Category Archives: environment

The Enemy of New York’s Sewers? The Wet Wipe

Maybe we shouldn’t be flushing these things

With its sewer system under siege, tallying millions of dollars in equipment damage across its underground maze, New York City is confronting a menace that has gummed the gears of plumbing networks around the world: the common wet wipe.

In recent years, the intersection of evolving hygienic sensibilities and aggressive industry marketing has fueled the product’s rise. Wet wipes, long used for baby care, have grown popular with adults.
Some of the products are branded as “flushable” — a characterization contested by wastewater officials and plaintiffs bringing class-action lawsuits against wipes manufacturers for upending their plumbing.

Often, the wipes combine with other materials, like congealed grease, to create a sort of superknot. “They’re really indestructible,” said Vincent Sapienza, a deputy commissioner for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. “I guess that’s the purpose.”

The city has spent more than $18 million in the past five years on wipe-related equipment problems, officials said. The volume of materials extracted from screening machines at the city’s wastewater treatment plants has more than doubled since 2008, an increase attributed largely to the wipes.

Pipelines are bad but this is okay?

Another dangerous crude oil spill in Illinois

A freight train loaded with crude oil derailed in northern Illinois on Thursday, bursting into flames and prompting officials to suggest that everyone with 1 mile evacuate, authorities said.

The BNSF Railway train derailed around 1:05 p.m. in a rural area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi, according to company spokesman Andy Williams. The train had 103 cars loaded with crude oil, along with two buffer cars loaded with sand. A cause for the derailment hadn’t yet been determined. No injuries were reported.

Only a family of two agreed to leave their home, Galena City Administrator Mark Moran said at a news conference late Thursday, adding that the suggestion to evacuate was prompted by the presence of a propane tank near the derailment.

The derailment occurred 3 miles south of Galena in a wooded and hilly area that is a major tourist attraction and the home of former President Ulysses S. Grant. The Jo Daviess County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the train was transporting oil from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region.

Earlier in the day, Moran said 8 tankers had left the track. But Williams said at the news conference that only six cars derailed, two of which burst into flames and continued to burn into the night.

Firefighters could only access the derailment site by a bike path, said Galena Assistant Fire Chief Bob Conley. They attempted to fight a small fire at the scene but were unable to stop the flames.

Firefighters had to pull back for safety reasons and were allowing the fire to burn itself out, Conley said. In addition to Galena firefighters, emergency and hazardous material responders from Iowa and Wisconsin were at the scene.

The derailment comes amid increased public concern about the safety of shipping crude by train. According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail.

Meanwhile Barack Obama continues to kill the Keystone XL pipeline.

Where container ships go to kill other people

There aren’t too many places left in the world where the practice of ship breaking—scrapping old ships for metal—can still exist. These days, environmental and labor regulations in the developed world have displaced the practice to India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, where cargo carriers are salvaged for their steel.

The largest vessels wind up on the shores of the city of Chittagong in Bangladesh, where the industry has become a vital part of the country’s urbanization. It employs roughly 200,000 workers and supplies the country with 80 percent of its steel. Ship breakers beach and dismantle vessels daily wearing flip­-flops and T-shirts. It’s no easy task, considering ships are constructed to withstand the elements for the 30 years they spend operating on international waters.

Human activity has pushed Earth beyond four of nine ‘planetary boundaries’

Uh oh

At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings. That is the conclusion of a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.

The paper contends that we have already crossed four “planetary boundaries.” They are the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean.

“What the science has shown is that human activities — economic growth, technology, consumption — are destabilizing the global environment,” said Will Steffen, who holds appointments at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center and is the lead author of the paper.

These are not future problems, but rather urgent matters, according to Steffen, who said that the economic boom since 1950 and the globalized economy have accelerated the transgression of the boundaries. No one knows exactly when push will come to shove, but he said the possible destabilization of the “Earth System” as a whole could occur in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”

The researchers focused on nine separate planetary boundaries first identified by scientists in a 2009 paper. These boundaries set theoretical limits on changes to the environment, and include ozone depletion, freshwater use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms.

Beyond each planetary boundary is a “zone of uncertainty.” This zone is meant to acknowledge the inherent uncertainties in the calculations, and to offer decision-makers a bit of a buffer, so that they can potentially take action before it’s too late to make a difference. Beyond that zone of uncertainty is the unknown — planetary conditions unfamiliar to us.

“The boundary is not like the edge of the cliff,” said Ray Pierrehumbert, an expert on Earth systems at the University of Chicago. “They’re a little bit more like danger warnings, like high-temperature gauges on your car.”

Why scientists are (almost) certain that climate change is man-made

From the Economist

ON NOVEMBER 2ND the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which represents mainstream scientific opinion, said that it was extremely likely that climate change is the product of human activity. Extremely likely in IPCC speak means having a probability of over 95%. The claim forms part of its fifth assessment on the state of the global climate. In its first assessment, in 1990, the IPCC had said that “the observed increase [in air temperatures] could be largely due to natural variability.” Why have climate scientists become so much more certain that climate change is man-made, not natural?

Many factors influence the climate but perhaps the single most important is carbon dioxide (CO₂). CO₂ absorbs infra-red heat at a constant rate and at a higher rate than nitrogen and oxygen—the main constituent parts of the atmosphere—so the more CO₂ in the air, the more the atmosphere will tend to warm up. Scientists attribute climate change to human activity mainly because people have been responsible for large increases in CO₂. At the start of the industrial revolution, in about 1800, there were 280 parts per million (ppm) of CO₂ in the atmosphere. That had been the level for most of human history. This year, however, concentrations exceeded 400 ppm, the first time it had reached that level for a million years.

Most of the increase has been caused by people burning fossil fuels. In the United States, for example, 38% of the COâ‚‚ produced in 2012 came from generating electricity and 32% came from vehicle emissions (the rest came from industrial processes, buildings and other smaller COâ‚‚ production). People also produce COâ‚‚ when they cut down forests for farmland and pasture