Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal kill enviro-news blogs – is there a need for them?

Do you enjoy reading Dateline Earth? Is there a need for environmental news blogs? I hope the answer to both those questions is yes…. but if not I’d like to hear from you. Tell me: Is this a worthwhile enterprise? Because there are a lot of stories we’d like to get to out there – documents to read, people to call, data to analyze. All that takes time, and writing Dateline Earth costs me time.

Lest you think I’m fishing for compliments, I should point out that my inquiry is prompted by a post today on Columbia Journalism Review’s Observatory blog discussing how the Christian Science Monitor and The Wall Street Journal have discontinued their enviro-news blogs.

Both of these publications have storied histories and high journalistic standards.So CJR’s Curtis Brainerd checked in with editors at both sites, asking: whassup?

The answers are, it goes without saying, complex. The WSJ didn’t engage with Brainerd, which is a real shame, because a lot of us out here would like to know what they were thinking.

At the Monitor, sadly, the answer mostly seems to be that they just don’t have the horses any more.

A series of e-mails from Monitor Editor John Yemma to Brainerd offered that the environment is no longer a specialty – so true! Reporters on the city hall and business and feature beats, to name just a few, need to be familiar with what is sure to be the story of the century.

But Yemma also said that the Monitor’s Bright Green blog – the publication’s very first blog, instituted back when the copy had to go through the paper's cumbersome computer editing process for print stories – was discontinued in part because writer Eoin O’Carroll is busy doing something other than environmental journalism:

Enviros urge last-minute calls to legislators to pass stormwater-cleanup bill; oil, agriculture interests opposed, with lawsuit threatened

Some interesting twists are developing in environmentalists’ campaign to convince the Washington Legislature to pass a tax on hazardous chemicals and petroleum products to clean up the No. 1 pollution source of Puget Sound, stormwater. Enviros say they need a flood of last-minute calls from constituents to prod legislators into action before they adjourn their annual session in Olympia Thursday night.

While Puget Sound is the focus of the debate, stormwater runoff is the largest source of pollution for many waterbodies nationwide, if the truth be told. That's one reason the machinations in Olympia are interesting – they may presage similar fights elsewhere in the future.

On one side are the enviros, city and county governments, labor, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Democratic leadership of the House and Senate. Sounds formidable, eh? On the other side are the oil industry, farm groups, and possibly other opponents I haven’t learned about yet.

Not long ago I brought up how this bill to boost the tax on petroleum, fertilizer, pesticides and other hazardous substances was a bit of a pig in a poke. Collecting $225 million a year in the name of cleaning up Puget Sound and other water bodies, the legislation (HB 3181 and SB 6851) would have funneled more than two-thirds of the revenue straight to the state’s general fund in the first year.

Environmental regulator tells Congress: U.S. efforts to regulate toxics are a failure

It’s been more than 30 years since Congress passed a law called the Toxic Substances Control Act. It hasn’t controlled many toxics, though. And today a high-ranking environmental regulator from the Pacific Northwest told members of Congress that the nation’s efforts to keep people safe from harmful chemicals just aren’t cutting it.

Ted Sturdevant, director of the Washington Department of Ecology, rattled off a list of steps taken to control toxics in his state, including banning the flame retardant decaBDE and work to rein in mercury and lead. In fact, Washington was the first state to come up with multi-year plan to phase out so-called “persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic” chemicals, or PBTs, he told the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection.

But Sturdevant’s testimony at the Congressional hearing quickly jumps to this point:

The truth is that our approach to protecting people and our environment from toxic chemicals is a failure. It’s a failure at the state level, and it’s a failure at the national level. We are failing to prevent avoidable harm to our children, we are failing to protect the food chain that sustains us, we are failing to save countless millions of taxpayer dollars that are wasted on health care costs and environmental cleanup, and we are failing to exercise common sense.

Wow. Strong words. He went on to describe what he thinks a common-sense system of regulations would entail:

• Look carefully at a chemical’s potential to harm before it is used in commerce.

• The government should be able to ban a chemical causing an “urgent and unacceptable” risk.

New study shows Roundup pesticide kills fish; U.S. heading toward OKing more 'Roundup-Ready' genetically engineered farm acreage

Roundup is one of the most widely used pesticides in the world. But it increases the incidence of disease in fish, a new study shows. And yet it looks like the government is about to greatly expand the U.S. acreage where it is applied by approving planting of vast swaths of genetically engineered alfalfa. These “Roundup-Ready” hayfields worry opponents of GE foods, and this latest news about the effect on fish is bound to stir the pot some more. (The opportunity for public comment on allowing GE alfalfa ends soon, btw.)

The new fish study, out of New Zealand, showed that when applied at recommended rates on fields near a freshwater stream, Roundup didn’t kill young freshwater fish outright. Score one point for Monsanto, Roundup’s manufacturer.

However, what Roundup did at this relatively dilute concentration was to increase the production of worm that’s a parasite of the fish, and comes from a particular snail. And the combination of more parasites and moderate levels of Roundup – aka “glyphosate” – produced what scientists called “significantly reduced fish survival.” They concluded:

"This is the first study to show that parasites and glyphosate can act synergistically on aquatic vertebrates at environmentally relevant concentrations, and that glyphosate might increase the risk of disease in fish. Our results have important implications when identifying risks to aquatic communities and suggest that threshold levels of glyphosate currently set by regulatory authorities do not adequately protect freshwater systems."

Those roses you just bought seem to be causing "silent pandemic" of learning deficits among pesticide-exposed kids

The science journal’s wording is antiseptic. And yet the underlying story is heart-rending: Children exposed to pesticides in the womb while their mothers raise flowers for export to the American market are turning up later with learning difficulties. And then finally the authors leave the medical talk behind and warn of a “silent pandemic.”

Here’s a key passage:

"Only children with prenatal exposure from maternal greenhouse work showed consistent deficits after covariate adjustment, which included stunting and socioeconomic variables. Exposure-related deficits were the strongest for motor speed… motor coordination… visuospatial performance… and visual memory. These associations corresponded to a developmental delay of 1.5-2 years."

Whoa! So because of our need for pretty flowers, a 6-year-old Ecuadorian kid might have the motor skills of a 4-year-old! The new study in Environmental Health Perspectives notes that the impacts – which included slightly raising the exposed kids’ blood pressure, as well – are present even though the pesticides didn’t hurt the mothers.

Lots of the flowers Americans buy are from Ecuador, especially roses, with only Colombia outpacing Ecuador in selling roses to the United States. (And I'm not guessing there are very heavy restrictions on pesticide use there, either.)

The whole study hasn’t been posted yet, but the abstract gives the relevant details: 84 kids in an Ecuadorian village that raises lots of flowers were tested for pesticides. And their parents were interviewed about their exposure to pesticides. The results:

Why do environmental regulators soft-pedal truly disturbing findings?

rm iwest mugIt's not like we needed another study to tell us that air pollution levels in some places are high enough to make people sick and even kill them. But the way New Jersey environmental regulators handled the public release of  this new study is noteworthy because it's a classic case of government soft-pedaling some truly disturbing news.

Climate change's cost in Arctic could chill future economy worldwide, study finds

rm iwest mugIn what its authors admit is almost certainly an underestimate, a new study says the catastrophic climate changes coming to the Arctic will cost at least $2.4 trillion by mid-century. (To put that into perspective, President Obama just proposed a $3.8 trillion federal government budget for next year.)

The true cost is likely to be a whole lot more -- probably in the range of the combined gross domestic products of Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom, says the report, which was financed by the Pew Environment Group.

A melting Arctic heats the climate in two basic ways: First, when all the white snow and ice on the land and in the ocean melts, the darker colors underneath absorb more heat instead of reflecting it.

The second thing that happens is that as the permafrost melts, it releases methane -- remember methane, that other greenhouse gas, the one we fingered not long ago for its powerful greenhouse punch?

The researchers came up with estimates of how much both of these effects will have and converted those numbers into carbon dioxide equivalents -- i.e., how much of that better-known greenhouse you'd have to release to create this much climate warming.

Those figures are sobering: The amount of warming to be wrought this year alone by Arctic melting will equal about 42 percent of all the emissions from the United States! That's the equivalent of building 500 new coal-burning power plants.

Autism explosion starts to look like "It's the environment, stupid" (not the vaccinations)

rm iwest mugThere were two pretty big developments on the autism story today. You've no doubt heard that for a while there it looked like a preservative in vaccinations given to children for measles, mumps and rubella was responsible for the increasing incidence of autism in American kids.

Not so much, it seems. Today the Lancet medical journal retracted a pivotal scientific paper in support of this concept. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal offered some tantalizing research tidbits that, while not identifying a cause, certainly seem to point toward an environmental factor or factors... or possibly social factors.

The backdrop here is that autism rates are skyrocketing in American children. My InvestigateWest colleague Carol Smith was onto this trend more than a decade ago, when the incidence was running  no higher than 1 out of every 500 children. It's now up at something more like 1 in 100 children. That's 1 percent of the population!

In today's news, first the retraction: It was a paper by a bunch of scientists led by one Dr. Andrew Wakefield that in 1998 set off a bit of a panic among parents, particularly in Britain, about the possibilty that vaccinations could be causing autism.

It was an appealing hypothesis, because it would explain why autism rates are increasing seemingly all over.

But years of studies followed.