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New NAEP Scores Show Continued Improvement in American Schools

Mother Jones

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Good news, ed geeks! The 2013 NAEP scores for reading and math are out today. Here’s the executive summary: math scores are up 1 point since 2011 for both 4th and 8th graders. Reading scores are up 2 points for 8th graders and are flat for 4th graders.

I’ll probably dig into this in more detail later, but for now here’s a quick taste. The table below shows the 8th grade math results for all states. It’s sorted by black scores, so you can see which states seem to do the best job of educating their black students. If you want to know how or why some states do better than others, I have no answers for you right now. This is just raw data. Enjoy.

UPDATE: Sorry, I screwed up and posted 4th grade scores instead of 8th grade scores. It’s been corrected now.

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New NAEP Scores Show Continued Improvement in American Schools

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Monsanto just dropped $1 billion on better weather forecasts

Monsanto just dropped $1 billion on better weather forecasts

Gary Beck

Who’s watching the weather for the farmers?

Congressional paralysis is freezing or slashing national spending on weather forecasting and monitoring. Plans to deploy a next-generation array of satellites known as COSMIC-2 could be cut by lawmakers as part of the sequester spending cutsif only they would pass a budget. And workers at NASA, which provide data used by climate researchers the world over, are being furloughed.

But Monsanto — that profitable agro-corporation that wields ever-increasing power over the world’s food supply — is taking a smarter approach. As the effects of climate change devastate crops the world over, Monsanto has announced it is buying the Climate Corporation for $930 million. From the press release:

“Farmers around the world are challenged to make key decisions for their farms in the face of increasingly volatile weather, as well as a proliferation of information sources,” said David Friedberg, chief executive officer for The Climate Corporation. “Our team understands that the ability to turn data into actionable insight and farm management recommendations is vitally important for agriculture around the world and can greatly benefit farmers, regardless of farm size or their preferred farming methods. Monsanto shares this important vision for our business and we look forward to creating even greater experiences for our farmer customers.”

Modern Farmer explains the acquisition:

Climate Corporation underwrites weather insurance for farmers, basically in real time, using some of the most sophisticated data tools available to determine the risks posed by future weather conditions and events.

And the company doesn’t limit itself to weather data. As politicians, pundits, and people on the Internet continue to argue over whether climate change is real, the insurance industry has for years been operating under the assumption that it is. So Climate Corporation uses data from major climate-change models — the very ones that are under constant assault by doubters — in its calculations.

Climate Corporation manages an eye-popping 50 terabytes of live data, all at once. Besides climate-change models, data is collected from regular old weather forecasts and histories, soil observations, and other sources. The company collects data from 2.5 million separate locations. Given these numbers, it shouldn’t be surprising that Climate Corporation is basically alone in this market.

If Congress continues down the road of spending cuts and government shutdowns, private industry will soon know more about what’s going on with the weather than the government does.

Monsanto to Acquire The Climate Corporation, Combination to Provide Farmers with Broad Suite of Tools Offering Greater On-Farm Insights, Monsanto press release
Why Monsanto Spent $1 Billion on Climate Data, Modern Farmer

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Monsanto just dropped $1 billion on better weather forecasts

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Full Planet, Empty Plates: Chapter 5. Eroding Soils Darkening Our Future


Paracord Fusion Ties – Volume 1 – J.D. Lenzen

J.D. Lenzen is the creator of the highly acclaimed YouTube channel “Tying It All Together”, and the producer of over 200 instructional videos. He’s been formally recognized by the International Guild of Knot Tyers (IGKT) for his contributions to knotting, and is the originator of fusion knotting-innovative knots created through the merging of […]

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Inside of a Dog – Alexandra Horowitz

The bestselling book that asks what dogs know and how they think, now in paperback. The answers will surprise and delight you as Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, explains how dogs perceive their daily worlds, each other, and that other quirky animal, the human. Horowitz introduces the reader to dogs’ perceptual and cognitive abilities and then draw […]

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Trident K9 Warriors – Michael Ritland & Gary Brozek

As Seen on “60 Minutes”! As a Navy SEAL during a combat deployment in Iraq, Mike Ritland saw a military working dog in action and instantly knew he’d found his true calling. Ritland started his own company training and supplying dogs for the SEAL teams, U.S. Government, and Department of Defense. He knew that fewer than 1 percent of […]

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How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend – Monks of New Skete

For nearly a quarter century, How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend has been the standard against which all other dog-training books have been measured. This new, expanded edition, with a fresh new design and new photographs throughout, preserves the best features of the original classic while bringing the book fully up-to-date. The result: the ultimate trai […]

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How to Raise the Perfect Dog – Cesar Millan & Melissa Jo Peltier

From the bestselling author and star of National Geographic Channel’s Dog Whisperer , the only resource you’ll need for raising a happy, healthy dog. For the millions of people every year who consider bringing a puppy into their lives–as well as those who have already brought a dog home–Cesar Millan, the preeminent dog behavior expert, says, “Yes, […]

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Cesar Millan’s Short Guide to a Happy Dog – Cesar Millan

After more than 9 seasons as TV’s Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan has a new mission: to use his unique insights about dog psychology to create stronger, happier relationships between humans and their canine companions. Both inspirational and practical, A Short Guide to a Happy Dog draws on thousands of training encounter […]

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The Art of Raising a Puppy (Revised Edition) – Monks of New Skete

For more than thirty years the Monks of New Skete have been among America’s most trusted authorities on dog training, canine behavior, and the animal/human bond. In their two now-classic bestsellers, How to be Your Dog’s Best Friend and The Art of Raising a Puppy, the Monks draw on their experience as long-time breeders of German shepherds and as t […]

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The Flower Recipe Book – Alethea Harampolis & Jill Rizzo

Flower arranging has never been simpler or more enticing. The women behind Studio Choo, the hottest floral design studio in the country, have created a flower-arranging bible for today’s aesthetic. Filled with an array of stunning, easy-to-find flowers, it features 400 high-resolution photos,more than 40 step-by-step slideshows,and tappable pop-tips thr […]

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Iyanden – A Codex: Eldar Supplement – Games Workshop

For thousands of years, the Eldar of Iyanden have sailed through the sea of stars, defending the galaxy’s eastern rim from the threat of Chaos. They have won great victories, but have known terrible tragedy also; what was once the most populous of craftworlds is now but a shadow of its former glory. This supplement to Codex: Eldar allows you to ta […]

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The Honest Life – Jessica Alba

As a new mom, Jessica Alba wanted to create the safest, healthiest environment for her family. But she was frustrated by the lack of trustworthy information on how to live healthier and cleaner—delivered in a way that a busy mom could act on without going to extremes. In 2012, with serial entrepreneur Brian Lee and environmental advocate Christopher Gavigan, […]

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Full Planet, Empty Plates: Chapter 5. Eroding Soils Darkening Our Future

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Is Our Robot Paradise Already Here?

Mother Jones

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Ashok Rao has a response to my robot article that, unfortunately, I don’t entirely understand. But there are bits and pieces I’d like to respond to, so let’s get to it. First off, the main point of my piece is that even if a robot paradise awaits us in the future, a lot of people are going to be put out of work in the meantime, and rich people are going to resist income redistribution to address this. Here’s Rao:

What Drum ignores is, the Great Redistribution has already started. Our tax code was designed for a bygone era and, therefore, obscures the immense change technology has created in the past ten years. Redistribution in the form of pure consumer surplus. The web application system allows us, for the first time, to quench our materialistic desires for free.

Well, I sure hope I didn’t ignore this. I didn’t mean to. In fact, I devoted a considerable part of my piece to exactly this, though from the flip side of the coin. The economic effects of smart machines, I argued, started around 2000, and we’ve been seeing the disemployment effects ever since. The impact so far has been tiny, but real.

Now, Rao usefully points out the mirror image of my point, namely that the rise of automation has positive consumer effects too. However, I think we’d be well advised to take a closer look at just who benefits from this. The problem is that disemployment hits a certain class of people, while the consumer surplus generated by the web economy primarily benefits a different class. Nor is the web economy free. It’s cheap, certainly, but not free. Nor is it enough. Even if we can immerse ourselves in the web all we want for low cost, we still need to eat, clothe ourselves, live somewhere, and so forth. Until our future robot paradise arrives, this is a big deal. If you lose your job to a robot, your net economic position is going to be sharply worse than it used to be.

The last few paragraphs of Rao’s essay sound interesting, and I’d like to engage with them, but unfortunately I didn’t understand what he was getting at. It’s unclear how much of it is being attributed to me and how much is stuff he himself believes. However, this part is clear enough:

But there is no “dimly lit tunnel”. There will be manual jobs: until there aren’t. The future will be a cornucopia of thought, refinement, ideology, and science. For the first time, millions can enter the “thinking classes”, no longer tethered to labor as a need of production. No longer tethered to the capitalist machinery that hitherto made us rich. Thusly, we won’t be living in Fukuyama’s nostalgic sense of an ahistoric world, either. Rather, the rich social and intellectual interactions unlocked will generate the most amazing cascades of culture at a sophistication never-before-seen.

I very much doubt this. The vast majority of humans have neither the skills nor the desire for this. Rao may be right about “millions,” but that represents just a tiny fraction of the human race. What about the rest of us?


Is Our Robot Paradise Already Here?

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What These Vintage Illustrations Tell Us About Apples Before Our Time

Mother Jones

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In 1905, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station published a supplement to their annual report: two big, hulking, beautifully illustrated tomes called The Apples of New York, Volumes I and II. The nearly 800 pages summed up over two decades of horticultural research, but what the author really wanted to brag about was the pictures—all made under the “personal supervision” of the Station’s head horticulturalist himself.

Its nearly 200 illustrations really are worth bragging about, and not just for their scientific value either. They capture the full beauty of apple hues during a time before widespread color photography. On top of detailed historical and scientific scholarship of 800 apple varieties, the books also teaches readers step-by-step how to identify a mystery apple.

Today, the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station has the world’s largest collection of apple varieties—a pomological Noah’s Ark. Its 2500 apple varieties hail from as far away as Kazakhstan, where apples first originated. And the Station’s been noticed before: Michael Pollan profiled the place in his book The Botany of Desire, and Venue recently did a great interview with Jessica Rath, a ceramic artist inspired by the Station’s apple collection.

I first discovered The Apples of New York while fact checking Rowan Jacobsen’s feature about heritage apples—the thousands of apple varieties that used to thrive in the US but largely disappeared with industrial agriculture. In 2013, I fully expected the best apple resource out there to be a shiny mobile app that could identify fruit with a snap of a photo. But no. John Bunker, the Maine apple detective profiled in Jacobsen’s piece, instead directed me to a book published over 100 years ago.

Despite its old age, The Apples of New York remains one of the finest resources for the amateur New England apple enthusiast, in part because it is freely available online. The most easily accessible copy is digitized courtesy of the Internet Archive’s Open Library project. The original physical copy is housed at the Prelinger Library, a privately funded public library tucked away in a San Francisco warehouse. I paid them a visit this week to see the illustrations in person—they look even better not washed out by a scanner’s flash—and figure out how a New York state’s annual report made it to California.

Rick and Megan Prelinger told me that the agricultural reports were printed and often sent to a local politicians, who then gave them away as gifts. One edition I found online carries the stamp of the Hon. Josiah Newcomb, a New York state congressman from the early 20th century. From there, the books’ provenance became murkier. The Prelinger’s edition used to belong to a different (unknown) library, and they said they likely acquired it through a government documents exchange.

But we don’t necessarily need yellowed old books to get a taste of pomological history; even a trip to the ordinary supermarket is a direct line to the apples of yore. A McIntosh apple illustrated and described a century ago in The Apples of New York is exactly the same as one I can buy today in a California supermarket.

That’s because apples of the same variety are all clones. Mix the genes of any two apple trees, and you’re unlikely to get the exact combination necessary for the familiar tart red-and-greenness of a McIntosh. Instead, orchardists cut a twig from an existing tree and graft it onto rootstock, growing a genetically identical apple tree. Occasionally, the offspring of two different trees does produce an apple worth keeping. And that’s when you get a name and photographs and maybe even supermarket fame.

A photograph included in the opening pages of The Apples of New York

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What These Vintage Illustrations Tell Us About Apples Before Our Time

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Fertilizer facility blast in Texas claims multiple lives, destroys homes

Fertilizer facility blast in Texas claims multiple lives, destroys homes

A fertilizer mixing and storage facility exploded in rural Texas on Wednesday evening, killing at least five people, injuring more than 160 others, destroying homes, and filling the air with noxious fumes.

Reuters / Mike Stone

As many as 15 are feared dead, including five firefighters who responded to the fire that preceded the extraordinary blast at the facility in the small town of West, near Waco.

From The New York Times:

Homes and businesses were leveled in the normally quiet town of West, and there was widespread destruction in the downtown area, Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton of the Waco Police Department said Thursday morning.

“At some point this will turn into a recovery operation, but at this point, we are still in search and rescue,” he said.

Five to 15 people were killed and more than 160 people were being treated at area hospitals, Sergeant Swanton said, while also emphasizing that those early estimates could change. As many as five firefighters are still missing, he said.

There is no evidence indicating criminal activity, Sergeant Swanton said, “but we’re not ruling that out.”

It began with a smaller fire at the plant, West Fertilizer, just off Interstate 35, about 20 miles north of Waco that was attended by local volunteer firefighters, said United States Representative Bill Flores. “The fire spread and hit some of these tanks that contain chemicals to treat the fertilizer,” Mr. Flores said, “and there was an explosion which caused wide damage.”

Agricultural fertilizer is a big business — and it’s a notoriously dangerous business, involving vast volumes of ammonium nitrate.

From The Guardian:

One of the most common ingredients found in fertilizer is ammonia — made out of nitrogen and hydrogen — which is created by sending natural gas, steam and air into a large container. The nitrogen and hydrogen is isolated before an electric current is sent through to turn it into ammonium, which in this case was mixed with nitric acid to create the potentially explosive ammonium nitrate. This and all the other components of fertilizer have to then be whittled down and then mixed together before the final product is created.

Ammonium Nitrate is a strong oxidant — and is highly flammable in its raw state.

From Newstalk 1010:

The plant uses ammonium nitrate in fertilizer production, the same chemical used in 1995′s Oklahoma City Bombing. 2 tons of ammonium nitrate were used in Oklahoma City to set off a blast that killed 168 people & hurt hundreds. The West Fertilizer plant may have had as much as 100 tons of the chemical on hand.

From Slate:

The West blast comes one day after the 66th anniversary of the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history: the Texas City disaster of 1947, a fertilizer explosion that killed more than 580 people when a French-flagged vessel hauling ammonium nitrate caught fire, resulting in a chain reaction of fires and explosions that destroyed much of the port city.

UPDATE: The Dallas Morning News takes a look at the plant’s record:

Texas regulators knew in 2006 that the fertilizer facility that burned and exploded Wednesday night had two 12,000-gallon tanks of anhydrous ammonia and was near a school and neighborhood, documents show.

However, West Fertilizer Co., of West, Texas, told Texas Commission on Environmental Quality permit reviewers that emissions from the tanks would not pose a danger.

That assertion was based on expected routine emissions, not the possibility of a catastrophic failure.

The AP raises more concerns:

The Texas fertilizer plant … was cited for failing to obtain or to qualify for a permit in 2006.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigated West Fertilizer on June 20, 2006, after receiving a complaint June 9 of a strong ammonia smell. Agency records show that the person who lodged the complaint said the ammonia smell was “very bad last night” and lingered until after he or she went to bed.

And from The Washington Post’s Wonkblog: “The Texas fertilizer industry has only seen six inspections in the past five years – and the West Texas Fertilizer Co. plant was not one of them.”

Watch an absolutely chilling video of the West fertilizer explosion here, about 30 seconds in. Be warned that it includes audio of a terrified girl in pain after the blast:

John Upton is a science aficionado and green news junkie who


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blogs about ecology

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VIDEO: There’s No "Reasonable" Solution for Climate Change, Says Leader of Climate-Change Subcommittee

Mother Jones

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In March, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) held his first hearing as chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Environment, which is responsible for, among other things, studying the impact of climate change on America’s natural resources. The catch: Stewart is something of a climate skeptic who is “not as convinced as a lot of people are that man-made climate change is the threat they think it is.”

At a town hall forum in his district last week, Stewart elaborated on those views when pressed by local environmental activists. Although his beliefs put him at odds with 97 percent of climate scientists, Stewart argued that his views on climate change put him squarely within the scientific mainstream. His evidence: If there really were a consensus, Congress would have have taken action to combat climate change years ago. Check it out:

Let me say that when I’m talking to you here right now, my position on climate change was very moderate and actually very mainstream. And that is this: If you think that the science on climate change is settled, you’re simply overstating the facts. And let me give you an example of that. Two years ago, President Obama controlled the House and the Senate—the Senate by a 60-vote margin. They did not put forth a vote on human climate change. And do you know why? Why do you suppose they didn’t? Because they recognized that science behind this…

There’s one final thought that’s really important in this, which is that even if you concede that climate change is real, even if you concede, there are no reasonable remedies that don’t absolutely bankrupt the West.

Stewart’s narrative is a bit off, actually. The House did pass major climate legislation in 2009, and the Senate came pretty close, but negotiations within the bipartisan coalition that was working on the bill broke down. The issue wasn’t that the Senate rejected climate science—the legislation failed due to a variety of political pressures, including concerns from coal-state Democrats, and South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham’s insistence that the body put immigration reform first. (Ryan Lizza has the best explanation of that episode here.)

Why does Chris Stewart hate baby polar bears?

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VIDEO: There’s No "Reasonable" Solution for Climate Change, Says Leader of Climate-Change Subcommittee

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EPA to Study Flame Retardant Chemicals. Finally.

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The EPA announced this week that it will study the health and environmental risks of 23 chemicals, with an emphasis on chemical flame retardants that are found in many common products.

Even though they were phased out of baby clothes back in the 1970s due to health concerns, flame retardants are still used in baby cribs and car seats, couches, and electronics. Many have been linked to cancer and neurological and developmental problems, particularly in children. And we use so much of them that they’re turning up in our food, too.

The EPA’s announcement came just as a new study found extremely high levels of flame retardant chemicals on airplanes—”some of the highest measurements I’ve ever seen,” according to the paper’s co-author. This is less of a concern for airline passengers than it is for the pilots and flight attendants, but it does raise questions about yet another way we’re being exposed to potentially dangerous chemicals.

The EPA plans to evaluate four common flame retardants—TBPH, TCEP, and HBCD—under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the 37-year-old law governing chemical regulation. As we’ve reported here before, that law is both weak and outdated, an issue that the EPA noted in its announcement on Wednesday:

“EPA is committed to more fully understanding the potential risks of flame retardant chemicals, taking action if warranted, and identifying safer substitutes when possible,” said James J. Jones, Acting assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention. “Though today’s announcement represents a significant step forward on chemical safety, it’s important to remember that TSCA, this country’s chemicals management legislation, remains in dire need of reform in order to ensure that all Americans are protected from toxic chemicals in their environment.”

TSCA reform advocates point to flame retardants as an example of why current chemical regulations are a total failure. EPA is just now evaluating their safety, after decades of human exposure to these chemicals. “Flame retardants have become exhibit A for our nation’s failed chemical policy,” said Andy Igrejas, executive director of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. “Many have have turned out to be very toxic, and yet they have found their way into our homes and our bodies through their use in consumer products.”

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EPA to Study Flame Retardant Chemicals. Finally.

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Is Social Media Safe for Kids?

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Is Social Media Safe for Kids?

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The Count of Dead Pigs Pulled Out of Chinese Rivers Is Up to 16,000

Image: Jack Zalium

Earlier this month, locals spotted what would prove to be the first of a plague of dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River in Shanghai, which supplies drinking water to the metropolis. The pig death toll has steadily risin since then—16,000 confirmed at last counting.

But just as officials said they were finishing up with recovering the last of the carcasses, dead ducks joined the swine in polluting China’s rivers. Locals in Sichuan Province spotted around 1,000 of the birds floating down the Nanhe River, the BBC reports.

As for the dead pigs, officials still have not produced an explanation for the animals’ presence. The Huffington Post writes:

Hog farmers have told state media that the dumping of swine carcasses is rising because police have started cracking down on the illicit sale of pork products made from dead, diseased pigs.

Local officials also told Southern Weekly that the city lacks enough facilities to properly dispose of dead pigs.

Though many hog farms are situated upstream of Shanghai, the authorities still haven’t nailed down any culprits. The New York Times explains that authorities do have their eye on the upstream farmers, though: 

Those suspicions seemed to be confirmed when Shanghai officials said that more than a dozen of the pigs carried ear tags indicating that they were from Jiaxing. The authorities then announced that they had detained a farmer who confessed to throwing his animals into the river.

But in Jiaxing, farmers denied dumping pigs into the river, calling it preposterous and saying that the animals could not possibly have floated all the way to Shanghai.

It’s also possible, the Times writes, that the animals died on their way to Shanghai and that truck drivers decided to dump the bodies in the river. The paper argues, though, that this may actually be a bit of positive environmental news from China:

In May, for example, the police in this hog-producing city arrested four people who had sold dead pigs to slaughterhouses. And in December, a Zhejiang Province court sentenced 17 people to prison sentences, one for life, for processing and selling meat from pigs that had died of various diseases. In less than two years, the group had collected about 77,000 animals.

So, as the authorities have cracked down on people selling diseased or dead pigs, agriculture experts say, it is possible that someone may have decided it was better to dump dead pigs into the river.

Officials insist to locals that the water is still safe to drink and that the city’s pork is fine to eat.

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The Count of Dead Pigs Pulled Out of Chinese Rivers Is Up to 16,000

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