Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency Saturday after a leak at a wastewater pond posed a major flooding threat and prompted more than 300 homes to be evacuated.
Officials said that water pouring out too quickly posed the greatest risk. The latest projection shows that 340 million gallons of wastewater could rush out within minutes, potentially creating a wall of water 20 feet high.
"What we are looking at now is trying to prevent and respond to, if need be, a real catastrophic flood situation," DeSantis said at a press conference, The AP reported on Sunday.
Officials first detected the leak on Friday in a Piney Point reservoir pond located in the Tampa Bay area. The pond is 33 hectares and 25 feet deep and contains millions of gallons of water contaminated with phosphorus and nitrogen from an old phosphate plant, The AP reported on Saturday. This led the Manatee County Public Safety Department to send out two evacuation notices Friday evening warning of an "imminent uncontrolled release of wastewater," WFLA 8 reported.
A total of 316 homes were impacted by the evacuation orders, The AP reported. To prevent flooding, officials are now pumping water out of the reservoir at a rate of 22,000 gallons per minute and transferring it to Port Manatee. Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes said that they were hoping to increase that rate with more workers, and that the risk of collapse should decrease by Tuesday.
The water contained in the wastewater pond is not radioactive and "meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen," The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said, according to NPR. "It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern."
However, officials are worried that a collapse of the leaking pond could destabilize other nearby ponds that are more polluted.
"The pond is basically salt water. We saw ducks yesterday, there are snooks swimming in there. It's sustaining wildlife. That's not the case for the other two pools," Hopes told The AP on Saturday.
The ponds are located amidst a stack of phosphogypsum, the radioactive waste from processing phosphate ore into phosphoric acid for fertilizer, and the incident calls attention to the problems of storing this waste.
"This environmental disaster is made worse by the fact it was entirely foreseeable and preventable," Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release. "With 24 more phosphogypsum stacks storing more than one billion tons of this dangerous, radioactive waste in Florida, the EPA needs to step in right now. Federal officials need to clean up this mess the fertilizer industry has dumped on Florida communities and immediately halt further phosphogypsum production."
Phosphogypsum contains radium-226, which has a half life of 1,600 years. The waste product can also contain toxins such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Its storage is an ongoing problem for Florida and other states. In 2004, a breach at a stack in Riverview, Florida, sent millions of gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. In 2016, a sinkhole opened beneath a different phosphogypsum site and contaminated an aquifer with 215 million gallons of waste. Meanwhile, in Louisiana, a stack began to shift in 2019, prompting emergency action. There are also phosphogypsum stacks in Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
"Phosphogypsum stacks are getting bigger and more dangerous by the minute, and Piney Point's fate could befall them all," Environmental Attorney Rachael Curran said in the press release. "We need real solutions that start with halting the addition of any phosphogypsum and process water to active stacks so that we can deal with the problem we already have. Underground injection control wells or building radioactive roads out of phosphogypsum are dangerous, unacceptable distractions."
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Despite public resistance, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to ban the possession and breeding of 16 high-risk invasive species.
The new ruling, approved late last month, includes Burmese pythons, Argentine black and white tegus, green iguanas and 13 other high-risk, non-native snakes and lizards which "pose a threat to Florida's ecology, economy, and human health and safety," the FWC wrote in a statement.
So far, environmental groups have celebrated the decision, saying it will help protect Florida's natural ecosystems, waterways and native species, while exotic pet owners and breeders who benefit from the state's profitable animal trade have condemned it.
More than 500 non-native species have been reported in Florida, 80 percent of which have been introduced through live animal trades, the FWC wrote. When these same animals are released into the wild, they reproduce and ultimately out-compete native species.
"I'm very sensitive to the people in the pet trade and enthusiasts. But this action is a result of the invasive species that continue to get into the wild," FWC Commissioner Robert Spottswood said in a statement about the ruling. "We have so many of these species now: pythons, tegus, iguanas. These animals are doing lots of damage and we are incumbent to do something."
The public hearing lasted four hours and included more than 80 people from across the country, many of whom called in to oppose the rule, The Washington Post reported. Some exotic pet owners expressed concern over losing pets they considered family members.
"If you take them away, "I would be really messed up," said one caller who owns pythons and iguanas, according to the Washington Post.
The green iguana, first spotted in Florida in 1960 and deemed an "exotic curiosity," is now considered an environmental threat that carries salmonella, enters sewers and digs up sea walls, The Guardian reported. The FWC is now encouraging locals to humanely kill iguanas found on their property in order to prevent them from causing further ecological damage, The Guardian added.
The ban will not require current owners to get rid of their pets as long as owners meet new compliance rules. It also gives businesses three years to "get rid of their breeding stock," The Washington Post reported.
Business owner Eugene Bessette, who started his Central Florida python business, Ophiological Services, more than 40 years ago, assumes the ban will result in illegal trade. This will only accelerate the invasive species problem. "If people want something, they're going to find a way to get it," Bessette told The Washington Post.
But the ban could also stop less responsible pet owners from releasing non-native reptiles into the state, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board wrote. "While the move feels at least 20 years too late for some of the damaging reptiles like the Burmese python, it's better than nothing."
The python, which can grow to be more than 15 feet long, is responsible for wreaking ecological havoc across the Everglades, the editorial board wrote. In a 2012 study, researchers found raccoon populations had dropped 99.3 percent, opossums 98.9 percent and bobcats 87.5 percent since 1997, while marsh rabbits, cottontail rabbits and foxes had disappeared. The wildlife populations that had declined the most were also the ones most commonly found in the stomachs of Burmese pythons that had been removed from Everglades National Park, the USGS reported.
Environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Florida and the Everglades Coalition, have praised the recent ban for what it could mean for Florida's communities and iconic ecosystems.
"The Nature Conservancy supports proposed rule changes to address the threat of nonnative species and looks forward to working with the FWC toward solutions that could further protect Florida's environment, human health and safety, and economy," said Greg Knecht, the Florida chapter's deputy director of the Nature Conservancy, according to the FWC.
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The sprawling size and sunny days of Texas make it one of the top states for solar energy. If you live in the Lone Star State and are interested in switching to a solar energy system, you may be wondering: What's the average solar panel cost in Texas?
In this article, we'll discuss the cost of solar panels in Texas, what factors affect pricing, Texas' solar incentives and more. Of course, the only way to know for sure how much you would pay to install a solar panel system on your roof is to receive a free, no-obligation quote from a top solar company near you. You can get started by filling out the quick form below.
How Much Do Solar Panels Cost in Texas?
Thanks to the growing investment in renewable energy technology statewide, homeowners now enjoy a below-average cost of solar in Texas. Based on market research and data from top brands, we've found the average cost of solar panels in Texas to be $2.69 per watt. This means a 5-kW system would cost around $9,953 after the federal solar tax credit. This is especially valuable when you take into account the unpredictable Texas energy rates.
Here's how that average calculates into the cost of the most common sizes of home solar panel systems:
|Size of Solar Panel System||Texas Solar Panel Cost||Cost After Federal Tax Credit|
Though this data reflects the statewide averages, you'll need to contact a solar installer near you to get an accurate quote for your home. Savvy customers will get free quotes from multiple companies and compare them to the state averages to make sure they receive the best value possible. Bear in mind that the biggest providers of solar won't always have the best prices.
What Determines the Cost of Solar Panels in Texas?
The main factor determining the cost of solar panel installations in Texas is the homeowner's energy needs. No two homes are the same, and installation costs will look far different for a home needing a basic 5kW system and a home needing 10kW with backup power capabilities. The solar financing and installation company a homeowner chooses will also affect a customer's overall solar costs in Texas. Here's how each factor comes into play:
Similar to phones, cars and other technology, solar products and system costs vary greatly based on their quality, scale and included features. Some customers may be satisfied with a modest array of affordable solar panels and inverters, while others may opt for a system with premium panels, full-home backup power and cutting-edge energy monitoring technology.
The overall cost of solar depends significantly on how a customer chooses to finance their system. The three most common solar financing options include paying in cash, taking out a solar loan and solar leasing.
- The most economical way to purchase solar, an upfront cash purchase provides the best long-term return on investment and the lowest overall cost.
- Customers can choose to take out a solar loan to purchase the system outright and make monthly payments to repay the loan. The typical payback period for a solar loan averages around 10 years. Systems purchased with a loan are still eligible for the federal solar tax credit.
- Signing a solar lease or power purchase agreement (PPA) allows a solar customer to rent solar panels from a company or third party. Though requiring the least amount of money upfront, solar leases provide the least amount of overall value. Also, solar leases aren't eligible for the federal tax credit, as the homeowner doesn't actually own the system.
Solar Installation Company
Texas has seen some of the strongest solar energy market growth over the last few years, and the SEIA reports that there are now nearly 600 solar companies based in Texas, and each is looking to expand its market share.
Price ranges can differ significantly based on the installer. Larger solar providers like Sunrun offer the advantage of solar leases and quick installations. Local providers, on the other hand, provide more personalization and competitive prices to undercut the biggest national companies.
Because of this, it's wise to get quotes from a few local and national installers and compare rates — because of the stiff competition between companies, you could end up saving several thousand dollars.
Texas Solar Incentives
For the most part, Texas taxes are administered by local governments. As a result, the state doesn't offer a large number of statewide solar-related policies, and incentives will depend more on the locality in which you live.
However, all homeowners in the state remain eligible for the federal solar tax credit, and there are some statewide local property tax exemptions for both photovoltaic solar and wind-powered renewable energy systems. Let's walk through how to find what incentives are available to you.
Federal Solar Tax Credit
All Texans can claim the federal solar investment tax credit, or ITC, for PV solar panels and energy storage systems. By claiming the ITC on your tax returns, the policy allows you to deduct 26% of the total cost of the solar system from the taxes you owe the federal government.
The tax credit is available to both residential and commercial system owners who have installed solar panels at any point since 2006. The credit is worth 26% through the end of 2022 and will drop to 22% in 2023. It is set to expire at the end of 2023 unless congress extends it.
Net Metering Policies in Texas
Net metering programs allow customers to sell unused solar energy back to their local utility company in exchange for credits that can be cashed in when panels aren't producing energy. Due to the energy bill savings, this incentive can greatly reduce the solar investment payback period.
As is true with most of Texas' solar rebates and incentives, there is not one net metering program that is offered throughout the entire state. Rather, your eligibility will depend on the policy of your local utility company or municipality. Most utilities in the state have a net metering policy, including American Electric Power (AEP), CPS Energy, Green Mountain Energy, El Paso Electric, TXU Energy in Dallas and more.
The rate at which your local utility will compensate for this excess energy will depend on your local policy, so we encourage you to look into the policy offered by your utility company.
Local Solar Rebates in Texas
In addition to identifying your local net metering program, look into any local rebates available to you. Homeowners who live in the top cities for solar in Texas, like Austin, San Marcos or Sunset Valley might have more luck than customers in other areas. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency has a full list of local rebates, solar loan programs and more.
FAQ: Solar Panel Cost Texas
Is it worth going solar in Texas?
Long, sunny days and below-average solar installation costs make Texas one of the best states in the U.S. for generating energy with solar panels. The ample sunshine provides more than enough energy for most families, serving up huge benefits to homes in Texas equipped with solar panels.
How much does it cost to install solar panels in Texas?
As of 2021, the average cost of solar panels in Texas is $2.69 per watt. This means a 5-kW system would cost around $9,953 after the federal solar tax credit. This is slightly below the national average due to the resource availability in Texas, current energy costs and the state's available sunlight. The best way to assess how much solar would cost you is to consult local providers near you for a free estimate.
Do solar panels increase home value in Texas?
Solar panels increase home value everywhere, but mostly in areas with generous net metering policies and solar rebates. As such, the proportion at which solar panels increase home value in Texas corresponds with the areas with the most solar-friendly policies.
How much do solar panels cost for a 2,500 sq foot house?
Though knowing the size of a house is helpful in determining how many solar panels could fit on its roof, the energy use of the house is the more important factor in determining solar panel cost in Texas. The higher your energy use, the greater your solar needs will be.
Karsten Neumeister is a writer and renewable energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on renewable energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.
"How America's most endangered cat could help save Florida."
As its headline promises, National Geographic's latest feature on the endangered Florida panther explores the unspoken, symbiotic relationship between the big cats and the humans they must coexist with. The article also showcases intimate, rare photographs of the panthers, which took five years to capture.
According to the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Florida panthers are actually a subspecies of mountain lion — the only one remaining in the Eastern U.S. They're also known as pumas and cougars. The subspecies' historic range once extended from Florida to Louisiana throughout the Gulf Coast states, and even Arkansas, NWF reported. Today, wild Florida panthers can only be found in southwestern Florida.
Hunting decimated the population, and the species was among the first to be added to the U.S. endangered species list in 1973, with fewer than 30 individuals remaining, according to the National Geographic article. Habitat loss compounded the issue. With such a small population, inbreeding, which could lead to diseases and genetic malfunctions, was of particular concern. Journalist Douglas Main wrote the feature story, and he shared in a twitter thread how many people feared that Florida's panther had gone, or would soon go extinct, during that decade.
A massive conservation effort ensued, including bringing in eight Texas mountain lions to breed with the native Florida population in order to inject fresh genetic diversity into the population, Main said.
However, the subspecies is still so critically endangered that it remains vulnerable to "just about every major threat," NWF reported. Habitat loss is the biggest obstacle.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Florida panthers require large, contiguous areas of suitable land to live on. They are solitary and roam widely in order to meet their social, reproductive and energetic needs, FWS reported. Unfortunately, they are still restricted to less than five percent of their historical range, the report noted.
As more people move to Florida, continued development threatens the little remaining open land and panther habitat. For panthers, this is a huge challenge to recovery, and has increased cat-on-cat territorial spats and car collisions — the leading causes of death, National Geographic reported. About 25 Florida panthers are killed annually by vehicles, a devastating blow to a tiny population and "a reflection of how development and road construction threaten the species at a time when roughly 900 people are moving to Florida every day," the story detailed.
The conservation efforts worked to save the panther from the brink of extinction, but they're still very much at risk, said National Geographic Explorer Carlton Ward Jr. Ward is an eighth-generation Floridian and habitat protection advocate, as well as the photographer who spent five years capturing the panther images for the feature.
A male panther leaps over a creek at Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Florida. The rarely seen cats, which number only around 200, are reclaiming territory north of the Everglades, but their habitat is threatened by encroaching suburban sprawl. Carlton Ward, Jr.
For Ward, it became an obsession to document the elusive, endangered cats, and the pictures reflect that. "The lead image for the story, a panther jumping across a log around a flooded section of swamp, that picture took two years to capture," he admitted.
For five years, Ward set up state-of-the-art camera traps throughout the Florida woods and swamps. He shared with EcoWatch what he learned about the need to continue balancing Florida's tremendous population growth with conserving the iconic species.
"We need to cultivate a culture of coexistence," Ward said. "If the panther goes extinct, I will be worried about all the other wildlife and people in Florida, because it means we will have missed the opportunity we have now to conserve enough land to ensure balance between wildlife and people."
Today, the panther population has grown to roughly 200, and Ward's photos show that the cats are moving northward to reclaim old territories. This is critical, because northward expansion is the only path for long-term survival, Main wrote in National Geographic.
"The southern tip of Florida is not enough land to sustain a genetically viable, resilient population of panthers," Ward told EcoWatch. "The cats can only continue moving north if the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a patchwork of public and private lands that run through the state, is preserved. The Florida Wildlife Corridor is the lifeline and path of recovery for panthers."
Yet this requires the participation of landowners and ranchers, who need more conservation funding to prevent their open spaces from becoming subdivisions, parking lots and roads, Main explained in the story. Conservation easements use up development rights while allowing the owners to continue farming and ranching, Main said.
"The land is still there. We have a moment right now where we can choose to conserve," Ward told EcoWatch. "Hundreds of landowners are open to conservation as an alternative to development. They're waiting for conservation easements or to sell their land for national parks. We need to meet this opportunity."
Wildlife veterinarian Lara Cusack handles more kittens belonging to FP224. These young cats were measured and given immunity boosters while their mother was hunting away from the den. When panthers have space and protected habitats, their populations can grow. Only about one in three Florida panther kittens survives to adulthood. Carlton Ward Jr. / National Geographic Society
Landowners and ranchers, who were traditionally pitted against panthers when their cattle were eaten, will also benefit from increased protections for the cats. "On the Endangered Species Act, do you see 'cowboy' or 'rancher' written on it? No, but we benefit from the protections afforded the panther," Main quoted Florida rancher Elton Langford. "Both share a common enemy: Development," Main wrote.
People with multi-generational connections to the land share something in common with a species that's lived there for 20,000 years, Ward said. Both need the land to remain intact and open.
"There is common ground and common threat and common opportunity," Ward concluded. "That's where I feel the most hope — in how much common ground there is in saving a species, helping sustain a way of life and in sustaining the headwaters of the Everglades and the water supply. The panther is a great icon for everyone to conserve all of this."
For more on this story, visit National Geographic. The story appears in print in National Geographic's April 2021 issue.
"Return of the Florida Panther" is featured in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic. National Geographic Society
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By Larry Brand
Millions of gallons of water laced with fertilizer ingredients are being pumped into Florida's Tampa Bay from a leaking reservoir at an abandoned phosphate plant at Piney Point. As the water spreads into the bay, it carries phosphorus and nitrogen – nutrients that under the right conditions can fuel dangerous algae blooms that can suffocate sea grass beds and kill fish, dolphins and manatees.
It's the kind of risk no one wants to see, but officials believed the other options were worse.
About 300 homes sit downstream from the 480-million-gallon reservoir, which began leaking in late March 2021. State officials determined that pumping out the water was the only way to prevent the reservoir's walls from collapsing. They decided the safest location for all that water would be out through Port Manatee and into the bay.
Florida's coast is dotted with fragile marine sanctuaries and sea grass beds that help nurture the state's thriving marine and tourism economy. Those near Port Manatee now face a risk of algal blooms over the next few weeks. Once algae blooms get started, little can be done to clean them up.
The phosphate mining industry around Tampa is just one source of nutrients that can fuel dangerous algae blooms, which I study as a marine biologist. The sugarcane industry, cattle ranches, dairy farms and citrus groves all release nutrients that often flow into rivers and eventually into bays and the ocean. Sewage is another problem – Miami and Fort Lauderdale, for example, have old sewage treatment systems with frequent pipe breaks that leak sewage into canals and coastal waters.
Red tide in recent years has killed large numbers of Florida's manatees, a threatened species. David Hinkel/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The Problem With Algae Blooms
Just down the coast from Port Manatee, the next three counties to the south have had algae blooms in recent weeks, including red tide, which produces a neurotoxin that feels like pepper spray if you breathe it in. Karenia brevis, a dinoflagellate, is the organism in red tide and produces the toxin.
This part of Florida's Gulf Coast is a hot spot for red tide, often fueled by agricultural runoff. A persistent red tide in 2017 and 2018 killed at least 177 manatees and left a trail of dead fish along the coast and into Tampa Bay. If the coastal currents carry today's red tide father north and into Tampa Bay, the toxic algae could thrive on the nutrients from Piney Point.
A map shows red tide reports just south of Tampa Bay. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Even blooms that are not toxic are still dangerous to ecosystems. They cloud the water, cutting off light and killing the plants below. A large enough bloom can also reduce oxygen in the water. A lack of oxygen can kill off everything in the water, including the fish.
This part of Florida has extensive sea grass meadows, about 2.2 million acres (8.9 billion square meters) in all, which are important habitat for lots of species and serve as nurseries for shrimp, crabs and fish. Scientists have argued that sea grass is also a major carbon sink – the grass sucks up carbon and pumps it down into the sediments.
Once the nutrients are in a large body of water, there isn't much that can be done to stop algae growth. Killing the algae would only release the nutrients again, putting the bay back where it started. Algae blooms can remain a problem for years, finally declining when a predator population develops to eats them, a viral disease spreads through the bloom or strong currents and mixing disperse the bloom.
Agriculture Runoff Poses Risks to Marine Life
The phosphate mining industry around Tampa is a large source of nutrient-rich waste. On average, more than 5 tons of phosphogypsum waste are produced for every ton of phosphoric acid created for fertilizer. In Florida, that adds up to over 1 billion tons of radioactive waste material that can't be used, so it's stacked up and turned into reservoirs like the one now leaking at Piney Point.
The reservoirs are obvious in satellite photos of the region, and they can be highly acidic. To get the phosphate out of the minerals, the industry uses sulfuric acid, and it leaves behind a highly acid wastewater. There have been at least two cases where it ate through the limestone below a reservoir, creating huge sinkholes hundreds of feet deep and draining wastewater into the aquifer.
Since saltwater had previously been pumped into the Piney Point reservoir, acidity is less of an issue. That's because the seawater would buffer the pH. There is some radioactivity, but only slightly above regulatory standards, according to state Department of Environmental Protection, and probably not much of a health hazard.
But the nutrients are a risk. In 2004, water releases from the Piney Point reservoir contributed to an algae bloom in Bishop Harbor, just south of the current release site. In 2011, it released over 170 million gallons into Bishop Harbor again after a liner broke.
Piney Point: Florida's Leaking Reservoir
Map: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND
Another significant source of algae-feeding nutrients is agriculture, particularly cattle ranching and the sugarcane industry. Nutrient runoff from cattle ranches and dairy farms north of Lake Okeechobee end up in the lake. South of the lake, much of the northern third of the Everglades was converted to sugarcane farms, and those fields back-pumped runoff into the lake for decades until the state started cracking down in the 1980s. Their legacy nutrients are still in the lake.
The nutrient-rich water in the lake then pours down the Caloosahatchee River and into the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers, south of Tampa. That's likely feeding the current red tide off the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River.
When water from the Everglades region's agriculture is pumped south instead, huge blooms tend to appear in Florida Bay at the southern tip of the state. Some scientists believe it may be damaging coral reefs there, though there's debate about it. During times that flow of water from the farms increased, reefs throughout the Florida Keys have been harmed. Those reefs have become overgrown with algae.
With the current red tide, the coastal currents have carried it north as far as Sarasota already. If they carry it farther north, it will run into the Piney Point area.
Larry Brand is a Professor of Marine Biology and Ecology, University of Miami.
Disclosure statement: Larry Brand has received funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, National Park Service, Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Health, Dade County Department of Environmental Resources Management, Cove Point Foundation, and Hoover Foundation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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The first few months of 2021 have been extremely deadly for manatees as food sources in Florida have become increasingly limited, scientists say.
In the first six weeks of the new year, 317 manatee deaths were reported across Florida, CBSMiami reported. Since then, that number has risen to at least 432 deaths — about three times the normal amount of deaths in the state by this time of year, The Weather Channel reported. The five-year average for manatee deaths is 578.
"This is the worst that I've ever seen," Phil Stasik, who witnessed 13 manatee carcasses washed up on the shore of the Indian River Lagoon in Merritt Island while kayaking, said in an e-mail to Florida Today, according to The Weather Channel.
Due to limitations from the COVID-19 pandemic, the state has struggled to maintain its manatee research, usually performing necroscopies on as many manatees as possible. But over two-thirds of manatee carcasses this year have gone unrecovered, according to The Weather Channel. Until recently, this has left scientists without answers. But recent information shows that a combination of environmental conditions and human impacts may explain the tragic event, The Weather Channel reported.
"Preliminary information indicates that a reduction in food availability is a contributing factor," the FWC wrote in a statement. "While the investigation is ongoing, initial assessments indicate the high number of emaciated manatees is likely due to a decline in food availability. Seagrass and macro algae coverage in this region and specifically in the Indian River Lagoon has declined significantly."
Manatees gather in warm locales of water, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. They then will swim to colder areas to feed on seagrass. The problem, however, is that seagrass is increasingly limited in these cold locales, forcing the manatees to swim back, hungry and malnourished.
"A manatee will choose starvation over freezing to death," Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
But limited food sources are not the only explanation for the manatee die-off. "It's this combination we have of cold weather, we have a reduction of where manatees can go, and in the places where manatees can go, as a consequence of human development and other activities, we have poor water quality which has resulted in these grass die-offs," Lopez added, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Sewage spills and contaminated water canals have caused this decline in seagrass, according to Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.
In 1973, manatees were listed as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act and only a few hundred remained. But after a dramatic recovery in 2017, where an estimated 6,620 manatees were swimming in Florida, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved the species down to "threatened," spurring controversy, The Washington Post reported.
One group that fought the decision was the Save the Manatee Club, arguing it was premature as there were no plans to reduce watercraft-related manatee deaths, The Washington Post reported, which account for 20 percent of human-caused manatee deaths and are an ongoing risk to the manatee population in Florida, The Center for Biological Diversity wrote.
Despite this year's massive die-off, the FWC still expects the manatee population in Florida to stand at about 7,000 — higher than what it was 30 years ago, according to the Orlando Sentinel. But as climate change-related events, like cold snaps, become more frequent, and the species' habitat becomes increasingly threatened by human activity and pollution, the manatee's future may be grim without further protections.
"As with all species, future resiliency is associated with population size and distribution, growth rate, health and habitat quality," the FWC wrote in a statement. "Together these factors will impact the ability of manatees to cope with future changes and are the focus of conservation work."
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When we think of the Super Bowl — America's most popular sporting event, according to Arcadia Publishing — ocean conservation and military veterans usually aren't top of mind. But, for the last two years, a unique collaboration ahead of the annual game has placed coral restoration at the forefront of the world's attention.
For almost 30 years, NFL Green, the NFL's environmental and sustainability program, has managed community greening initiatives for the sports league. Each season, these culminate with "Green Week" before the big event, with projects undertaken by the NFL and Super Bowl Host Committee benefitting each host community, explained NFL Green Associate Director Susan Groh.
"The goal of NFL Green is to reduce the environmental impact of our events and to go well beyond that to leave a positive green legacy," Groh told EcoWatch. Efforts include recovering food, recycling and waste management, donating used event and building materials and offsetting energy for events.
This green legacy has also included a touch of blue in the last two years, meaning conservation efforts focused on the waters of host cities Miami in 2020 and now Tampa in 2021. Miami Green Week activities for Super Bowl LIV entailed planting 100 endangered staghorn corals in Biscayne Bay in honor of the NFL's 100th season, Groh said.
In the past year, the effort expanded to "100 Yards of Hope," a football field-sized coral restoration project. The end zones and center of the field-sized reef were placed in fall 2020, followed by divers planting thousands of staghorn and mountainous star corals from The Florida Aquarium (FLAQ), the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science SECORE International and Frost Science, explained FLAQ Senior Vice President of Conservation Debborah Luke.
Military veterans and coral scientists team up to outplant endangered corals as part of the NFL's 100 Yards of Hope. Force Blue
"This critically important project is helping to restore Florida's Coral Reef, the third-largest barrier reef in the world, which is in crisis," Luke told EcoWatch.
Florida's Coral Reef provides key nursery areas that support the oceanic ecosystem and protect coastlines from storms and erosion, Luke said. It also provides significant economic benefits by pumping $3.4 billion annually into the U.S. economy through jobs, tourism, seafood and medicine, NFL's Groh added.
"Over 90 percent of [the reef's] corals have died... restoration of Florida's Coral Reef is imperative if we are to continue reaping [its] benefits," Luke said.
100 Yards of Hope intends to reverse this trajectory on a single showcase reef, explained Dalton Hesley, a senior research associate at the Rosenstiel School, whose team spearheaded restoration efforts. This is the first large-scale restoration project to combine thousands of sexual and asexual multi-species coral transplants, along with disease tracking and mitigation, urchin relocation and high-resolution mapping. These actions all increase coral cover, diversity and recovery, Hesley noted.
"100 Yards of Hope is a symbol. It is a symbol of what passionate, hopeful individuals can accomplish when working towards a shared vision," Hesley told EcoWatch. "What started as a celebration of the NFL's 100th season has transformed into a fight for the future of our coral reef."
Last week, 150 elkhorn corals, another threatened coral species, were added to the field. The Rosenstiel School provided 55 of the endangered corals, in celebration of Super Bowl 55, this past weekend. FLAQ provided the remaining corals. A final planting of massive brain and star corals in the spring will complete 100 Yards of Hope, Groh said.
Military combat veterans from Force Blue assisted with the plantings. The nonprofit retrains and deploys former special operations veterans and military-trained combat divers to work alongside scientists and environmentalists on marine conservation work, explained Executive Director Jim Ritterhoff.
55 divers remove marine debris from Tampa Bay as part of the NFL's Green Week. Force Blue
"If we can do something good for veterans by giving them a new mission to save the planet and provide a highly skilled workforce to the scientific community, all the better," Ritterhoff said. "But, maybe the [touchdown] of it all is how this effort uses Navy SEALS and the NFL, people you don't traditionally see talking about conservation, to reach an audience who wouldn't necessarily pay attention to coral reef scientists. People listen because these guys are their heroes."
Noting that this is more of a world project than a local Florida project, Ritterhoff added, "I think it's imperative that everyone be cognizant of these issues. The Florida Coral Reef is a national treasure, and it could be 100 percent gone in our lifetime. If we don't behave differently, it will be gone."
NFL Green Week included planting the Reed Park community garden in Tampa Bay. Michael Farrant / Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee
In addition to the coral restoration efforts, NFL Green completed traditional community greening projects. These involved creating pollinator gardens, planting mangroves, restoring shoreline and adding sand dunes to prevent erosion and storm damage.
NFL Green also connected land and sea with an underwater cleanup called Dive 55 at the mouth of Tampa Bay. For this, Force Blue team leaders led 55 divers to retrieve more than 1.5 tons of waste, not limited to old fishing traps, rope, netting, plastics and beach debris, Groh said. Some of the recovered items will be used by local students to create art projects that will be displayed at FLAQ to increase marine debris awareness.
"It's all about leadership and legacy," Groh said. "Large events have an opportunity to not only offset the environmental impact of their events but to go well beyond that and leave the communities hosting events better than they found them. The world faces significant environmental challenges and it's going to take all of us to address them."
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The incident, first reported by the Citrus County Chronicle on Monday, prompted a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) investigation and outrage from conservationists and animal lovers. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is even offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to a conviction.
"Manatees aren't billboards, and people shouldn't be messing with these sensitive and imperiled animals for any reason," CBD Florida Director Jaclyn Lopez said in a statement emailed to EcoWatch. "However this political graffiti was put on this manatee, it's a crime to interfere with these creatures, which are protected under multiple federal laws."
Harassment of a manatee is a federal criminal offense punishable by a $50,000 fine and up to one year in prison.… https://t.co/BZzk19XBeu— Center for Bio Div (@Center for Bio Div)1610403235.0
The Florida manatee is a subspecies of the West Indian manatee, which was classified as an endangered species in 1973, according to The Washington Post, although their status has since been lowered to threatened. Currently, manatees are protected federally under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and on the state level under the Florida Manatee Sanctuary Act of 1978, The New York Times reported. Harassing a manatee carries a federal penalty of up to $50,000 and a year in jail, and a state penalty of up to $500 and 60 days in jail.
The affected manatee was first discovered in the Homosassa River in Citrus County by Hailey Warrington, a family boat charter operator, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported. Warrington said she saw the manatee while on a boat tour and took photos and a video to report the incident.
"This is just disturbing. One hundred percent disturbing," Warrington told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "It's something we don't see very often. When we do see it, it hurts our heart."
The USFWS said that the letters appear to have been etched in algae and that the animal was not seriously harmed. Warrington claimed that while the etching reached the skin, it did not appear to leave a wound. The animal seemed healthy, but stressed.
Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative for the Defenders of Wildlife, told The Washington Post that the perpetrator either had to restrain the manatee to write the message, or the manatee was so used to humans that it allowed the action.
There are more than 6,300 West Indian manatees living in Florida, according to the USFWS. While that number has increased significantly in the last 25 years, the animals still face threats from habitat loss and boat collisions. About 100 manatees die every year from boat strikes, according to The Washington Post, accounting for 20 percent of total manatee deaths.
For Elizabeth Neville, Defenders of Wildlife senior Gulf Coast representative, the harassment of this particular manatee is a striking example of politics impacting wildlife.
"The content of this manatee's mutilation, however, highlights a broader and darker truth: that wildlife, despite having no ability to vote or otherwise participate in our political systems, exist and suffer profoundly at the mercy of human politics," she said in a statement.
"Based on the choice of the word carved in the manatee's flesh, one can only assume that this act of mutilation was politically motivated. But, this is far from the only scar borne by manatees due to politicians' destructive choices. Other scars include policies that favor unsustainable development and polluting industries, hamper communities' abilities to address plastic trash in our waters and impede progress on fighting climate change."
Anyone with information about the incident should contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 888-404-3922, the Citrus County Chronicle shared.
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Hurricane Larry formed early Thursday, NOLA.com reported. It currently has maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour, according to an 11 a.m. Atlantic Standard Time (AST) update from the National Hurricane Center (NHC), making it a Category 1 storm for now.
"Steady to rapid strengthening is forecast during the next couple of days, and Larry is expected to become a major hurricane by Friday night," NHC wrote.
Further, the NHC predicted that it could reach wind speeds of 130 miles per hour by Sunday night, making it a Category 4 storm, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported.
Larry first became a hurricane around 5 a.m. AST, according to the NHC. At the time, it had winds of up to 75 miles per hour. Within six hours, it had gotten "larger and a bit stronger," NHC said.
Hurricane #Larry Advisory 8: Larry is Larger and a Bit Stronger. Steady to Rapid Intensification Likely in the Comi… https://t.co/MErb5lWNRh— National Hurricane Center (@National Hurricane Center) 1630593724.0
As of the most recent update, the storm is located about 660 miles west from the southernmost Cape Verde Islands. There are currently no coastal watches or warnings in effect, and NOLA.com reported that it does not immediately threaten any land.
However, the South Florida Sun Sentinel said that the forecast showed its path moving west and then northwest towards the Caribbean Sea through Sunday. Hurricane forecast maps can only predict a storm's movement five days out, but NHC said the storm could become one of the longest-running tropical systems on record.
At the same time, forecasters are tracking two low pressure areas, Orlando.com reported. One has a 20 percent chance of development over the next five days and is moving towards the Yucatán Peninsula. The other formed about 300 miles east-southeast of the southernmost Cabo Verde Islands. It has a 30 percent chance of development over the next two days.
11 AM EDT, Sep 2nd -- A Special Tropical Weather Outlook has been issued to introduce a new system ESE of the Cabo… https://t.co/rJbRDsAjzx— National Hurricane Center (@National Hurricane Center) 1630595953.0
The 2021 hurricane season was forecast to be more active than usual. In early August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) put the chances of an above average season at 65 percent.
"A mix of competing oceanic and atmospheric conditions generally favor above-average activity for the remainder of the Atlantic hurricane season, including the potential return of La Nina in the months ahead," Matthew Rosencrans, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, said at the time.
It is not clear whether the climate crisis is making hurricanes more frequent, according to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. However, it does increase the chances that the storms that do form will be more dangerous, as they are wetter, more intense and slower moving.
This was the case with Hurricane Ida, CNN noted.
"We've always had hurricanes, we've always had heat waves, we've always had floods and droughts, but what climate change is doing is loading the weather dice against us," Nature Conservancy chief scientist and Texas Tech University professor Katharine Hayhoe told CNN. "It's sneaking in when we're not looking, changing the numbers as we're rolling and asking what is this, how could this happen? The answer to that is climate change."
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By Theodore J. Kury
The good news when Hurricane Ida churned into Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2021 was that levees held up – especially those that were strengthened after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005. The bad news: In many places, power systems failed. Nearly five days later, more than 80% of New Orleans customers were still in the dark, in sweltering heat.
Electricity is critical for health, safety and comfort. Without it, it's hard to buy groceries, fuel your car or get cash from an ATM. Many medical devices, including power wheelchairs, ventilators and nebulizers, run on electricity. Schools can't operate without power, and kids can't attend class online without computers or electricity.
Dramatic images of damaged power lines can make people wonder whether their electricity service might be more secure if those lines were buried underground. But I've studied this question for utilities and regulators, and the answer is not straightforward. There are many ways to make power grids more resilient, but they are all costly, require the involvement of many agencies, businesses and power customers, and may not solve the problem.
It's Impossible to Completely Protect the Grid
Ideas for making the electricity grid more resilient to weather and disasters have to acknowledge two unpleasant realities. First, there is no way to completely protect the grid.
Above-ground lines are vulnerable to damaging winds, flying debris and falling trees. But underground lines are susceptible to damage from water incursion driven by storm surges or flooding. So, choosing the location of power lines means choosing which threat is more manageable.
Second, the public ultimately pays for maintaining the power grid, either via their electric bills or through taxes. The greatest responsibility facing utilities, their regulators and government agencies is ensuring that people receive benefits commensurate with the money they pay for their electricity service.
Deciding how to make the grid more resilient begins locally. In general, the best place to locate power lines depends on what type of damage is most likely in that area. If a region is more concerned with storm surge and flooding, the best choice may be locating power lines above ground, with regular tree trimming to keep branches from falling on power lines. Power poles made from resilient materials, such as fiberglass composites and concrete, can withstand damaging winds and flying debris better than traditional wooden poles.
Areas with little risk of storm surge and flooding may decide that underground power lines are the best choice, if the community is willing to accept the cost. No system is sustainable if customers aren't willing to pay for it. Differences in geography, population density, societal preferences and willingness to pay across a utility's service area – especially in a diverse city like New Orleans – mean that no blanket policy will work everywhere.
Ida outages: Over 15,000 still without power in NY, NJ days after deadly storm See the latest outage numbers: https://t.co/TDIhAFpTW7— PIX11 News (@PIX11 News) 1630663183.0
Working With Regulators
When an electric utility wants to make changes to the grid, it needs approval from a regulator. This can take many forms.
Municipal utilities owned by individual cities make those decisions at the local government level. Cooperative, or customer-owned, utilities make those decisions through an executive board comprised of utility customers. Investor-owned utilities, which serve the majority of the U.S. population, are regulated at the state level by public utility commissions. Any discussion of grid resilience starts and ends with these agencies.
The situation in New Orleans is especially complex. Through a history of bankruptcies and reorganizations, New Orleans is the only U.S. city that regulates an investor-owned utility when a state regulator performs the same function.
This means that power company Entergy's operations inside of New Orleans are regulated by the New Orleans City Council, while the company's actions elsewhere across the state are overseen by the Louisiana Public Service Commission. As a result, Entergy can have distinct rates, standards for service and regulatory objectives inside and outside of New Orleans. This system allows the New Orleans City Council to focus on issues that are important to the city, but it also makes the regulatory environment more complex.
The Trouble With Transmission
The electric transmission system has several sections. High-voltage transmission lines move power over long distances from generating plants to areas of high demand, such as cities. From there, distribution networks deliver electricity to neighborhoods and individual homes or buildings.
Hurricane Ida collapsed a transmission tower carrying high-voltage power lines in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, which is immediately west of New Orleans. This caused all eight transmission lines that supply power to the city and surrounding parishes to fail.
The US electricity grid has hundreds of thousands of miles of high-voltage power lines and millions of miles of low-voltage power lines. EIA
Hardening the transmission grid is more challenging than protecting distribution lines. Voltage is like the pressure that pushes water through a hose, so a high-voltage transmission line handles an intense flow, like a fire hose. Power is "stepped down" to lower voltages when it enters the distribution system, so the power moving through a distribution line is analogous to water flowing through a garden hose.
Burying transmission lines is technically feasible, and may be practical over short distances. But all power lines lose some of the electricity they carry as heat – and if this heat builds up, it ultimately restricts the line's ability to carry power over longer distances. Air effectively dissipates heat from above-ground lines, but buried lines are more vulnerable to heating.
Relocating transmission lines or building extra lines as backups may be the only options for strengthening the system in many places. But building new high-voltage power lines is challenging.
Many people are concerned about possible health risks from exposure to electromagnetic fields, which emanate from high-voltage lines. Regulatory agencies struggle with finding acceptable sites and allocating the costs of these projects.
Investment in the U.S. transmission system has increased over the past 15 years, but more is needed. The Grid Deployment Authority proposed in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would address some of the challenges of transmission line siting, but other hurdles will remain.
Whatever steps utilities take to harden the grid, there still are circumstances when the power will go out – especially during climate-driven disasters like wildfires and tropical storms. It's easier to talk about making the power grid more resilient soon after disasters, but the conversation needs to continue after power is restored. In my view, the only way to solve this challenge is by finding ways for utilities, regulators, businesses and customers to transparently discuss the most feasible ways to keep the lights on.
Theodore J. Kury is the Director of Energy Studies at the University of Florida.
Disclosure statement: Theodore Kury is the Director of Energy Studies at the University of Florida's Public Utility Research Center, which is sponsored in part by the Florida electric and gas utilities and the Florida Public Service Commission, none of which has editorial control of any of the content the Center produces.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
Rebekah Jones, the Florida data scientist who said she was fired in May after refusing to manipulate data on a widely praised coronavirus dashboard that she designed, had an even more dramatic encounter with the state government Monday when the police raided her Tallahassee home.
Jones said in a Twitter thread that police entered her home at 8:30 a.m., confiscated all of her computer hardware and technology and pointed guns at both her and her children.
"This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly," Jones tweeted. "This is what happens to people who speak truth to power."
Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Commissioner Rick Swearingen confirmed that the raid occurred in a statement reported by NBC6 South Florida. However, he denied that weapons were pointed at anyone during the incident. He said that agents knocked and called Jones, but that she hung up on them and refused to answer the door for 20 minutes.
In a video of the incident posted by Jones on Twitter, police officers appeared at the door with guns drawn and asked Jones who else was in the house, the Tallahassee Democrat reported. When she said her husband and children were inside, one agent entered the home with his gun still drawn and told her husband to come downstairs. At one point, an agent told Jones to calm down.
"He just pointed a gun at my children!" she responded.
1/ There will be no update today. At 8:30 am this morning, state police came into my house and took all my hardwa… https://t.co/GXDz5hd6Wh— Rebekah Jones (@Rebekah Jones)1607377881.0
The FDLE said they went to Jones's home to carry out a search warrant based on a complaint from the Department of Health (DOH), Jones' former employer.
"FDLE began an investigation November 10, 2020, after receiving a complaint from the Department of Health (DOH) regarding unauthorized access to a Department of Health messaging system which is part of an emergency alert system, to be used for emergencies only," FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said in a statement reported by the Tallahassee Democrat.
The case revolves around a message sent by an unidentified individual to the emergency alert system.
"It's time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead," the message read. "You know this is wrong. You don't have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it's too late."
AN FDLE investigator said he traced the message to an IP address linked to Jones' Comcast account. While an IP address shows where an internet connection was made, it does not prove Jones sent the message, tech experts told the Tallahassee Democrat.
Jones denied sending the message in an interview with CNN. She said she lost access to government accounts when she was fired and did not have the skills to hack into them. She also denied the phrasing and data in the message were hers.
"The number of deaths that the person used wasn't even right," Jones told CNN. "They were actually under by about 430 deaths. I would never round down 430 deaths."
Jones helped to design Florida's highly praised coronavirus database before being fired in May. She said her dismissal came because she had refused to alter data on the dashboard in order to bolster support for re-opening. The DOH claimed she was fired for insubordination.
After she was fired, she developed her own website that tracks Florida coronavirus data, according to CNN. It is operated by one of the computers seized Monday. Jones said the police also took flash drives that contained "proof that [state officials] were lying in January about things like internal reports and notices from the CDC" and "evidence of illegal activities by the state." She said she accessed the reports legally and received some from others after she left the DOH.DOH data shows that Florida has experienced a total of 1,065,785 coronavirus cases and 19,282 resident deaths. Jones' website, which was last updated Dec. 6, puts the totals at 1,153,415 cases and 19,423 deaths since March 1.
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By Jessica Corbett
Conservation advocacy groups on Tuesday responded with alarm and disappointment to the Biden administration's long-awaited new rule for protecting the endangered North Atlantic right whales from Maine to Florida.
"After four years of rule-making, it's disheartening that despite the legal obligation to be stewards of North Atlantic right whales and help them recover, the government has once again failed to take aggressive action," said Oceana campaign director Whitney Webber.
The U.S. government estimates there are fewer than 370 North Atlantic right whales left in the world. Webber highlighted that the species is "sliding closer toward extinction due to known, human-caused risks, including fishing gear entanglements."
"In February of this year, an 11-year-old male known as 'Cottontail' was found dead off South Carolina after being entangled in fishing gear for months," she said. "With only around 360 whales remaining, there is no room for shortsighted solutions. We can recover this species, but it will take meaningful, strong regulations to keep deaths below one per year — the level the National Marine Fisheries Service says is needed to support recovery."
The rule from the National Marine Fisheries Service — an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also known as NOAA Fisheries — amends the government's Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.
The plan aims to reduce deaths and serious injuries to North Atlantic right whales, fin whales, and humpback whales "in northeast commercial lobster and crab trap/pot fisheries to meet the goals of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act."
Since 2010, 34 right whales have died and 16 have been seriously injured, principally due to getting entangled in fishing gear or struck by vessels, according to NOAA Fisheries.
In a statement Tuesday, NOAA Fisheries detailed its new regulations that the agency expects will reduce the risk of death and injuries resulting from entanglement by 69%:
- Reducing the number of buoy lines (lines that link the fisherman's floating surface buoy to the pot or trap) in the water;
- Weakening the remaining lines so that whales can break free before becoming seriously injured; and
- Improving how fishing gear is marked so NOAA Fisheries and partners can better identify the type of fishing gear associated with entanglements when they do occur, thereby informing future risk reduction measures.
The required gear modifications will take effect May 1, 2022 — the start of the American lobster and Jonah crab fishing year — and changes to seasonally restricted areas will go into effect 30 days after the rule's publication.
"This rule represents years of work and collaboration on the part of fishermen, scientists, conservationists, and state and federal officials to develop strategies to reduce the dangers faced by North Atlantic right whales," said Janet Coit, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, acting assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and deputy NOAA administrator.
Michael Pentony, regional administrator for NOAA's Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, said that "the new measures in this rule will allow the lobster and Jonah crab fisheries to continue to thrive, while significantly reducing the risk to critically endangered right whales of getting seriously injured or killed in commercial fishing gear."
However, both the fishing industry and conservation advocates are critical of the new rule — which, as the Portland Press Herald pointed out, "does not include measures to help prevent ship strikes or reduce mortality and serious injuries in Canadian waters, which together account for the majority of right whale deaths."
Noting that the new regulations will make a 950-square-mile area of the Gulf of Maine "off-limits to traditional lobstering from October through January," the Press Herald reported Tuesday on officials' concerns that the changes will threaten the state's fishing industry.
Maine's congressional delegation and Democratic Gov. Janet Mills issued a joint statement criticizing the "burdensome regulations," saying in part that "we agree that we must protect the fragile right whale population, but we must do so without endangering human lives or livelihoods" and "there has not been a single right whale entanglement attributed to Maine lobster fisheries in nearly two decades."
Conservation groups, meanwhile, argued the regulations don't go far enough.
After being decimated by whaling, vessel collisions and entanglement in fishing gear now threaten the future of the… https://t.co/ej54ibNTpI— Oceana (@Oceana) 1630434311.0
The Center for Biological Diversity, which has challenged NOAA Fisheries' failure to protect the species in court, noted the closures south of Nantucket — from February to April — and in the Gulf of Maine are seasonal, "despite evidence that right whales use the area year-round."
Offering a broader critique of the new rule, Kristen Monsell, the center's oceans legal director, declared that "we can't save this rapidly declining whale population from extinction with half-measures like this."
"This plan is better than nothing and a step in the right direction," she said. "But we've already waited far too long to protect North Atlantic right whales from deadly entanglements. It's time to get all vertical fishing lines out of important right whale habitat immediately and convert to on-demand ropeless fishing gear."
As Oceana's Webber explained:
The National Marine Fisheries Service's overreliance on weak rope, which is designed to break with the strength of an adult whale, is insufficient because it continues to put calves and juveniles directly in harm's way. Proven management tools that will reduce interactions with the roughly one million fishing lines are available, yet the government declined to consider these tools because they were "unpopular with stakeholders." Oceana and its members are stakeholders in this crisis as well. This disregard for public comment by the Biden administration is disappointing.
Oceana is committed to ensuring North Atlantic right whales have meaningful protection from all threats across their range, from Florida to eastern Canada. As it stands, this rule leaves the whales vulnerable and jeopardizes their future, as well as the future of the U.S. lobster and crab fisheries, which could be shut down if North Atlantic right whales are not protected. There's no time to waste — the rule must be strengthened immediately with expanded time/area management and effective monitoring if North Atlantic right whales are to survive.
Environment America's conservation program director Steve Blackledge also called on the Biden administration to go further in a statement Tuesday.
"It's good to see NOAA taking action to protect the endangered right whale, but unfortunately, the plan that was released today falls short," he said. "By our reading, the net effect will be to delay the extinction of this beautiful, massive creature. What we need is a plan to save it."
According to Blackledge, "The problem is that these rules would reduce the 'risk of death and serious injuries caused by entanglement' by 69%, and that's not enough to enable this species to rebound."
"We're calling on NOAA and Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to respond to our petition and use emergency powers to close key right whale habitats to fishing — most are seasonal closures and one would be year-round," he added. "Let's be the generation that protected the right whale, not the one that watched it slowly disappear."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, “Thirsting for Solutions," here.
Tom Kennedy learned about the long-term contamination of his family's drinking water about two months after he was told that his breast cancer had metastasized to his brain and was terminal.
The troubles tainting his tap: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a broad category of chemicals invented in the mid-1900s to add desirable properties such as stain-proofing and anti-sticking to shoes, cookware and other everyday objects. Manufacturers in Fayetteville, North Carolina had been discharging them into the Cape Fear River — a regional drinking water source — for decades.
"I was furious," says Kennedy, who lives in nearby Wilmington. "I made the connection pretty quickly that PFAS likely contributed to my condition. Although it's nothing that I can prove."
The double whammy of bad news came more than three years ago. Kennedy, who has outlived his prognosis, is now an active advocate for stiffer regulation of PFAS.
"PFAS is everywhere," he says. "It's really hard to get any change."
Indeed, various forms of PFAS are still used in a spectrum of industrial and consumer products — from nonstick frying pans and stain-resistant carpets to food wrappers and firefighting foam — and have become ubiquitous. The compounds enter the environment anywhere they are made, spilled, discharged or used. Rain can flush them into surface sources of drinking water such as lakes, or PFAS may gradually migrate through the soil to reach the groundwater — another key source of public water systems and private wells.
For the same reasons the chemicals are prized by manufacturers — they resist heat, oil and water — PFAS also persist in the soil, the water and our bodies.
More than 200 million Americans may be drinking PFAS-contaminated water, research suggests. As studies continue to link exposures to a lengthening list of potential health consequences — including links to Covid-19 susceptibility — scientists and advocates are calling for urgent action from both regulators and industry to curtail PFAS use and to take steps to ensure the compounds already in the environment stay out of drinking water.
Thousands of Chemicals
PFAS dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when Dupont and Manhattan Project scientists each accidentally discovered the compounds. The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, now 3M, soon began manufacturing PFAS as a key ingredient in Scotchgard and other non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant products.
Thousands of different PFAS chemicals emerged over the following decades, including the two most-studied versions: PFOS and PFOA. Oral-B began using PFAS in dental floss. Gore-Tex used it to make waterproof fabrics. Hush Puppies used it waterproof leather for shoes. And DuPont, along with its spin-off company Chemours, used the compounds to make its popular Teflon coatings.
Science suggests links between PFAS exposure and a range of health consequences, including possible increased risks of cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, liver damage, kidney disease, low birth-weight babies, immune suppression, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
"PFAS really seem to interact with the full range of biological functions in our body," says David Andrews, a senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on this reporting project). "Even at the levels that the average person has in this country, these chemicals are likely having an impact."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even issued a warning that exposure to high levels of PFAS might raise the risk of infection with Covid-19 and noted evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS could lower vaccine efficacy. A PFAS known as PFBA is raising particular concern with respect to the global pandemic. Philippe Grandjean, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Southern Denmark and at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and colleagues recently found a positive correlation between severity of Covid-19 symptoms and the presence of PFBA in individuals' blood, according to their non-peer-reviewed preprint paper published in October.
"There is a whole range of potential adverse effects. To me, the interference with the immune system is the most important," Grandjean says. "According to our data, the immune system is affected at the lowest exposure levels."
Once PFAS gets into the environment, the compounds are likely to stick around a long time because they are not easily broken down by sunlight or other natural processes.
Legacy and ongoing PFAS contamination is present across the U.S., especially at or near sites associated with fire training, industry, landfills and wastewater treatment. Near Parkersburg, West Virginia, PFAS seeped into drinking water supplies from a Dupont plant. In Decatur, Alabama, a 3M manufacturing facility is suspected of discharging PFAS, polluting residents' drinking water. In Hyannis, Massachusetts, firefighting foam from a firefighter training academy is the likely source of well-water contamination, according to the state. Use of PFAS-containing materials such as firefighting foam at hundreds of military sites around the country, including one on Whidbey Island in Washington State, has also contaminated many drinking water supplies.
"It works great for fires. It's just that it's toxic," says Donald (Matt) Reeves, an associate professor of hydrogeology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo who studies how PFAS moves around, and sticks around, in the environment.
It can be a near-endless loop, Reeves explains. Industry might discharge the compounds into a waste stream that ends up at a wastewater treatment plant. If that facility is not outfitted with filters that can trap PFAS, the chemicals may go directly into a drinking water source. Or a wastewater treatment facility might produce PFAS-laced sludge that is applied to land or put into a landfill. Either way, PFAS could leach out and find its way back in a wastewater treatment plant, repeating the cycle. The compounds can be released into the air as well, resulting in some cases in PFAS getting deposited on land where it can seep back into drinking water supplies.
His research in Michigan, he says, echoes a broader trend across the U.S.: "The more you test, the more you find."
In fact, a study by scientists from EWG, published in October 2020, used state testing data to estimate that more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water at concentrations of 1 part per trillion (ppt) or higher. That is the recommended safe limit, according to some scientists and health advocates, and is equivalent to one drop in 500,000 barrels of water.
"This really highlights the extent that these contaminants are in the drinking water across the country," says EWG's Andrews, who co-authored the paper. "And, in some ways, it's not a huge surprise. It's nearly impossible to escape contamination of drinking water." He references research from the CDC that found the chemicals in the blood of 98% of Americans surveyed.
U.S. chemical makers have voluntarily phased out their use and emission of PFOS and PFOA, and industry efforts are underway to reduce ongoing contamination and clean up past contamination — even if the companies do not always agree with scientists on the associated health risks.
"The weight of scientific evidence from decades of research does not show that PFOS or PFOA causes harm in people at current or historical levels," states Sean Lynch, a spokesperson for 3M. Still, he notes that his company has invested more than US$200 million globally to clean up the compounds: "As our scientific and technological capabilities advance, we will continue to invest in cutting-edge cleanup and control technology and work with communities to identify where this technology can make a difference."
Thom Sueta, a company spokesperson for Chemours, notes similar efforts to address historic and current emissions and discharges. The company's Fayetteville plant has dumped large quantities of the PFAS compound GenX, contaminating the drinking water used by Kennedy and some 250,000 of his neighbors.
"We continue to decrease PFAS loading to the Cape Fear River and began operation this fall of a capture and treatment system of a significant groundwater source at the site," Sueta stated in an email.
A big part of the challenge is that PFAS is considered an emerging contaminant and is, therefore, not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But most of the ongoing PFOS and PFOA contamination appear to come from previous uses cycling back into the environment and into people, notes Andrews.
A big part of the challenge is that PFAS is considered an emerging contaminant and is, therefore, not regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2016, the EPA set a non-binding health advisory limit of 70 ppt for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. The agency proposed developing federal regulations for the contaminants in February 2020 and is currently reviewing comments with plans to issue a final decision this winter.
Several U.S. states have set drinking water limits for PFAS, including California, Minnesota and New York. Michigan's regulations, which cover seven different PFAS compounds, are some of the most stringent. Western Michigan University's Reeves says that the 2014 lead contamination crisis in Flint elevated the state's focus on safe drinking water.
Still, the inconsistency across the country has created confusion. "The regulation of PFAS remains varied. States are all having different ideas, and that's not necessarily a good thing," says David Sedlak, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. "People are uncertain what to do."
The Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, or ITRC, a coalition of states that promotes the use of novel technologies and processes for environmental remediation, is working to pull together evidence-based recommendations for PFAS regulation in the absence of federal action.
University of Southern Denmark and Harvard professor Grandjean suggests a safe level of PFAS in drinking water is probably about 1 ppt or below. The European Union's latest risk assessment, which Grandjean says corresponds to a recommended limit of about 2 ppt for four common PFAS compounds, is "probably close," he says. "It's not a precautionary limit, but it's certainly a lot closer than EPA's."
GenX, introduced in 2009 by DuPont to replace PFOA, is among a newer generation of short-chain PFAS designed to have fewer carbon molecules than the original long-chain PFAS. These were initially believed to be less toxic and more quickly excreted from the body. But some evidence is proving otherwise: Studies suggest that these relatives may pose many of the same risks as their predecessors.
"The family of PFAS chemicals being used in commerce is a lot broader than the small set of compounds that the EPA is considering regulating," says Sedlak. "Up until now, the focus of discussion related to regulation has centered around PFOS and PFOA with some discussion of GenX. But the deeper we dig, the more we see lots and lots of PFAS out there."
Andrews notes that the ongoing pattern of replacing one toxic chemical with another is a problem that the federal government urgently needs to fix. "This entire family of chemicals shares many of the same characteristics," he says.
"When these chemicals stop being produced, especially in significant volumes across the country, the levels go down," Andrews says, referring to a corresponding drop in PFOS and PFOA concentrations in Americans' blood after the phaseout of the compounds. "But it raises that concern of what's coming next? Or what are we really being exposed to that we're not testing for?"
Andrews and his co-author Olga Naidenko, also a scientist with EWG, further urge governments to consider one relatively low-hanging fruit: non-essential uses of PFAS. "Even if somebody would make an argument that, for serious fires, we need to use the best foam, I think we can all agree that there's no reason to spray PFAS just to train," says Naidenko. "You can spray water."
Environmental health advocates express hope that 2021 will bring greater progress on PFAS regulation. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to set enforceable limits for PFAS in drinking water and to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance — which would accelerate the cleanup of contaminated sites under the EPA's Superfund program.
Breaking the Chain
Meanwhile, the million-dollar (or realistically much, much more) question is: How do we get PFAS out of drinking water? The bond between carbon and fluorine atoms is one of the strongest in nature. As a result, PFAS degrades extremely slowly in nature. "People have called them 'forever chemicals' for good reason," says Sedlak. "These carbon-fluorine bonds want to stay put."
Because PFAS resists degradation, filtration is the primary strategy for removing it from drinking water. Granulated activated carbon filters can absorb PFAS and other contaminants, although they must be replaced when all of the available surface area becomes occupied by chemicals. The filters also tend to work less well for short-chain compared to long-chain PFAS. Another removal method is the use of ion exchange resins, which can attract and hold negatively charged contaminants such as PFAS. Perhaps the most effective technology to date is reverse osmosis. This approach can filter out a wide range PFAS. At the same time, it carries a high price tag, notes Heather Stapleton, a professor of environmental science and policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Stapleton has researched the various filters and finds that all of them can work well. She installed an at-home filter after discovering PFAS in her own drinking water. But that cost can be a significant barrier for many people, she notes, making it an "environmental justice issue."
The diversity of PFAS compounds also poses a challenge. Community water systems may spend significant resources to install systems for water treatment only to find that while the method might work well at removing one set of PFAS, it can fail to filter another set, says Naidenko.
Scientists are investigating further chemical and biological treatment methods. Sedlak is among researchers looking into ways to treat PFAS while it is still in the ground, such as via in situ oxidation coupled with microbes to break down chemicals.
"What we know for sure is we were exposed. What we don't know is what sort of lasting health impact that has on us as a community" – Emily DonovanJoel Ducoste, a professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, laments that currently employed treatment processes still fall short of removing PFAS and providing safe drinking water to Americans. "This has been problematic in our state and is becoming a national problem," he says.
More definitive science surrounding PFAS — optimal treatment methods, truly safe alternatives and potential health effects — can't come soon enough for those dealing daily with legacy PFAS contamination in Wilmington.
"What we know for sure is we were exposed. What we don't know is what sort of lasting health impact that has on us as a community," says Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, a grassroots group advocating for clean water in the region. Part of their effort, she says, is seeking better medical monitoring of people exposed to PFAS.
Due to the long latency between exposure and disease — often decades — it is difficult to link any PFAS with specific cancers. Kennedy notes no history of breast cancer in his family and no genetic predisposition to the disease. "Those factors made me believe even more that it was PFAS responsible for this," he says.
"It seems like that's not the right way to test chemical safety — the big underlying concern here — to expose the population widely. And yet, that seems to be what we're doing now," says Andrews.
Reposted with permission from Ensia.
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