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Environment

11 Aug 2016
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On the 10th floor of Xcel Energy’s downtown Denver office building, energy traders sit before banks of screens filled with flickering, colored digits, as they buy and sell electricity for the utility’s sprawling service areas. In one corner, a trader monitors the Midwest wholesale market, and in another, the Southwest Power Pool—an odd name, given that it actually covers the Great Plains, not the Southwest. On a recent day, an electronic map showed North Dakota in blue; the price of the state’s wind power was near zero. On the other hand, southern Indiana was burnt orange, with the price of a kilowatt-hour near 8 cents. Five minutes later, Ohio turned pale green as the price dropped to 5 cents. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, the trader handling Colorado had no fancy, color-coded price map. When he needed to buy or sell, he had to get on the…
14 Jul 2016
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On June 21, a new petition surfaced on the White House’s website. In large bold letters, it reads: “Fire National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. We deserve a director who will uphold the agency's integrity.” During its centennial year, the agency has fallen under increased scrutiny for not taking swifter action to address a culture of sexual harassment and employee misconduct. The petition was started by a group of recreation and environmental activists in the San Francisco Bay Area and launched a week after members of Congress on the House Committee on Oversight and Congressional Reform grilled Jarvis for failing to take enough steps to stop sexual harassment and hostile working conditions that female employees faced in the Grand Canyon, Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore and other parks. Last month, the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General released a report documenting a pattern of harassment at Canaveral, such as unwanted…
06 Jul 2016
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When it comes to conservation, energy and many other issues, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been a lot of hat and not much cattle. But his son, Donald Trump Jr., recently offered some insights into what his father’s natural-resources policies might look like. While speaking at June a media summit organized by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership in Fort Collins, Colo., Trump Jr., an avid hunter and angler, defended keeping federal lands managed by the government and open to the public. He also reiterated his father’s strong support for U.S. energy development, proposed corporate sponsorships in national parks, questioned humans’ role in climate change, and criticized Hillary Clinton for “pandering” to hunters with “phoniness.” U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-California, spoke for Clinton’s campaign at the summit a day later, providing plenty of contrast between the presidential candidates. Trump Jr. has served as an adviser to his father on natural-resources issues…
08 Jun 2016
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California’s historic drought led to immense pressure to conserve water, and during the last year, most Californians stepped up to the task. State “water cops” issued warnings and fines; people stopped washing their cars; towns let their parks fade from green to brown. But during El Niño this winter, some regions received enough precipitation to replenish reservoirs and aquifers, so in May, Gov. Jerry Brown lifted the statewide ban on excessive urban water use, giving more than 400 water districts the power to develop individual conservation standards. It was a controversial decision, because sweeping rules had finally moved people to take the drought seriously. Water-policy experts fear the decision may lead to a let-up in conservation, even though nearly 70 percent of the state remains in extreme drought. That concern isn’t unwarranted: Although some districts want to keep enforcing strict mandates, others have been fighting for months to put a…
03 Jun 2016
The normally divided Congress recently got together to take on a major overhaul of the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, giving the Environmental Protection Agency broad new authority to regulate chemicals in millions of products American use every day. “When Americans go to the grocery store and hardware store, they assume products they buy have been tested and are safe; they aren’t,” Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, one of the bill’s chief authors, said in a press call. “For the first time in 40 years, we will have a working chemical safety law.” The Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, as the update is called, would be the biggest environmental law to pass Congress in two decades. It was approved by the House 403-12 in May, and is currently in the hands of the U.S. Senate—where it hit an unexpected snag: Despite the broad bipartisan support…
01 Jun 2016
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Christina Benton loves the road. She loves it so much that she took her three home-schooled kids on a 64-day, 5,704-mile RV journey across the country in the middle of the winter. Starting in January in their hometown of Charlotte, N.C., they visited dozens of national parks—all the way to Santa Monica, Calif., and back. Why national parks? To deeply educate Joshua, 13; Averie, 10; and Nathaniel, 6, Benton says, and to raise awareness about a serious problem the parks face—a lack of visitors who look like her family. Before her trip, Benton, whose alter ego is Nomadic Mama of 3, contacted regional directors in the National Park Service to express her concern about the lack of diversity she saw during her travels. She said the directors shared her concern, and referred her to several people and organizations working on the issue. One was Teresa Baker of African American Explorations,…
30 May 2016
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Portland, Ore.’s Willamette is no wilderness river. But on a spring day, downstream of downtown, wildness peeks through. Thick forest rises beyond a tank farm on the west bank. A sea lion thrashes to the surface, wrestling a salmon. And as Travis Williams, executive director of the nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, steers our canoe under a train bridge—dodging debris tossed by jackhammering workers—ospreys fly into view. The 10-mile reach, known as Portland Harbor, became a Superfund Site in 2000. Over the last century, ships were built and decommissioned here; chemicals and pesticides were manufactured; petroleum spilled; sewage and slaughterhouse waste was allowed to flow. Pollution has decreased, but toxic chemicals linger in sediments. Resident fish like bass and carp are so contaminated that riverside signs warn people against eating them, though some do. And osprey can’t read warnings, so they accumulate chemicals, which can thin eggshells and harm chicks. Among the…
13 May 2016
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For 62 years, Teresa Flores lived in a small house across from a railyard in San Bernardino. The smell of diesel fuel permeated the neighborhood, and dust coated cars and driveways. Her neighbors suffered from skin rashes, asthma, cancer and maladies no one could seem to identify. Flores finally moved to the other side of town. Though she can breathe easier now, she knows there’s no real escape: San Bernardino and Riverside counties have some of the state’s worst air quality, blanketed as they are by the smog that blows eastward from Los Angeles and gets trapped by the San Bernardino Mountains. The South Coast Air Quality Management District is responsible for regulating much of that pollution, from stationary sources like oil refineries and power plants. With the state Air Resources Board, it also helps inform policy decisions by assessing public health in communities around refineries, factories and railyards. In…
10 May 2016
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Three years ago, state hydrologists in the Colorado River Basin began to do some modeling to see what the future of Lake Mead—the West’s largest reservoir—might look like. If the dry conditions continued, hydrologists believed, elevations in Lake Mead—which is fed by the Colorado River—could drop much faster than previous models predicted. For decades, the West’s big reservoirs were like a security blanket, says Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the Interior Department. But the blanket is wearing thin. Under normal conditions, Lake Mead loses 1.2 million acre-feet of water every year to evaporation and deliveries to the Lower Basin states plus Mexico; that all amounts to a 12-foot drop. Previously, extra deliveries of water from Lake Powell offset that deficit, but after 16 years of drought and increased water use in the Upper Basin, those extra deliveries are no longer a safe bet. “There’s…
13 Apr 2016
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The 90-mile drive south from Silicon Valley to Watsonville, Calif., runs mostly through coastal forest, with intermittent views of the Pacific Ocean. Then the road turns inland, and the redwoods and briny air give way to the aromatic strawberry fields of the Pajaro Valley. Though the two communities are geographically close, they feel very far apart. Silicon Valley is an overcrowded center of technological innovation, made up of mostly white, affluent residents, with a median income of more than $90,000. The quiet town of Watsonville is 81 percent Hispanic, with a median income of $44,000, and is culturally and economically defined by its strawberry crop. Jennifer Magana and her older sister grew up watching their parents work the fields for major companies like Driscoll’s. They came home exhausted every night, only to get up and do it again the next morning. Magana, now a high school senior, has no desire…