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First responders gather a water sample from the Dan River in Eden, NC after a 2014 coal ash spill. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Jeremy Deaton

This year, state legislatures will redraw the electoral map. The GOP controls most state legislatures, and they are expected to draw congressional districts to favor Republicans, which will make it easier for them to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, even if they fail to win the most votes overall. This dynamic will influence policymaking on a number of issues, including the environment. Recent events in North Carolina give some idea of what to expect.

By Jeremy Deaton

This year, state legislatures will redraw the electoral map. The GOP controls most state legislatures, and they are expected to draw congressional districts to favor Republicans, which will make it easier for them to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, even if they fail to win the most votes overall. This dynamic will influence policymaking on a number of issues, including the environment. Recent events in North Carolina give some idea of what to expect.


In North Carolina, coal-fired plants historically dealt with the leftover ash by mixing it with wastewater and dumping it into an open pit nearby. Because coal generators need a lot of water, power plants and coal ash ponds usually sit next to a lake or river.

This arrangement can have disastrous consequences. In 2014, a pipe under a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy in Eden, North Carolina cracked open. The pipe carried wastewater from the nearby coal plant to the Dan River. When it broke, upwards of 30,000 tons of soggy, toxic coal ash seeped into the pipe and drained into the river.

In the aftermath, the Obama administration created the first-ever regulation on coal ash ponds, though it was remarkably weak. Michael Yaki, of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, later said it was “practically toothless in its ability to protect the poorest and minority population of our country from things such as coal ash.” Despite this, in 2015, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would water down the regulation even further in ways that could lead to a repeat of the Dan River spill or allow coal ash ponds to leak toxins into drinking water.

Every single Republican member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation voted in favor of the bill — including Rep. Mark Walker, whose district included the site of the Dan River spill — even as North Carolina residents living near coal ash ponds were being told not to drink well water. Every Democrat voted against it. The bill ultimately died in the Democratically-controlled Senate.

To understand why North Carolina Republicans would vote for a doomed bill to slash coal ash protections, it helps to consider their political circumstances.

In the anti-Obama fervor of 2015, it wasn’t hard to marshal Republicans against the spectre of regulatory overreach, particularly against the energy industry. While Duke Energy donated to every member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, it gave substantially more to Republicans than to Democrats. But perhaps more important than campaign contributions or the political milieu was the impact of gerrymandering.

In 2010, Republicans came to power in North Carolina, and when they redrew the congressional map, they carved up Democratic strongholds to dilute the power of Democratic voters — namely, Black voters — creating districts that wiggled and stretched across large expanses. This practice, known as gerrymandering, produced a map that heavily favored Republicans.

In 2014, the GOP won only 55 percent of the vote statewide, but they came away with 10 out of 13 seats, and not one of these races was particularly close. Every politician Republican was well insulated against swings in public opinion. A 2014 poll from the Sierra Club found that 70 percent of North Carolina voters would be more likely to support a politician who ” favors strong regulations and enforcement… to prevent future spills,” and yet every Republican fought such rules.

Because of the way the electoral map was drawn, 12 of the 14 coal ash pond sites in North Carolina were in districts represented by Republicans, meaning that almost no one living near a coal ash pond was represented by someone who favored stronger regulations. And most coal ash pond sites are in areas that are disproportionately low-income, according to data from Earthjustice.

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17-year-old Shreya Ramachandran has already won awards for her research into reusing "grey water." Shreya Ramachandran

By Jeremy Deaton

Shreya Ramachandran, 17, remembers witnessing California's water crisis firsthand on a visit to Tulare County in 2014, when she was still a preteen. Tulare spans a large swath of farmland in California's Central Valley, and at that time, locals were facing dire water shortages amid an ongoing drought made worse by climate change.

By Jeremy Deaton

Shreya Ramachandran, 17, remembers witnessing California’s water crisis firsthand on a visit to Tulare County in 2014, when she was still a preteen. Tulare spans a large swath of farmland in California’s Central Valley, and at that time, locals were facing dire water shortages amid an ongoing drought made worse by climate change.


“I was talking to some of the people in the area whose wells completely ran dry, and they were left without water because they weren’t connected to the central water grid. They were trucking water in for even basic needs,” she said. “I was really affected by their stories, and I wanted to do something to help.”

The experience spurred Ramachandran, who lives in Fremont, California, to find ways to reuse water from sinks, showers and laundry machines, what’s known as grey water, to help people better cope with intense drought. She has won numerous awards for her research, was named a global finalist in the 2019 Google Science Fair, and is featured in the forthcoming PBS Peril and Promise climate change documentary, The Power of Us.

Ramachandran said that after she returned home from Tulare she made every effort to conserve water in her life. She took shorter showers and turned off the tap when brushing her teeth, but it had little effect on how much her house consumed.

Around that time, Ramachandran’s grandmother was visiting from India, and she had brought with her a handful of soap nuts. A soap nut, also known as a soap berry, is a small yellow or brown fruit encased in a hard, brown shell. Soap nuts are native to India, where they are used for bathing. Massage one in a bowl of water, and it will begin to lather and smell of apples, Ramachandran said.

“I was using them as a shampoo, and I was thinking, ‘Okay, if they can be used for this purpose, maybe soap nuts can be used as an alternative laundry detergent as well. And then we can reuse the water because soap nuts are all-natural,'” she said. “The best ideas come to you when you’re in the shower.”

Ramachandran said that soap nuts, which are often sold as a detergent, make for an effective cleaning agent. One only needs to put four or five nuts in a cloth bag and toss it in with their laundry, and they can reuse that bag of nuts as many as 10 times, making soap nuts significantly cheaper than organic detergent. Ramachandran wanted to see if the leftover water could be used to nourish plants.

“I read a ton of papers. I developed a project plan. And I contacted universities up and down in California. I sent so many cold emails, did so many cold calls until, finally, a really wonderful professor at UC Berkeley agreed to look over my project plan and greenlight it,” she said.

That professor was environmental scientist Céline Pallud, who studies soil. She said that Ramachandran’s experiments were comparable to the work of a college student, which she said was “extremely impressive,” given that she was only 12 when she undertook the research.

Ramachandran tested the laundry water on tall fescue, a type of turfgrass, and an assortment of vegetables, comparing the effect of soap nuts with organic and conventional soaps and detergents. That would mean setting up dozens of pots in a highly controlled space.

“I kicked my parents out of the master bedroom because I needed a space that was as close to a greenhouse as possible, and the master bedroom had ideal—and I mean, seriously, ideal—lighting and temperature conditions,” she said. Fortunately, her parents, both computer engineers, were willing to accommodate her.

“I didn’t take her seriously at first and tried to talk her into considering alternate places,” said her mother, Hiran Rajagopalan. “Ultimately, I didn’t want to disappoint her. After all, she was only trying to do science.”

Ramachandran tracked nutrients and bacteria in the soil and kept a close eye on the health of the grass. She looked for traces of E. coli, which can make people severely ill if consumed. She worked continuously, even on Christmas and New Year’s Day, and she took advanced classes in statistics to learn how to analyze all the data collected.

“I found that grey water from soap nuts, as well as several organic detergents, could be reused safely for non-potable uses,” she said. “But grey water that was generated from [conventional] soaps that had things like soluble salts and boron, that became very detrimental because those ingredients accumulated in the grey water and then made it unusable for crop irrigation.”

Ramachandran went on to found her own nonprofit, The Grey Water Project, which teaches people how to recycle grey water in their own homes. She does workshops at schools, libraries and corporate events, and she developed a grey water science curriculum that has been implemented in more than 90 schools so far.

“I tell people what the best practices are for grey water reuse. And I let them know, ‘These are the detergents you should be using,” she said. “My ultimate goal is essentially for grey water reuse to be just as common as paper or plastic recycling.”

Ramachandran, now a senior in high school, is applying to colleges and has already been accepted to Stanford. She wants to study biology and environmental science to continue the kind of work she is already doing. But she also wants to study public policy to help make use of good science.

“I’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a scientist,” she said. “You can use science to develop the solutions, but it’s equally important to implement them.”

Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.

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Exterior of Cold Tube demonstration pavilion. Lea Ruefenacht

By Gloria Oladipo

In the face of dangerous heat waves this summer, Americans have taken shelter in air conditioned cooling centers. Normally, that would be a wise choice, but during a pandemic, indoor shelters present new risks. The same air conditioning systems that keep us cool recirculate air around us, potentially spreading the coronavirus.

By Gloria Oladipo

In the face of dangerous heat waves this summer, Americans have taken shelter in air conditioned cooling centers. Normally, that would be a wise choice, but during a pandemic, indoor shelters present new risks. The same air conditioning systems that keep us cool recirculate air around us, potentially spreading the coronavirus.


“Air conditioners look like they’re bringing in air from the outside because they go through the window, but it is 100 percent recirculated air,” said Forrest Meggers, an assistant professor of architecture at Princeton University. “If you had a system that could cool without being focused solely on cooling air, then you could actually open your windows.”

Meggers and an international team of researchers have developed a safer way for people to beat the heat — a highly efficient cooling system that doesn’t move air around.

Scientists lined door-sized panels with tiny tubes that circulate cold water. Stand next to a panel, and you can feel it drawing heat away from your body. Unlike air conditioners, these panels can be used with the window open — or even outdoors — making it possible to cool off while also getting some fresh air. This reduces the risk of spreading airborne viruses, like the coronavirus.

“If you look at what the health authorities and governments are saying, the safest place to be during this pandemic is outside,” said Adam Rysanek, an assistant professor of environmental systems at the University of British Columbia, who was part of the research effort. “We’re trying to find a way to keep you cool in a heat wave with the windows wide open, because the air is fresh. It’s just that it’s hot.”

Cooling panels have been around for a while, but in limited use, because scientists haven’t found a good way to deal with condensation. Like a cold can of Coke on a hot summer day, cooling panels collect drops of water, so they have to be paired with dehumidifiers indoors to stay dry. Otherwise, overhead panels might drip water on people standing underneath.

Meggers and his colleagues got around this problem by developing a thin, transparent membrane that repels condensation. This is the key breakthrough behind their cooling technology. Because it stays dry, it can be used in humid conditions, even outdoors.

In air conditioners, a dehumidifier dries out the air to prevent condensation. This component uses an enormous amount of energy, around half of the total power consumed by the air conditioner, researchers said. The new membrane they developed eliminates condensation with no energy cost, making the cooling panels significantly more efficient than a typical AC unit.

The research team involved scientists from the University of British Columbia, Princeton, UC Berkeley and the Singapore-ETH Centre. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This study demonstrates that we can maintain comfortable conditions for people without cooling all the air around them,” said Zoltan Nagy, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas, who was not affiliated with the study. “Probably the most significant demonstration of this study is that humans can be provided with comfort in a very challenging thermal environment using a very efficient method.”

Researchers developed their technology for use in the persistently hot, muggy climate of Singapore, where avoiding condensation would be particularly difficult.

To test their design, they assembled a set of cooling panels into a small tunnel, roughly the size of a school bus. The tunnel, dubbed the “Cold Tube,” sat in a plaza in the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. Scientists surveyed dozens of people about how they felt after walking through the tunnel. Even as the temperature neared 90 degrees F outside, most participants reported feeling comfortable in the Cold Tube.

Scientists said they want to make their technology available to consumers as quickly as possible, for use in homes and offices, or outdoors. Climate change is producing more severe heat, which is driving demand for air conditioners. Researchers hope their cooling panel will offer a more energy-efficient alternative to AC units. If consumers can use less power, that will help cut down on the pollution that is driving climate change.

Before they can sell the panels, researchers said they need to make them hardy enough to survive outdoors. The anti-condensation membrane is currently so thin that you could tear it with a pencil, so it must be made stronger. Scientists also need to demonstrate that the panels work efficiently indoors. Hospitals and schools in Singapore have already shown interest in the cooling system.

“We know the physics works. Now we need to do one more test so we have a bit more of a commercially viable product,” Rysanek said. “It’s really about trying to get this into people’s hands as quickly as possible.”

Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.

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