How Natural Gas Companies Could Make Money by Reducing Smog

Companies could capture methane that currently vents into the atmosphere and sell it for a profit. So why aren't they doing it?

For years, environmental groups and politicians declared that natural gas was a clean source of energy that could help turn back the tide of climate change. Then last year, Robert Howarth, a professor at Cornell University, contradicted that idea in no uncertain terms, concluding that over its life cycle, natural gas can do as much harm as coal, the bête noire of energy sources. Natural gas does produce lower greenhouse gas emission when burned, he acknowledged, but not all the gas that comes out of the ground is burned for energy—a significant portion leaks into the atmosphere as methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

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How to Start Cleaning Up a Superfund Site

The Gowanus canal has been polluted for decades, but now the clean-up process is starting.

In New York City, public life is conducted in school auditoriums. They’re the only spaces big enough to hold the crowds that show up to public meetings about contentious neighborhood issues. So on Tuesday night, grown-ups filed into the Carroll School to hear the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan for cleaning up the Gowanus canal. The agency declared the canal a Superfund site in 2010, and in December, it released a draft of the feasibility study for its next actions. Tuesday’s presentation laid out the next steps to the community. It will take another six to eight months for the EPA to come up with a proposed plan. The agency plans to publish its recommendation before the end of the year.

The Gowanus canal has been polluted for decades, and it took years for the city, state and federal governments to fight out who might take responsibility for it. Now the clean-up process is starting. But with an environmental issue of such long standing, the clean up can be just as complicated and politically difficult as getting an agency like the EPA to commit to fixing the problem to begin with.

Before Tuesday’s meeting started, the EPA’s Walter Mugdan, who directs the agency’s environmental planning and protection in this region, instructed the audience to interrupt the presenters if they needed an acronym explained. Environmental remediation requires many acronyms. In the bottom silt of the Gowanus Canal, the EPA found PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and NAPLs (non-aqueous phase liquids). NAPL rhymes with apple and in the case of the Gowanus means, more or less, coal tar. The canal is also contaminated with barium, cadmium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel and silver, but the EPA can shorthand those with an acronym, as “metals.” There’s also CSO — combined sewer overflow — which is what’s dumped into the canal when rainfall is heavy and household waste mixes with storm water. PRG stands for Preliminary Remediation Goals. “Because we need another acronym,” an EPA presenter quipped, RTA stands for Remediation Target Areas.

But meetings like this one have been going on for years in this neighborhood, and no one asked for a refresher on acronyms. Instead, community members asked questions like “Who’s going to pay for all of this?” and “What’s the point of cleaning up the canal if the land surrounding it is still polluted?” (One of the canal’s many pollution problems is contaminants flowing in with groundwater or street runoff.)

When the EPA took responsibility for cleaning up the canal, it allowed this neighborhood to start moving forward with a long-desired goal. While momentum towards the clean-up grew, the city worked on rezoning the area around the canal, developers imagining large condo projects milled about, and plans began for erecting a Whole Foods in a nearby brownfield. The industrial neighborhood became an increasingly hip zone, with artists’ studios and music venues opening up. Now, finally, there’s a little more clarity about what direction the clean-up is heading, which influences decisions by developers to build, potential home-owners to buy, businesses to open up. People can start to move on with their lives.

But it’s also not so simple. Just because the EPA has taken charge of one set of problems doesn’t mean it’s fixing every environmental issue left over from the area’s industrial past. “For our organization, it has liberated us to have a final determination about a clean-up for the canal itself,” says Hans Hesselein, who works for the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, a local environmental group that’s been pushing for years for the canal to be dealt with. Now that the EPA has taken responsibility for the canal itself — or, more specifically, the contaminated silt at its bottom — Hesselein’s organization can focus on issues like storm water management (that’s dealing with CSO) and with watershed improvements. The answer to the question about the pollution on the surrounding land is that the state environmental department is dealing with it. The GCC is still worried about CSO, because that’ll be the city’s responsibility to fix. Although clean-up of the canal is moving forward, in some ways, it has yet to begin.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user listenmissy.

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Feces Towers and Homelessness: Welcome to the Real Coachella In the Eastern Coachella Valley, Residents Are Struggling to Breathe

As hipsters go crazy to music this weekend, thousands of immigrant families are suffering just down the road.

If you drive a few hours east from Los Angeles, on an I-10 route that slopes gently southward, you’ll find yourself in the Coachella Valley. Palm Springs, the famous movie star getaway, sits on the valley’s northwest edge, which is sparse if you don’t count its golf resorts and boutique hotels. And if you get off the 10 and follow the 86 farther southeast, even those luxuries trickle away, until you’re left with little more than dirt and gravel and chain restaurants.

Eventually you’ll hit the locales of Thousand Palms, Indio, and Coachella, which is the start of the Eastern Coachella Valley (ECV) and the city upon which hundreds of thousands of hipsters will descend this weekend for one of the world’s premiere music festivals. Most, if not all, of those hipsters will not venture beyond Coachella, and who can blame them? Because beyond that music festival is the rest of the ECV—Thermal and Mecca—and nobody wants to be there, least of all their residents.

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Two Smart New Ads Show What's at Stake in Clean Air Act Assault: Our Children's Health

Finally, someone is running some ads that call out the current attacks on the EPA for what they are: a threat to our children.

With several key votes coming this week on Republican legislative efforts to weaken the E.P.A. and hollow out the Clean Air Act, finally, we see some smart messaging about the assault hitting the mainstream. The American Lung Association is running the image above on four billboards throughout Michigan Representative Fred Upton's district, including one right across the street from his district office. Upton is chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and co-sponsor of an outrageously cynical bill that would flaunt scientific consensus and, amongst other things, essentially strip out the Clean Air Act provisions that allow the EPA to regulate carbon pollution. We already know from local polling that Upton's own constituents want him to leave the Clean Air Act alone, so who knows if a startling ad like this will penetrate.

Then there's this commercial, run by American Families Voices, that echoes the sentiment of the ALA billboards. It shows, in simple terms and poignant images, exactly what's at stake if the GOP is able to gut the E.P.A. and Clean Air Act: our children's health.

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EPA: No More Rocket Fuel Chemical in Tap Water

At long last, the EPA has decided to limit the amount of perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, in our drinking water.

Great news for anyone who drinks tap water. Yesterday, the EPA dropped this bombshell: the agency will regulate perchlorate in drinking water.

What is perchlorate? Just a major chemical ingredient in rocket fuel, fireworks, and other explosives. A toxic chemical linked to thyroid problems in pregnant women and young children that up until today has gone totally unregulated in drinking water, though it has been discovered coming out of the tap in at least 26 states. File under: long overdue.

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