenon called “regrettable substitution,” where companies swap chemicals known to be harmful for lookalikes that haven’t been studied as extensively. Later research often reveals the substitute is just as toxic as the original, if not more so. This has occurred on a wide scale with EDCs such as PFAS, as well as bisphenols — although now that several countries have restricted BPA from plastic products like baby bottles, products labeled (often inaccurately) as free from that substance are now being manufactured with bisphenol S, despite research suggesting it also disrupts the endocrine system.

Read Next Small victories and major frustrations mark latest round of plastics treaty negotiations

Some scientists accuse the chemical industry of “weaponizing uncertainty” to delay or kill regulation, a strategy they liken to Big Oil’s campaign to raise doubt about the reality of climate change. But for many EDCs in particular, they agree there is strong enough associative evidence of their harms — from cell and animal studies, as well as observations in people who have been exposed to the chemicals at work or as a result of an accident — to warrant bans and restrictions.

Scientists and public health advocates have been trying to reform chemical regulations for years now, but the U.N.’s global plastics treaty presents an opportunity to do so on an international level. “A global treaty can’t reform TSCA,” Landrigan said, “but it can set benchmarks telling countries that if they want to ship their products internationally, they have to conform to certain standards.”

One leading proposal for the treaty is that negotiators create a comprehensive inventory of the many chemicals used in plastic production, along with a list of “chemicals of concern” identifying which should be prioritized for phasing out. According to Sara Brosché, a science adviser for IPEN, this list should include classes of chemicals rather than individual ones. “EDCs would be one very clear category” to be phased out, she told Grist, along with carcinogens and so-called “persistent organic pollutants” that don’t break down naturally in the environment.

Scientists also support listing and phasing out “polymers of concern,” the types most likely to contain EDCs and other hazardous substances. Polyvinyl chloride, for example — frequently used in plastic water pipes — can expose people to endocrine disruptors including benzene, phthalates, and bisphenols.

So far, these ideas have only been suggested for inclusion in the treaty; negotiators don’t even have a first draft yet, and are still debating whether the primary goal should be to “end plastic pollution” or to “protect human health and the environment … by ending plastic pollution.” The existing text, a laundry list of nearly every suggestion made thus far, leaves plenty of room for countries to simply “minimize,” “manage,” or vaguely “regulate” hazardous plastic chemicals, rather than eliminate them altogether. The final draft is due by year’s end, though many expect an extension, with further negotiations continuing into 2025.

To Landrigan and many others, the most important thing is that the treaty include a global cap on plastic production, which could triple by 2060 to more than 1.2 billion metric tons annually if current trends continue. That’s the weight of more than 118,000 Eiffel Towers. “We see the current exponential increase in plastic production as simply not sustainable,” he said. “It will overwhelm the planet.” Less plastic will mean fewer opportunities for EDC exposure, he added. And that will surely save lives.

toolTips('.classtoolTips4','An acronym for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS are a class of chemicals used in everyday items like nonstick cookware, cosmetics, and food packaging that have proven to be dangerous to human health. Also called “forever chemicals” for their inability to break down over time, PFAS can be found lingering nearly everywhere — in water, soil, air, and the blood of people and animals.
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This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Plastic chemicals are inescapable — and they’re messing with our hormones on Mar 22, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

It’s official: US air quality got worse in 2023

Fri, 03/22/2024 - 01:00

When it comes to air quality, neighboring countries are in it together. In 2023, wildfire smoke from across the Canadian border became a primary source of air pollution in major U.S. cities, according to a report released this week. 

The annual World Air Quality Report by IQAir, a Swiss air quality technology company, showed that U.S. residents enjoyed cleaner air in 2023 than 75 percent of the 134 countries and territories measured. However, the report also found that most of the U.S. had almost double the levels of air pollution deemed acceptable by the World Health Organization, or WHO. The overall amount of unhealthy air nationwide crept up slightly from the previous year, but some cities, such as Milwaukee, saw up to a 50 percent increase. The report found that although air quality still suffered from the usual climate-change worsening culprits, such as fossil fuel industries, smoke from Canadian wildfires was behind many of these spikes.

Extended exposure to air pollution is deadly, causing more than 8 million estimated deaths worldwide every year, and has been linked to a myriad of health problems, such as respiratory diseases and cancers. Studies have shown days with higher air pollution can lower student test scores and spike emergency room visits for heart problems. 

“We really want to encourage people to treat air quality just like they would treat the weather, look to see what the air quality is before you spend extensive time outdoors,” Christi Chester Schroeder, an air quality science manager at IQAir, told Grist.

For its report, IQAir collected data from over 30,000 monitoring stations around the world. Annual pollution averages for each country and territory were based on measured amounts of PM2.5, or fine particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or smaller. When inhaled, these tiny, invisible particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream. According to guidelines set by WHO, yearly air pollution averages should not exceed 5 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air. U.S. residents are exposed to almost double that.

A scientist points to an air pollution map at a monitoring station in Boulder, Colorado, in 2023. Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

For most of 2023, PM2.5 levels across the country averaged about 9.1 micrograms per cubic meter of air, with the worst air concentrated in large cities including Washington, D.C., and New York City. The report showed pollution levels spiked in the summer, when hot, stagnant air and sunshine can interact with pollutants to create pockets of unhealthy air. In Washington, D.C., and Chicago, PM2.5 levels more than doubled in June, up to over five times WHO guidelines. Columbus, Ohio, was the most polluted U.S. city for the second year in a row. 

But the IQAir report also contained good news for the U.S.: Aggressive wildfire mitigation efforts seem to be working, which led to a less severe fire season and cleaner air on the West Coast as compared to previous years. In Portland, Oregon, PM2.5 levels dropped by almost 40 percent, while Los Angeles saw a 10 percent decrease. Of the 25 most populated cities in the U.S., Las Vegas had the cleanest air.

According to Schroeder, “A big theme of this year’s report was transboundary haze,” a term that describes when smoke travels across borders. This past summer, Canada endured its worst wildfire season on record. As the blazes tore through 5 percent of the country’s forests, they created huge plumes of soot that drifted into the eastern U.S., blanketing New York City in an orange haze and impacting air quality as far south as Florida.

“The wind is the most efficient transportation system on earth,” said Joel Thornton, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Washington. Even though large wildfires have become an unsurprising reality, Thornton found that last year’s in Canada were unprecedentedly bad. As forests continue to be unseasonably drier and warmer due to climate change, the stage is set for these fires to get even worse, he said. “It’s a harbinger of what’s to come.” 

Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized new standards for air pollution, bringing the annual average limit down from 12 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air to 9 micrograms. The new target still exceeds the WHO’s guidelines of 5 micrograms, but could still bring huge improvements. According to the Biden administration, the new rules would prevent an estimated 4,500 premature deaths every year and save billions in health costs. To reflect their tightened standards, the EPA also updated the Air Quality Index, a handy color-coded scale that runs from green (“good”) to maroon (“hazardous”). 

Experts like Thornton say that wildfires may hamper efforts to meet the EPA’s new standard, even as government regulations, such as the Clean Air Act, have made U.S. air safer than most of the world’s. “Wildfires are basically wiping out a lot of that progress,” Thornton said. A 2023 study published in Nature found that wildfire smoke undid almost 25 percent of air quality improvements since 2000. 

Currently, the EPA does not take pollution levels from wildfires into account in its regulatory actions, as part of an “Exceptional Event Rule” that kicks in when natural disasters skew environmental data. As the weather warms and fire season inches closer, fire management strategies may become key to sparing communities from blazes and unsafe air alike.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline It’s official: US air quality got worse in 2023 on Mar 22, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Santander has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in LNG buildout in the Gulf

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 07:44

This story was produced by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and is being co-published with Grist.

Santander exploited loopholes in its own climate policy in order to help raise billions for facilities relying on fracked U.S. gas. The bank then quietly watered down the same policy, making it easier to finance fracking directly in future, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, or TBIJ, can reveal.

The financing was for projects relating to liquified natural gas, or LNG, terminals, huge industrial plants that take gas — much of it from the region’s many fracking sites — and cool it into liquid form before loading it on to tankers to be shipped around the world.

If all the Gulf Coast’s numerous LNG projects are completed, they would form a “carbon bomb” with associated annual emissions of over a billion metric tons of CO2, more than that of Russia. Local residents have complained of air pollution, dirty water, and serious health risks for their families.

Last year, Santander was one of the banks involved in raising at least $28 billion for LNG terminals on the Texas and Louisiana coastlines. At the time, its policy prohibited the financing of projects involved in the expansion of oil and gas extraction from fracking. While the LNG projects did not directly involve fracking, they rely on fracked gas and form an essential part of the production and distribution process.

Earlier this year, Santander then changed its policy without announcing it publicly. A footnote was added to its “prohibited activities” section, stating that exceptions in relation to fracking “may be considered” subject to factors including energy security and local development.

The bank also rowed back on its acknowledgment of the “foundational” role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, in international climate agreements such as the Paris Accord. The IPCC is recognized as the world’s most authoritative scientific body on the causes and consequences of climate change.

The news follows TBIJ’s revelations that Santander helped coordinate a billion-dollar bond to expand the operations of PetroPerú, a national oil company with a major pipeline slicing through vital wetlands supposedly protected by the bank’s climate policy.

Santander told TBIJ: “While we cannot comment on specific clients or transactions, all financing decisions are guided by a strict policy framework approved by our board of directors. Our lending policies are reviewed regularly by the board to ensure the bank can support clients and markets in different stages of transition and help stimulate the growth needed to enable the required investment.”

Read Next ‘Death stars on sinking land’: How liquefied natural gas took over the Gulf Coast &

Quentin Aubineau, a policy analyst at financial campaign group BankTrack, described Santander’s policy as “highly problematic.” Its prohibited activities focus narrowly on gas extraction, he explained, but new LNG terminals — which the policy allows the financing of — require an increase in extraction to make them economically viable.

“Even if these transactions did not breach Santander’s ESG [environmental, social, and governance] policy, they highlight Santander’s lack of ambition,” he said, adding that the exclusions for some unconventional oil and gas projects are “highly insufficient.”

Ulf Erlandsson, CEO of the Anthropocene Fixed Income Institute think tank, said Santander’s lending operations looked like a “nominal breach” of its policies and had cost the bank some credibility.

He added that the bank’s practices were “largely in conjunction with a number of other European institutions with far-reaching sustainability commitments” since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he said has “shifted the table on energy in Europe.”

Problematic projects

LNG development on the Gulf Coast was spurred by the country’s fracking boom in the mid-2000s, but operations have ramped up particularly again in the wake of the Russian invasion, with the U.S. moving to present itself as an alternative global source of gas. There are five terminals in operation, four more being built, and another seven that have been green-lit.

But the climate consequences are huge, and in January, Joe Biden paused the approval of any new projects.

As well as encouraging the expansion of fracking activity — a hugely polluting process that contributes to global heating — the LNG facilities that Santander has helped finance have also caused issues more locally.

The Calcasieu Pass LNG project in Louisiana, for instance, which raised a $1 billion bond with banks including Santander last year, has been linked to near-constant gas flaring, excessive emissions, and the risks of explosion. Venture Global LNG, which owns the plant, has said it is not fully operational due to faulty power equipment.

Roishetta Ozane, who lives inland from Calcasieu Pass and is Gulf fossil finance coordinator for Texas Campaign for the Environment, told TBIJ that doctors said local air and water pollution had caused an increase in her 18-year-old epileptic son’s seizures.

“He goes fishing but he can’t eat the fish,” she said. “Because I’m afraid if he gets too much mercury in his system, too much of the other pollution in the water, that is going to further exacerbate his seizures.”

Last year, Santander helped lead on a $7.8 billion finance package for the Plaquemines LNG project in Louisiana, which is poised to become one of the largest fracked gas export terminals in the U.S.

The terminal has already drawn millions of gallons of water away from the local municipal supply. Total greenhouse gas emissions from burning fracked gas as a result of expanding the terminal would be equivalent to 42 coal plants, according to an analysis by the environmental group Sierra Club.

Members of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe protest outside the White House against fossil fuel activity in Texas. Allison Bailey / NurPhoto / Alamy

Santander was also part of a banking collective that lent $7 billion to Port Arthur LNG, a terminal being built in southeast Texas. Bigger still was the $12 billion package for the Rio Grande terminal near Texas’ border with Mexico, which Santander was also involved in. That project is served by pipelines that pass close to Garcia Pasture, the ancestral land of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe, which challenged the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for not adequately measuring the LNG plant’s environmental impacts.

Santander told TBIJ it is “fully committed to supporting a fair and secure green transition.” It added: “We also set clear emissions reduction targets across a range of high-emitting sectors.”

Sempra Infrastructure, the company behind Port Arthur, told TBIJ it was committed to providing “secure, reliable energy” and was exploring options to lower the carbon intensity of its LNG. It said that LNG “will continue to play a key role in both developed and emerging markets worldwide.”

TBIJ made several attempts to contact Venture Global, the owner of the Calcasieu Pass and Plaquemines projects, and Next Decade, which owns Rio Grande LNG, but the companies had not responded by the time of publication.

Aubineau said Santander and commercial banks in general should not only exclude companies developing new oil and gas exploration and production from their financing policies, but the companies developing infrastructure that supports increased production too.

Erlandsson said: “With controversy also domestically on U.S. LNG terminals, to the degree that even the Biden administration has put a pause of further LNG terminal expansion, arguments that this type of financing generates material adverse effects cannot be brushed off.”

For Ozane and her community, the banks financing the LNG buildout on the Gulf Coast are deliberately putting profits over people: “While communities of color and low-income communities are fighting for our lives on the front line of climate change, these banks continue to fund the fossil fuel industries. They continue to target low-income, low-wealth Black, Indigenous, and other people of color communities, treating us like collateral damage to corporate profiteering.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Santander has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in LNG buildout in the Gulf on Mar 21, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

They thought getting their home off fossil fuels would be straightforward. Chaos ensued.

Thu, 03/21/2024 - 01:45

This story was produced by Grist and co-published with The Guardian.

My wife and I live in a green, two-story colonial at the end of a cul-de-sac in Burlington, Vermont. Each spring, the front of our home is lined with lilacs, crocuses, and peonies. The backyard is thick with towering black locust trees. We occasionally spot a fox from our office windows, or toddlers from the neighborhood daycare trundling through the woods. It’s an alarmingly idyllic home, with one exception: It runs on natural gas.

The boiler, which heats our house and our water, burns it. So do the stove and the dryer and even the fireplace in the living room. Some 60 percent of American residences are similarly reliant on gas, the primary component of which is the potent greenhouse gas methane. This dependence on fossil fuels didn’t particularly faze us in the past. When we had to replace the furnace in our last place in late 2018, it was the easiest option. Same for the other appliances. At least it wasn’t oil, we told ourselves. It didn’t help that our contractors weren’t well-versed in alternatives and that our decisions were sometimes necessarily made in haste. When we did have time to explore switching to cleaner sources, the price tag often gave us pause. Can an induction stove really be that expensive? 

Five years later, the landscape had shifted. The world was climbing dangerously toward 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, and residential energy use accounted for one-sixth of all planet-heating emissions in the United States. We also wanted to start a family, and burning methane indoors can have potentially profound effects on human health. Then came the Inflation Reduction Act, which unleashed billions of federal dollars to help make cleaner technologies more ubiquitous and affordable than ever before. By early last year, we were ready to decarbonize.

Read Next He wanted to get his home off fossil fuels. There was just one problem.

I harbored no illusions that it would be the simple “five-step” process some advocates imply it is. But, as climate journalists, my wife and I figured a few weeks’ research and planning ought to get us most of the way there. What unfolded was more than a year of cascading decisions and obstacles that strained our wallets,  tested our notions of comfort and sacrifice. While the late nights buried to my knuckles in spreadsheets calculating the payback periods on heat pumps and solar panels were, dare I say, fun, my nerves began to fray when the solar company we wanted to hire abruptly went out of business. They nearly broke when I saw what all of this would cost and shattered when I thought we’d have to upgrade the electrical panel. My wife found her limit when we were forced to choose between cutting emissions or cutting trees. 

Frazzled and flustered, I sought help.

“I’m not surprised,” David Lis with Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships said of my predicament. Once people discover that going electric is an option, most run headlong into the complexities. “Your experience of having to navigate a lot of market actors is a big barrier.” 

With each step, however, we became increasingly confident that decarbonization was possible. The question quickly became whether we were willing to bear the cost.

Every year, homes in the U.S. produce nearly 900 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s about twice as much as all of France. One-third of those emissions are the result of directly burning natural gas and other fossil fuels onsite. The remainder comes from generating the electricity residences consume. 

Our house is fairly typical. It was built in 1940, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and 1,672 square feet of living space. We combust about 65,000 cubic feet of gas each year keeping warm, cooking meals, and doing laundry, or about the norm in the Northeast. Going electric would shift those emissions to the cleanest grid in the country; almost all of Vermont’s electricity comes from renewable sources. Those savings are why climate advocates often push people to “electrify everything.” But doing that can, as we found out, become comically complicated.

Cristina Spanò

“It’s definitely important to have a plan going in,” said Cora Wyent, director of research for the electrification nonprofit Rewiring America, which recently released a personal electrification planner to help people plot their path to decarbonization. I reached Wyent about halfway through ours and wished I had found her sooner. Making a roadmap, she said, helps folks maximize incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA, some of which can be redeemed multiple times because they reset annually. It also can help avoid unexpected, and often costly, electrical work to ensure your house can supply the needed power, said Wyent. “Making a plan can also help you stay within the limits of your electric panel.”

As for what to prioritize, she says that depends on your motivation. If your goal is minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, for example, ditching fossil fuel heating would likely have the largest impact. Those concerned about indoor air quality might prefer to start with appliances (particularly stoves). If in doubt, electrifying whenever something breaks is often the simplest pathway to a lower-carbon home.

“When it dies, electrify,” quipped Wyent. That approach means paying only for things that need replacing anyway, and can split the unwieldy into smaller, more manageable projects. It’s where we decided to start early last year when our water heater was aging to the point of hazard. Then we’d turn to the stove and our heating system, in no particular order. The dryer was less urgent, but needed to go for us to disconnect the gas line. We also knew we wanted to get as much work done as possible while we were making other renovations, especially because we now had a baby on the way. We were in the fortunate position of having enough cash from the sale of our previous home that financing wasn’t an immediate barrier, so long as we decided an investment was worth it.

Our first foray into discarding gas was installing a heat pump water heater. It works a bit like an air conditioner in reverse by drawing warmth from the surrounding air to bring water up to temperature, and the technology is growing in popularity. Not only are heat pumps energy-efficient, they also can do a bit of dehumidification, which our musty basement sorely needed. The process went deceptively smoothly.

We gathered several quotes — something Wyent and others told me is critical to managing costs. The lowest was $2,825 to install a 50-gallon tank, a price that was on the high end of Energy Star guidance but hundreds less than the others. A $600 instant rebate from the state and an $800 post-purchase one from the city brought the figure to $1,425. I happened to have a friend who needed one too, so we both got another $150 off for doing them together. The IRA provides a tax credit of 30 percent of the total cost (up to $2,000), though we won’t get it until after we file our taxes. 

All told, the bill will come to $428, plus a couple hundred more to have an electrician wire it. Installation took less than a day and the water heater is now humming happily in our basement. Although the emissions savings will be negligible because we still need our boiler for space heating, it was a confident first stride toward reducing our dependence on gas. 

Buoyed by the success, we took aim at the stove and the dryer. 

Electrifying appliances isn’t yet a major climate win. The average dryer uses around 2,000 cubic feet of natural gas a year, with CO2 emissions roughly equivalent to driving about 300 miles. Gas stoves consume about the same amount. At best, going electric fully displaces those greenhouse gases. But the advantages are even smaller beyond Vermont, where local utilities aren’t as clean. The nation still generates 60 percent of its electricity with fossil fuels (43 percent of it from natural gas) and until that changes, junking a gas stove is roughly a wash for the planet.

Our main motivation for jettisoning gas appliances was the blinking light on our air purifier. We’d read the research showing that cooking over gas produces benzene and nitrogen dioxide. But seeing that little diode change from a soft blue to a harsh red every time we cooked was a menacing reminder of the risks. It grew even more unsettling when we found out we’d become parents, as gas stoves have been linked to nearly 13 percent of the nation’s childhood asthma cases.

The consensus among climate experts and, perhaps equally importantly, chefs is that the best alternative is an induction stove, which uses electromagnetic energy to heat cookware. It requires less energy than a traditional electric range and offers greater temperature control. But as we started exploring options, we quickly realized the technology doesn’t come cheap. The least expensive models start at around $1,100, or almost twice the price of a basic gas stove. Advocates of the tech say prices should come down as it becomes more widespread, but that didn’t do us much good, and our city’s rebate was just $200. We hoped Black Friday would further blunt the financial blow, though that meant waiting a few months. We used the time to weigh whether we wanted features such as a convection oven (we did) and, come November, headed to Lowe’s. 

Given my proclivity for buying power tools I don’t need, my wife hustled me directly to the appliances. Alas, the store had just one induction model on display, and it wasn’t the one we wanted. But the conventional stoves were similar enough that we could get a sense of how the induction version might feel in the kitchen. After much pressing, twisting, hemming, and hawing, we chose a Samsung induction model with knobs rather than buttons, which we knew from a relative’s experience could be finicky. The list price was $2,249, but we got it for nearly half off with the holiday sale.

On the way out, we solved our dryer dilemma when we happened upon a well-reviewed electric model similarly marked down to just $648. We pulled out our phones and compared it to a heat pump dryer, which would have used less electricity and spared us the trouble of installing another outlet and a vent. But aside from being considerably more expensive (even with an extra state rebate), the heat pump version had just half the capacity. Given the mountains of laundry newborns produce, we chose the traditional tech, with the hope that larger models are available next time we need a dryer. 

Leaving the store, I nearly blew our savings on a track saw. Good job I showed restraint, as installing outlets to power our purchases was much more expensive than expected. The electrician charged more than $600 for the stove hookup, and the dryer outlet, when our basement revamp is ready to accommodate it, will likely run about the same. Although that’s about two-thirds the cost of appliances, we saw the benefits of ditching gas almost immediately.

My wife does most of the cooking and swoons when she switches on an induction burner. Water boils far faster than with the gas stove and even more quickly than in our electric kettle. “It feels almost instant,” she said. “The bubbles are crazy.” The heat is also precise enough to keep pasta sauce at a simmer and food perfectly warm while we gather our dinner plates. 

Best of all, it’s been months since we’ve seen the red light on our air purifier. 

Cristina Spanò

With the relatively small stuff tackled, that left our biggest energy glutton: the heating system.

Heating and cooling account for more than half of a typical home’s energy use, according to Department of Energy data from 2020. Given that our gas meter hardly budges during our northern Vermont summers, it’s safe to assume the vast majority of our methane usage goes toward heating. That amounts to about 3.6 metric tons of planet-warming gases annually, or roughly what we’d spew driving 9,200 miles. That carbon footprint would largely disappear if we went electric. 

We started with a home energy audit to ensure we didn’t have any major weatherization issues to fix. Sealing leaks, experts say, can be among the easiest and most cost-effective ways to reduce your energy bills and carbon footprint. The auditor deemed our house moderately porous — no surprise, given its age — but didn’t see anything obvious to plug. He said it wasn’t bad enough to warrant a big investment like new windows, but he did suggest insulating the basement, which we’ll get to eventually. 

Our basement, with a boiler and old water heater. Tik Root

Our boiler, like other modern gas heating systems, converts around 90 percent the energy it uses to heat. That sounds great until you realize that heat pumps can be two to five times more efficient. This seeming feat of alchemy is possible because heat pumps transfer heat rather than create it — they push warmth into a building to bring the temperature up, or draw warmth out of to cool it. Heat pumps are also great for retrofitting a home because they can be used with or without ducts in the floors or walls. 

They come in two basic flavors. To extract, or sink, heat, ground-source heat pumps rely on a network of tubing buried a few feet to a few hundred feet underground, where temperatures rarely fluctuate. Also known as geothermal, these systems circulate a mixture of water and antifreeze through the loop and back to the house. Air-source models instead utilize ambient air as their source.

Geothermal systems are more efficient, quieter, and last longer than their air-source counterparts. Because subterranean temperatures remain relatively constant, the weather also doesn’t affect how they operate. Although the buried piping can last 50 years or more (the components inside the house last about half that), installing it requires expensive drilling or digging. Contractors told us that outfitting the average home with geothermal can run $25,000 to $45,000 or more, even with government rebates and incentives.

“The higher upfront costs are the main reason I typically don’t talk to people about geothermal,” Wyent told me. But, if you can afford the initial financial hit and plan to be in your house long enough to reap a slower payback, they’re definitely worth considering. “The efficiency is fantastic.”

Compared to geothermal, air-source models use more power, have a lifespan of around 15 years, and lose some efficiency in very cold weather. But they generally run tens of thousands of dollars less — a factor that helps make them much more common, with sales outpacing gas boilers last year. It largely drove our decision as well. (Not that any of the geothermal installers I called were particularly convincing. A couple outright told me I shouldn’t do it.)

Because our house currently has baseboard heaters rather than ducts, we gravitated toward a “mini split” system. It consists of a condenser, installed outdoors, and an indoor unit called a “head,” with a thermostat and a fan that blows hot or cold air. The first contractor we spoke with suggested stationing two condensers outside and five heads throughout the house. He recommended systems designed specifically for colder climates,which are guaranteed to operate at temperatures well below zero. 

That guy never followed up with a quote, though. The next bid came in at $25,950, which felt high. We gathered two more estimates, the lowest of which landed at $19,637. That included a few state rebates applied at the time of purchase; add in a $2,500 city rebate and the $2,000 IRA credit we’ll get at tax time, and the final cost will be about $15,000.

But there was a hitch: We heard that heat pumps could drive our electricity bills to untenable levels. Indeed, an estimate from Efficiency Vermont, the states’ energy efficiency utility, pegged the system’s consumption at 10,000 kilowatt-hours annually in heating alone. At our current rate of around $0.17 per kilowatt-hour, we’d spend $1,700 annually compared to the $1,100 or so we spend burning gas to keep warm.

That would make heat pumps too expensive to operate.

As we pondered how to make heat pumps affordable, the sun came to mind. It emits more than enough energy to power the world, and each gigawatt of power we harness from that star can avoid hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. is increasingly tapping this essentially inexhaustible resource, with generation jumping from 5 gigawatts in 2011 to over 145 in 2022.  According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, 7 percent of homes nationwide now sport photovoltaic panels. We hoped that becoming one of them could help lower our energy costs.

We asked our neighbors who installed their system, and a lovely salesman came by to prepare an estimate. Pointing to the peak of our roof, he noted that the ridge cap was getting wavy — a telltale sign that a new roof is in order. Given that the solar panels we would install are warrantied for 25 years, we’d want to take care of that now, because removing and replacing them down the line would be outrageously expensive. That sent me back to the phone to seek even more quotes, this time from roofers. The best of them came in at $10,000. Yet another project and expense, but an unavoidable one if we wanted solar.

By the time we sorted out the roof, the founders of the solar company had retired and shuttered the business. We had to negotiate with another installer called SunCommon and landed on a 26-panel system, with a capacity of 10,530 kilowatt-hours and a price of $31,765 before rebates. That’s slightly less than the average price per watt in our area and thousands less than the company’s initial estimate — another win for haggling.

Grist / Clayton Aldern / Mia Torres

Vermont doesn’t offer incentives for installing photovoltaic panels, but the IRA extended the 30 percent federal tax credit through 2032, bringing our eventual outlay to $22,236. The installer claimed we could lump the cost of the roof into that credit, but our accountant said IRS rules clearly exclude it. (The myth is persistent enough that everyone from solar companies to Reddit users are posting about it.) In any case, the next step for us was to have SunCommon verify that the satellite imagery it used to estimate the system’s output aligned with the realities of our roof. 

A technician arrived on a dull gray morning in early December. After grabbing a few gadgets, tools, and a ladder from his truck, he spent the better part of two hours poking, prodding, and climbing on our house. Did we meet all the roof set back requirements? Are our rafters strong enough to support panels? How much shade is there? The answers to these questions and others could affect how much energy we could expect our array to generate.

The results would lead to one of the toughest decisions in our journey.

Black locusts start to leaf out each spring and become bushy caricatures of a tree within weeks. More than a dozen of these gorgeous giants horseshoe our backyard, providing a home to at least one owl, an assortment of songbirds, and, come winter, a roost for a murder of crows. At over 100 feet tall, they cast long shadows — not quite long enough to reach the front of the house, where 14 panels would soak up enough rays to return 83 percent efficiency. But the 12 panels at the rear would see only enough sunlight to perform at 55 percent of their potential, substantially lower than what SunCommon recommends to make an installation worthwhile.

With all that leafy cover, our system would be expected to produce just 6,900 kWh per year — much less than the company’s model predicted. Cutting down half a dozen or so trees would gain as much as 2,000 kWh a year, but come at a financial and climate expense, since trees are carbon sinks. Moreover, my wife would just as soon lose a limb of her own than needlessly fell a tree.

The black locusts would stay put. With that decision made, we finally had enough information to calculate what electrification would cost us — and whether it was worth it.

My spreadsheet, named HOME DECARBONIZATION in all caps, is a mere three tabs across. Two of them examine the merits of different size solar arrays — the entire roof, or only the sunnier front side — while the third is dedicated to the various heat pump configurations. Despite its meager size, it took hours to build. I’d find myself waking at all hours to fix an equation, adjust a parameter, or gaze into the grid hoping for answers. It was an affront to the hope that, as Lis at Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships put it, the marketplace will present an “easy, affordable choice to decarbonize” — a utopia he acknowledges we have yet to reach. 

Cristina Spanò

No matter the benefits that an electrified home powered by renewable energy provides, the expense can range from daunting to laughably unattainable. The IRA seeks to address these inequities by providing billions of dollars in funding, much of it targeted at those without the means to make the transition off fossil fuels. That money is expected to become available in the months ahead and could, for example, cover the entire cost of a heat pump or induction stove for low-income families. Some states or cities also offer income-based financing — in Vermont, for instance, interest rates start at 0 percent. 

One of Wyent’s favorite suggestions, that almost anyone can take, is to buy an induction hot plate, often for less than $100. They are essentially a single-burner induction stove and, she said, “an electrification project that works for renters, too.” Energy audits are another great place to start, she suggested, as they can pay for themselves in utilities savings (plus there’s a federal tax credit of up to $150). But even for homeowners ready to take larger steps, the process can entail a lot of hand-wringing. 

“More guides would certainly be helpful,” said Wyent. I turned to my spreadsheet to help maneuver the maze. 

As I tweaked the cells, they quickly showed me that, if we were to go solar, installing the full system made the most financial sense. Although only putting panels on the front was tempting, installation costs wouldn’t drop proportionally. Certain design, permitting, wiring, and other outlays are largely fixed, making each panel successively cheaper. Assuming they operate for the 25 years they’re warrantied, going all-in would fix our electricity rate at $0.136 for 6,900 kWh annually. Doing just the front system would raise that figure to $0.142.

Read Next To get off fossil fuels, America is going to need a lot more electricians

To evaluate the returns on a full system, I assumed our electric rate would continue rising at the state average of 2.28 percent annually and that our system’s productivity would degrade at the warrantied rate of 0.5 percent per year. Given that, the system would pay for itself in about 17 years and net more than $14,000 in energy cost savings after a quarter-century, for an annual rate of return of around 2 percent on our initial investment. That doesn’t factor in labor costs for any repairs (the warranty only covers parts) or the expense of replacing our roof earlier than planned. Financing the system at current interest rates — which are currently starting around 7 percent — also would cut into any financial gains. Paying cash is offset by the opportunity cost of doing something else with that money, such as investing in the stock market, which often sees long-term annual returns north of 8 percent.

Perhaps most relevantly, the climate benefits of going solar are limited in Vermont, because the grid is already so clean. Rewiring America’s model showed that our system would eliminate about a ton of carbon emissions annually, or roughly what a car generates driving 2,500 miles. Given our other concerns — from aggressive sales tactics to the need to replace our roof — we decided to hold off until we can find a way of bringing the overall price down. We may also explore community solar, which allows individuals to invest in larger projects. 

“You’re in a particularly unfavorable area for rooftop solar to net out economically,” Wyent said. The technology makes more sense for people in other locales; she lives in California and estimates a household with a $500/month electricity bill in Los Angeles can save $62,000 over 20 years with a $0 solar loan. “The investment makes sense on financial merit alone.”

Although disappointed that solar didn’t work out, we found comfort knowing we didn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars right before our baby arrived. And we remained optimistic about heat pumps. But that math was a bit more complex, so we turned to Efficiency Vermont for help. Almost immediately, senior engineering consultant Matt Sharpe noticed that our design, with two condensers and five heads, wasn’t as efficient as it could be.

The ideal ratio for air-source heat pumps is one outdoor unit for every indoor unit, Sharpe explained. This ensures that the system is running steadily, rather than in short, inefficient spurts. But that isn’t always achievable, especially with larger systems such as ours — which would require an unsightly five outdoor units around our home. Instead, he suggested installing three condensers, one for each floor, and ductwork in the attic to reach the upstairs bedrooms. Beyond being tidier, it would consume 30 percent less energy than the initial proposal. Although the redesigned system would run $3,000 more, the city offers an extra $1,750 in rebates for ducted systems like this, and making this switch would reduce our annual heating costs by about $600, to around $1,100, accelerating the payback period.

This would bring the operating costs of heat pumps to about the same as the gas boiler. And, in the long-run, it would likely lead to savings, several experts told me. As more people ditch natural gas, they said, the cost for remaining customers could rise more quickly than electricity rates. “Both sides are going to be trending more expensive … [but] electricity rates are historically much more stable than natural gas prices,” said Lis.

Still, there is little chance we’ll recoup our $15,000 investment in heat pumps on operating costs alone. That doesn’t include the gas hookup fee of 88 cents per day that we pay to keep the boiler on standby, which Efficiency Vermont recommends doing at least for a couple of winters to ensure the heat pumps can handle the load job on the coldest days. (We plan to keep the baseboard heaters on the first floor awhile longer for that reason.) 

Our contractor suggested we install three condensers, one for each floor, and ductwork in the attic to reach the upstairs bedrooms. Phillip Martin

Of course, the new ductwork and wiring will outlive the heat pumps; that’s money we won’t have to spend again. And eventually, heat pumps allow us to get rid of the baseboard heaters, which I find unsightly and limit how we arrange our furniture. Heat pumps also provide air conditioning, which we’d been poised to purchase as Vermont summers grow hotter with each year. That would be an outlay we could sidestep.

Removing the one-time expenses brings the price tag of our heat pumps to around $10,000. That’d be an easy choice if our boiler was broken, as a gas system plus an air conditioner would be about the same outlay. But because it could last another decade or two, that reasoning is largely moot. From a climate perspective, though, getting rid of gas is a bonanza.

“The heat pump is the biggest emissions saver in your home,” said Wyent. Over a 15-year lifespan, ours could eliminate about 54 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. A 2022 study published in Nature calculated the societal damage of each metric ton at $185, which nets $9,990 in abated harm and makes the switch a justifiable public good. Research has also shown that people are more likely to make climate-related changes in their behavior if they see others do it first. 

Ultimately, we signed the paperwork. 

Just before Christmas, we cut a check to Phillip Martin of Red Merle Mechanical and scheduled him for early January. Then we put the electrician on notice that he would need to hook up the heat pumps — a conversation that left me queasy.

He asked for the model numbers of the units, hung up to do the math, and called me back. “Bad news,” I recall him saying. Our additions — the stove, the dryer, the heat pumps, and an electric vehicle charger — were pushing our home’s 200 amp panel beyond its maximum capacity. It was exactly the sort of problem that Wyent had said could happen— and an upgraded panel would be at least $5,000. 

The terror very nearly caused me to cancel the whole project. Amid my panic, I called Sharpe at Efficiency Vermont, who eased my worries. The problem, he reassured me, is both common and relatively easy to remedy with what’s called a circuit splitter, which allows two devices to safely use a single breaker. It reduces the maximum load on the panel by automatically alternating between two high-powered appliances that typically would not be used at the same time — say, an induction stove and an electric vehicle charger. (We typically charge our plug-in hybrid overnight.) It would be just $750 to install one.

With disaster averted, Martin showed up in his white truck, pulling a trailer laden with shiny heat pump parts. His first job was to run the ductwork in the attic and cut vent holes in the ceilings. We scheduled the work for while we were out of town and out of his way. I got a text message telling me our home’s thick plaster ceilings were chewing through drill bits and saw blades. Eventually he got through, installed the ducts, and then lined up the condensers in a neat row under the deck. We came home in time for the final wiring.

Our home’s attic ducts, as photographed by our contractor. Phillip Martin

“I don’t know who’s more excited, me or you,” Martin said as he programmed the thermostat. With a rush of warm air, our heat pumps whirred to life. That night, the soft hum of a fan replaced the clanking of our baseboard system. In the morning, my wife and I took a saw to the water lines feeding the upstairs baseboard heaters and tossed them into a pile in the backyard. Removing them meant we could finally set up our baby nursery. And, with every cathartic heave, we weaned ourselves off natural gas. When we were done, I switched the boiler off. 

Then came a call I didn’t expect so soon. Our neighbor had seen Martin’s truck in our driveway and wanted to hire him. Within weeks, she had heat pumps too. My father says he’s next.

This story was updated to clarify the percentage of the nation’s electricity generated with natural gas.

toolTips('.classtoolTips1','Carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other gases that prevent heat from escaping Earth’s atmosphere. Together, they act as a blanket to keep the planet at a liveable temperature in what is known as the “greenhouse effect.” Too many of these gases, however, can cause excessive warming, disrupting fragile climates and ecosystems.'); toolTips('.classtoolTips2','The process of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that drive climate change, most often by deprioritizing the use of fossil fuels like oil and gas in favor of renewable sources of energy.'); toolTips('.classtoolTips3',' A powerful greenhouse gas that accounts for about 16% of global emissions, methane is the primary component of natural gas and is emitted into the atmosphere by landfills, oil and natural gas systems, agricultural activities, coal mining, and wastewater treatment, among other pathways. Over short periods, it is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
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This story was originally published by Grist with the headline They thought getting their home off fossil fuels would be straightforward. Chaos ensued. on Mar 21, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

With its new tailpipe rules, the EPA eyes an electric future

Wed, 03/20/2024 - 15:10

Transportation is the largest source of planet-warming gases in the United States, which makes reducing tailpipe pollution as quickly as possible essential to meeting our climate goals. The Biden administration took a huge stride toward that goal Wednesday when it unveiled the tightest limits the nation has ever placed on vehicle emissions.

The rule, which follows three years of deliberation among regulators, automakers, and others, places increasingly stringent standards on the amount of CO2 and other pollutants cars can emit. The goal is to further electrify the country’s fleet through 2032, when President Biden hopes to see every other car sold be electric or a plug-in hybrid.

“Three years ago, I set an ambitious target: that half of all new cars and trucks sold in 2030 would be zero-emission,” Biden said in a statement posted on social media. “Together, we’ve made historic progress. Hundreds of new expanded factories across the country. Hundreds of billions in private investment and thousands of good-paying union jobs. And we’ll meet my goal by 2030 and race forward in the years ahead.”

The guideline, which takes effect with the 2027 model year, drew support from automakers and the leader of one industry trade group appeared with Michael Regan, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, as he announced the regulation. Standing alongside gleaming chargers and spotless electric vehicles — underscoring the point of the new rule — Regan called the regulation “the strongest vehicle pollution technology standard ever finalized in United States history.”

Should the regulation survive the inevitable legal challenges — Louisiana’s Republican attorney general told the New York Times she plans to fight it in court — it will avoid more than 7 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 30 years, according to the EPA. Those gains will inevitably boost public health as well.

“EPA just took a critical step to address climate change and reduce air pollution,” Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement. “Stronger limits on pollution from cars, pickups, and SUVs will improve the air that everyone breathes and help prevent future health harms from climate change.”

How automakers meet the new guideline is up to them, as the rule is agnostic of the technologies they use to do so. Despite fearmongering from some corners of society and a specious warning from a fossil fuel trade group that the rule is an “EPA car ban,” EVs are but one approach. Plug-in hybrids and increasingly efficient internal combustion engines are other options, as the regulation only requires automakers to meet increasingly strict average emission limits across their entire product lines. 

Still, the industry has made a major push into electrification and sold a record 1.2 million EVs last year. Sales slowed in recent months, however, and the new regulation will require a tenfold increase in sales within eight years. John Bozzella, president and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, called that a “stretch goal” but said Wednesday, “The future is electric.”

The EPA’s standard is less aggressive than what was included when it proposed the rules in April, a concession the Biden administration made to automakers and the United Auto Workers. Manufacturers worried the original pace was too fast, and workers worried about job security. Electric vehicles tend to have fewer parts — meaning fewer people are needed on assembly lines — and many factories are located in right-to-work states hostile to organized labor.

“I know I’ve been a thorn in your side this last year,” Bozzella, whose organization represents 42 automakers and industry suppliers, told Regan from the stage during Wednesday’s event. “But it’s only because automakers are committed to electrification, and we want this transformation to EVs — our shared goal, by the way — to succeed over the long haul.”

Tempering the guideline will likely lead to a slower near-term ramp up in vehicle electrification, but the final rule nonetheless positions the sector to see EVs account for 67 percent of sales by 2032, according to a memo from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

While climate advocates by and large applauded the new guideline, many felt the Biden administration should have acted more aggressively. 

“This rule falls far short of what is needed to protect public health and our planet,” Chelsea Hodgkins, a senior policy advocate with Public Citizen, said in a statement. The organization issued a report noting the vast resources the industry expended to weaken the rule, and said, “EPA is giving automakers a pass to continue producing polluting vehicles.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists also expressed disappointment, noting that “the science is clear on both the urgent need to cut climate-endangering emissions and the fact that we can make the cuts we need. We don’t have many opportunities to reduce transportation pollution, and it’s disappointing that this rule falls short of what’s possible.”

Still, any slack that may come from the federal effort may be picked up by the states. California plans to ban the sale of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035. Eight states have followed suit, pointing the way toward what is possible.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline With its new tailpipe rules, the EPA eyes an electric future on Mar 20, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

California’s concerning embrace of a new forest biomass industry

Wed, 03/20/2024 - 07:30

Gloria Alonso Cruz had only just started working on environmental justice issues at a community organization in Stockton, California, when she learned about a proposal to sell wood pellets from the town’s port to overseas energy markets. 

Golden State Natural Resources plans to construct two wood pellet plants in Lassen and Tuolumne counties, about 250 miles north of Stockton, with the goal of exporting a million tons a year. While forest-based biomass may sound innocuous, every part of the pellet production chain bears an environmental justice or pollution risk, says Rita Vaughan Frost, forest advocate at Natural Resources Defense Council. 

First, trees are logged and stacked on trucks to be driven to processing facilities. There, the wood is turned into small pellets, similar to rabbit food. Then, diesel trucks transport the material hundreds of miles to a shipping facility and export terminal, like the Port of Stockton — where storage poses a fire risk. The pellets are later shipped to markets in Europe and Asia, where they’re burned to create electricity, generating carbon emissions. 

Golden State Natural Resource’s proposal would allow it to harvest trees from forests within 100 miles of the two processing plants. This radius includes sixteen national forests in a region known for its critical biodiversity. A 20-year master stewardship agreement established with the U.S. Forest Service will allow the company to harvest from public lands through 2045, when the state is slated to achieve carbon neutrality. 

Many might be surprised to learn that burning wood pellets causes more pollution per unit of electricity than coal does, says Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s worsening the climate emergency at a time when we’ve got to be rapidly cutting those carbon emissions,” Wolf says. 

In Stockton, the threat of logging exports compounds environmental injustices that already exist. State laws don’t prevent companies from building polluting facilities in already overburdened areas, nor is there any statute or legal framework that forces corporations to consider federal goals of transitioning toward renewable energy sources.  

This means there are no federal or state guardrails to protect against the fact that “developers are not accounting for cumulative impacts, [or] the fact that these natural resources are finite,” Cruz says. In fact, Stockton already has a lot of pollution: It ranks in the 90th percentile statewide, according to CalEnviroScreen, an environmental hazard mapping tool. Compared with other cities across California, Stockton’s has some of the highest overall exposure to toxins like ozone, particulate matter, and groundwater threats. 

Cruz says that is intentional, noting the communities of color and farmworkers who live and work in the state’s Central Valley have always shouldered the public health consequences that industries leave in their wake. In fact, California funneled public funds to the biomass industry in the 1980s and 1990s to support the construction of factories in low-income communities. Now, the wood pellet biomass industry and Golden State Natural Resources are poised to make the situation worse.

In 2015, the state approved a new law that requires polluting corporations, like the wood pellet industry, to pay for environmental justice projects in disadvantaged cities like Stockon, but advocates like Cruz argue that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to pollute in the first place. Across the state, at least four active biomass plants are in census tracts that face the worst pollution burden. 

Looking at how the biomass industry currently operates in the Southeastern United States heightens residents’ worries. Companies there have a track record of preying on overburdened, under-resourced communities, says Vaughan Frost.

In the South, pellet mills are 50 percent more likely to be placed in communities of color that fall below the state poverty line. Although the industry likes to talk about providing jobs, in one North Carolina community, the poverty rate actually increased after a wood pellet production plant began operations. 

Wherever pellet mills take root, pollution soon follows. A powerful odor, akin to plastic burning in a campfire, often emanates from these processing facilities. Heather Hillaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, says that processing the wood creates volatile organic compounds, which mix with other pollutants to create ground level ozone and smog. Processing facilities also release toxins like formaldehyde, methanol, and acrolein, substances that can cause cancer even in small doses. 

Hillaker warns that federal standards established by the Clean Air Act don’t take into consideration the multiple forms of pollution that overburdened communities face, she says. 

“I’ve not really seen the pellet industry directly address, in any kind of meaningful way, the environmental justice impacts of their operations in the South,” Hillaker says. She explains they often argue “We are complying with our permits and therefore we’re not causing any harm.” But she says, “That’s not an accurate representation of what’s actually happening in these local communities.” 

Vaughan Frost is concerned that Golden State Natural Resources will similarly undermine the health and wellbeing of California communities. 

Vaughan Frost believes the industry is “exploiting the state’s traumatic experience of catastrophic wildfires to sell their plan.” The company claims that cutting down forests will provide less fuel for wildfires — a claim that the state of California has historically parroted. Many scientists disagree. One recent study found that in fire-prone western states, emissions related to broad-scale thinning biomass harvest were five times greater than those related to wildfire. California also has a history of lumping in wood pellet biomass as a “renewable” energy source, which critics say obfuscates the compounding climate threats of the industry. She says these claims — that logging can prevent wildfires and create renewable energy — are a distraction from legitimate wildfire prevention strategies, like home hardening and vegetation management

Advocates worry that once the forest is gone, recovery will be difficult. The wood pellet industry will soon be making incursions throughout the Sierra Nevadas, a much-loved mountain range that regularly draws outdoor tourists. Though the industry pledges to replant what they log, as climate change intensifies, there’s no guarantee monoculture saplings will be able to provide the same ecosystem services that the logged forest once did. 

With abundant wind and solar energy available, Vaughan Frost says, “We do not need to sacrifice California forests and communities for this.”

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law, and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health, and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing, and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Learn more at http://www.nrdc.org and follow on Twitter @NRDC.

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This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California’s concerning embrace of a new forest biomass industry on Mar 20, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Amazon says its plastic packaging can be recycled. An investigation finds it usually isn’t.

Wed, 03/20/2024 - 01:45

Feeling guilty about all those blue-and-white plastic Amazon bags piling up around the house? Fear not — they can be recycled! At least, that’s what the packaging says.

For years now, Amazon’s plastic bags, bubble-lined mailers, and air pillows have featured the ubiquitous “chasing arrows” recycling symbol along with the words “store drop-off.” The idea is simple: Since most curbside recycling programs don’t accept this type of plastic — it’s too expensive to process and can clog machines — consumers can instead leave it at retail stores across the country. From there, this plastic, known as “film,” will go to a specialized facility and be turned into new products.

The problem, however, is that the system doesn’t seem to be working.

An investigation published Tuesday by the nonprofits Environment America and U.S. Public Interest Research Group, or U.S. PIRG, suggests that only a small fraction of Amazon’s plastic packaging makes it to a material recovery facility, the term for operations that sort glass, metal, plastic, and other items for recycling. The packaging is much more likely to end up in a landfill, incinerator, export terminal, or in the hands of a company that downcycles plastic film into things like benches.

The report adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that store drop-off programs are an ineffective solution to the escalating plastic pollution crisis. According to environmental groups, these programs help justify the ongoing production of single-use plastic, helping manufacturers and retailers evade accountability while alleviating consumer guilt.

“The store drop-off system is really not working, and plastic film is not recyclable,” said Jenn Engstrom, state director of U.S. PIRG’s California chapter and a co-author of the report.

To find out what happens to Amazon’s plastic packaging, U.S. PIRG and Environment America attached small tracking devices — mostly Apple AirTags — to 93 bundles of Amazon plastic packaging marked for store drop-off and deposited them at retailers in 10 states. These stores, which were listed in an online directory, included mostly supermarkets like Safeway, Sprouts, Publix, Fred Meyer, QFC, and Whole Foods, although some bundles were placed at outlets like Kohl’s or Home Depot.

A drop-off receptacle for plastic bags at a grocery store in Palo Alto, California. Paul Saukma / AP Photo

The report authors were able to determine the fate of about half the bundles, since, as expected, many of the trackers likely died before reaching a final destination. Of those that survived, 13 went to a landfill, two went to a waste incinerator, and three went to the Port of Los Angeles, suggesting that the bundles were destined for processing or disposal overseas.

Only four trackers eventually made their way to a material recovery facility that sorts plastics for recycling. U.S. PIRG and Environment America said they were able to contact three of those facilities: Two specifically said they do not accept Amazon packaging, and the third said it accepts only paper and cardboard.

Two dozen trackers ended up in the hands of Trex, a company that makes benches and decking out of discarded plastic. But U.S. PIRG and Environment America question whether Trex is using Amazon packaging in its products; the contents of store drop-off bins are often littered with food and beverages, likely rendering this plastic too contaminated to use in manufacturing.

Trex did not respond to Grist’s request for comment, but a similar company reports getting 70 to 80 percent of its plastic from “back-of-the-house shrink wrap,” referring to the material wrapped around shipping pallets, which tends to be cleaner than postconsumer plastic. Meanwhile, a Trex executive told Bloomberg News last year that there is not enough demand for recycled material to make store drop-off successful. 

“All the claims the companies are making are just greenwashing,” he told Bloomberg. “Recycling’s failed.”

While USPIRG and Environment America’s investigation may be the largest of its kind, it isn’t the first to find flaws in the store drop-off system. Last year, Bloomberg tracked 30 bundles of packaging and wrappers marked with the store drop-off icon and found that 13 of them — more than 40 percent — ended up at U.S. landfills. Just four made it to locations that can recycle plastic. A similar effort from ABC News found that about half of 46 bundles of plastic bags went to landfills and incinerators, while only four went to facilities “that say they are involved with recycling plastic bags.”

In 2023, Dell dropped off Amazon plastic packaging (left) at an Albertsons in San Clemente, California. It turned up months later at a warehouse dump pile in Malaysia (right). Photos courtesy of The Last Beach Cleanup.

Jan Dell, an independent chemical engineer and founder of the environmental nonprofit The Least Beach Cleanup, has been deploying her own trackers too. Since December 2022, she hasn’t traced a single bundle of film labeled for store drop-off to U.S. facilities that can turn the material into new bags. Twelve bundles have been sent to a landfill or waste station, and one to an incinerator. Four appeared to have traveled to Mexico, Vietnam, or Malaysia, countries that generally lack adequate recycling infrastructure. 

“They’re absolutely lying with these labels,” Dell said. The store drop-off system has “never worked, it was never true.” 

The labels in question are produced by an initiative called How2Recycle, which began selling them to big companies in 2012 — supposedly to clear up confusion among consumers and retailers about which products could be recycled. The initiative issues several versions of the recycling icon, with the one marked “store drop-off” reserved for products, like plastic bags and film, that aren’t accepted in curbside recycling programs.

The store drop-off labels direct consumers to How2Recycle’s website, which links to a directory of retail locations with collection receptacles. Until last year, that directory was found at BagandFilmDirectory.org and featured more than 18,000 locations — but the consulting firm managing it shut it down following ABC News’ investigation, citing a lack of “real commitment from the industry,” as well as insufficient funding. Many of the locations listed did not actually have a receptacle, while the Target and Walmart locations appeared to be disposing of, rather than recycling, much of the film they received.

“There’s more of an illusion of stuff getting recycled than there actually is because there is an imbalance in supply and demand,” Nina Butler, CEO of the consulting firm, told ABC News. How2Recycle now links customers to a different directory hosted at Earth911. How2Recycle did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.

As scrutiny has increased over the use of the store drop-off label, some companies have pledged to stop using it altogether. Mondelez, which owns brands including Oreo and Ritz, said in March 2023 that it plans to phase out the label by 2025. Dell said she’s also noticed the label’s disappearance from packaging sold by Target and Georgia Pacific, a company that sells toilet paper, paper towels, and other pulp products. Target and Georgia Pacific did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.

Read Next Inside the industry push to label your yogurt cup ‘recyclable’

Amazon, for its part, did not respond to Grist’s questions about its use of the store drop-off label. When Dell asked the company, during a Zoom meeting in 2020 that she shared with Grist, to provide evidence that its packaging is widely recycled through the store drop-off program — as required by California law — an Amazon spokesperson told the state recycling commission that the company has “really high confidence that store drop-off is a solution that is available in California.”

Pat Lindner, Amazon’s vice president of mechatronics and sustainable packaging, told Grist that the company has no control over how its packaging is handled “once it has been disposed of by municipalities or recycling centers.” A spokesperson said the company is investing in better recycling infrastructure while also reducing plastics use overall. As of last year, for example, Amazon has eliminated plastic from shipments delivered in Europe, likely in response to EU regulations banning several categories of single-use plastic. The company also eliminated plastic packaging in India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to ban single-use plastic nationwide by 2022.

In the U.S. last year, Amazon launched an automated fulfillment center in Euclid, Ohio, that uses paper exclusively instead of plastic packaging, and the company said it’s ramping up a program to ship items in their original packages instead of extra plastic ones. The company also said in a 2022 sustainability report that it was “phasing out padded bags containing plastics in favor of recyclable alternatives,” but the spokesperson did not address Grist’s request to clarify the timeline for this transition.

Environmental advocates agree that Amazon has made progress, but say it should be doing more to reduce the hundreds of millions of pounds of single-use plastic trash it generates every year — and that it should remove the How2Recycle symbol from its packaging. In California, where state legislation often sets a national standard, a truth-in-advertising law signed by the governor in 2021 may soon restrict the use of store drop-off labels unless companies can prove that the system is effective. A separate law will require single-use plastic packaging sold in the state to be demonstrably recycled at least 65 percent of the time by 2032, a threshold that may push manufacturers toward paper, which is far easier to recycle.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Amazon says its plastic packaging can be recycled. An investigation finds it usually isn’t. on Mar 20, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

At prom, fast fashion slows down

Wed, 03/20/2024 - 01:30

This coverage is made possible through a partnership with Grist and Interlochen Public Radio in Northern Michigan.

On a Saturday in February, high school senior Kaylee Lemmien sifted through racks of dresses at Tinker Tailor, a small shop in downtown Elk Rapids, a village of about 1,500 people in northern Michigan.

“I’d call this a mermaid, sequin, light blue gown with a tulle skirt. It’s got a lace-up back, kind of open,” Lemmien said. “Very pretty.”

Tinker Tailor usually alters clothes, but on this day it was selling them — prom dresses, to be exact. Gowns in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors — short and long, neons and pastels, satin and sequins — lined the racks. The garments were donated and consigned by people around the region, with the goal of giving them a new life at the Elk Rapids High School prom in May. Called Sustainable Style, the secondhand shopping initiative takes aim at fast fashion. 

Zoe Macaluso, the president of the Eco Club at Elk Rapids High School, said that when a local volunteer group approached her with the idea, she “immediately latched onto it.” The Eco Club wants to use the project to lead by example and hopefully inspire other schools in the area to pursue their own climate projects.

Kaylee Lemmien, left, browses used evening gowns at the Sustainable Style event in Elk Rapids, Michigan, on February 17. Grist / Izzy Ross

It’s one of many efforts by high school students around the country to address fast fashion — clothing produced cheaply and quickly enough to stay on top of swiftly moving trend cycles — in their own lives and through advocacy. Such efforts are small, but experts say they can help people — especially young people — think differently about their role as consumers. That’s especially relevant in the age of fast fashion, when an online retailer like Shein drops up to 10,000 new items a day.

“Fast fashion is a trend driven by newness,” said Shipra Gupta, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois Springfield. “It tends to treat its products like food that spoils quickly.”

The increased focus on sustainability and thrifting might seem counter to the rise of fast fashion. It’s been described as a paradox, especially for Gen Z. A McKinsey newsletter last year laid out the relationship like this: “On one hand, Gen Zers express a desire for sustainably produced items and love thrifting. On the other hand, clothing ‘hauls’ … make up some of the most watched and most produced content on social media.”

@madilippert

#shein #sheinhaul

♬ original sound – KG A typical #SheinHaul video on TikTok, like the one above, shows content creators dumping boxes crammed with individually wrapped items of clothing.

One way high school students are counteracting that offline is by raising awareness in their communities about how fashion impacts the environment. Last year, for example, a high school in New York put on a carbon-neutral prom. A club in New Hampshire organized a clothing drive to divert used clothes to people experiencing homelessness. And a library in Athens, Georgia, regularly hosts a “Bling Your Prom” secondhand formal wear event with an eye toward sustainability.  

Fast fashion encourages people to cycle through clothing quickly, with serious consequences. But getting reliable information on just how much damage the fashion industry inflicts on the climate is difficult. Its lack of transparency is one reason for that; less than half of brands track all levels of their complex supply chains. Some have made climate pledges but have consistently fallen short of their goals. And while key legislation that would help tackle the problem is pending in places in the U.S. and Europe, policy progress has been slow.

Constantly being exposed to new items can trigger a desire to buy more, said Gupta. By bringing an event like Sustainable Style to the community, she said, the students in Michigan are harnessing that excitement and channeling it toward more environmentally conscious shopping.

“Community involvement is a way of doing that grassroots-level movement, where we can actually create an awareness among the community members,” she said, and that can make them consider what it means to be a responsible consumer.

Read Next The most ‘sustainable’ garment is the one that shows its wear, proudly

Events like Sustainable Style can cut back on consumption locally, providing a responsible place to donate and buy used evening wear. That’s important especially in small towns where options can be limited.

In the past, students in Elk Rapids usually ordered dresses online or traveled to hubs like Grand Rapids, a two-hour drive south.

“You kind of have to drive to Grand Rapids, and you have to go to a mall, and you have to buy a new dress,” said Macaluso. “This just provides another option, another opportunity to say, ‘Oh, I have a chance here to help the environment a little bit. So I’m going to take it.’”

Perhaps most importantly, initiatives like these can help others outside the confines of high school prom think about how fashion relates to the environment.

“I think it’s very meaningful, because it starts to engage consumers, especially the young generation,” said Sheng Lu, an associate professor of fashion and apparel studies at the University of Delaware. 

Innovative grassroots efforts have helped cut down on fashion waste locally in other places, and in recent years, major brands have been trying to work out the kinks of reselling used clothes. 

Although the Elk Rapids effort is relatively small, Lu said, it can help inspire local action.

“I honestly was pretty nervous coming in here,” said sophomore Addison Looney, who was shopping with her mom. “But there were a lot of great selections. … I was pretty indecisive about it. But I picked [one] out.”

The dress is a soft lavender with beading in the front. Addison’s mom, Sara, said she was excited to buy her daughter a secondhand dress.

“Knowing this is just a great opportunity to shop local, and to obviously save money,” she said. “But also just the resale aspect of it — to just kind of keep dresses going, because they’re usually a one-time use.”

Macaluso said they’ve been able to stoke interest in buying used clothing. The prom event even led Tinker Tailor — which had mainly been in the business of altering clothes, not selling them — to set up a “Dress Vault” in the store so people could continue consigning, donating, and shopping for secondhand items.

“I think it really just builds off that idea of, ‘Hey, these dresses didn’t go bad, they haven’t expired,’” she said. “And they can find a new home.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline At prom, fast fashion slows down on Mar 20, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Connecticut wants to penalize insurers for backing fossil fuel projects

Tue, 03/19/2024 - 10:00

The nation’s insurance industry has gone haywire in recent years amid a succession of floods, fires, and other climate-fueled disasters. These catastrophes have forced carriers to pay out billions in claims, and many have responded by raising premiums in disaster-prone states like Florida and Oregon or leaving certain markets altogether.

But many of these companies also provide coverage for fossil fuel projects, like pipelines and natural gas power plants, that would never be built without their backing. This gives the insurance industry a unique role on both sides of the climate crisis: Insurers are helping make the problem worse by underwriting the very projects that warm the Earth even as they bear the costs of mounting climate disasters and pass them on to customers.

Legislation in Connecticut, the capital of the American insurance industry and home to several of its largest carriers, could make insurers pay for that contradiction. If passed, the bill, which just cleared a committee vote in the state Senate, would move toward imposing a fee for any fossil fuel projects companies insure in-state. That revenue would go into a public resilience fund that could underwrite sea walls and urban flood protection measures.

“It’s important to begin to hold [insurers] accountable for how they’ve played it both ways in terms of climate change,” said Tom Swan, the executive director of Connecticut Citizen Action Group, an economic justice nonprofit that has joined several environmental organizations in lobbying the legislature to pass the bill. “People are seeing skyrocketing rates, or they’re pulling out of different areas, and they continue to underwrite and invest in fossil fuels at a pace much greater than their colleagues across the globe,” he said. 

The group pushed a more aggressive proposal last year that would have charged insurers a 5 percent fee for any fossil fuel coverage they issued in the United States, but that bill failed after critics raised several legal questions. In particular, the industry argued that the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause prohibits taxing a company’s out-of-state business.

The new version, attached as an amendment to a climate resilience bill proposed by Democratic Governor Ned Lamont, would only require the state to produce a proposal for an insurance mechanism. The surcharge would apply only to fossil fuel projects these companies insure in Connecticut, avoiding that constitutional challenge.

The assessment would apply not only to new pipelines and fuel terminals, which require ample insurance to attract lenders and investors, but to current coverage for existing infrastructure as well. This means anyone covering the state’s dozens of oil- and gas-fueled power plants would be contributing to the resilience fund. A report from Connecticut Citizen Action Group and several other environmental nonprofits found that the state’s insurers have together invested $221 billion in fossil fuels.

Supporters argue the reduced fee would still raise tens or hundreds of millions of dollars for climate resilience. Connecticut received about $318 million in FEMA disaster aid between 2011 and 2021, or about $149 in spending per capita, according to the climate adaptation nonprofit Rebuild by Design. That puts the state well below disaster-prone locales like Louisiana, which saw $1,736 in federal disaster aid per capita, but far above those like Delaware that haven’t experienced a major disaster in the past decade.

Eric George, the president of the Insurance Association of Connecticut, the state’s largest insurance trade association, said the organization would “strongly oppose” any surcharge, but added that he was still studying the bill.

The legislation comes as other states, including Vermont and Maryland, introduce “polluters pay” bills to hold oil producers accountable for climate damages. Connecticut’s proposed law is an iteration of that effort focused on an area where state regulators wield significant influence, said Risalat Khan of the Sunrise Project, a nonprofit focused on energy transition policy. 

“People are very directly seeing their premiums rise, in relation to climate disasters,” he said. “There’s a direct question there of, why aren’t state level regulators using more of their power to take local action?”

The significance of this financing mechanism could vary from state to state, says Benjamin Keys, a professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on climate insurance risks. 

“One major issue is that the fuels are collected and burned everywhere, but the pain of natural disasters is local in nature,” he said. Because of that, he questioned whether the financing mechanism “would be feasible for all communities to emulate, because many places have [lots of] disasters hit, but very little in the way of fossil fuel production.” Florida, for instance, doesn’t have much more fossil fuel infrastructure than Connecticut, but faces extreme weather and other catastrophes far more often.

Even though the legislation is weaker than the previous version, supporters say passing it in the home of the country’s insurance industry would send a message to big companies that are still underwriting oil and gas projects.

“I think it’s a good policy, but from a narrative-setting perspective, it’s really important,” said Swan.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Connecticut wants to penalize insurers for backing fossil fuel projects on Mar 19, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Kitten season is out of control. Are warmer winters to blame?

Mon, 03/18/2024 - 01:45

It’s almost that magical time of year that the Humane Society of America likens to a “natural disaster.” Kitten season.

“The level of emotions for months on end is so draining, said Ann Dunn, director of Oakland Animal Services, a city-run shelter in the San Francisco Bay Area. “And every year we just know it’s going to get harder.”

Across the United States, summer is the height of “kitten season,” typically defined as the warm-weather months between spring and fall during which a cat becomes most fertile. For over a decade, animal shelters across the country have noted kitten season starting earlier and lasting longer. Some experts say the effects of climate change, such as milder winters and an earlier start to spring, may be to blame for the uptick in feline birth rates.

This past February, Dunn’s shelter held a clinic for spaying and neutering outdoor cats. Although kitten season in Northern California doesn’t typically kick off until May, organizers found that over half of the female cats were already pregnant. “It’s terrifying,” Dunn said. “It just keeps getting earlier and going later.”

Unweaned kittens rest inside terrariums at the Best Friends Animal Society shelter in April 2017 in Mission Hills, California. A chart helps workers keep track of their behavior, weight, and care schedule. Patrick T. Fallon / The Washington Post via Getty Images

 

 

Cats reproduce when females begin estrus, more commonly known as “going into heat,” during which hormones and behavior changes signal she’s ready to mate. Cats can go into heat several times a year, with each cycle lasting up to two weeks. But births typically go up between the months of April and October. While it’s well established that lengthening daylight triggers a cat’s estrus, the effect of rising temperatures on kitten season isn’t yet understood. 

One theory is that milder winters may mean cats have the resources to begin mating sooner. “No animal is going to breed unless they can survive,” said Christopher Lepczyk, an ecologist at Auburn University and prominent researcher of free ranging cats. Outdoor cats’ food supply may also be increasing, as some prey, such as small rodents, may have population booms in warmer weather themselves. Kittens may also be more likely to survive as winters become less harsh. “I would argue that temperature really matters,” he said.

Others, like Peter J. Wolf, a senior strategist at the Best Friends Animal Society, think the increase comes down to visibility rather than anything biological. As the weather warms, Wolf said people may be getting out more and noticing kittens earlier in the year than before. Then they bring them into shelters, resulting in rescue groups feeling like kitten season is starting earlier.

Regardless of the exact mechanism, having a large number of feral cats around means trouble for more than just animal shelters. Cats are apex predators who can wreak havoc on local biodiversity. Research shows that outdoor cats on islands have already caused or contributed to the extinction of an estimated 33 species. Wild cats pose an outsized threat to birds, which make up half their diet. On Hawaiʻi, known as a bird extinction capital of the world, cats are the most devastating predators of wildlife. “We know that cats are an invasive, environmental threat,” said Lepczyk who has published papers proposing management policies for outdoor cats.

Stray cats congregate on the grounds of Hawaiian Sugar in Puʻunēnē, Hawaiʻi Bonnie Jo Mount / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Scientists, conservationists, and cat advocates all agree unchecked outdoor cat populations are a problem, but they remain deeply divided on solutions. While some conservationists propose the targeted killing of cats, known as culling, cat populations have been observed to bounce back quickly, and a single female cat and her offspring can produce at least 100 descendants, if not thousands, in just seven years. 

Although sterilization protocols such as “trap, neuter, and release” are favored by many cat rescue organizations, Lepczyk said it’s almost impossible to do it effectively, in part because of how freely the animals roam and how quickly they procreate. Without homes or sanctuaries after sterilization, returning cats outside means they may have a low quality of life, spread disease, and continue to harm wildlife. “No matter what technique you use, if you don’t stop the flow of new cats into the landscape, it’s not gonna matter,” said Lepczyk. 

Rescue shelters, already under strain from resource and veterinary shortages, are scrambling to confront their new reality. While some release materials to help the community identify when outdoor kittens need intervention, others focus on recruiting for foster volunteer programs, which become essential caring for kittens who need around-the-clock-care.

“As the population continues to explode, how do we address all these little lives that need our help?” Dunn said. “We’re giving this everything we have.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Kitten season is out of control. Are warmer winters to blame? on Mar 18, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Heat pumps slash emissions even if powered by a dirty grid

Sun, 03/17/2024 - 06:00

This story was originally published by Canary Media.

You might consider heat pumps to be a tantalizing climate solution (they are) and one you could adopt yourself (plenty have). But perhaps you’ve held off on getting one, wondering how much of a difference they really make if a dirty grid is supplying the electricity you’re using to power them — that is, a grid whose electricity is generated at least in part by fossil gas, coal, or oil.

That’s certainly the case for most U.S. households: While the grid mix is improving, it’s still far from clean. In 2023, renewable energy sources provided just 21 percent of U.S. electricity generation, with carbon-free nuclear energy coming in at 19 percent. The other 60 percent of power came from burning fossil fuels.

So do electric heat pumps really lower emissions if they run on dirty grid power?

The answer is an emphatic yes. Even on a carbon-heavy diet, heat pumps eliminate tons of emissions annually compared to other heating systems.

The latest study to hammer this point home was published in Joule last month by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL. The team modeled the entire U.S. housing stock and found that, over the appliance’s expected lifetime of 16 years, switching to a heat-pump heater/​AC slashes emissions in every one of the contiguous 48 states.

In fact, heat pumps reduce carbon pollution even if the process of cleaning up the U.S. grid moves slower than experts expect. The NREL team used six different future scenarios for the grid, from aggressive decarbonization (95 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035) to sluggish (only 50 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035, in the event that renewables wind up costing more than their current trajectories forecast). They found that depending on the scenario and level of efficiency, heat pumps lower household annual energy emissions on average by 36 percent to 64 percent — or 2.5 to 4.4 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year per housing unit.

That’s a staggering amount of emissions. For context, preventing 2.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions is equivalent to not burning 2,800 pounds of coal. Or not driving for half a year. Or switching to a vegan diet for 14 months. And at the high end of the study’s range, 4.4 metric tons of CO2 is almost equivalent to the emissions from a roundtrip flight from New York City to Tokyo (4.6 metric tons).

Eric Wilson, senior research engineer at NREL and lead author of the study, said, ​“I often hear people saying, ​‘Oh, you should wait to put in a heat pump because the grid is still dirty.’” But that’s faulty logic. ​“It’s better to switch now rather than later — and not lock in another 20 years of a gas furnace or boiler.”

Emissions savings tend to be higher in states with colder winters and heaters that run on fuel oil, such as Maine, according to the study. (Maine seems to be one step ahead of the researchers: Heat pumps have proven so popular there that the state already blew past its heat-pump adoption goal two years ahead of schedule.)

A dirty grid, then, doesn’t cancel out a heat pump’s climate benefits. But heat pumps can generate emissions in the same way standard ACs do: by leaking refrigerant, the chemicals that enable these appliances to move around heat. Though it’s being phased down, the HVAC standard refrigerant R-410A is 2,088 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2, so even small leaks have an outsize impact.

Added emissions from heat-pump refrigerant leaks barely make a dent, however, given the emissions heat pumps avoid, the NREL team found. Typical leakage rates of R-410A increase emissions on average by only 0.07 metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year, shaving the overall savings of 2.5 metric tons by just 3 percent, Wilson said.

2023 analysis from climate think tank RMI further backs up heat pumps’ climate bona fides. Across the 48 continental states, RMI found that replacing a gas furnace with an efficient heat pump saves emissions not only cumulatively across the appliance’s lifetime, but also in the very first year it’s installed. RMI estimated that emissions prevented in that first year were 13 percent to 72 percent relative to gas-furnace emissions, depending on the state. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Both the RMI and NREL studies focused on air-source heat pumps, which, in cold weather, pull heat from the outdoor air and can be three to four times as efficient as gas furnaces. But ground-source heat pumps can be more than five times as efficient compared to gas furnaces — and thus unlock even greater greenhouse gas reductions, according to RMI.

How much could switching to a heat pump lower your home’s carbon emissions? For a high-level estimate, NREL put out an interactive dashboard. In the ​“states” tab, you can filter down to your state, building type and heating fuel. For instance, based on a scenario of moderate grid decarbonization in my state of Colorado, a single-family home that swaps out a gas furnace for a heat pump could slash emissions by a whopping 6 metric tons of CO2.

You can also get an estimate from Rewiring America’s personal electrification planner, which uses more specific info about your home, or ask an energy auditor or whole-home decarbonization company if they can calculate emissions savings as part of a home energy audit.

One final takeaway Wilson shared: If every American home with gas, oil, or inefficient electric-resistance heating were to swap it right now for heat-pump heating, the emissions of the entire U.S. economy would shrink by 5 percent to 9 percent. That’s how powerful a decarbonizing tool heat pumps are.

toolTips('.classtoolTips2','The process of reducing the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that drive climate change, most often by deprioritizing the use of fossil fuels like oil and gas in favor of renewable sources of energy.');

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Heat pumps slash emissions even if powered by a dirty grid on Mar 17, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Rain comes to the Arctic, with a cascade of troubling changes

Sat, 03/16/2024 - 06:00

This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In August 2021, rain fell atop the 10,551-foot summit of the Greenland ice cap, triggering an epic meltdown and a more than 2,000-foot retreat of the snow line. The unprecedented event reminded Joel Harper, a University of Montana glaciologist who works on the Greenland ice sheet, of a strange anomaly in his data, one that suggested that in 2008 it might have rained much later in the season — in the fall, when the region is typically in deep freeze and dark for almost 24 hours a day.

When Harper and his colleagues closely examined the measurements they’d collected from sensors on the ice sheet those many years ago, they were astonished. Not only had it rained, but it had rained for four days as the air temperature rose by 30 degrees Celsius (54 degrees Fahrenheit), close to and above the freezing point. It had warmed the summit’s firn layer — snow that is in transition to becoming ice — by between 11 and 42 degrees F (6 and 23 degrees C). The rainwater and surface melt that followed penetrated the firn by as much as 20 feet before refreezing, creating a barrier that would alter the flow of meltwater the following year.

All that rain is significant because the melting of the Greenland ice sheet — like the melting of other glaciers around the world — is one of the most important drivers of sea level rise. Each time a rain-on-snow event happens, says Harper, the structure of the firn layer is altered, and it becomes a bit more susceptible to impacts from the next melting event. “It suggests that only a minor increase in frequency and intensity of similar rain-on-snow events in the future will have an outsized impact,” he says.

Rain used to be rare in most parts of the Arctic: The polar regions were, and still are, usually too cold and dry for clouds to form and absorb moisture. When precipitation did occur, it most often came as snow.

Twenty years ago, annual precipitation in the Arctic ranged from about 10 inches in southern areas to as few as 2 inches or less in the far north. But as Arctic temperatures continue to warm three times faster than the planet as a whole, melting sea ice and more open water will, according to a recent study, bring up to 60 percent more precipitation in coming decades, with more rain falling than snow in many places.

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Such changes will have a profound impact on sea ice, glaciers, and Greenland’s ice cap — which are already melting at record rates, according to Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado. The precipitation will trigger more flooding; an acceleration in permafrost thaw; profound changes to water quality; more landslides and snow avalanches; more misery for Arctic animals, many of which are already in precipitous decline due to the shifting climate; and serious challenges for the Indigenous peoples who depend on those animals.

Changes can already be seen. Thunderstorms are now spawning in places where they have historically been rare. In 2022, the longest thunderstorm in the history of Arctic observation was recorded in Siberia. The storm lasted nearly an hour, twice as long as typical thunderstorms in the south. Just a few days earlier, a series of three thunderstorms had passed through a part of Alaska that rarely experiences them.

Surface crevassing, which allows water to enter into the interior of the icecap, is accelerating, thanks to rapid melting. And slush avalanches, which mobilize large volumes of water-saturated snow, are becoming common: In 2016, a rain-on-snow event triggered 800 slush avalanches in western Greenland.

Rick Thoman, a climate scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says that rainfall at any time of year has increased 17 percent in the state over the past half century, triggering floods that have closed roads and landslides that, in one case, sent 180 million tons of rock into a narrow fjord, generating a tsunami that reached 633 feet high — one of the highest tsunamis ever recorded worldwide.

But winter rain events are also on the rise. Where Fairbanks used to see rain on snow about two or three times a decade, Thoman says, it now occurs at least once in most winters. That’s a problem for local drivers because, with little solar heating, ice that forms on roads from November rains typically remains until spring.

Caribou walk in the foreground of a glacier on in 2013 in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The science of both rain and rain-on-snow events in the Arctic is in its infancy, and it is complicated by the fact that satellites and automated weather stations have a difficult time differentiating between snow and rain, and because there are not enough scientists on the ground to evaluate firsthand what happens when rain falls on snow, says Serreze.

It was hunters who first reported, in 2003, that an estimated 20,000 muskoxen had starved to death on Banks Island, in Canada’s High Arctic, following an October rain-on-snow event. It happened again in the winters of 2013-2014 and 2020-2021, when tens of thousands of reindeer died on Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula.

In both places, the rain had hardened the snow and, in some places, produced ice, which made it almost impossible for the animals to dig down and reach the lichen, sedges, and other plants they need to survive the long winter.

Kyle Joly, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. National Park Service, views an increase in rain-on-snow events as yet another serious challenge for the world’s 2.4 million caribou, which have been in rapid decline pretty much everywhere over the past three generations. The ebbing numbers are a huge concern for northern Indigenous peoples who rely on caribou for food. Public health experts fear that Indigenous health will be seriously compromised if the animals can no longer be hunted.

Alaska’s western Arctic herd, which has been, at times, the largest in North America, had 490,000 animals in 2003 but just 152,000 in 2023. But at least that herd can still be hunted. In Canada’s central Arctic, the Bathurst herd has plummeted from roughly 470,000 animals in the 1980s to just 6,240 animals today; hunting those caribou in the Northwest Territories is currently banned.

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Caribou are highly adaptable to extreme environmental variability, and their numbers can rise and fall for several reasons, according to Joly. The proliferation of biting flies in a warming climate can sap their energy, as can migration detours forced by the spread of roads and industrial development, and an increase in dumps of deep, soft snow, which are linked to the loss of sea ice. (An ice-free ocean surface increases humidity near the surface, which leads to more moisture in the atmosphere.)

Sharp-edged ice and crusty snow can also lacerate caribous’ legs, and rain on snow has periodically affected some of Alaska’s 32 caribou herds. For example, the day after Christmas in 2021, temperatures rose to more than 60 degrees F (15 degrees C) during a storm that dropped an inch of rain over a large area of the state. Alaska’s Fish and Game Department estimated that 40 percent of the moose, caribou, and sheep in the state’s interior perished that winter because they could not dig through the hard snow and ice.

It’s not just caribou and muskoxen that are being threatened. There is growing evidence that rain falling in parts of the Arctic where precipitation usually arrives as snow is killing peregrine falcon chicks, which have only downy feathers to protect them from the cold. Once water soaks their down, the chicks succumb to hypothermia.

Few scientists have evaluated the hydrological and geochemical impact of rain-on-snow events in polar desert regions, which are underlain by permafrost and receive very little snow in winter. Recent studies published by Queen’s University scientist Melissa Lafrenière and colleagues from several universities in Canada and the United States point to a worrisome picture unfolding at the Cape Bounty Arctic Watershed Observatory on Melville Island, in Canada’s High Arctic, which has been in operation since 2003.

A shift from runoff dominated by snowmelt in spring and summer to runoff from both rain and snowmelt is accelerating permafrost thaw and ground slumping, and it’s filling fish-bearing lakes with sediments. One study found a fiftyfold increase in turbidity in one lake that led to a rise in mercury and a decrease in the health of Arctic char, a fish that the Inuit of the Arctic rely on.

Read Next Can the ‘sand motor’ save West Africa’s eroding coast?

Lafrenière says that with only 20 years of measurement, it’s difficult to point conclusively to a trend. “But we have been seeing more rain falling in bigger events, in late summer especially. In 2022, we had unusually heavy rain that dropped an average summer’s worth of rain in less than 48 hours.”

To help scientists and decision-makers better understand the impacts of what is happening, Serreze and his colleagues have created a database of all known rain-on-snow events across the Arctic. And increasingly, scientists like Robert Way of Queen’s University in Canada are working with the Inuit and other northern Indigenous peoples to ground-truth what they think the satellites and automated weather stations are telling them and to share the data that they are collecting and evaluating.

Way, who is of Inuit descent, was a young man when he witnessed parts of the George River herd, one of the world’s largest caribou herds, migrate across the ice in central Labrador. “There were thousands and thousands and thousands of them,” he recalls with wonder. The herd contained 750,000 animals in the 1980s; today, it has no more than 20,000. The animals are facing the same climate change challenges that caribou everywhere are facing.

Way is working with Labrador’s Inuit to better understand how these weather events will affect caribou and food security, as well as their own travel on snow and ice. But, he says, “It’s increasingly difficult to do this research in Canada because half of the weather stations have been shut down” due to federal budget cuts. Most of the manually operated stations, Way adds, “are being replaced by automated ones that produce data that makes it hard for scientists to determine whether it is raining or snowing when temperatures hover around the freezing mark.”

To better understand how rain-on-snow events are affecting the Arctic, Serreze says, researchers need to better understand how often and where these events occur, and what impact they have on the land- and seascape. “Satellite data and weather models can reveal some of these events, but these tools are imperfect,” he says. “To validate what is happening at the surface and the impacts of these events on reindeer, caribou, and musk oxen requires people on the ground. And we don’t have enough people on the ground.” Researchers need to work with Indigenous peoples “who are directly dealing with the effects of rain on snow,” he noted.

In 2007, Serreze stated in a University of Colorado Boulder study that the Arctic may have reached a climate change tipping point that could trigger a cascade of events. More rain than snow falling in the Arctic is one such event, and he expects more surprises to come. “We are trying to keep up with what is going on,” he says, “but we keep getting surprised.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Rain comes to the Arctic, with a cascade of troubling changes on Mar 16, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

FBI sent several informants to Standing Rock protests, court documents show

Fri, 03/15/2024 - 01:45

Up to 10 informants managed by the FBI were embedded in anti-pipeline resistance camps near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation at the height of mass protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016. The new details about federal law enforcement surveillance of an Indigenous environmental movement were released as part of a legal fight between North Dakota and the federal government over who should pay for policing the pipeline fight. Until now, the existence of only one other federal informant in the camps had been confirmed. 

The FBI also regularly sent agents wearing civilian clothing into the camps, one former agent told Grist in an interview. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, operated undercover narcotics officers out of the reservation’s Prairie Knights Casino, where many pipeline opponents rented rooms, according to one of the depositions. 

The operations were part of a wider surveillance strategy that included drones, social media monitoring, and radio eavesdropping by an array of state, local, and federal agencies, according to attorneys’ interviews with law enforcement. The FBI infiltration fits into a longer history in the region. In the 1970s, the FBI infiltrated the highest levels of the American Indian Movement, or AIM. 

The Indigenous-led uprising against Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access oil pipeline drew thousands of people seeking to protect water, the climate, and Indigenous sovereignty. For seven months, participants protested to stop construction of the pipeline and were met by militarized law enforcement, at times facing tear gas, rubber bullets, and water hoses in below-freezing weather.

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After the pipeline was completed and demonstrators left, North Dakota sued the federal government for more than $38 million — the cost the state claims to have spent on police and other emergency responders, and for property and environmental damage. Central to North Dakota’s complaints are the existence of anti-pipeline camps on federal land managed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The state argues that by failing to enforce trespass laws on that land, the Army Corps allowed the camps to grow to up to 8,000 people and serve as a “safe haven” for those who participated in illegal activity during protests and caused property damage. 

In an effort to prove that the federal government failed to provide sufficient support, attorneys deposed officials leading several law enforcement agencies during the protests. The depositions provide unusually detailed information about the way that federal security agencies intervene in climate and Indigenous movements. 

Until the lawsuit, the existence of only one federal informant in the camps was known: Heath Harmon was working as an FBI informant when he entered into a romantic relationship with water protector Red Fawn Fallis. A judge eventually sentenced Fallis to nearly five years in prison after a gun went off when she was tackled by police during a protest. The gun belonged to Harmon. 

Manape LaMere, a member of the Bdewakantowan Isanti and Ihanktowan bands, who is also Winnebago Ho-chunk and spent months in the camps, said he and others anticipated the presence of FBI agents, because of the agency’s history. Camp security kicked out several suspected infiltrators. “We were already cynical, because we’ve had our heart broke before by our own relatives,” he explained.

“The culture of paranoia and fear created around informants and infiltration is so deleterious to social movements, because these movements for Indigenous people are typically based on kinship networks and forms of relationality,” said Nick Estes, a historian and member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe who spent time at the Standing Rock resistance camps and has extensively researched the infiltration of the AIM movement by the FBI. Beyond his relationship with Fallis, Harmon had close familial ties with community leaders and had participated in important ceremonies. Infiltration, Estes said, “turns relatives against relatives.”

Less widely known than the FBI’s undercover operations are those of the BIA, which serves as the primary police force on Standing Rock and other reservations. During the NoDAPL movement, the BIA had “a couple” of narcotics officers operating undercover at the Prairie Knights Casino, according to the deposition of Darren Cruzan, a member of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma who was the director of the BIA’s Office of Justice Services at the time.  

It’s not unusual for the BIA to use undercover officers in its drug busts. However, the intelligence collected by the Standing Rock undercovers went beyond narcotics. “It was part of our effort to gather intel on, you know, what was happening within the boundaries of the reservation and if there were any plans to move camps or add camps or those sorts of things,” Cruzan said.

A spokesperson for Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees the BIA, also declined to comment. 

According to the deposition of Jacob O’Connell, the FBI’s supervisor for the western half of North Dakota during the Standing Rock protests, the FBI was infiltrating the NoDAPL movement weeks before the protests gained international media attention and attracted thousands. By August 16, 2016, the FBI had tasked at least one “confidential human source” with gathering information. The FBI eventually had five to 10 informants in the protest camps — “probably closer to 10,” said Bob Perry, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Minneapolis field office, which oversees operations in the Dakotas, in another deposition. The number of FBI informants at Standing Rock was first reported by the North Dakota Monitor.

According to Perry, FBI agents told recruits what to collect and what not to collect, saying, “We don’t want to know about constitutionally protected activity.” Perry added, “We would give them essentially a list: ‘Violence, potential violence, criminal activity.’ To some point it was health and safety as well, because, you know, we had an informant placed and in position where they could report on that.” 

The deposition of U.S. Marshal Paul Ward said that the FBI also sent agents into the camps undercover. O’Connell denied the claim. “There were no undercover agents used at all, ever.” He confirmed, however, that he and other agents did visit the camps routinely. For the first couple months of the protests, O’Connell himself arrived at the camps soon after dawn most days, wearing outdoorsy clothing from REI or Dick’s Sporting Goods. “Being plainclothes, we could kind of slink around and, you know, do what we had to do,” he said. O’Connell would chat with whomever he ran into. Although he sometimes handed out his card, he didn’t always identify himself as FBI. “If people didn’t ask, I didn’t tell them,” he said.  

He said two of the agents he worked with avoided confrontations with protesters, and Ward’s deposition indicates that the pair raised concerns with the U.S. marshal about the safety of entering the camps without local police knowing. Despite its efforts, the FBI uncovered no widespread criminal activity beyond personal drug use and “misdemeanor-type activity,” O’Connell said in his deposition. 

The U.S. Marshals Service, as well as Ward, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. A spokesperson for the FBI said the press office does not comment on litigation.

Infiltration wasn’t the only activity carried out by federal law enforcement. Customs and Border Protection responded to the protests with its MQ-9 Reaper drone, a model best known for remote airstrikes in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was flying above the encampments by August 22, supplying video footage known as the “Bigpipe Feed.” The drone flew nearly 281 hours over six months, costing the agency $1.5 million. Customs and Border Protection declined a request for comment, citing the litigation.

The biggest beneficiary of federal law enforcement’s spending was Energy Transfer Partners. In fact, the company donated $15 million to North Dakota to help foot the bill for the state’s parallel efforts to quell the disruptions. During the protests, the company’s private security contractor, TigerSwan, coordinated with local law enforcement and passed along information collected by its own undercover and eavesdropping operations.

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Energy Transfer Partners also sought to influence the FBI. It was the FBI, however, that initiated its relationship with the company. In his deposition, O’Connell said he showed up at Energy Transfer Partners’ office within a day or two of beginning to investigate the movement and was soon meeting and communicating with executive vice president Joey Mahmoud.

At one point, Mahmoud pointed the FBI toward Indigenous activist and actor Dallas Goldtooth, saying that “he’s the ring leader making this violent,” according to an email an attorney described.

Throughout the protests, federal law enforcement officials pushed to obtain more resources to police the anti-pipeline movement. Perry wanted drones that could zoom in on faces and license plates, and O’Connell thought the FBI should investigate crowd-sourced funding, which could have ties to North Korea, he claimed in his deposition. Both requests were denied.

O’Connell clarified that he was more concerned about China or Russia than North Korea, and it was not just state actors that worried him. “If somebody like George Soros or some of these other well-heeled activists are trying to disrupt things in my turf, I want to know what’s going on,” he explained, referring to the billionaire philanthropist, who conspiracists theorize controls progressive causes.

To the federal law enforcement officials working on the ground at Standing Rock, there was no reason they shouldn’t be able to use all the resources at the federal government’s disposal to confront this latest Indigenous uprising.

“That shit should have been crushed like immediately,” O’Connell said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline FBI sent several informants to Standing Rock protests, court documents show on Mar 15, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

EPA finally cracks down on the carcinogen used to sterilize medical equipment

Thu, 03/14/2024 - 16:20

People living near plants that use ethylene oxide to sterilize medical equipment have for years pressured regulators to crack down on their toxic emissions. Residents in communities from Laredo, Texas, to Willowbrook, Illinois have tried to shut these facilities down, challenged them in court, and fought for air sampling studies to measure their exposure to the carcinogen. 

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally taken notice.

Today the agency finalized new regulations that will require dozens of medical sterilization companies to adopt procedures and technologies that it claims will reduce emissions of the toxic chemical by 90 percent. The rule will take effect within two to three years, a longer timeline than advocates of the change hoped for. Still, regulators and community advocates alike hailed the change.

“We have followed the science and listened to communities to fulfill our responsibility to safeguard public health from this pollution – including the health of children, who are particularly vulnerable to carcinogens early in life,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a press release.

Ethylene Oxide Facts

What is ethylene oxide? Ethylene oxide is a colorless and odorless toxic gas used to sterilize medical products, fumigate spices, and manufacture other industrial chemicals. According to the Food and Drug Administration, approximately half of all sterile medical devices in the U.S. are disinfected with ethylene oxide.

What are the sources of ethylene oxide exposure? Industrial sources of ethylene oxide emissions fall into three main categories: chemical manufacturing, medical sterilization, and food fumigation. 

What are the health effects of being exposed to ethylene oxide? Ethylene oxide, which the EPA has labeled a carcinogen, is harmful at concentrations above 0.1 parts per trillion if exposed over a lifetime. Numerous studies have linked it to lung and breast cancers as well as diseases of the nervous system and damage to the lungs. Acute exposure to the chemical can cause loss of consciousness or lead to a seizure or coma.

How is the EPA regulating ethylene oxide? The EPA just finalized regulations for ethylene oxide emissions from the sterilization industry. The new rule requires companies to install equipment that minimizes the amount of the chemical released into the air. However, it does not address emissions from other parts of the medical device supply chain, such as warehouses and trucks.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, more than 50 percent of the nation’s medical equipment is sterilized using ethylene oxide. The nondescript buildings where this fumigation occurs came under scrutiny in 2016, after the EPA revised its risk assessment of the chemical, finding it 30 percent more toxic to adults and 60 percent more toxic to children than previously known. Over the years, studies have linked exposure to the chemical to cancers of the lungs, breasts, and lymph nodes.

The medical sterilization industry has recently warned that too-stringent regulations risk disrupting the supply of medical equipment.

“The industry supports updated standards while ensuring the technology patients rely on around the clock is sterile and well-supplied,” wrote the Advanced Medical Technology Association, a trade group, in a February press release.

After the agency published a 2019 analysis indicating unusually high levels of cancer risk near sterilizers, people around the country rallied against the facilities in their communities, with a Chicago suburb even managing to shut one down. Federal data indicate that more than 96 of these businesses operate in 32 states and Puerto Rico and are concentrated near Latino communities. 

Marvin Brown, an attorney at Earthjustice who advocated for stronger oversight of toxic emissions from commercial sterilizers, applauded the new rule, noting that EPA regulations were last revised in 1994, long before the agency was aware of the true risk of ethylene oxide.

“Overall it’s definitely a victory for our clients in terms of getting EPA to finally revise and increase regulations on an industry that’s really been operating with a lack of controls for the past 30 years,” he told Grist in an interview.

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The rule will rely upon several measures to achieve an estimated 90 percent reduction in toxic emissions. It requires companies to install air monitors inside their facilities to continuously track the level of ethylene oxide, and report their results to the EPA on a quarterly basis. Brown considers these continuous monitoring systems important because they capture pollutants escaping through leaks and cracks in the sterilization chambers, providing a more comprehensive assessment of the facility’s emissions.

The rule also requires both large and small sterilizers to install “permanent total enclosures,” which creates negative pressure in a building, preventing air from escaping. Instead of being released into the atmosphere and putting nearby residents at risk, any emissions are routed to a device that burns them.

But for all its benefits, Brown said, the new regulation leaves out several important protections residents and advocates fought for. The EPA pushed back the rule’s implementation from 18 months for all sterilizers to 2 years for large facilities and 3 years for smaller ones, a change Brown attributed to industry pressure. The decision will come as a disappointment, he said, to residents who hoped for more immediate relief. 

Notably, the new regulations do not require companies to monitor the air near their facilities, making it difficult for communities to assess the concentrations of ethylene oxide near their homes. The agency has argued that such a provision is excessive given the new monitoring requirements inside of facilities, but advocates of the change note that internal monitors don’t capture leaks that happen outdoors, such as from trucks carrying newly sterilized equipment. 

Ethylene oxide emissions from the warehouses where medical equipment is stored after sterilization are a growing concern. After fumigation, these items can carry traces of the chemical that evaporate for days or weeks afterwards. Officials in Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division found that this “offgassing” can create substantial concentrations of the chemical in the air, and a recent Grist investigation revealed that dozens of workers at one warehouse in Lithia Springs experienced nausea, headaches, rashes, and seizures after being exposed to these fumes on the job. The EPA’s new regulations do not cover such emissions, an omission Brown called “unfortunate.” 

“There’s still a lot more work to be done,” he said of the new rule. “But this is a good step in terms of stricter emission controls, and new emission controls that did not exist before.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline EPA finally cracks down on the carcinogen used to sterilize medical equipment on Mar 14, 2024.

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