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Chicago from the air over Lake Michigan. Photo credit: OZinOH via Flickr

By Henry Henderson

President Trump clearly doesn't like Chicago. He takes a swipe at the city every chance he gets. But the latest salvo in his war on Chicago is likely to impact a lot more than just the Second City.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed had an item summarizing a rumor we have been hearing a lot of lately: that beyond the massive cuts already in store for critical protections of clean air, water and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there may be a plan afoot to close the agency's Region 5 office in Chicago and merge it with operations in Kansas City.

The administration denies that there is a plan in place … sort of … calling press reports unsubstantiated rumor, but admitting that they may merge some offices.

But even in this world of #FakeNews, sometimes rumors aren't just coming out of nowhere. In this case, leaked EPA budget documents include some salient passages (bold formatting is mine) that imply this move is already indeed under consideration:

"Funding levels incorporate rent cost avoidance from several regional and headquarters offices Potomac Yards North, Region 1, Region 5, and Region 9), the decommissioning of part of the Las Vegas laboratory, and the release of the headquarters warehouse in Washington, DC.

Workforce:

The budget includes significant reductions in FTE. The hiring freeze will remain in place while the agency develops a comprehensive workforce reshaping plan. The agency will chart a workforce path that seeks to align capacity with Administration priorities, takes advantage of opportunities for more efficient practices and organizational structures, minimizes separation costs, and enables adjustment to final appropriation levels without major disruptions to the agency's work. Further guidance from OMB and OPM is expected to guide development for workforce reshaping plans.

Physical Footprint:

OARM and OCFO will work with impacted program and regional offices as work proceeds on the strategic review with OMB and GSA to analyze the needs of the agency regarding its physical footprint, including that of office, warehouse, and laboratory space. The agency is seeking opportunities to further reduce our facility footprint and/or implement planned and pending moves/consolidation in an expedited and most cost effective manner."

The Region 5 office in Chicago is the largest in the EPA. And much of its staff has specialized experience. A lot of that is already threatened by the ludicrous and dangerous budget cuts that have already been outlined, including the zeroing out of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, as well as drinking water, superfund and environmental justice programs.

The programs lost are bad enough. But in many cases, the staff are irreplaceable—taking with them deep understanding of highly technical and complicated environmental issues. When that specialized staff is gone, that knowledge is gone, too. The KC EPA staff is great, but focused on very different issues in predominantly agricultural states. With their own staff cuts to contend with, how focused will they be on the water and industrial contamination issues that Region 5 has been dealing with out of the Chicago office? The special interests holding sway over the White House are clearly banking on the answer of "not very."

How will the fate of the Great Lakes—95 percent of the available fresh water in our nation—be properly protected from distant Kansas City? The elimination of programs associated with the largest freshwater ecosystem in the western hemisphere is dangerous and short-sighted. Dumping the folks who understand it and have been tasked with protecting that ecosystem, as well as the communities reliant upon it. Well, that doesn't just hurt Chicago. It's a blow that will likely be felt in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana for decades to come. (New York and Pennsylvania, too!)

Henry Henderson oversees Natural Resources Defense Council's advocacy efforts as they relate to air, water, energy and sustainability in eight midwestern states.


Sheryll Durrant. Photo credit: Keka Marzagao / Sustainable Flatbush

By Melissa Denchak

Most people don't move to New York City and become farmers. Sheryll Durrant certainly wasn't planning to when she left Jamaica for Manhattan in 1989. She got her undergraduate degree in business from the City University of New York's Baruch College and spent the next 20 years in marketing. Then, when the 2008 financial crisis hit, Durrant decided to leave her job and try something new: volunteering at a community garden in her Brooklyn neighborhood.

It wasn't exactly uncharted terrain for this farmer's daughter. Growing up in Kingston, Durrant regularly helped her parents harvest homegrown fruits and vegetables. "But it didn't dawn on me that that was what I wanted to do," she said. Volunteering in the Brooklyn garden reminded her of her roots. "I would plant flowers or melons and that sense of putting your hand in the soil and becoming a part of that green space flooded back to me," she explained.

Kelly Street Garden.Craig Warga

Fast-forward to today. Durrant is a leader in New York's flourishing urban farming movement, which includes more than 600 community gardens under the city's GreenThumb program, plus hundreds more run by other groups across the five boroughs. A food justice advocate with a certificate from Farm School NYC, she's also a "master composter" and a community garden educator and she does outreach work for Farming Concrete, a data collection project that measures, among other things, how much urban farms and gardens produce.

Durrant's early work at the Sustainable Flatbush garden taught her the crucial first step in initiating any community project: Know your neighborhood's needs.

"We started by asking people in the community, 'What do you want to see?,'" she said. This market-research approach turned out to serve her goals—and her neighbors—well. When community members, many of whom were immigrants, expressed a desire to grow the plants and herbs of their native countries, Durrant and her fellow green thumbs collaborated with a local apothecary to establish a medicinal and culinary herb garden and to organize free workshops on how to use the herbs. These garden sessions—which covered women's and children's health, eldercare, and mental health issues like depression—at times drew more than 100 attendees.

After Brooklyn, Durrant relocated to the South Bronx, a neighborhood that's notoriously polluted, underserved and disproportionately malnourished, with more than one in five residents considered food insecure. The borough's gardens, said Durrant, help fill a void, serving as "one way we can bring fresh fruit and vegetables to a community that doesn't normally have access."

At the Kelly Street Garden, a 2,500-square-foot space on the grounds of an affordable housing complex, she serves as garden manager. And at the International Rescue Committee's New Roots Community Farm, a half-acre garden whose members include resettled refugees from countries like Myanmar and the Central African Republic, she works as a seasonal farm coordinator.

Keka Marzagao / Sustainable Flatbush

Last year, the Kelly Street Garden produced 1,200 pounds of food, available to anyone in the community who volunteered at the garden (and even those who didn't), free of cost. It was one of the few purveyors of healthy food in the neighborhood, where local stores often carry produce that's neither affordable nor fresh, due to lack of turnover. "If I have a limited amount of income, why would I waste my money or benefits on food that is going to perish in no time—that's already rotted when I get there?" Durrant said. For this reason, she explained, people often resort to purchasing processed foods that come in cans and bags. The longer shelf life stretches a tight budget. It also demonstrates why hunger often goes hand in hand with obesity—a problem particularly prevalent in the Bronx.

"I'm not going to say that community gardens and urban farms can feed New York City. Please, it's a city with over eight million people," Durrant said. "But they can provide some relief." What's more, she added, "They give you access to grow the food you want. That's where the food justice part comes in."

Margaret Brown, a Natural Resources Defense Council staff attorney who works on food justice issues, echoes Durrant's words. "One garden isn't going to fix hunger in your neighborhood, but community gardens are a way for people to take ownership over the food system in a very tangible way."

Of course, community gardens give rise to much more than fruits and vegetables. Durrant explained that the Kelly Street Garden serves as a space for cooking workshops and on-site art projects and hosts its own farmers' market. Meanwhile, the New Roots Community Farm has helped some of its neighborhood's newest arrivals find one another. "It's a means of engagement that a lot of our refugees are familiar with," she said. "It's welcoming, safe and a place where people can learn at their own pace and get involved in the country where they now live." Participants practice English ("Food is an incredible tool to teach English—a great entry point," said Durrant); plant hot peppers, mustard greens, melons and other edibles from their native homes; and exchange recipes.

Keka Marzagao / Sustainable Flatbush

Urban gardens also play a role in nutrition education. "Anecdotally, we've seen that when kids go to a community garden and get exposed to fresh fruits and veggies, they're much more likely to eat them when they're offered on the school lunch line, salad bar, or at home," Brown said.

Perhaps most important, the community garden movement and its focus on food inequities help advocates raise awareness of broader, interconnected environmental justice issues—like low wages and lack of affordable housing—that get to the heart of why people struggle to access healthy food to begin with. "Community gardens form a good space for people to come together around those issues," Brown said, "and hopefully find great organizing allies."

Durrant is clearly one of them. As part of her community outreach work, she arranges events to bring new audiences (whether corporate employees on volunteer workdays, or visitors on a Bronx Food & Farm Tour) directly through the garden gates. These visitors get a glimpse of the power of a small green lot in a sea of concrete—and if they're lucky, they leave with a taste of it, too.

Melissa Denchak is a freelance writer and editor, and has contributed to Fine Cooking, Adventure Travel, and Departures. She has a culinary diploma from New York City's Institute of Culinary Education and loves writing stories about food.

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More than 400 people came to Albany, New York on April 5, 2016 to urge the Cuomo administration to reject shale gas projects in New York state. Photo credit: Erik McGregor

By Kimberly Ong

New York State blocked the Northern Access Project on April 7, a pipeline that would have carried fracked gas from Pennsylvania to Canada via New York. This is a huge victory not just for New Yorkers but for the entire planet.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), after a careful and exhaustive study, exercised its right under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act to deny certification to the proposed 24-inch diameter, 99-mile pipeline. Without 401 certification, the natural gas pipeline cannot go forward within the state.

Gov. Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos have shown exceptional leadership in denying the permit. This project was a serious threat to water quality, wildlife, trout streams and other habitats, as well as to air quality in the North Country and Western New York. The pipeline would have directly harmed 192 streams, 600 acres of forests and more than 17 acres of wetlands in the state and would have crossed one sole source aquifer—the Cattaraugus Creek Basin Aquifer System—the sole source of drinking water for 20,000 residents in Cattaraugus, Erie and Wyoming counties in New York.

DEC's decision to deny 401 certification for the pipeline is not the first time that Gov. Cuomo has taken bold action to protect the environment. In 2015, New York State was the first state with natural gas resources to ban fracking in the U.S. and in 2016, the State denied a 401 certification to Constitution pipeline, another natural gas pipeline that could have significantly harmed state water quality. This bold state-level leadership is even more vital now in light of the Trump administration's overt courtship of the fossil fuel industry and its planned evisceration of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget.

This decision may not have happened but for widespread opposition from the environmental community across the state. On March 27, hundreds of people from across New York State rallied in Albany to express their outrage over the proposed pipeline, demonstrating statewide opposition to this dangerous project. That same day, 143 organizations, businesses and faith communities representing thousands of New Yorkers signed on to a letter asking DEC to deny 401 certification to Northern Access.

The denial of the 401 certification demonstrates that, even when the federal government erodes basic safeguards on health and the environment, states still have the power to protect their citizens and their waterways from the encroachment of the fossil fuel industry. And when citizens band together, they can halt the construction of unnecessary natural gas pipelines and stand up for their communities.

We commend Gov.Cuomo and Commissioner Seggos' decision to stop this pipeline from moving forward.

Kimberly Ong is a staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Photo credit: Peter Muller

By Lena Brook

What can America's most iconic fast-food chicken chain do to fight the growing epidemic of drug-resistant infections? Set a strong antibiotics policy for its chicken supply!

More than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics in the U.S. are sold for use on livestock and poultry. And more than 96 percent of those drugs are routinely distributed en masse in feed or water, often to animals that are not sick, to speed up growth and help animals survive crowded and unsanitary conditions on industrial farms. When livestock producers use antibiotics again and again, some bacteria become resistant, multiply and spread to threaten humans. It's a practice that is fueling the increasing failure of the drugs we rely on to treat a wide range of infections.

Unfortunately, federal policy regulating antibiotics use in agriculture has not stopped this misuse. But U.S. food companies are responding to growing consumer concern and committing to ending the use of medically important antibiotics in their chicken supplies.

Today KFC becomes the newest addition to this leader's circle, announcing that after 2018, the company will only sell chicken raised without antibiotics important to human medicine. This is great news for fried chicken lovers and, most importantly, for public health. The Natural Resources Defense Council has been calling on the company to set a meaningful antibiotics policy for its chicken supply since May 2016, when we launched our "Get KFC Chicken Off Drugs" campaign. Allies like U.S. Public Interest Research Groups, Consumers Union and Food Animals Concern Trust have also been pressing the company to clean up its supply chain.

Given that KFC is the nation's largest chicken-on-the-bone quick-service restaurant in the U.S., we know its commitment to responsible antibiotics use will have an impact throughout the chicken industry.

Today we give KFC kudos for taking a strong stand that will help to protect the public against the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant infections. We are also glad to know that consumers will be able to verify that the company is keeping its word, since the antibiotics practices of KFC suppliers will be regularly audited under the U.S. Department of Agriculture Process Verified Program. We look forward to updates from KFC on its implementation progress in the year to come.

KFC's announcement means that 11 out of the top 15 fast-food and -casual restaurant chains in the U.S. have now committed to some level of responsible antibiotics use for their chicken supply. KFC's promise is especially important because the company only purchases a portion of the chickens from any given flock, due to standards for the birds they buy. This means its change in policy will affect a larger number of chickens than what the company purchases itself, since farmers have to raise all the birds in the same barn the same way.

KFC's new policy is good news for all of us—chicken lovers or not—because drug-resistant infections (or "superbugs") are becoming increasingly widespread. Conservatively, at least two million Americans get antibiotic-resistant infections every year and at least 23,000 die as a direct result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent Reuters investigation suggests that these numbers significantly underestimate the scope of resistant infections in the U.S. Fortunately, the tremendous momentum we've seen in the chicken industry demonstrates that more responsible antibiotic practices are achievable and affordable. Looking at data from a 2017 WattPoultryUSA survey, the Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that more than 42 percent of the U.S. chicken industry is either under an antibiotics stewardship pledge or has already converted to responsible practices. KFC's new policy will likely move this number even higher.

We are heartened by KFC's decision to join the fight against drug-resistant superbugs. The transition to responsible antibiotics use in the chicken industry has happened in the span of just four years, proving that where there is a will, there is a way. I hope this will inspire other sectors of the livestock industry, like pork and beef producers, to follow suit.

Lena Brook is a food policy advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council.


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By Han Chen

President Trump and President Xi Jinping's first meeting this week is intended to establish a personal relationship and search for common ground on issues including security and trade. However, climate change and energy policy will likely receive scant attention as America and China are embarking on wildly divergent paths.

China is actively planning for a sustainable low-carbon economy, while the U.S. wrestles with a White House that rejects climate action, celebrates fossil fuels and faces increasing resistance from businesses, governors, mayors and citizens who support low-carbon development.

Here are the three most striking contrasts between America and China on climate leadership:

1. "Cancelling" the Paris Climate Agreement vs. Championing International Climate Action

  • President Xi encourages all nations to participate in this "hard won" climate victory and the Chinese Foreign Minister reiterated China's commitment to the Paris climate agreement saying that they will act no matter what the U.S. does.

2. Attempting to Gut Climate Protections vs. Supporting Clean Energy Jobs

  • President Trump's recent executive orders attempt to roll back critical environmental protections like the Clean Power Plan and vehicle emissions standards.
  • China will add 800 to 1000 gigawatts of electricity capacity by 2030—equivalent to the capacity of the entire U.S. electric grid. China is already the world leader in new installations of wind and solar power.

3. Favoring Fossil Fuel Lobbyists vs. Curbing Emissions From the Coal Sector

  • President Trump falsely claims that his energy policy can revive jobs in the coal sector, despite decades of coal decline due to its devastating health and environmental costs and the market advantages of natural gas and renewable energy.
  • China recently established the first ever mandatory target for coal's share of total energy consumption—seeking to decrease it from 64 percent in 2015 to 58 percent by 2020. And China's energy and cement-related CO2 emissions in 2016 were basically flat, continuing a leveling-off of China's CO2 emissions since 2014.

President Trump may not be ready to walk down the path of tackling the climate change challenge, but he is putting Americans' security and prosperity at risk by doing so. It is becoming increasingly clear that Trump is willing to weaken environmental protections for Americans and let China eclipse us in the global clean energy race—all to satisfy special interests from his cronies in the fossil fuel industry.

Han Chen helps implement the Natural Resources Defense Council's strategy to address climate change at the international level and in key countries around the world including the U.S., India, China, Canada and myriad Latin American nations.

Photo credit: iStock

By Amanda Maxwell and Anthony Swift

President Trump has made renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) one of the main goals for his administration and has recently revealed the general plan to do so.

As this process moves forward, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Sierra Club and our partners across a broad range of sectors are calling on the administration to include eight critical issues among their priorities in changing NAFTA, outlined below. We want to ensure that any new provisions in NAFTA result in a transparent agreement that supports—and does not undermine—a more stable climate, clean air and water, healthy communities, indigenous peoples and good jobs.

In the 23 years since NAFTA's signing, the economies of Mexico, Canada and the U.S. have become intertwined and interdependent, with $1.1 trillion in trade moving among the three countries in 2016. During those decades, too, new issues such as climate change, clean energy and sustainability, have moved to the forefront of international relations. So, while it remains unclear exactly how and to what extent the Trump administration will change this accord, there are several critical provisions that should be included to improve the lives of people living and working in all three countries and the environments they depend on.

NRDC is pleased to ally with 350.org, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Food Safety, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, Global Exchange, Green America, Greenpeace USA, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, League of Conservation Voters, Food & Water Watch, Sierra Club and U.S. Human Rights Network in calling on the Trump administration to include the following eight issues among their priorities in changing NAFTA:

1. Eliminate rules that empower corporations to attack environmental and public health protections in unaccountable tribunals. NAFTA's investor-state dispute settlement system allows multinational corporations—e.g. ExxonMobil and TransCanada—to bypass our courts, go to private tribunals and demand money from taxpayers for policies that affect corporate bottom lines. Corporations have used NAFTA to challenge bans on toxic chemicals, decisions of environmental review panels and protections for our climate. They have extracted more than $370 million from governments in these cases and pending NAFTA claims total more than $50 billion. What's more, the cases are heard not by judges, but by corporate lawyers outside the normal court system.

2. Incorporate strong, enforceable environmental and labor standards into the core text of the agreement. To address environmental and labor issues, NAFTA created side agreements which are non-binding and have limitations. As a result, they have been relatively ineffective. To ensure that the new terms of a revised trilateral trade agreement create and uphold a fair playing field for environmental and labor conditions, these two areas must be included inside the core text of the agreement. That means that a country that fails to live up to its environmental obligations will be subject to trade sanctions similar to the existing provisions for violation of commercial parts of the agreement. This will also require that countries live up to existing international agreements and address environmental challenges such as critical conservation challenges related to illegal timber trade, illegal wildlife trade and fisheries management.

3. Protect energy sector reform from backward-looking rules. NAFTA's energy chapter limits Canada's ability to restrict production of climate-polluting fossil fuels such as tar sands oil. The chapter, written before awareness of climate change was widespread, must be eliminated. Other NAFTA rules allow renewable portfolio standards, low-carbon fuel standards and other climate-friendly energy regulations to be challenged for impeding business for foreign fossil fuel firms. Such rules must be narrowed to protect climate policies in each country.

4. Restrict pollution from cross-border freight vehicles. NAFTA encouraged a rise in cross-border motor carrier traffic without doing anything to mitigate the resulting increase in harmful vehicle emissions. Any deal that replaces NAFTA must require cross-border freight vehicles to reduce emissions in order for their goods to benefit from reduced tariffs. In addition, all cross-border commercial vehicles must be required to comply with all state and federal standards to limit pollution.

5. Require green government purchasing instead of restricting it. NAFTA's procurement rules limit governments' ability to use "green purchasing" requirements that ensure government contracts support renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable goods. Any changes to NAFTA must require signatory governments to include a preference for goods and services with low environmental impacts in procurement decisions.

6. Bolster climate protections by penalizing imported goods made with high climate emissions. NAFTA allows firms to shift production to a country with lower climate standards, which can spur "carbon leakage" and job offshoring. To prevent this and encourage greater climate action from high-emissions trading partners, each country should be required to impose a border fee on imported goods whose production causes significant climate pollution.

7. Require governments to prioritize policies that minimize climate pollution. While NAFTA restricts climate policies that limit trade or investment, any replacement deal must instead put climate first. This includes requiring governments to use a "climate impact test" for policymaking, in which potential climate impacts of policy proposals are reported and weighed.

8. Add a broad protection for environmental and other public interest policies. NAFTA's many overreaching rules restrict the policy tools that governments can use to protect the environment and other broadly-shared priorities. NAFTA includes no provision that effectively shields public interest policies from such rules—only a weak "exception" in Article 2101 that has consistently failed to protect challenged policies. Instead, any deal that replaces NAFTA must include a broad "carve-out" that exempts public interest policies from all of the deal's rules.

If President Trump moves forward with altering NAFTA, any renegotiations must be conducted transparently through open processes, providing the public in all three countries with the opportunity to participate. We and our partners in the environmental, labor, health, consumer, agricultural and other communities will be eager to see whether President Trumps supports a renegotiated NAFTA that supports—and does not undermine—a more stable climate, clean air and water, healthy communities, indigenous peoples and good jobs.

Amanda Maxwell is the director of the Latin America Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Anthony Swift is the director of the Canada Project and the International Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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A volunteer examines a pilot whale during a 2013 mass stranding in the Florida Everglades. Photo credit: Everglades NPS

By Jason Bittel

Waves lap at motionless heaps of blubber and fins and the sun bears down on chapped skin. Gulls start to, well, do what gulls do. This heartbreaking scene happened in January when nearly 100 false killer whales became stranded along a remote shore in the Florida Everglades.

Authorities tried to steer the cetaceans back out to sea, but most were too exhausted or too entangled in the mangroves to make the last-ditch effort. In the end, more than 80 of the whales died. Just a few months later, a similar tragedy played out on the coast of New Zealand, this time with hundreds of pilot whales.

When a single whale beaches itself, the cause is thought to be injury, illness or old age. But when dozens or even hundreds, of the animals come ashore at once, scientists think something more is at play. While no one can say definitively what causes mass strandings, a growing body of research seems to point to one trigger.

Noise.

According to a study published last month in the Journal of Experimental Biology, noise pollution such as ship traffic and seismic testing may force marine mammals to exhaust more energy on their dives than usual. This is particularly bad news because today our oceans are noisier than ever.

The oil and gas industry searches for its next score using giant air-gun explosions beneath the surface. And when fossil fuels are found, the drills used to extract them create even more of a din. Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy sends far-reaching sonar into the sea day and night as part of routine monitoring and training exercises. Furthermore, every ship that isn't powered by wind adds to the undersea clatter with its generators, propellers and engines. Making matters worse, sound travels much farther in water than it does in air, which means each aural insult can radiate outward for miles and miles from its source.

"For whales, dolphins and other marine life, industrial and military noise is a death of a thousand cuts," said Michael Jasny, a marine mammal expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It degrades their foraging, keeps them from finding potential mates, silences them and drives them from their homes. Human noise has emerged as a major environmental threat and there is virtually no corner of the ocean that is free of it."

The study's lead author, Terrie Williams, has been studying this problem for more than a dozen years as a wildlife eco-physiologist. When she started, very little was known about what was going on inside marine mammals that might be causing their mysterious, untimely deaths. That changed when wildlife veterinarian Paul Jepson published a 2003 study in Nature that found gas bubbles in the livers of stranded cetaceans. That would indicate decompression illness or the bends.

As you know, whales and dolphins breathe air at the surface and dive below for food and travel. In order to adjust between the two environments, they have what's called a diving response or reflex, which allows the body to shift its physiological priorities from what works best in air to what works best underwater. When down below, for instance, the heart rate lowers, blood vessels constrict and blood flow slows down. So for them to fall victim to decompression is definitely odd. "It seemed impossible," said Williams, "due to all of the biological safeguards that marine mammals have in place for diving without injury."

However, the bubbles in stranded whales' livers showed that the dive response doesn't always work. Williams wondered whether that diving response was less automatic than previously thought.

Through a new technology that Williams and her team invented, the researchers were able to place a device on diving dolphins to monitor second-by-second changes in heart rate, stroking mechanics and depth changes. The scientists learned that a marine mammal's diving response is related to both the depth to which it dives and the amount of exertion it takes to get there. This was really important, said Williams, because it showed that the movement of nitrogen and oxygen throughout the animal's body is not set in stone. That is, a whale or a dolphin might be able to dive safely in one scenario but not in another.

The next step was to prove that an outside factor, such as noise pollution, could possibly push the animal's physiology from its normal, safe diving state to a more rushed and risky kind of dive. This is where Williams's most recent research comes in.

Working in a deep pool aquarium, Williams and her colleagues trained retired military dolphins to wear the cetacean equivalent of Fitbits. The dolphins were taught to navigate through an underwater obstacle course at both a regular pace and a faster, escape-like pace to simulate both kinds of dives. The animals then surfaced under a sealed hood that measured the mammals' exhalations. In other words, Williams wanted to know "how much of the internal oxygen scuba tank is used during a dive by a dolphin, especially if it is trying to escape oceanic noise."

Predictably, the scientists found that it cost dolphins about twice as much physiologically to perform escape dives as opposed to dives at regular speed.

Marine mammals, of course, are not all the same. Whales are built differently from dolphins and even between whale species, body shape and dive adaptations vary. (Just think about the differences between a sperm whale and a blue whale). The scientists also had to account for the fact that larger animals require more energy to start moving but need less energy to keep all that blubber cruising once they reach higher speeds.

Fortunately, the researchers were able to make use of other studies that placed accelerometers on various whale species to measure dive times and depths. Using those data, they came up with a formula that allowed them to estimate the costs of swimming fast and slow for various types of cetaceans.

As a proof of concept, Williams and company applied their findings to the Cuvier's beaked whale, which may grow to 23 feet long and 5,500 pounds and is known for making dives of nearly two miles in depth—deeper than any other mammal. Perhaps most important, beaked whales have already been shown to be extra sensitive to noise pollution. In one 2011 study, scientists found that Blainsville's beaked whales stopped echolocating during dives when navy sonar was present and then avoided the source of the sound for two to three days. What's more, several other studies have shown a correlation between navy sonar exercises and beaked whale strandings.

So what happened when they crunched the numbers for Cuvier's beaked whales? The scientists estimated that a beaked whale may have to ratchet up its metabolic rate by more than 30 percent in order to escape oceanic noise quickly—and that's in response to a single sound event. Imagine how those energy costs might add up across repeated run-ins with acoustic pollution.

"The implications of this are enormous," said Williams. "Have the animals expended too much of their internal scuba tank? Is there enough oxygen going to their brains when they are trying to exercise at the same time that they are diving?"

These are questions Williams hopes to answer in future experiments as she attempts to establish "that last link" between ocean noise and marine mammal strandings. But with all the evidence she and other scientists have already assembled, it raises the question—how much more do we really need to know before changing our underwater ways?

Jason Bittel writes the Species Watch column for onEarth. Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

By Franz Matzner

Twenty eight years ago today the world experienced a massive wake-up call on the hazards and harms of oil spills when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker split open and poured oil into Alaskan waters.

At the time, images of oil coated wildlife and a devastated ecosystem in one of the world's most delicate, iconic and majestic environments drew global attention. Today, oil still lurks under the surface of Prince William Sound, impairing wildlife and human lives.

Eleven years later, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers and spreading millions of gallons of crude throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

Gulf communities are still trying to recover from this devastating blow to local economies and human health. Years of legal challenge and delay by the oil industry meant those least able to absorb the blow to their way of life abandoned and foundering.

In the aftermath of the BP disaster, a non-partisan, blue ribbon commission was established to provide recommendations to mitigate the risk of future events, providing hope to communities already exposed to oil drilling that finally their voices would be heard.

Despite these consensus proposals, adequate safety reforms have never been formulated, let alone implemented and even the progress that has been made is at risk.

As I write, crude oil is flowing into the Mississippi and a gas leak in Alaska's Cook Inlet is ongoing—and has been for more than three months. Sea ice is making repairs impossible, underscoring again the unique challenges of oil and gas exploration in Alaska's frozen and tumultuous waters.

But it's not just the major, headline dominating spills that are degrading our environment and impacting human health. Wired reported in December that there are about 30,000 oil spills per year in U.S. waters, most of which are in the Gulf of Mexico. It's being killed, literally, by a thousand cuts. Nor are spills the only concern. Ongoing operations produce other pollutants, including toxic metals and carcinogens, that are dumped into the ocean. A toxic mix of metals, fluids and other drilling bi-products harm marine ecosystems and are suspected in increasing mercury levels in some fish populations. To say nothing of the infrastructure development that can rip apart habitats and the industries that rely on them.

Adding insult to injury, the agencies responsible for managing our publicly owned ocean resources have been identified by the Government Accountability Office as "high risk." The Government Accountability Office is a nonpartisan "congressional watchdog" that seeks to identify performance issues and inefficiencies in the federal government. Its high risk designation, granted to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement in 2016, indicates that the agency charged with limiting offshore oil spills is not doing its job effectively. Just this week, in fact, the Government Accountability Office released a report expanding on its findings about the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. And the House Oversight committee held a hearing on oil well safety, which focused on that report and further exposed the lack of meaningful safety measures as well as the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement's significant lack of staffing and resources.

Fortunately, at the close of the previous administration, bold actions were taken to preserve and protect large swaths of our Arctic and Atlantic oceans from future oil disasters. These decisions came in direct response to the broad and unwavering call from all corners of the country to stop the expansion of oil drilling into these public waters and recognized that the rapid growth of clean energy means there is simply no need to expose our still oil-free beaches, local economies and climate to the inherent harms of offshore drilling.

This victory is something that should be built on. Yet the Trump administration's oil cabinet and its allies in Congress have instead launched a systematic attack to do precisely the opposite, opening the door for these vital oceans owned by all American's to be sold and exploited at the behest of select private oil companies.

The very first piece of legislation signed by President Trump was a gift to Exxon and global despots, designed to make it easier for oil, gas and coal companies to bribe foreign governments without accountability.

The Trump "starvation" budget would axe funding to the already beleaguered and under resourced agencies tasked with managing oil drilling safety risks, effectively taking what few cops are left off the beat.

And to complete the package, legislation is being proposed in the House and Senate that would open the door to a radical expansion of offshore drilling. One proposal would overturn recently finalized drilling safety standards specifically designed to meet recommendations made by the Oil Spill Commission.

Draft legislation being circulated by Rep. Bratt (R-VA) and another bill introduced by Sen. Cassidy (R-LA) would remove current permanent protections in the Arctic Ocean, along the Atlantic coast and in Alaska's Bristol Bay, bar any future President from providing such protections and gut the underlying law that ensures public input into how public resources are utilized.

Extreme by any measure, these legislative proposals should be rejected, even by those who do not oppose offshore drilling. It is simply unconscionable to discount the documented safety, environmental and health risks that come with offshore drilling and to put in place a system designed to exclude the coastal residents most in harm's way, flout the science of climate change and flatly reject the basic principles of responsible management of our public lands and oceans.

Fortunately, across the country millions of concerned citizens, communities, businesses and local residents are ready to stand strong against this attempt to rob future generations of our pristine beaches, healthy oceans and a stable climate.

Urge your Members of Congress to oppose Big Oil's plan to bring Big Spills back to our beaches. Ask them to instead cosponsor legislation to protect our oceans, communities and climate. You can reach your Representative and Senators through the Capitol switchboard, at (202) 224-3121.

Franz Matzner directs the Natural Resources Defense Council's's Beyond Oil Initiative, which aims to lessen America's dependence on energy derived from fossil fuels.

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