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5 Disturbing Things Porter Ranch Methane Leak and Flint Water Crisis Have in Common

Climate
5 Disturbing Things Porter Ranch Methane Leak and Flint Water Crisis Have in Common

They might seem different, but the ongoing disasters in Michigan and California are two sides of the same tragic coin: as Flint drinks toxic water, Porter Ranch breathes toxic air.

These two areas highlight the abysmal failure of utilities and lawmakers as thousands of local residents continue to suffer. What's important to remember, however, is that these travesties aren't just isolated incidents—they might be much closer to home than you think.

1. Both areas were in dire emergency long before official declarations

Flint: Local and state-level declarations of emergency were made by Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder in December 2015 and January, respectively. However, the problem started way back in April 2014, when an unelected state official switched the city’s main water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money. On Jan. 16, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint. Such a declaration allocates up to $5 million in federal funds to the city. It also authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to galvanize supplies and distribute water bottles, filters and other supplies.

Porter Ranch: Compared to poverty-stricken Flint, government action has been noticeably faster for the affluent Los Angeles neighborhood. Following months of pressure from activists and residents, California Gov. Jerry Brown issued a state of emergency on Jan. 6 over the gas leak—the biggest in U.S. history—that has spewed 86,000 metric tons of methane and counting into the atmosphere since Oct. 23, when the leak was first reported. The order means “all necessary and viable actions” will be taken to stop the leak and ensure that the Southern California Gas Company (SoCal Gas), which owns the leaking natural gas injection well, is held accountable for the damage. A federal state of emergency has yet to be declared.

2. Environmental contamination and noxious greenhouse gases spell trouble for the planet

Flint: Research has found that the water in the Flint River is 19 times more corrosive than Lake Huron’s water, causing the city's aging pipes to degrade and leach lead into the water. Water samples indicated an average lead concentration level of 2,000 ppb (parts per billion) with the the highest level recorded at 13,200 ppb, The Guardian reported, putting lead levels 200-1,300 times higher than the World Health Organization standards of 10ppb. When used for irrigation, lead-contaminated water can cause toxicity levels in garden and urban soil and cause poisoning if it enters the food chain through fruits and vegetables.

Porter Ranch: The leak, deemed the worst environmental disaster since the BP oil spill, has since spread across the Los Angeles San Fernando Valley, according to new research from Cambridge-based nonprofit, Home Energy Efficiency Team. The Los Angeles Times reported that "the leak is so large it will measurably set back not just the city’s but the entire state’s greenhouse gas emission targets, effectively erasing nearly a decade’s worth of statewide emission reductions." Methane is a dangerous greenhouse gas that accelerates climate change.

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3. Many people, especially children, have suffered from health problems

Flint: Lead, which has no safe blood level, has been entering the city's drinking water through corroded pipes and plumbing materials. Exposure to this toxic metal is considered most harmful to children and fetuses because they absorb lead more easily than adults. Lead can damage people's kidneys, blood, and nervous system and progress to coma, convulsions or death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 27,000 Flint children have been exposed to lead in the city’s water, according to The Detroit News. Additionally, 87 people have been diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease. Ten of those who were sickened have died.

Porter Ranch: More than 2,500 families have fled their homes and more than 1,000 children have been relocated to other schools. Residents reported symptoms related to the exposure of natural gas such as nausea, vomiting, headaches and respiratory problems. Not only that, a Los Angeles city councilman called on SoCal Gas last week to extend residential relocation assistance to residents in Granada Hills, Chatsworth and Northridge who live near the Aliso Canyon gas leak above Porter Ranch. Even pets are suffering from ailments similar to their owners, such as nose bleeds, nausea and rashes, ABC 7 reported. As residents flee, businesses in the neighborhood are also struggling to stay open.

4. A disaster in the making. Lawmakers and utilities, now facing mounting lawsuits, ignored aging infrastructure

Flint: "The fact is," as LA Progressive wrote, "that the pipes conducting water from the Flint River are and have long been highly corrosive and have been leaching lead into the city’s potable water system. Pipes to each home and business, including sink and shower faucets, have been directly affected through both negligence and lack of regular maintenance by the city authorities." On Tuesday, amid calls for resignation and a growing number of lawsuits, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized and admitted that he failed Flint residents. According to emails released to the public on Wednesday, Snyder was informed of Flint's water quality issues in as early as February 2015 but his administration said the problems would eventually “fade in the rearview.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also acknowledged on Tuesday it did not respond fast enough to the water crisis.

Porter Ranch: Similarly, California's aging pipeline infrastructure and poorly managed storage facilities have been put under the microscope. "The gas leak comes from a broken well that was last inspected in 1976," as Earthworks observed. "The LA Weekly reports that the well’s safety valve was inexplicably removed in 1979." SoCal Gas now faces a class-action lawsuit alleging that the gas company removed safety valves on Aliso Canyon gas storage wells that lead to the massive methane leak.

5. The disasters in Flint and Porter Ranch could easily happen to your city

Beyond Flint: Think your water is safe to drink? A Vox report stated that "children in essentially every city in America are being exposed to hazardous levels of toxic lead, and very little is being done about it." And if lead contamination isn't bad enough, "a 2009 New York Times investigation found that more than 62 million Americans had been exposed to drinking water that did not meet some government health guidelines," as PRI observed. "A 2011 analysis by Environmental Working Group found that more than 100 million people in 43 states were drinking water contaminated with trihalomethanes—a dangerous chemical that’s the byproduct of a chlorine reaction."

Beyond Porter Ranch: While Porter Ranch has everyone's attention, natural gas leaks are persistent and widespread across the country. A team from Environmental Defense Fund found an average of about one natural gas leak for every mile driven in New York City’s Staten Island, one leak for every 200 miles in Indianapolis and one leak for every three miles in Chicago. “Events of this size are rare, but major leakage across the oil and gas supply chain is not,” Director of Environmental Defense Fund’s California Oil & Gas program Tim O’Connor said in a statement. “There are plenty of mini-Aliso Canyons that add up to a big climate problem—not just in California, but across the country.”

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Sustainable t-shirts by Allbirds are made from a new, low-carbon material that uses a mineral extract from discarded snow crab shells. Jerry Buttles / Allbirds

In the age of consumption, sustainability innovations can help shift cultural habits and protect dwindling natural resources. Improvements in source materials, product durability and end-of-life disposal procedures can create consumer products that are better for the Earth throughout their lifecycles. Three recent advancements hope to make a difference.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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