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EPA may finally look at coal ash regulation, much needed in Montana

Sarah Jane Keller | Mar 17, 2014 03:55 PM

When rancher Clint McRae first saw the swirling green and white ponds of arsenic, boron, mercury and lead-containing sludge 10 miles from his property, it was in a photography show at the Montana statehouse. He first thought they were abstract art, but quickly realized some were aerial photos of the ash slurry left over from burning coal at southeastern Montana’s Colstrip Steam Electric Station.

Colstrip is the second largest coal-fired power plant in the West, and significant water contamination has been happening there since 1979. Currently, its waste ponds are spewing (some say leaking) coal ash into the groundwater faster than the company can control. Even sucking 423 gallons of polluted water back into the ponds each minute hasn’t stopped underground contamination from spreading. In 2008, after people got sick from drinking water at the neighboring Moose Lodge, and people lost use of their wells, 57 residents in the nearby town of Colstrip settled with the plant’s owners for $25 million. The toxic plume is still spreading.

McRae is worried about his ranch’s water, but he’s caught between Montana’s toothless coal ash regulations and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s complete lack of oversight. “No matter where we turn, we get the finger pointing the other direction,” he says in Things of Intrinsic Worth, a short film showing the McRae family’s struggle to defend their watershed against coal ash (video below, film starts 49 seconds in).

Coal ash sludge ponds have long plagued communities in the shadows of coal-fired power plants. The environmental nonprofit, Earthjustice, keeps a tally of known spill and contamination cases from coal ash. They have recorded 208 in 37 states since 2007. Though coal ash is one of the largest waste sources in the country, it’s not federally regulated. But that could change soon. After a decades long debate, with a federal court forcing their hand, the EPA recently announced that it will take action on coal ash regulations by December 2014. Then days later, in early February, 82,000 tons of coal ash spilled into North Carolina’s Dan River, prompting almost immediate federal criminal investigation.

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Google Street Viewers can now raft the Grand Canyon

Jonathan Thompson | Mar 17, 2014 08:50 AM

Back in the early 1980s, the French philosopher Michel de Certeau went to the 110th floor of the then-brand-new World Trade Center and looked down at Manhattan. It was a revelation to him:

“To be lifted to the summit of the World Trade Center is to be lifted out of the city’s grasp. When one goes up there, he leaves behind the mass that carries off and mixes up in itself any identity of authors or spectators. His elevation transfigures him into a voyeur. It puts him at a distance. … It allows one to read (the world), to be a solar Eye, looking down like a god. The exaltation of a scopic and gnostic drive: the fiction of knowledge is related to this lust to be a viewpoint and nothing more.”

Far down below, he wrote, are the walkers, “whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it.”

GrandCanyonHead
A disembodied head appears to float down the Colorado River in this image from Google's Grand Canyon Street View, apparently the result of Google's face- and raft-blurring software gone awry. Source: Google Maps.

The passage comes from de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City,” in which he expands upon this contrast between the aloof, high-altitude “readers” of the city — e.g. urban planners, cartographers and the like — and the “writers” swarming through the streets in a seemingly chaotic manner. When I first read the essay a few years ago, I couldn't help but wonder what de Certeau would have made of the Internet, particularly Google Maps, that crazy tool that gives those of us sitting at our desks in rural Colorado that 110th floor view of Manhattan — or for that matter, of any "hidden" canyon in the world — at the mere click of a mouse.

What would he have to say about our ability to use that tool to zoom instantly down to the walker’s or driver’s view from street-level? And what kind of mind-boggling meaning can be derived from the fact that a person can be both "reader" (high altitude viewer) and "writer" (the walker) at the same time via his smart phone’s glowing screen? Even as he walks, he can follow his own movements on his phone, from the viewpoint of the 11oth floor. It's enough to tie one's mind in a knot.

Last week, Google took things to another level of mind-f**k by introducing its “Street View” feature of the entire length of the Grand Canyon. You no longer need a raft, a permit or 120 cans of beer to float the Grand Canyon; you just need a computer. It’s truly amazing, but also on some level disturbing, and not just because the software that blurs out all human presence — in this case the raft and the rafters — has caused a disembodied, cowboy-hatted human head to bob down the river in some shots.


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Oregon moves to help disappearing honeybees

Jodi Peterson | Mar 17, 2014 05:05 AM

Here in western Colorado, a few honeybees have emerged recently, buzzing tentatively among the first spring crocuses. Soon the peach, apricot and cherry trees will burst into pink and white bloom and bees will begin working in earnest, to pollinate the stone fruit that’s a mainstay of our area’s agricultural economy. Then local farmers will plant other crops – peppers, onions, squash, strawberries, melons, pumpkins, peas, beans -- all of it reliant on honeybees. Nationwide, honeybees pollinate an estimated $15 billion in produce each year.

Apis mellifera
A honeybee at work. COURTESY FLICKR USER ERAN FINKLE.

But honeybee populations are in steep decline, and have been for a decade. These days, beekeepers lose up to 30 percent of their bees each winter, compared to historic overwintering losses of 10 to 15 percent. Scientists suspect that a number of factors are to blame – parasitic mites, fungicides, disease, the stress of being trucked from farm to farm, toxic buildup in honeycombs, and an especially nasty class of pesticides called neonicotinoids produced by the gigantic chemical company Bayer (at least 30 studies have linked these pesticides to bee deaths).

Now, Oregon is taking the lead in protecting bees. Eugene just became the first city in the nation to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. In late February, the town council prohibited the use of such pesticides on all city parks and open space (see the resolution, “Enhancing Current Integrated Pest Management in Parks”).

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Crane migration depends on agriculture and sustainable groundwater management

Ben Goldfarb | Mar 14, 2014 10:40 AM

Last Friday morning, as a cold sun struggled to rise above the eastern wall of the San Luis Valley – the 125-mile-long, 7,000-foot-high, Oklahoma-flat basin that lies between the San Juans and the Sange de Cristos in southern Colorado – a throng of birdwatchers climbed aboard a yellow school bus to observe one of the greatest migrations in the West.

The occasion was the arrival of sandhill cranes, majestic gray birds graced with red-feathered facemasks and six-foot wingspans. Around 20,000 sandhills pass through the San Luis Valley every year on their way from wintering grounds in New Mexico to summer homes in Idaho and Yellowstone. While that population pales in comparison to the half-million cranes that annually flock to Nebraska’s Platte River, 20,000 giant birds are nothing to sneeze at – especially in a world losing its migrations to habitat destruction and fragmentation.

Sandhill_crane.jpg
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Rsocol.

Every year, the sandhills’ return catalyze another movement of biomass: Thousands of humans, from as far as Japan and Australia, congregate in the town of Monte Vista (population: 4,400) for the Monte Vista Crane Festival. Perhaps because it was the festival’s first day, no one on the bus last Friday was from Japan – the most exotic place of origin was Boulder. Still, these were craning veterans; war stories of migrations come and gone trickled up the aisle. Refuge manager Suzanne Beauchaine, blond curls popping from beneath a brown baseball hat, spoke into a microphone at the front of the bus. “They showed up three weeks ago en masse,” she said as we hung a wide left at Dairy Queen and headed for the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. “Maybe it was the mild winter, but it’s been great so far this spring.” An excited shiver went through the bus.

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Wildfire mitigation program helps homeowners create safer communities

Christi Turner | Mar 13, 2014 02:00 PM

With years of experience bracing for wildfire along Colorado’s Front Range, it’s no surprise that Boulder County is launching a new program – Wildfire Partners – that may mean the start of a paradigm shift in wildfire mitigation.

“The old approach was firefighters were responsible for saving homes from wildfire,” said Jim Webster, Wildfire Partners’ program manager. “The new approach, the new emphasis, is shifting responsibility to homeowners. This program empowers homeowners to be able to take that personal responsibility.”

Wildfire Partners is a new voluntary program to help homeowners in Boulder County prepare for wildfire. It starts with an on-site expert assessment of residents' properties, leading to specific mitigation recommendations – which could include anything from removing whole trees to cleaning dried leaves from gutters. The program offers financial incentives to defray initial mitigation costs – including at least $300 in rebates – and other benefits, such as free telephone access to trained advisors. It also includes a free follow-up inspection, and a Wildfire Partners certificate for homeowners who successfully complete the mitigation specifically recommended for their home.

The program boasts a wide range of public and private sector collaboration, including representatives of the insurance industry. Insurers will be watching how the new program proceeds, in order to determine whether a Wildfire Partners certificate could make a property more insurable. Of the 445 residents who applied, 400 will be officially accepted into the program next week. Participants must be homeowners in unincorporated Boulder County, or nearby mountain towns of Nederland, Jamestown or Lyons; they must also agree to home inspections and prove a long-term commitment to the program.

Giving individual attention to the priorities of each homeowner and each neighborhood is key to forging community buy-in for new mitigation plans, says Molly Mowery, founder of Colorado-based consulting firm Wildfire Planning International and the former manager of a National Fire Protection Association program that helps communities across the U.S. take responsibility for their fire risk. Mowery is one of the eight new wildfire mitigation specialists contracted by Wildfire Partners.

“The biggest catch is how to motivate people to work together,” Mowery said. “We need to get everyone on the same page enough so that you can make community-wide decisions.”

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Los Angeles City Council votes for a fracking moratorium — and hopes the state follows suit

Judith Lewis Mernit | Mar 11, 2014 08:55 PM

urbancrude750.jpg
Los Angeles oil wells nestled among the houses.

During the suddenly rainy last week in February, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban fracking within city limits. It might have seemed like an academic exercise, just as it did a few years ago, when the five-person city council of Beverly Hills, Calif., voted four to one to quash the city’s oil industry altogether. Beverly Hills, after all, is the place Jed Clampett went to squander the profits from his Tennessee petroleum, not to look for more. Who drills for oil in Los Angeles?

As it turns out, among the photographs that line the walls at City Hall, says David Graham-Caso, environmental advisor to Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, “it’s hard to find one that doesn’t have oil derricks in it.” Both Beverly Hills and the City of Los Angeles were, quite literally, built on oil, in some places virtually on top of the pits of viscous bitumen that during the Pleistocene ensnared mastadons, llamas and mammoths along with the dire wolves who came to feed on their misery. When you cross the grounds at Los Angeles’s Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, which houses those doomed animals' fossils, you have to watch your step: Many a shoe has been ruined by an incautious plunge into an asphalt seep.

Actual oil operations are harder to find these days, which doesn’t mean they’re not there: Nearly 2,000 wells operated by more than a dozen companies have been hidden behind verdant hedges and ivy-covered walls. The La Brea Tar Pits lie at the southern edge of the Salt Lake Oil Field, where there’s still an active drilling operation sandwiched between a hospital and a shopping mall. Salt Lake abuts the Beverly Hills Oil Field, where Venoco, Inc. will operate a drilling operation on the campus of Beverly Hills High School until that city's ban takes hold in 2017. The Beverly field connects with the Cheviot Hills Oil Field, where the Hillcrest Beverly Oil Company operates a drilling site hidden inside an expansive public park that includes dog-training grounds and an archery range, plus 18 holes of golf.

Farther south, the country’s largest urban oil field, Inglewood, runs the length of an open-space preserve, bounded on the other side by middle-class homes. Producing more than three million barrels of oil every year, the Inglewood field in 2009 ranked 44th among the top 100 most productive wells in the country.

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Water rights bill pits ski industry against conservationists

Krista Langlois | Mar 11, 2014 02:25 PM

The German philosopher with the impressively bushy mustache, Friedrich Nietzsche (below), said that all things are subject to interpretation. Had he lived in the Western U.S., he might have tacked on a clause: “Especially when it comes to water policy.”

nietzsche
Seriously, look at that mustache.

A House bill to be voted on this week hammers his point home, with policy experts, conservation groups, the U.S. Forest Service and the ski industry each reaching different conclusions about the potential consequences of HR 3189, the “Water Rights Protection Act.” The bill seeks to prevent the federal government from imposing cond­itions on water rights owned by public land leaseholders. Opponents contend it would also weaken federal agencies’ ability to conserve stream flows for wildlife and recreation.

American Rivers, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and some 60 other conservation groups say the bill's broad language opens the door for ranchers, ski resorts, municipalities and others who own water rights on public land to bypass federal environmental laws and deplete rivers. By shifting management from federal to state or local control, the bill could undermine stream flow requirements mandated by the Endangered Species Act, or Fish and Wildlife measures that help fish pass over dams, the groups say.

“This bill is written way too broadly,” says Matt Niemerski, Western water policy director for Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers. “It would undermine efforts to improve the health of rivers and public lands, and force federal agencies to put private water use ahead of public uses, like wildlife, fishing or boating.”

Introduced last year by Representatives Scott Tipton, R-Colo., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., the legislation sprung from a seemingly simple disagreement between the U.S. Forest Service and a handful of Colorado ski resorts. It’s since bloomed into a complex web of accusations and interpretations that’s entangled river advocates, the ski industry, the Interior Department and Big Ag.

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Avalanches weren’t – and aren’t – only a backcountry threat

Sarah Gilman | Mar 11, 2014 12:55 PM

In the handful of times I’ve visited Missoula, Montana, the grassy slopes of neighboring L- and M-emblazoned Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel have never looked any more threatening to me than the hogbacked foothills that yaw out of the ground west of Boulder, Colorado, my hometown. Velvety, yes. Curved like a set of relaxed shoulders, yes. Welcomingly draped in the low-angled sun of late afternoon, yes. Avalanche death zone? Not so much.

But on Feb. 28, an unusually intense blizzard snapped a wet quilt of deep snow over the valley, rumpling it into drifts and slabs with gusts up to 50 mph. Atop Jumbo and Sentinel, as well as the surrounding mountains, a weak crust of ice that unseasonably warm weather had glazed over the existing snowpack earlier in the week strained beneath the weight. When a group of snowboarders started down Jumbo closed since November to protect a wintering elk herd – around 4 p.m., that strain released spectacularly. A large slab avalanche ran from near the mountain’s peak almost 1,300 vertical feet into a neighborhood on the valley floor, obliterating a two-story house, damaging several other homes and vehicles, and worst of all, burying three people. Over 100 first responders, search and rescue personnel, neighbors and volunteers converged on the area with shovels and probes to find and dig them out. All were recovered alive; one ultimately died from her injuries.

Jumbo avalanche
The Jumbo avalanche path of Feb. 2014, marked in red, in Missoula, Montana. Courtesy City of Missoula.

It was, according to most accounts, a freak accident. No one can remember a big slide coming down that path in the 60 to 80 years homes have been at its base, says Assistant Director of Missoula Development Services Don Verrue. In fact, any in-town avalanche fatality is kind of a freak thing these days; most folks unlucky enough to get caught (and it’s been a bad winter, with 22 killed to date) are far in the backcountry, chasing turns on fresh powder. But it wasn’t always that way: Avalanches used to exact their biggest toll on unlucky travelers, miners and mountain communities, not on farflung skiers.

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Putin's Crimean invasion reaches into the West's gas patch

Jonathan Thompson | Mar 09, 2014 08:20 PM

When Russian troops invaded Crimea at the end of February, I couldn’t help but think back to a similar invasion 30 years ago, when Soviet paratroopers descended on the high school grounds in Calumet, Colo., their Kalashnikov’s blazing. They were joined by Nicaraguan and Cuban troops and aided by surgical nuke strikes on important cities. The only thing standing between the Commies and total domination of America’s Heartland was a group of high schoolers wielding vintage pistols, hunting rifles and bows and arrows.

The 1984 invasion was fictional, of course, imagined in the movie Red Dawn, a nationalistic orgy of explosions and bullet-riddled bodies. Still, it offers insights into Cold War culture, which endures in some quarters today. It’s not hard to imagine Sarah Palin pointing to Calumet (it was actually filmed in Las Vegas, N.M., with helicopter attacks in Abiquiu) as an example of the “real America,” with its letter-jacket-wearing, grenade-lobbing heroes. The invasion was made possible, we’re told, after “infiltrators came up illegal, from Mexico, Cubans mostly,” which is as good a reason as any to militarize the border. And an evil general finds patriots who might resist him via the sporting good store’s Form 4473, i.e. gun registration log. The lesson is clear: If you register your gun, Russians will hunt you down and detain you in a drive-in theater re-education camp, where you’ll be forced to watch Flashdance on infinite loop until you hate America.

But I digress. The Russians — much to the delight of Hollywood, which has had a hard time finding evil nations hellbent on world domination as of late — are back, they’re bad and they’re on the move. And once again, politicians and pundits are looking to rural Westerners to stop them. Instead of Calumet’s fictional football stars, though, this time it’s the residents and roughnecks of the gas patch who must come to the rescue.

Today’s Russia gets its strength not from its military might, but from its status as one of the world’s leading petro-states. It is Europe’s number one supplier of natural gas, and has already threatened to cut off Ukraine’s supply if the government doesn’t bend to Russia’s will. And it’s the world’s second largest oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia. That’s why global oil prices spiked in the days after the invasion of Crimea in much the same way as they do when conflict bubbles up in the Middle East.

Palin, it turns out, has eyes for Putin’s potency. Putin, said Palin recently on Fox News, “wrestles bears and drills for oil,” which stands in stark contrast to our president: a mom-jean-wearing, equivocating weakling, who is neither manly nor frack-happy enough to keep the nation secure, according to Palin.

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Are coal companies paying fair market value for leases on public lands?

Ben Goldfarb | Mar 07, 2014 05:00 AM

Coal boosters are fond of decrying the Obama Administration’s supposed “War on Coal” – and to be sure, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants aren’t doing industry any favors. But if there truly exists a federal campaign to depose King Coal, somebody in the administration forgot to tell the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM, of course, is the branch of the Department of the Interior that administers America’s public lands – and leases out the resources, including coal, that lie beneath the surface. Around a billion tons of coal are extracted from federal lands annually (98 percent of which comes from Western states), and leases on those tracts generate around $1 billion in public revenues. That might sound like a good deal for citizens, but according to two recent government investigations, BLM’s coal leasing program is actually riddled with flaws – nearly all of which benefit mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.

The first investigation, a February 4 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), depicts a BLM that has failed to fully consider the global market. The agency is supposed to account for export potential in setting the value of leases, which stands to reason: If companies are bringing in extra revenue by shipping resources overseas (and despite an incipient downturn in international markets, coal still fetches higher prices abroad than domestically), they should pay more for the opportunity. As the GAO report reveals, however, most BLM offices don’t consider exports when establishing the value of tracts.

American coal exports tripled from 2002 to 2012. Source: GAO.

Agency officials in many states, including Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, say that’s because exports are insignificant. But that’s a dubious claim: In 2013, for example, a full 50 percent of the coal removed from the West Elk Mine in Colorado’s North Fork Valley wound up being shipped abroad. Driven by Asian demand, coal exports have spiked in recent years; in 2012, 126 million tons, or around 12 percent of all coal produced in the U.S., left the country. (There are signs that the export explosion was predicated on a Chinese bubble that has since burst, forcing companies to scale back plans. But while exports have come down from their peak, they’re still very high by historic standards.)

"Taxpayers are losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas where it is burned, worsening climate change,” said Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who estimates the leasing program’s flaws have cost the public up to $200 million since 1990. “This is a bad deal all around.”

The failure to account for exports is symptomatic of a broader problem: the BLM’s propensity to sell leases for below fair market value, which is a violation of the federal Mineral Leasing Act. That issue is identified in another noteworthy report that appeared last month, a letter by the Interior Department’s Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a critic of the leasing program. Kendall’s letter, published February 6, describes how, in a sample of 15 sales, 2 in Colorado and 2 in New Mexico were sold at prices below market value. Between them, those four illegal leases cost the public around $2 million.

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