10/12/10

Whale feces -- should you be forced to consider such matters -- probably conjures images of, well, whale-scale hunks of crud, heavy lumps that sink to the bottom. But most whales actually deposit waste that floats at the surface of the ocean, "very liquidy, a flocculent plume," says University of Vermont whale biologist, Joe Roman.

And this liquid fecal matter, rich in nutrients, has a huge positive influence on the productivity of ocean fisheries, Roman and his colleague, James McCarthy from Harvard University, have discovered.

Their discovery, published Oct. 11 in the journal PLoS ONE, is what Roman calls a "whale pump."

Whales, they found, carry nutrients such as nitrogen from the depths where they feed back to the surface via their feces. This functions as an upward biological pump, reversing the assumption of some scientists that whales accelerate the loss of nutrients to the bottom.

And this nitrogen input in the Gulf of Maine is "more than the input of all rivers combined," they write, some 23,000 metric tons each year.

It is well known that microbes, plankton, and fish recycle nutrients in ocean waters, but whales and other marine mammals have largely been ignored in this cycle. Yet this study shows that whales historically played a central role in the productivity of ocean ecosystems -- and continue to do so despite diminished populations.

Despite the problems of coastal eutrophication -- like the infamous "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico caused by excess nitrogen washing down the Mississippi River -- many places in the ocean of the Northern Hemisphere have a limited nitrogen supply.

Including where Roman and McCarthy completed their study: the once fish-rich Gulf of Maine in the western North Atlantic. There, phytoplankton, the base of the food chain, has a brake on its productivity when nitrogen is used up in the otherwise productive summer months. (In other parts of the ocean, other elements are limiting, like iron in some regions of the Southern oceans.)

"We think whales form a really important direct influence on the production of plants at the base of this food web," says McCarthy.

"We found that whales increase primary productivity," Roman says, allowing more phytoplankton to grow, which then "pushes up the secondary productivity," he says, of the critters that rely on the plankton. The result: "bigger fisheries and higher abundances throughout regions where whales occur in high densities," Roman says.

"In areas where whales were once more numerous than they are today, we suggest that they were more productive," say McCarthy.

The numbers of whales that swam the oceans before human harvests began is a question of some controversy. "Conservative estimates are that large whales have been cut to 25 percent," says Roman, "though the work done on whale genetics shows that we're probably closer to 10 percent," of historical levels. To cover the range of possibilities, Roman and McCarthy's study considered several scenarios, estimating current whale stocks as 10, 25, or 50 percent of historical levels.

"Anyway you look at it, whales played a much bigger role in ecosystems in the past than they do now," says Roman, a conservation biologist in the University of Vermont's Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and the author of a book on whales.

"And everything that we do to enhance recovery and restoration of the great whales to something like pre-harvest levels works against other deleterious effects that humans are causing in the oceans," says McCarthy, like the decline of overall ocean productivity as climate change drives up water temperatures, which, in turn, causes a decline in nutrients for phytoplankton.

Save the whales, save the fishermen

A further implication of the new study is that ongoing calls by some governments to relax international whaling restrictions are ill-considered. Culls and bounty programs would reduce nitrogen and "decrease overall productivity," Roman and McCarthy note.

"For a long time, and still today, Japan and other countries have policies to justify the harvest of marine mammals," says Roman. These countries argue that whales compete with their commercial fisheries.

"Our study flips that idea on its head," Roman says, "Not only is that competition small or non-existent, but actually the whales present can increase nutrients and help fisheries and the health of systems wherever they are found. By restoring populations we have a chance to glimpse how amazingly productive these ecosystems were in the past."

 

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10/9/10

Canada seems lost in a political tailspin: a deadlocked minority government, a largely ineffective opposition, a ruling party — Stephen Harper’s Tories — struggling to pass legislation that is usually controversial to begin with.

But if Canadians are looking for leadership, they need look no further than the Oilers’ and Rangers’ Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Kevin Lowe, and his wife, the former Canadian Olympian Karen Percy Lowe. This week they founded the Edmonton chapter of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s environmental group, the Waterkeeper Alliance, to safeguard the long-term health of the North Saskatchewan River.

It’s a bold move by the very visible couple in Alberta, a province where the waterways are often ignored in the interests of big industry. In the often apolitical sports world, they’re a throwback to the days when athletes and ex-athletes occasionally made time to protect the greater good.

In 2006 I attended a Waterkeeper Alliance conference in San Francisco. The event came on the heels of the Oilers’ Game 7 loss to Carolina in the Stanley Cup final, a crushing blow for Lowe, then the Edmonton general manager. Karen had attended the game with her family, and leaving behind a trail of tears, flew to S.F. the next day for the conference.

Distraught after her husband’s team’s heartbreaking loss, she found comfort in the realm of the Keepers, who told about putting their lives on the line to protect Appalachian mountains mutilated by Big Coal and, in Bobby Kennedy Jr.’s case, cleaning up the befouled Hudson River. All the talk that weekend of planetary health and well being filled whatever hole the Hurricane had gouged in Percy Lowe’s heart. She was energized by the experience, and set into motion plans to start an Edmonton chapter of the Waterkeeper Alliance.

The North Saskatchewan group was founded this past weekend at the couple’s home, which also happens to stand alongside the waterway of the same name. The Tragically Hip’s Gordon Downie and his excellent band, the Country of Miracles, played. Lowe spoke to invited guests.

“I told them a story about being aware of our environment, and how, even though we have an incredible amount of natural wonder in Canada, we should be aware of its fragility and preciousness, and shouldn’t take it for granted,” he said Wednesday, on the way to an Oilers practice at Northlands Coliseum. “I remember being out at the lake many years ago, painting the deck and washing the varnish off the brushes into the water. We used to do these things, all of us, but we’ve got to remember that that sort of act is unacceptable. The health of the North Saskatchewan might be stable now, but we want to make sure it’s alright for future generations.”

One of the Keepers’ ideas — imagined by Mark Mattson, the Kevin and Karen’s confidante and driving force behind the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper — is to convince the N.H.L. to devote a day honouing the waterways nearest their 30 charter teams. The idea, which Lowe said he hopes to present to the appropriate bodies in the coming months, is to have teams wear uniquely designed sweaters for one game in an effort to raise waterway awareness.

Mattson believes that the Keepers and the N.H.L. are a natural fit, considering that hockey is played on ice. “We’ve all skated on frozen rivers and lakes,” said Lowe, a native of Lachute, Quebec, and now the Oilers president. “It’s not a stretch for the N.H.L. to recognize the essence of our sport and its close relationship to water.”

If the Keepers’ idea flies, the teams would be renamed for their nearest body of water. They would include the Detroit River Red Wings, San Francisco Bay Sharks, St. Lawrence River Canadiens, Three Rivers Penguins, Sunset Beach Mighty Ducks, New Jersey Bay Devils, Mississippi River Wild, Trinity River Stars, Hudson River Rangers, Alamosa River Avalanche, Delaware River Flyers, Anacostia River Capitals, Ottawa River Senators, Bow River Flames, Boston Harbor Bruins, Catabawa River Hurricanes, Cumberland River Predators, Niagara River Sabres, North Saskatchewan River Oilers, Lake Michigan Blackhawks, Fraser River Canucks, Miami Beach Panthers, Salt River Coyotes, Lake Ontario Maple Leafs, Scioto River Blue Jackets, Long Island Sound Islanders, Mississippi River Blues, Chattahoochee River Thrashers, California Coast Kings, and the Gulf of Mexico Lightning. The sale of sweaters would provide a fund-raising opportunity for the Waterkeeper Alliance, as well as a good way for the league to promote itself and to become actively involved and recognized as a force for environmental protection.

 

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Public Policy Director, Waterkeeper Alliance

10/8/10

The media has been filled with recent accounts of the many misdeeds of the coal mining industry. From the uncontrolled devastation of mountaintop mining to the open disregard for mine worker safety, from the poisoning of our air and waterways to the destruction of our irreplaceable landscapes, this industry has demonstrated time and again that it will use any irresponsible shortcut to avoid accountability and increase profits. To that long list of industry wrongs, we can now add another - the falsification of their own pollution records.

Yesterday, environmentalists filed a sixty-day notice letter that they intend to sue three coal companies - ICG Knott County, ICG Hazard, and Frasure Creek Mining - for violations of the Clean Water Act. The letter -- written by Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance -- alleges that the three companies not only exceeded pollution-discharge limits specified in their permits, but also consistently failed to conduct required monitoring of their discharges and, in many cases, submitted false monitoring data to the state agencies charged with protecting the public. In short, the mining companies have polluted the drinking water of Eastern Kentucky and bordering downstream states, and then brazenly lied about it.

State and federal agencies should be policing this kind of illegal behavior, but they're not. They're not enforcing the laws, like the Clean Water Act - which has been on the books for nearly 40 years - nor do they monitor or even verify information put forward by our largest polluters. Today, it's left to citizens to singlehandedly take on the major polluting industries like the coal companies.

The three coal companies named in the environmentalists' letter operate in eastern Kentucky under state-issued permits that require them to self-monitor and report their discharges to state officials. The monitoring reports become public documents, reviewable by anyone who asks for them. That's a good thing, because obviously the state of Kentucky doesn't bother reviewing them.

Among the allegations enumerated in the letter of notice are countless examples of companies exceeding their pollution limits; failing to complete or file their reports; and, most troubling of all, misreporting discharges of manganese, iron, total suspended solids and pH. In some cases, coal companies submitted the exact same discharge figures in report after report, year after year - or erased dates and filled in new ones.

The sheer number of alleged violations for these three companies is astounding. The notice letter claims the companies either exceeded permit pollution limits, failed to submit legally required monitoring data, or falsified that data more than 20,000 instances in total. Some discharges exceeded the daily maximum limit by more than 40 times. These violations could result in fines totaling more than $740 million.

As bad as the actions of the mine companies are, the records also show a pervasive pattern of neglect on the part of the state of Kentucky. A recent trip to Kentucky's Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement regional offices by Appalachian Voices' Waterkeeper found stack after stack of discharge monitoring reports, from more than 60 coal mines and processing facilities, covered in dust on the desks of mine inspectors' secretaries. They did not appear to have been evaluated for compliance by the regulators for more than three years.

This situation paints a vivid picture of mining companies making a mockery of their legal responsibility under the Clean Water Act and, more troubling, their ethical and moral obligation to the people of the state of Kentucky. It also shows a state government closing its eyes to the problems posed by toxic waste in local waters. And Kentucky's situation isn't unique: it's business-as-usual for big coal and the government agencies across the country charged with regulating the industry, which too frequently are now run by former coal executives or consultants.

And so, with industry unwilling to obey the law, and government unwilling to uphold it, it's left to individuals and groups to bring suit; ordinary citizens driven to extraordinary lengths. That isn't an easy thing to do for private individuals, but they have seen their lives and livelihoods damaged and destroyed by the dumping of mining waste into Kentucky's waterways.

The Waterkeeper movement was founded more than forty years by commercial and recreational fishermen on the Hudson River because the river that was so much a part of their lives was being stolen from them by corporate polluters. They knew that if we allow pollution to continue unchecked, we are doing what the government is now doing with these coal companies: allowing theft to not only go unpunished, but also unchallenged.

Those fishermen decided to enforce the laws that the government was failing to enforce, and to reclaim the bedrock American belief in "government for the people, of the people, and by the people." They demonstrated that it is not only our right, but our obligation to protect the natural treasures of this earth that we share in common - not only for ourselves but for the generations to come.

It's time again to demonstrate that lesson to the coal companies that are looting Appalachia in the name of profit: that through citizen action, corporate thievery can once again be stopped and industry made to pay the legal price for their actions.


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New study finds groundwater pumping for irrigation contributes to one-quarter of the sea-level rise observed in today's oceans.

9/24/10

Melting glaciers aren't the only reason coastal cities need to worry about sea-level rise.

Agriculture is pumping groundwater for irrigation at such a rate that the runoff equals the contribution from melting of glaciers and ice caps outside of Greenland and Antarctica, according to a new study looking at groundwater depletion.

 It also exceeds or falls into the high-end of previous estimates of groundwater's contribution to sea-level rise, the researchers found.

Most water extracted from underground aquifers ends up in the ocean. The ceaseless pumping contributes about 0.8 millimeters of sea-level rise annually, about a quarter of the 3.1 millimeters per year scientists are observing worldwide, researchers reported. 

The study, headed by Marc Bierkens of Utrecht University in Utrecht, the Netherlands, is to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, the publication announced Thursday.

The study's main point was to assess the depletion rate of the vast underground stores that billions of people depend on for agriculture and drinking water and that sustain countless streams, wetlands and ecosystems.

The news wasn't good: The depletion rate has more than doubled between 1960 and 2000, with aquifers losing almost 70 cubic miles of water per year.

Because the amount of groundwater is unknown, scientists can't say how fast the global supply will vanish at this point. But if water was siphoned just as rapidly from the Great Lakes, they would go bone-dry in 80 years, according to the study.

"The rate of depletion increased almost linearly from the 1960s to the early 1990s," Bierkens said in a statement. "But then you see a sharp increase which is related to the increase of upcoming economies and population numbers; mainly in India and China."

Groundwater represents about 30 percent of the available fresh water on the planet, with surface water accounting for one percent. The rest of the world's potable, ag-friendly supply is locked up in glaciers or polar ice caps, according to the report.

 

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10/1/10

The region's largest power plant on Humboldt Bay for 52 years was shut down and replaced by a modern facility meant to produce next-generation electricity.

The switch was thrown on Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s new King Salmon power plant, which began generating power as its two aged fossil-fuel units went offline Wednesday and Thursday.

”We're powering the county,” said PG&E Plant Manager Paul Roller. “This is the first day they've actually done that.”

Eight of 10 Wartsila natural gas engines that are the guts of the plant roared inside insulated walls. When all the engines are running, the plant can produce up to 163 megawatts of electricity. It's also flexible enough to ramp up or down depending on demand and how much renewable energy like wind or solar is being pumped into the electrical grid.

PG&E officially broke ground on the project in December 2008, and gathered a work force that at its peak was about 280 workers. While operational, crews are still putting the finishing touches on the facility.

Sid Berg, chairman of the Humboldt-Del Norte Building and Construction Trades Council, said the project brought in some especially skilled tradesmen, including top welders who were able to train apprentices.

”Everybody worked together,” Berg said. “It was a good example of how business and labor can work together.”

The original plant was built in the 1950s, consisting of a nuclear facility  and two fossil-fuel turbines. The nuclear element was last operated in 1976, and was not restarted after concerns about seismic issues were raised. The nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania occurred three years later, and in 1984, PG&E decided to cap the King Salmon nuclear unit in 1984.

Now, PG&E is dismantling the nuclear unit and the two conventional elements. It has moved the 390 rods of spent nuclear fuel from a holding pool in the plant into specially built casks, which are now stored in an underground bunker on the site that is designed to withstand a 9.3-magnitude earthquake and a terrorist attack.

But there is substantially more work to be done. The radioactive reactor and nuclear infrastructure must be removed under strict protocols and trucked out of state to a certified facility. The 300-ton reactor vessel is in a hole 66 feet below sea level, and must be removed with a massive crane. Other parts of the facility must be cut down and removed in steel drums.

PG&E's Dave Pierce is responsible for the job, and the utility is determined to set a standard for other nuclear decommissioning efforts in the country.

”It's something we've never done before,” Pierce said, “so it's something new.”

Because the property is a nuclear site, parts of the two old conventional generators will have to be removed and tested before being shipped out. To handle that task, PG&E built a $2 million lab to check for potential radioactivity in components and soil.

Dozens of PG&E workers and contractors are busy moving onto the next phases of the effort, a complex and intertwined process that will take several more years to complete. The fossil-fuel units are expected to be removed by early 2012, with the complete decommissioning of the nuclear facility anticipated to be done in 2015.

 

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