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Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

New river protection regulations on the way?

14 Feb 2014

After the non-stop coverage of the spill into the Elk River in West Virginia, we are seeing reports of a spill of 82,000 tons of coal ash into a North Carolina river. The subject of coal ash has lain dormant for a while but this Duke Energy spill is like opening an old wound.  As our regular readers know, EPA has proposed new rules for coal ash storage in the wake of a  Tennessee spill in 2008.  There was another spill in Wisconsin in 2011 and the rules languished. Given this week’s coal slurry spill in West Virginia, rivers in the southeast might be feeling like endangered species.

This fall, a citizens suit was filed in West Virginia federal court (unrelated to the Elk River case) and at the end of January, the EPA agreed to issue coal ash rules by December 19th of this year. Whether the rules treat coal ash as a hazardous waste, a non-hazardous waste or some combination of the two, remains to be seen but it appears that some regulation of this reportedly second largest waste stream in the country will be implemented.  As I have blogged before, Michigan already has more river-protective regulations than many other states and it is about time that these other states are brought up to a higher standard to prevent these major spills.

We have started to realize just how important our rivers are and whether it’s bad luck or bad stewardship, we appear to be on a path to get the regulations needed to protect them.

Conservation, the Circle of Life and my Backyard

6 Dec 2013

This week’s Time Magazine had an interesting article regarding the “rebound” of animal populations, positing that increased hunting was necessary to prevent disease, starvation and problems between man and beast.

Clear cutting and development between 1850 and 1950 dramatically reduced animal populations.  More pro-conservation practices since 1950 have helped to foster a dramatic restoration of animal species, only now they’re living in our backyards – in some cases, literally (I took the photo of this deer in my backyard, this week – there were actually two, I just wasn’t fast enough to get them both in the photo).  Wetland and woodland preservation, inclusion of natural areas in development, poor garbage control and use of fruit trees (we have a cherry tree and crabapple trees) have fostered a symbiotic relationship leading to a suburban wildlife population.  This summer, we saw a redtailed hawk catch a squirrel and land right in front of our neighbor’s house.  These sightings and the problems that come with them were unknown in the inner-ring suburbs of the 1960’s.

While I won’t repeat all the statistics here, a Penn State Study noted that in 1900, the entire US whitetail deer population was estimated at 500,000.  It is now over 15 million!

According to the MDNR, in 1914, it was estimated that there were only 45,000 deer in Michigan and so regulations were changed to allow hunting of only antlered deer.  As a result, the deer herd began to rebound.

The State’s deer herd peaked at about 1.5 million deer in the late 1940s.  The State developed a Deer Range Improvement Program (DRIP) and a goal of 1 million deer. A combination of factors resulted in the population shooting past that goal to 2 million deer in 1989.

Crop damage, herd distress and deer-vehicle accidents increased (a point of the Time article) and the State has worked toward a population of roughly 1.3 million deer in the fall herd. As anyone who has lived in Michigan for some time knows, there is a significant culture of hunting that helps to maintain the deer population size. The Time article notes that other states across the country are starting to get the idea to allow hunts for bears and other animals whose populations have begun to explode to levels unseen in the last 100 years and are living in closer proximity to humans than ever before.

Got Bugs?

16 May 2013

It’s what’s for dinner?

The United Nations recently released a report recommending the farming of insects for food.  The report notes that insects are highly nutritious and healthy with high fat, protein, vitamin, fiber and minerals.   With concerns about animal diseases like “mad cow,” genetically modified foods, overuse of antibiotics, cruelty to animals, lack of space for farming, management of animal waste, etc., the UN thinks insects may be part of the answer.

“Insect farming” isn’t new – think of bees, silkworms and crickets you can find at the local pet store for lizard food.  However, the concept of large scale farming insects for food is relatively new.

High soy prices and increasing aquaculture is pushing research into developing insect protein for aquaculture and poultry – if not directly for human consumption.

In many countries, including the US, the lack of a legal framework on insects as food and feed may be a major barrier to investment and development.  The UN report noted concerns regarding:

  • Unclear regulations and legislation on farming and selling insects for human consumption;
  • Difficulty in understanding information regarding processing and quality;
  • Little networking among producers;
  • A lack of awareness among consumers and buyers about existing markets leading to low demand; and
  • It is difficult to market insects for human consumption because they are perceived to be unsanitary. (Or as we call it in my family, the “ick” factor).

Would you eat a tofu made from bugs?  It makes me think of the old movie “Soylent Green”  – it’s bugs!

For The Birds

31 Oct 2012

Last month, Scotts Miracle Gro Company agreed to pay millions of dollars in criminal fines and civil penalties for violations under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA).  The violations stemmed from Scotts’ illegal application of insecticides to its wild bird food products.  The insecticides, which are toxic to birds, were applied to protect the bird foods from insect infestation during storage.

Although the evidence in the Scotts case indicated that Scotts was well aware of its violations, and actively tried to cover them up, FIFRA is quite complex and frequently misunderstood.  In general, FIFRA applies to all products intended to repel any “pest.”  Even claims that a product has “antimicrobial,” “antibacterial” or “antiallergan” properties trigger application of the statute.  According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which oversees the sale and use of pesticides, FIFRA’s objective is to provide federal control of pesticide distribution, sale, and use. However, because FIFRA does not fully preempt state, tribal or local law, each state, tribe and local governments may also regulate pesticide use.

Under FIFRA, all pesticides (with minor exceptions) sold or distributed in the United States must be registered (licensed) by the EPA.  Before registering a new pesticide, or a new use for a registered pesticide, the EPA must first be reasonably certain that the pesticide, when used according to label directions, will not harm human health and will not pose unreasonable risks to the environment.  The application process, which is long and challenging, often requires the submission of extensive environmental, health, and safety data.  FIFRA also grants the states authority to issue special local needs registrations under certain conditions.  This allows a state to register a pesticide, which is already federally registered, for a new or additional end use, under certain conditions.

Hopefully the sizeable penalties and fines in the Scotts’ case will highlight the importance of understanding FIFRA requirements and serve as a warning to other companies not to take FIFRA or the EPA lightly.