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Cold War clean-up

Ariana Brocious | Oct 26, 2009 06:39 AM

Stimulus funds are now being used to tackle one of the West's biggest nuclear messes: The 65-year old atomic dump in Los Alamos, N.M. is finally getting some much-needed attention. On Thursday the New York Times reported that a team of workers using $212 million in federal stimulus money will clean up the site on the Pajarito Plateau—part of a larger stimulus-funded program of $6 billion to “clean up the toxic legacy of the arms race.” Another site in Hanford, Wash., is receiving $1.9 billion for a similar undertaking.

The projects will also provide employment—more than 10,800 positions have been saved or created with the money, according to the New York Times. However, the Times added that:

…the money was only a down payment on what is still a staggering task: the Department of Energy is responsible for cleaning up 107 sites, with as much acreage as Delaware and Rhode Island combined, in work that could take decades and cost up to $260 billion to complete.

Some residents of the town that has grown up around the old laboratory, including businesses across the street from the dump, are suspicious of the clean-up operations. Over the years many lab employees have suffered from chemical exposure-related health problems as a result of the dangerous materials used on site. Yet officials are taking extreme care to protect the public:

They asked scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory to come up with the worst-case scenarios of how explosive the chemicals dumped there might have grown over the years—and then they blew up the equivalent amounts of dynamite to test all the safety measures that they would be taking.

Officials say that after the clean-up and waste removal, houses can someday be built on the land.

For more on atomic experiments at Los Alamos, see our story: “New Mexico goes head-to-head with a nuclear juggernaut.”

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Well hell, continued

Cally Carswell | Oct 22, 2009 08:02 AM

Watch what you drink in the Yakima Valley. Groundwater contaminated with nitrates and bacteria, which is pumped by private well owners for drinking, is turning the lower valley into “the toilet bowl” of Washington, as one resident puts it.

Dirty drinking water is a “widespread and long-standing” problem in the valley, according to the Yakima Herald. So the EPA’s announcement this week that it finally plans to crack down on area polluters and enforce clean water laws was welcome news. The agency will start sampling well water and inspecting dairies and feedlots, which have long been eyed as potential culprits behind the pollution.

The Yakima Valley isn’t alone in its well-water woes. According to a piece from the New York Times’ excellent series, “Toxic Waters”:

Agricultural runoff is the single largest source of water pollution in the nation’s rivers and streams, according to the E.P.A. An estimated 19.5 million Americans fall ill each year from waterborne parasites, viruses or bacteria, including those stemming from human and animal waste, according to a study published last year in the scientific journal Reviews of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

… In California, up to 15 percent of wells in agricultural areas exceed a federal contaminant threshold, according to studies. Major waterways like the Chesapeake Bay have been seriously damaged by agricultural pollution, according to government reports.

In Arkansas and Maryland, residents have accused chicken farm owners of polluting drinking water. In 2005, Oklahoma’s attorney general sued 13 poultry companies, claiming they had damaged one of the state’s most important watersheds.

For more on problematic wells in the Yakima Basin, see my recent story, "Death by a thousand wells," which covers controversy in Kittitas County over the impact of unregulated domestic wells.


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Recession blessings

Ed Quillen | Oct 22, 2009 03:48 AM

    Christina Davidson, a correspondent for The Atlantic, has been touring the country on a "Recession Road Trip."
    One recent stop was in Lolo, Mont., where local rancher Tom Maclay has been trying to build a major ski resort called Bitterroot on Lolo Peak. Some ski runs have already been cut.
    Now it appears that the project could be a victim of the recession, with a major creditor threatening foreclosure.
    According to Davidson's piece, most locals see this as a silver lining:
    "Nope. I don't feel sorry for him one bit," one longtime resident says when I approach him in the parking lot of a local deli. "We didn't want it and he didn't give a damn. This isn't the perspective of poor folk resenting the wealthy local landowner. It's practicality. We didn't want the traffic, higher property taxes, expensive housing, and all the rich la-di-da yuppies that would have come with it. God bless this recession if it puts an end to that nightmare."

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More on that big sucking sound from Vegas

Sarah Gilman | Oct 22, 2009 12:30 AM

If you've enjoyed HCN's coverage of Las Vegas' groundwater machinations, you should tune in to this interview.

From KUNC, Community Radio for Northern Colorado:

 In the latest in our occasional series of conversations with the writers at High Country News, Editor Jonathan Thompson tells KUNC's Kirk Siegler that (massive water pipeline) projects are back under consideration because reservoirs like Lake Powell along the Colorado River are lower than they've been in decades.
Click here for a listen.



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Utah climate clash

Cally Carswell | Oct 19, 2009 10:12 AM

When University of Utah professor Jim Steenburgh and a team of climatologists issued a scientific report on climate change in 2007 to then-Governor Jon Huntsman, they emphasized their "very high confidence" that humans were mostly responsible for recent warming patterns.

But many Utah lawmakers didn't take their word for it. And while the state’s new governor, Gary Herbert, has trumpeted his plans to let "good science" guide policy and lead a "legitimate" debate on man’s role in global warming, the Legislature has so far left climatologists out of the conversation.

This Wednesday, Steenburgh will become the first climate scientist "ever to testify to state lawmakers about likely climate changes in store for Utah," according to the Salt Lake Tribune. He plans to summarize the two-year-old report for legislators, which projected that Utah would "warm more than the average for the entire globe."

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Resilience, not sustainability

Ed Quillen | Oct 19, 2009 09:02 AM

    The annual Headwaters Conference at Western State College in Gunnison often presents some concepts worth chewing on, and this year's gathering (held Oct. 16-18) was no exception. Headwaters, as I've come to understand it after 20 years of attending, is something of an idea fair for little mountain towns.
    For some time I've been mulling about "sustainability," which sounds like a noble goal, until you try to figure out the difference between "sustainability" and "stagnation."
    Further, I had a problem with local sustainability advocates, who've been devoting lots of time and energy to opposing a relatively minor water project (200 acre-feet a year, and augmented so there is no net export) while ignoring other sustainability issues that seem more important, at least to me.
    For instance, we just lost our salvage yard, and the availability of parts to keep our old pickups on the road certainly has something to do with the sustainability of our community. Salvage yards reduce resource consumption and keep money in town. Why aren't the activists agitating about that?
    So I had receptive ears when the first keynote speaker, Dr. Devon Pena of the University of Washington (and a farm near San Luis, Colo., and the Acequia Institute) ripped into "sustainability" as a buzzword and an unworthy goal.
    He proposed that communities seek "resilience," rather than "sustainability."
    For instance (and this is my theorizing, not his), consider the imaginary mountain town of Mofeta. For generations, they've raised sheep, and they do it in a sustainable way without overgrazing.
    But then the bottom drops out of the wool market. Or demand seriously declines for lamb chops and mutton. Or the Chinese start exporting cheap sheep products. We are, after all, in a global commodity market, and this stuff happens.
    Sustainable practices won't keep Mofeta's shepherds in business.
    If they're resilient, though, they'll look for ways to add value to what they know how to make -- maybe by encouraging local weavers and production of classy wool sweaters.
    Or they'll shift to goats and build a little dairy in Mofeta to supply gourmet goat cheese. Or they'll come up with some other way to employ their knowledge and resources; that's resilience, rather than sustainability.
    This model seems to fit with my own town of Salida, Colo., founded in 1880 as a railroad division point with shops and roundhouses. It's been a decade since a train came through town, and the railroad cutbacks started long ago, just after World War II.
    Mining carried the local economy until the early 1980s. After that crash, ghost-town status loomed. But people here were resilient. They took what they had -- the Arkansas River, abundant scenery, a charming if dilapidated old brick downtown -- and found a way to earn a living from those resources.
    Are art galleries and outdoor recreation sustainable? Maybe not, if gasoline hits $5 a gallon. But that's something we have no control over. We do have some control over how we respond and adapt -- that is, we can be resilient. I like that concept.


Clean(er) coal?

Jodi Peterson | Oct 19, 2009 08:55 AM

In Alaska and Wyoming, two energy companies just announced plans to burn coal underground to create natural gas, then use the waste carbon dioxide to enhance oilfield production. The process, called "underground coal gasification", has never been done in the U.S., but is used in Australia and other countries. The Anchorage Daily News reports:

As described by Cook Inlet Region Inc., the project would be a massive win-win -- its dormant coal fields would be tapped for energy without the environmental consequences of traditional coal mining, the region would get a new source of electricity, the pressure on local natural gas supplies would be eased and more oil might even be squeezed from Cook Inlet's aging oil fields.

CIRI's project would involve drilling wells into buried coal seams, then injecting compressed air into the wells, causing the coal to combust and create gas. CIRI would then convert the gas into electricity at its new 100-megawatt power plant and sell the power to buyers in the region, such as utilities.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories is acting as technical adviser for the Alaska project, which could be producing synthetic gas by 2014.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, Linc Energy (based in Australia) and GasTech (based in Casper) plan to have a joint demonstration UCG project underway within 2 1/2 years. The companies have leased state land in the Powder River Basin.

Green groups are warily optimistic -- the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force released a recent report recommending "rapid development and deployment of underground coal gasification to reduce carbon emissions and electricity prices."



The high risk of leaving home

Jodi Peterson | Oct 16, 2009 06:10 AM

Last week, federal agents shot a sheep-killing wolf in Wyoming. That male (266M), from a Montana litter born in 2007, was the sibling of a female wolf (341F) that wandered across Wyoming, Idaho and Utah last fall. This past March, she was found dead near the northern Colorado town of Rifle. Sadly, the littermates' fates are typical for dispersing wolves. The young animals  travel hundreds of miles from their home pack to find mates and set up new territories, but meet many hazards along the way, reports the Casper Star-Tribune:

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Can salmon save themselves?

Arla Shephard | Oct 15, 2009 09:36 AM

The Northwest's Columbia River Basin stocks of iconic salmon have been the subject of a heated and expensive court battle for the past decade. Thirteen out of 16 stocks are listed as threatened or endangered thanks to a combination of factors including mining, farming, urban development and most significantly, lots of hydropower dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Some biologists have long argued for the removal of four dams along the Lower Snake River so that the fish can complete their life cycle -- swimming to the ocean and then returning upstream to their place of birth to spawn -- with fewer obstacles and threats. But competing hydropower interests -- namely the federal Bonneville Power Administration which markets the region's hydropower -- have fought tooth and nail for anything but (see HCN’s 2009 feature stories "Columbia Basin (Political) Science" and “Salmon Salvation.”) Federal agencies have poured billions of dollars into alternatives, like trucking salmon around dams, to help the fish survive.

Turns out, some of the fish may actually be helping themselves. Some biologists see signs that the fall chinook salmon may be evolving to weather habitats severely altered by dams, postponing their migration to the sea and growing larger to survive the journey,  The Oregonian reports.

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Tepid statistics as the planet burns

Marty Durlin | Oct 15, 2009 07:40 AM

Mired firmly in denial, we seem to be stuck in the first step of Elizabeth Kubler Ross's five stages of grief about the death of life as we know it on Planet Earth.

Adam D. Sacks has an excellent piece on Grist about our lack of urgency about global climate change -- and from the very people who care most about it: climate activists. He cites

the timid, tentative, emotionally impoverished voice of our communications, the feelings unexpressed in the face of the premature and squalid end of so much of what we love, the unfathomable reluctance to speak to the depth of the grief we are bringing upon ourselves.

Our silence is not the lack of words, it is the absence of an essence in urgent human relationships, an essence with power to break the bonds of unthinkable thoughts: passion.

Sacks quotes Frederick Douglass' thrilling 1852 anti-slavery speech as an example of the necessary "fire, thunder, ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm and stern rebuke" to get us off our dime. Then he goes on:

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