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A top scientist ‘felt bullied’ to downplay facts by EPA chief of staff.

The new Museum of Capitalism in Oakland, California, explores “the ideology, history, and legacy of capitalism.” Surprise! One of the most detrimental legacies of capitalism is … climate change.

Bear with us (and the museum’s curators): The fossil fuel production that drives climate change is due to global (read: American) desire for profit and growth.

The museum — funded largely through a grant from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation — exhibits several works examining how humans despoil the environment in our quest for more things. Some are simple, like a bright blue baseball cap emblazoned with “COAL = JOBS” in white, akin to the ubiquitous MAGA accessory.

“American Domain,” an exhibit curated by Erin Elder (below), explores the ways in which land in the U.S. has been “continually staked and claimed.” Photographs of the Mexican-American border hang alongside images of drilling equipment, suggesting inconsistency in the United States’ attitude toward borders when it comes to fossil fuel access versus immigration.

“American Domain”Brea McAnally/Brea Photography

In another section of the museum, a video by Kota Takeuchi shows a worker undertaking cleanup of the Fukushima disaster. The worker slowly points at the audience through the camera lens, a designation of blame lasting over 20 minutes.

It’s a succinct gesture that gets to the point of the whole museum: We’re all complicit.

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A top scientist ‘felt bullied’ to downplay facts by EPA chief of staff.

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Wind Turbines Kill Around 300,000 Birds Annually, House Cats Around 3,000,000,000

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Wind Turbines Kill Around 300,000 Birds Annually, House Cats Around 3,000,000,000

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The Case Against Chlorinated Tap Water

Mother Jones

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The chlorination of municipal tap water is considered one of the 20th century’s best public health ideas. The American Water Works Association credits the practice with increasing life expectancy by 50 percent over the past century by virtually eliminating water-borne diseases such as typhoid fever and cholera. But chlorine in drinking water can cause health risks of its own. And while some of the of those risks, such as reactions with organic compounds that can yield toxic byproducts, are relatively well understood and managed, at least one has been largely overlooked: The effect of chlorinated drinking water on the beneficial bacteria in our guts.

The notion that our bodies’ 100 trillion bacteria act as a crucial internal ecosystem, a sort of sixth human organ, has only recently gained currency among mainstream scientists. Researchers now believe a lack of beneficial bacteria in the gut can trigger certain autoimmune diseases, among them diabetes, asthma, and even neurological conditions such as autism. Those conditions have spread in step with Western society’s war on germs, which has scorched our good bacteria along with the bad, throwing our bodies’ microbiomes off balance in the same way that a slashed and burned rainforest becomes susceptible to invasive weeds.

Jeff Leach is a leading microbiome researcher and founder of the American Gut Project, which aims to sequence the microbiomes of tens of thousands of Americans. Leach suspects that several factors may impede bacterial diversity in Americans, among them the profligate use of antibiotics, over-consumption of processed foods, and, at least to some extent, consumption of chlorine in tap water. “It’s something I’ve discussed with a number of other microbiologists,” he replied when I asked about the possibility. “In short, nobody has done the research, but we are certain that there is an impact.”

Based on studies of chlorine’s effects on human cells, the Environmental Protection Agency sets the safe level in drinking water at no more than four parts per million. Even that dilute level can wipe out lots other life forms, however, as anyone knows who has filled a goldfish bowl from the tap.

There’s no debate that chlorinating our water kills off a wide array of malignant bacteria—just try drinking the tap water in countries that don’t fully disinfect it. Much less is known, however, about chlorine’s effect on good bacteria that help preserve healthy digestive systems. We simply don’t know enough about the microbial ecosystem in the human gut to identify every type of bacteria that’s important, much less how well those bacteria survive when we guzzle mildly chlorinated tap water.

Still, some tangential research suggests cause for concern. A 1987 Toxicology study found that consumption of water with even fairly low levels of monochloramine, a commonly used disinfectant that persists in drinking water longer than chlorine, disrupted the immune systems of rats—a finding that’s notable given the strong link between the human immune system and gut microbes.

Chlorine in tap water is also known to kill microbes in soil—watch out, home gardeners!—though it doesn’t penetrate deep into the ground, and microbial populations typically bounce back quickly after watering.

Though the risks of chlorine in tap water might justify purchasing a low-cost home water filter that can remove it, it’s definitely premature to back off of requirements to chlorinate or otherwise disinfect municipal drinking water, as some Wisconsin state legislators proposed a few years ago.

“Chlorination has done tremendous good, so the default is to continue as is,” Martin Blaser, the director of the Human Microbiome Project, told me, “but whether or not there are subtler effects needs to be studied.”

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The Case Against Chlorinated Tap Water

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Pebble Mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay could be environmentally devastating, EPA says

Pebble Mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay could be environmentally devastating, EPA says

Friends of Bristol Bay

Locals enjoy Bristol Bay in its pre-polluted state.

A colossal gold, copper, and molybdenum mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay could devastate the region’s ecosystem and fishing industry, according to a new report from the U.S. EPA.

“[L]arge-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses significant near- and long-term risk to salmon, wildlife and Native Alaska cultures,” EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran told reporters upon releasing the report.

Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty wants to build the Pebble Mine in the area, but it hasn’t yet applied for federal permits, so the EPA’s study was about the potential impacts of hypothetical mining in the region rather than the Pebble Mine specifically. Still, it was a damning indictment of Northern Dynasty’s plans. (The U.K.-based Anglo American mining corporation dumped its stake in the project in September, and the U.K.-based Rio Tinto is considering whether to do the same.)

Tribes, fishermen, and environmentalists are pressuring the agency to block Pebble Mine under its Clean Water Act powers. This new EPA report was all about the science — it doesn’t make any policy recommendations — but its findings could be used to support such a move.

Depending on the scale of mining in the area, as many as 94 miles of streams could be drained or blocked, the EPA concluded. As many as 4,900 acres of wetlands that provide habitat to salmon could be lost, plus 450 acres of ponds and lakes. The EPA says a mine’s water-treatment systems could be expected to experience failures, which could poison salmon in up to 60 miles of streams.

Here’s how the report describes the wild habitat that would be compromised by the proposed mine:

The exceptional quality of the Bristol Bay watershed’s fish populations can be attributed to several factors, the most important of which is the watershed’s high-quality, diverse aquatic habitats unaltered by human-engineered structures and flow management controls. Surface and subsurface waters are highly connected, enabling hydrologic and biochemical connectivity between wetlands, ponds, streams, and rivers and thereby increasing the diversity and stability of habitats able to support fish. These factors all contribute to making the Bristol Bay watershed a highly productive system.

But, oh, what about the piles of money that could be made by mining? Ryan Cooper of The Washington Post suggests that not much of it would go to locals:

It’s not clear how big an economic boon this project (called the Pebble Mine) would be to people in the surrounding communities. The Pebble deposit contains billions in minerals — though most of the wealth will go to the conglomerate planning the project; the mine would support only a few thousand jobs. Meanwhile, the Bristol Bay area already has a thriving economy centered around the sockeye salmon run. According to the report, the fishing industry supports over 14,000 jobs, and $480 million in direct expenditures.

Cooper describes a mine as “a big test” for President Obama. If the EPA opposes it, will he publicly support the agency? “The choice EPA makes will be a key indicator of the EPA’s willingness to endure the backlash that will certainly ensue if they take strong action on climate change,” he writes.

Here’s a map of the area that would be affected:

EPAClick to embiggen

An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska, EPA
A big test for Obama on the environment, The Washington Post
EPA Critical of Alaska Pebble Mine Project, The Wall Street Journal
Mining could devastate Alaska’s Bristol Bay salmon, The Associated Press

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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Pebble Mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay could be environmentally devastating, EPA says

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