Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Report blames petroleum industry for 25% of toxic pollutants

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US petroleum industry accounted for a quarter of toxic pollutants recorded across North America in 2005 by a government-backed environmental watchdog, an annual report said on Wednesday.

The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) -- created by Canada, the United States and Mexico -- said 90 percent of toxic pollutants came from just over a dozen industries.

Aside from oil and gas extraction, mining, wastewater treatment, electric utilities and chemical manufacturing are named as the principle offenders.

"Ninety percent of the 5.5 billion kilograms of toxic pollutant releases and transfers reported in North America in 2005 can be traced to just 30 substances from 15 industrial sectors across the United States, Canada and Mexico," it said.

The US petroleum industry reported 1.5 billion kilograms "of toxic pollutants reported by all sectors in 2005" the CEC said.

"Analysis of 2002-2005 reporting by Canadian and US petroleum refineries and bulk storage terminals discloses that, on average, about seven million kilograms of carcinogens and developmental or reproductive toxicants were released annually.

"Most of these pollutants were released to air and water."

Adrian Vazquez-Galvez, the body's executive director said the report "presents the clearest view ever of industrial pollution in North America."

But, he admitted, the picture was incomplete, with difference in reporting standards across industries and the three countries involved.

"(The report) reveals some major blind spots," Vazquez-Galvez said.

"This information is critical to government, industry, and communities, and highlights issues of comparability and areas for further action on pollution reduction to address potential environmental and human health issues," he said.

Is Anyone Even Listening?

Over the last few months, the majority of major news outlets have been running stories on climate change and it's impacts on the environment, people, and the economy. ABC recently ran a two-hour program entitled Earth 2100 on the combined effects of climate change, a collapsing economy, and other factors we currently see going on in the world.

I had to wonder though, is anyone even listening?

Climate change is a natural occurring phenomena on this planet. We know the planet goes through periods of ice ages and thaws. One of the best-documented ice ages occurred from 850 to 630 million years ago and may have led to a permanent ice cover over the entire globe. What is thought to have ended it? The accumulation of greenhouse gases produced by volcanoes. That is all well and good for the Earth. We know she will be fine and will be here until our Sun ceases to be. It's the humans, being at the top of the food chain, we have to worry about.

Big industry cares what the government decides what will be the future of greenhouse gas emissions in this country. They paint a doomsday scenario of our economy collapsing further if such legislation is passed, a second great depression. Well what is the economic impact if we do nothing? What if we continue on our full-throttle consumption and polluting without any regard?

Other than big industry, the second group that is listening is those who do not think humans can have an impact on the earth. My question is how could we not? A good friend of mine suggested an experiment for these skeptics: turn your car on, shut the garage door, and see what the effects are to your environment. A bit drastic, but it gets the point across. Actions have consequences.

The most interesting human-impact story, thanks to Bill Bryon's A Short History of Nearly Everything, is about Mr. Clair Patterson. In the 50s, he was trying to determine the age of the Earth by determining the age of lead in meteorites. However he encountered all sorts of atmospheric lead that threw off his results. He eventually created a "clean" environment and was able to successfully determine our planet's age. He then turned his attention to all this lead in the atmosphere. Mr. Patterson collected samples of ice cores, the first person to do this, to determine the concentrations of lead over the centuries. His result? Lead concentrations had increased 1000 times from the introduction of leaded fuel in 1923. Lead, as you know, being a heavy metal has serious impacts on health and development as well as sticks around for a while. After many negative encounters with pro-leaded fuel companies, Mr. Patterson, in 1986, was able to get leaded fuel banned in this country and helped establish the Clean Air Act of 1970 Quickly lead levels in the blood of Americans dropped by 80%. Even so, today we have 625 times more lead in our blood than did people before leaded gasoline (read more here).

Did this pollution affect the Earth? Yes. But, the consequences of our actions affected and are continuing to affect the health of humans.

On ABC's Earth 2100, they use a frog in a pot of water analogy: A frog placed in a cold pot of water cannot detect the small changes in water temperature as it is being heated and never realizes that he is being cooked until it is too late.

What is it going to take for people to wake-up and realize this is going on? Will it be too late? All I can cling to is the hope that people will indeed start listening and act before it's too late.

Monday, June 8, 2009

So Glad This is Getting So Much Media Attention

From Reuters:

Menaces to oceans: CO2, plastic bags, overfishing

The world's seas are filled with too much garbage and too few fish with flimsy plastic bags and government subsidies bearing much of the blame, activists and trade officials said Monday on the first U.N. World Oceans Day.

The World Trade Organization's director-general, Pascal Lamy, used the occasion to note that some species are at risk of extinction from overfishing, and government subsidies bear some of the blame.

"Governments have contributed to this problem by providing nearly $16 billion annually in subsidies to the fisheries sector," Lamy said. "This support keeps more boats on the water and fewer fish in the sea.

He said WTO members are now negotiating to reform subsidies programs to make fishing a sustainable industry.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk echoed those sentiments, saying the United States is pushing for stronger rules against "harmful fisheries subsidies that contribute to overcapacity and overfishing."

Eighty percent of the world's fisheries are under pressure, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted or recovering from overexploitation.

Global fisheries subsidies are estimated at $20 billion or more annually, an amount equivalent to 25 percent of the value of the world catch. Economic losses from overfishing in marine areas are $50 billion a year, according to a 2008 World Bank/FAO report.

"International trade can play a key role in protecting the world's oceans," Courtney Sakai of the group Oceana said in a statement reacting to Lamy's and Kirk's comments. "The WTO is in the unlikely position of producing one of the most significant actions to stop global overfishing."


In addition to overfishing, the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change also combine with sea water to form carbonic acid, a corrosive substance that eats away at the shells of mollusks and corals.

Last week, as international climate negotiators gathered in Bonn, Germany, 70 of the world's major science academies reported that ocean acidification was so dangerous that it could be irreversible for thousands of years.

The academies urged those bargaining for a world agreement to stem global warming into take account the risks to the oceans in working on a new U.N. treaty to be agreed in Copenhagen in December.

The U.N. Environment Program and the Ocean Conservancy marked the day with a report on marine litter, from discarded fishing gear to cigarette butts to plastic bags, which the environment program's director called signs of systemic waste.

"Marine litter is symptomatic of a wider malaise: namely the wasteful use and persistent poor management of natural resources," said Achim Steiner, U.N. under-secretary-general and UNEP Executive Director.

The ubiquitous flimsy plastic shopping bag is a particularly nettlesome problem, said the environment program's spokesman, Nick Nuttall.

In a telephone interview from Nairobi, Nuttall said that "these rather pointless flimsy plastic bags, which serve little or no purpose except to choke the oceans and the environment" should be banned or taxed to kick-start recycling efforts.

Last December, the United Nations designated June 8 as World Oceans Day, more than 16 years after it was first proposed at an Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

It's World Oceans Day!

It's great to see CNN jumping in on the plight of our oceans:

Ocean trash problem 'far from being solved,' U.N. says

Trash clutters the world's oceans, as shown here near Hong Kong.

Trash clutters the world's oceans, as shown here near Hong Kong.

The world's oceans are full of trash, causing "tremendous" negative impacts on coastal life and ecology, according to a U.N. report released Monday.

The oceans will continue to fill up with junk discarded from cities and boats without urgent action to address this buildup of marine debris, the United Nations Environment Programme says in a report titled "Marine Litter: A Global Challenge."

Current efforts to address the problem are not working, and the issue is "far from being solved," the report says.

"There is an increasingly urgent need to approach the issue of marine litter through better enforcement of laws and regulations, expanded outreach and educational campaigns, and the employment of strong economic instruments and incentives," the report says.

"Although a number of countries have taken steps at the national level to deal with marine litter, the overall situation is not improving."

Scientists have been watching trash pile up in the world's oceans for about a half-century, when plastics came into widespread use. Since plastics don't biodegrade, or do so very slowly, the trash tends to remain in the ocean, where circling currents collect the material in several marine "garbage patches." See a map of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch »

One of these trashy areas is said to be roughly the size of Texas. The water in these at-sea landfills is thick like a plastic soup, oceanographers told CNN.

The trash patches are located in "very remote parts of the ocean where hardly anyone goes, except the occasional research vessel," said Peter Niiler, a distinguished researcher and oceanographer at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Plastics and cigarette butts are the most common types of ocean litter, with plastic making up about 80 percent of the ocean trash collected in some areas of the world, a U.N. news release says.

The ocean litter is a problem for coastal communities, which rely on clean beaches for tourism dollars and to boost quality of life for their residents, the report says. Ocean trash also affects marine life and degrades human health.

Sea turtles, for example, think plastic grocery bags are jellyfish when the bags are floating in the ocean. An untold number of the turtles and other creatures, such as Hawaii's endangered monk seal, swallow the bags and suffocate, drown or starve, said Holly Bamford, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine debris program.

Birds face similar issues when they eat pieces of plastic out of the water. In the North Sea, a survey found 94 percent of fulmars, a type of seabird, had plastics in their stomachs, the U.N. report says. The birds, on average, had about 34 pieces of plastic in their stomachs.

A surprising amount of trash that ends up in the ocean starts on the land, the report says. In Australia, for instance, a survey found 80 percent of ocean trash starts on the land.

One of the key questions for people interested in ocean trash is how much of it is out there, but Monday's U.N. report does not solve that mystery.

The U.N. says little is known about the extent of litter in the oceans, and more data is needed for the problem to be adequately addressed.

"This deficiency, in combination with the lack of specific legislation, adequate law enforcement and funding, are the primary reasons why the problem of marine litter is far from being solved," the report says.

"Unless effective action is taken, the global marine litter problem will only continue to worsen in the years to come."

The report does suggest several solutions, among them:

  • Countries and regions should adopt long-term plans to prevent litter from ending up in the oceans.
  • Countries should monitor marine litter using international standards and methodologies.
  • Ports should encourage fishing boats not to discard nets at sea.
  • Efforts to reduce marine litter should get more funding.

Volunteer efforts try to address the issue now, and the Ocean Conservancy says it organizes the largest of these.

Last year, 400,000 volunteers from more than 100 countries picked up 6.8 million pounds of trash from beaches, preventing it from harming the ocean, said Tom McCann, a spokesman for the group.

"It's entirely preventable," he said of the problem. "It's something we can solve ourselves."

McCann said people can prevent trash from ending up in the ocean by making smarter choices about the products they buy.

Some of the Ocean Conservancy's recommendations include:

  • Buy products with smart packaging that doesn't create excess waste.
  • Use alternatives to plastic such as cloth grocery bags and reusable bottles.
  • Don't litter. Trash can make its way from the interior of a continent into the oceans via rivers and the wind.
  • Volunteer with the International Coastal Cleanup, held on September 19 this year.