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Big Coal and Oil Play Dirty but EPA Keeps It Clean

Insights + Opinion
Big Coal and Oil Play Dirty but EPA Keeps It Clean

Phil Radford

Starting today, we can begin to breathe, eat and drink a bit easier. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) begins enforcement of the Mercury and Air Toxics standard, a 20-year-old mandate that set limits on mercury emissions from coal and oil-fired power plants.

These safeguards are not for show. They reflect a raft of highly credible research proving that mercury, along with other toxic metals including arsenic, chromium and nickel, is spewed in to the air as an insidious byproduct of fossil fuel burning. These metals contaminate waterways, where they infuse the bodies of commercial fish and seafood. It's no surprise that women of childbearing age are urged not to eat salmon and shrimp. High accumulated mercury levels in these and other frequently consumed species can be devastating to the unborn and infants.

That reality gave this effort tremendous momentum—a record-breaking 500,000 Americans reached out to the U.S. EPA in support of the standard, reinforcing the notion that we'd rather have healthy moms and babies than antiquated power plants raining contaminants down on our communities. We salute President Obama and U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson for standing fast against the antiquated interests of Big Coal and Big Oil in order to make this ruling a reality.

Unsurprising, however, has been the utility industry's prolonged, expensive campaign of misinformation— millions of dollars and countless lobbying hours spent trying to convince legislators, and thus the American public, that a little mercury mutating a developing human nervous system was no big deal.

Some utility companies, along with members of Congress swimming in their campaign contributions, made heel-dragging on this issue an art. Their lobbyists are understandably upset, but we're happy to treat them to a seafood dinner if that assuages their grief.

The barrage of tiresome talking points from Republican and industry opposition about how this epitomizes big government's job-killing intrusion on free enterprise is already underway, but let's be as clear as the forthcoming air:

• This rule will save lives. According to the U.S. EPA, the rule will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 asthma attacks each year, as well as almost 3,000 cases of chronic bronchitis yearly. Emergency room visits will drop by almost 6,000.

• This rule will protect the environment. In 2008, nearly half of all U.S. river-miles and lake-acres were under water contamination advisories. The vast majority of this contamination was due to mercury, including 100 percent of the Great Lakes. Over time, just one gram of mercury per year will contaminate a 20-acre lake.

• This rule will create jobs and boost productivity. EPA estimates that this rule will lead to 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs. Currently only 17 states have established mercury emissions limits on coal plants. That's far from adequate, especially since the states with the largest volume of mercury emissions do not have emissions limits. In addition, we'll avoid 540,000 sick days each year, enhancing productivity while lowering health care costs.

The downside for fossil fuel facilities is negligible at best. A mere eight percent of our nation's coal-generation capability will be taken offline in the years ahead—decrepit, 30-to-50-year-old power plants that even utility companies agree need to be modernized or shut down outright as they have become too costly to upgrade or maintain, let alone operate.

So, let's take a well-deserved deep breath and celebrate the fact that regard for a nation's health and well-being has won out over the interests of a few backward-thinking bribe recipients who don't lose sleep over causing cancer and birth defects.

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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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