News Article | February 20, 2017
Elon Musk is preparing to Colonize Mars, Gates is hoping for an energy breakthrough, Hawking has set the doomsday clock at 1,000 years and Chomsky warns of a climate change-induced migrant crisis and nuclear holocaust. Hundreds of scientists gathered in Boston’s Copley Square over the weekend to express their concerns about, and to protest against the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration. The rally, which included crowds holding bright signs such as “Stand up for science,” “Science is not a liberal conspiracy,” “Science, not silence” and “Climate change is NOT a controversy,” had sponsors that included the Union of Concerned Scientists, Greenpeace USA, Mass Sierra Club and groups from universities in the area, according to Scientific American. Although not directly sponsored by or affiliated with the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) — a five-day conference that opened nearby on Wednesday with the theme "Serving Society Through Science Policy" — the protest rally was offered support by the CEO of AAAS, who backed plans to hold similar rallies under the banner "March for Science," scheduled to be held on Earth Day, April 22, in Washington and across multiple cities. "It is partly because of the previous statements of the president and his appointees on issues such as climate change and vaccination for children which have not been in keeping with good science," Rush Holt, AAAS CEO, explained to BBC News. "But mostly by what we have seen since the new administration has come in, [which] is silence about science. Very few appointments to positions are filled by people who understand science, very few comments about the importance of science; there is no science advisor in the White House now and we don't know whether there will be one…and so the silence is beginning to sound ominous," he said. The AAAS conference included lectures that reflected contemporary political issues such as the psychology of “fake news,” and how to protect climate science from hostile governments. It also saw the participation of several scientists who walked over from the conference to take part in the rally. Several of the event organizers gave speeches and addressed the rallies over the weekend. “I’m concerned that we’re going to lose the EPA. I’m concerned that we’re going to lose regulations that have a direct impact on human health, like automobile emissions…People will get sicker. People will die because of a lack of environmental regulation and medical research,” Jacquelyn Gill, an ecologist at the University of Maine and one of the speakers addressing Sunday’s rally, told the Guardian. Beka Economopoulos, one of the event organizers and the director of the mobile and pop-up Natural History Museum, explained that one of the big concerns are the arguments regarding “trimming the fat” of budgets because science and medical research funding already make a minuscule proportion of the federal budget. “That money has got one of the best returns on investment you could possibly hope for…the real stakeholders are the citizens that stand to gain or lose the most if the institutions are weakened,” she said. Beka also expressed apprehension at the appointment of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt’s as head of the EPA. “We have a sort of fox in the henhouse situation here with Scott Pruitt as head of the EPA, an agency that he has sued 14 times,” she told the Guardian. “This is about freedom of inquiry…from the muzzling of scientists and government agencies, to the immigration ban, the deletion of scientific data, and the defunding of public science, the erosion of our institutions of science is a dangerous direction for our country. Real people and communities bear the brunt of these actions,” Economopulos told the crowd, according to the BBC. However, not every scientist was optimistic about the rally. Eminent string theorist Jim Gates, for instance, said that without an end goal in mind, the movement may be perceived as “science against Trump”. “At least as far as I can detect, there is no theory of action behind this…This bothers me tremendously…I don’t understand how the organizers of this march can guard against provocateurs, quite frankly…I don’t think they’re ready for that, I don’t think they’re considering that kind of danger. To have science represented as this political force I think is just extraordinarily dangerous,” he warned.
News Article | February 11, 2017
It’s been nearly two years since Nadia Levine fielded the frantic calls — the first one from her husband, the next from a coworker. Panicked, Levine dialed both her children’s schools as she scrolled down the front page of CNN.com on Feb. 18, 2015. A fire raged blocks away from the Torrance, California, home her family had moved into only a month before. On a business trip nearly 3,000 miles away in Connecticut, Levine scrambled to find numbers for neighbors who could check to see whether the house was still standing. “All I knew at that point was that my kids and husband were alive,” she said. As the smoke cleared, it became clear her worries were far from over. Just before 9 that morning, pent-up gases at ExxonMobil’s Torrance refinery south of Los Angeles had triggered an explosion so massive it registered as a magnitude-1.7 tremor. A five-story processing unit had burst open, spewing industrial ash over a mile away that some mistook for snow and propelling a 40-ton hunk of equipment into the air. The debris had narrowly avoided piercing a tank containing tens of thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid, or HF — a gas so toxic it corrodes bone. It was the first Levine had heard of HF. The chemical is used to make high-octane gasoline at about a third of the 141 oil refineries in the United States. If released, HF forms a fast-moving, ground-hugging cloud that can cause lasting lung damage, severe burns, or death. There are alternatives to HF, but only one U.S. refinery that uses it has voluntarily committed to switch, a process expected to begin this year. Federal rules, which don’t require such changes, “haven’t kept up with the continuing challenge of preventing chemical incidents,” said Rick Engler, a member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, which issues recommendations but has no regulatory authority. He called HF “one of the most hazardous and potentially deadly chemicals used in the oil-refining process.” Along with environmentalists and union leaders, the board has pushed unsuccessfully for a federal mandate that would require high-hazard industries to consider using safer processes and chemicals. A 41-page study by a consultant last year estimated it would cost roughly $100 million for the Torrance refinery to switch to sulfuric acid, an HF alternative that carries risks of its own but doesn’t pose a sizable threat to the public. While federal regulation has stagnated, local activism in the wake of the 2015 accident spurred Southern California regulators to revive a 27-year-old effort to ban HF. “Let’s see if we can phase this out to provide an extra level of protection for the public,” Philip Fine, a deputy executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said in an interview. Separately, California officials have been working on a statewide rule, expected to become final this summer, that would require refinery owners to adopt “inherently safer designs and processes” and give workers a bigger voice in accident prevention. That effort began after another disaster that didn’t involve HF: a massive 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, north of San Francisco. More than 15,000 people sought medical treatment for respiratory and other symptoms related to toxic-smoke inhalation. More than 100 refineries are among 1,900 facilities considered “high risk” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning they are prone to terrorist attacks or accidents that imperil surrounding communities. An EPA analysis found that oil- and coal-products manufacturing, which includes refining, had the highest rates of chemical accidents. Many refinery owners, however, have postponed maintenance and equipment upgrades while ramping up production — increasing the odds of deadly mishaps. The Chemical Safety Board, which is investigating the 2015 Torrance accident, called the blast at the 750-acre refinery a “near miss” that fell just short of a “catastrophe,” faulting poor maintenance by ExxonMobil, which had delayed repairs to cut costs. ExxonMobil has challenged those claims. In an email, a spokesperson wrote that “there was no evidence” the incident “posed any risk of harm to the community” from HF. He also wrote that there are “no safer or commercially viable alternatives” to the chemical and denied that ExxonMobil cut corners on maintenance. The company is contesting more than a half-million dollars in state fines and has refused to fully cooperate with safety board investigators, even though it sold the refinery in September 2015 for $538 million to PBF Energy, a New Jersey company known for buying distressed properties at steep discounts. Like ExxonMobil, PBF has reassured Torrance residents that the operation is safe and that the company is “focused on continuous improvement,” despite a spate of recent problems. The scare in Torrance could have been avoided if federal rules had been stronger, said Rick Hind, legislative director at Greenpeace USA. After years of industry pushback, the EPA updated its Risk Management Program in December, requiring facilities like the Torrance refinery to report near-misses and urging communities to improve emergency response. But the rule — which is subject to undoing by the Trump administration — didn’t address prevention, Hind said. “When you use the word ‘risk,’ just substitute the word ‘gamble’ and it takes on a different urgency,” he said. “We’re just again gambling with the future of millions of workers and community residents.” Growing up in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco, Levine, now 34, lived not far from two refineries. These days she works across the street from the Chevron El Segundo refinery, just south of Los Angeles International Airport. The only one that gives her pause, she says, is Torrance. Saddled with a hefty mortgage, the Levines have remained in their house despite lingering concerns. Months after the near-miss, sirens sounded again when a small amount of HF leaked from a truck. Days before Thanksgiving last year, Levine watched another fire unfold near the same unit that exploded in 2015, which produces a crucial component of high-octane gasoline. “Nobody told us we lived in a kill zone when we bought our house,” said Levine, whose home is within two miles of the refinery. ExxonMobil’s “worst-case” chemical-release scenario filed with the EPA estimated that no more than 2 percent of its HF supply could escape, endangering more than 255,000 residents up to 3.2 miles away. The EPA is investigating whether that figure is accurate. Neither PBF nor ExxonMobil has explained why that scenario assumes a minor leak instead of a tank-emptying discharge. Each has declined to disclose the exact potency of “modified” HF used at Torrance, which is diluted with a secret additive they claim greatly curbs how much of the acid vaporizes. The companies’ reticence stands in contrast to Valero, which operates a refinery eight miles away in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles and makes its modified HF recipe public. Valero’s worst-case scenario predicts its total HF supply, if released, would endanger more than 370,000 people as far as 4.3 miles away. The composition of the modified HF in Torrance remains a mystery to federal investigators, too. ExxonMobil has not yet complied with several Chemical Safety Board subpoenas, including those seeking information on the refinery’s HF tank. Absent federal rules, attempts to make processes less dangerous have fallen largely to companies like ExxonMobil — with mixed results. The additive used in Torrance dates to a 1989 lawsuit filed by the city against ExxonMobil — then Mobil. At the time, Torrance was using pure HF, which officials warned could lead to a “disaster of Bhopal-like proportions,” referring to the 1984 gas leak in India that killed thousands. The city’s complaint called the refinery a “public nuisance” and documented more than 127 incidents that had occurred in the previous decade, including a gas-fueled fireball that killed a stranded motorist and two workers, and a series of other fires and leaks. In 1990, Mobil agreed that it would discontinue use of undiluted HF, and several years later a court-appointed safety advisor approved Mobil’s use of the acid tempered with at least 30-percent additive. Mobil claimed the additive, combined with other protective measures like emergency water cannons, would virtually eliminate toxic vapors in the event of a release, causing HF to fall to the ground like rain. The nature of the additive remains secret to this day. In a statement, PBF spokesperson Michael Karlovich wrote that the company is barred from speaking in detail about it because the supplier considers the information to be proprietary. The HF used at Torrance, he wrote, is diluted by approximately 10 to 15 percent. That amount falls short of the 30-percent threshold to which Mobil committed all those years ago. The discrepancy — coupled with lingering concern over the 2015 near-miss — was the main reason the South Coast air district revived the idea of an HF ban, Fine said. The district was made aware of the change, he said, by the Torrance Refinery Action Alliance, which found that the city council agreed to Mobil’s plan in a closed-door meeting. The district’s original attempt to ban HF in 1990 was overturned in court because officials hadn’t allowed a sufficient period for public comment. “We’re much worse off because of modified HF,” said retired scientist and alliance member Sally Hayati. She and others in her group support switching to sulfuric acid, which can still burn workers but doesn’t vaporize into fast-moving clouds. “If it wasn’t for modified HF, HF would have been gone.” HF is used in a refining process called alkylation, in which light hydrocarbons are fed into a reactor and transformed into a mixture of heavier ones by a catalyst — either HF or the primary alternative, sulfuric acid. The liquid part of this mixture, alkylate, gives high-octane gasoline its anti-knock properties. Kim Nibarger of the United Steelworkers, a union that represents workers in Torrance, said that both modified and regular HF pose lethal risks. “For our workers, it’s not really going to matter if it’s modified or not, they’re going to be in the middle of it,” he said. The union’s 2013 report on the dangers of HF, “A Risk Too Great,” urged refiners to commit to safer options. While sulfuric acid — used at about 50 U.S. refineries — is less menacing to the public than HF, Nibarger said it’s not much of a step up for workers. He’s hopeful that two emerging technologies — solid acid alkylation, being tried at a refinery in China, and ionic liquid alkylation, to be phased in at a Chevron refinery in Salt Lake City, beginning this year — will catch on. In a statement, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers stood behind HF, used by many of its members, from refiners to pharmaceutical companies. “Refiners have safely and responsibly operated hydrofluoric acid units for more than 70 years,” the trade group wrote in an email, adding that “a ban of HF could threaten California’s fuel supply and lead to higher consumer fuel costs.” PBF officials expressed the same sentiment and said a transition to sulfuric acid would be a massive undertaking that would take several years to plan. For years, refiners claimed pure HF would liquefy if spilled — a theory physicist Ron Koopman disproved in the 1980s with industry-sponsored tests in the Nevada desert. “But there was no liquid to collect,” said Koopman, formerly of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and now an independent consultant. “All of it went downwind as a vapor cloud.” Based on his experience with pure HF, Koopman is skeptical of industry claims about the modified form. Outside of research by companies, he said, there have been no peer-reviewed studies confirming the efficacy of modified HF. “No one has any idea if it works,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a longtime Torrance resident whose children sheltered in place at school the day of the 2015 blast. “We’re flying blind here.” Since PBF took over the Torrance refinery in July, it has pushed production rates at the nearly century-old complex beyond ExxonMobil’s historic outputs. The refinery is PBF’s most expensive and most recent purchase, producing a tenth of California’s gasoline. When the “gasoline machine,” as the company describes it, virtually shut down for over a year following the 2015 explosion, it caused a spike in regional gas prices that cost motorists $2.4 billion. As companies like ExxonMobil exit refining in search of heftier profits from oil and gas exploration, smaller and newer companies like PBF have taken the helm — buying up aging plants for “10 cents on the dollar.” Within eight years, the New Jersey company went from owning no refineries to being the country’s third-largest independent refiner, with five facilities. PBF’s brief track record at Torrance has been marred by problems. The refinery has been beset by power outages that set off tall columns of black smoke from safety flares. “You’re sitting or playing outside and all of a sudden there it goes,” said Levine, who has spent nearly $1,000 on home air purifiers. “It’s starting to become normalized, and I don’t like that. That scares me more than anything.” On Jan. 4, she got a city of Torrance alert about an “unidentified odor” from the refinery. While PBF officials were quick to assure residents that the rotten-egg smell was innocuous, a hazardous-spill report suggests otherwise. Local fire officials reported traces of sulfur had leaked along with an unknown amount of naphtha — a highly flammable gas and a nose, throat and eye irritant. In an interview, Jeff Dill, president of PBF’s western region, said the incident was minor and “there were no materials released from any equipment.” It took only 90 gallons of naphtha to spark a 1999 fire at the Tosco Avon refinery in Martinez, California, that burned four workers to death and critically injured another. PBF founder Thomas O’Malley was CEO of Tosco at the time. That disaster was considered preventable by the Chemical Safety Board, whose report revealed “a pattern of serious deviations from safe work practices” that went uncorrected by management. Tosco paid $21 million to settle three wrongful-death claims, $2 million in criminal fines, and a state fine of more than $800,000. O’Malley apologized, but faulted workers for disregarding safety protocols. Before the fire, Tosco had finished a round of layoffs and was preparing to downsize its staff of health and safety inspectors. The 1999 fire wasn’t O’Malley’s first run-in with regulators at Tosco, which he transformed from a one-refinery company to the country’s largest independent refiner between 1990 and 2001. Two years earlier, a 1997 fire at the same refinery killed one worker and injured 46 others. The EPA fined Tosco $600,000 after an investigation found “management tolerance of safety hazards and risky operator practices” like “operating with unreliable or malfunctioning equipment.” “The U.S. refining industry is not a learning culture,” said Mike Wilson of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of union officials and environmentalists. Wilson, a former chief scientist with the California Department of Industrial Relations Division of Occupational Safety and Health, was part of a team working on the state’s pending refinery rule. “It’s the same kind of incidents that happen. They happen again and again and again.” The PBF refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey, which uses HF, is a case in point. Sixteen students and two teachers at the high school next door were hospitalized in 2015 for exposure to naphtha, which can contain carcinogenic benzene. A lawsuit filed last year claims PBF failed to detect the leak for two days. The company declined to comment on the case. It was the second time schoolchildren were sickened by emissions from the Paulsboro refinery since PBF purchased it in 2010. In 2012, several nearby schools reported sick students after 6.3 million gallons of oil spilled from a large tank. Under New Jersey law, PBF must evaluate safer alternatives every five years. The company’s 2012 report to the Department of Environmental Protection concluded that switching to sulfuric acid was “not feasible,” in part because conversion would cost $200 million to $250 million. PBF was unenthusiastic about moving to modified HF as well, saying it would cause “increased corrosion” of equipment and cut the refinery’s efficiency by 10 percent. According to a PBF filing with the EPA, the Paulsboro refinery stores 250,000 pounds of undiluted HF on site, endangering more than 3.2 million people up to 19 miles away. Just across the Delaware River from Paulsboro is PBF’s first property, the Delaware City Refinery, plagued by even more problems. Last year, state regulators cited the refinery for dozens of violations stemming from multiple leaks and excessive flaring that released thousands of pounds of pollutants into the air. The refinery is also under a safety board investigation for a string of worker injuries. In November 2015, a worker was severely burned on the face and neck. Months earlier, two incidents a week apart led to a fire and chemical leak that sent three workers to the hospital. O’Malley has bought the Delaware City Refinery twice — first as head of Premcor in 2004, and then as dealmaker for PBF in 2010. In the latter transaction, the refinery had been shuttered for two years under Valero, which reported it was losing $1 million a day in 2009. While the PBF purchase was celebrated by Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, it came at a steep cost to the public. Once the deal was announced, state regulators quickly settled with Valero for $1.95 million, a fraction of the penalties that could have been collected for nearly 200 environmental violations in the past decade. Delawareans have also handed out nearly $55 million in grants and tax breaks to PBF to resurrect the refinery. When PBF bought another Valero refinery later in 2010, New Jersey regulators also quickly settled. The state recovered less than $800,000 from Valero — a third of the proposed $2.3 million in environmental fines the company racked up over six years. PBF is also in negotiations with Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality over violations dating to 2009 at the Chalmette refinery — a former ExxonMobil property the company bought in 2015. Like Torrance and Paulsboro, Chalmette also uses HF. According to an ExxonMobil filing with the EPA, the refinery has 620,000 pounds of the acid, which could endanger more than 880,000 people as far as 25 miles away. Companies like PBF are “flippers” — acquiring refineries at rock-bottom prices only to sell them a few years later for profits. The business model has paid off for O’Malley, an early pioneer of the tactic who sold Tosco in 2001 for $7 billion. He replicated the success with Premcor, which was sold to Valero in 2005 for $8 billion. PBF declined multiple requests by the Center for Public Integrity to make O’Malley available for comment. While O’Malley’s knack for turning around unprofitable assets has won him both praise and billions on Wall Street, it has earned him disdain from some in the labor community, who tell of severe cost-cutting at the expense of workers. Bob Wages, a longtime union leader, once told The Wall Street Journal that O’Malley’s success, in part, meant “taking a knife to all parts of the business.” O’Malley’s strategy, moreover, hasn’t always worked. His model sent Switzerland-based PetroPlus deeper into a financial hole after it bought three European refineries. He led the company until shortly before it filed for insolvency in 2012. O’Malley officially retired from PBF in June following the Torrance deal, but remains a paid consultant to the company. But the company still follows his vision. CEO Thomas Nimbley worked as O’Malley’s No. 2 at Tosco, and two of O’Malley’s nephews have served as vice presidents. PBF officials said they are committed to running their refineries “safely and reliably in an environmentally responsible manner,” but noted that the company also bears a responsibility to its shareholders. “We pay one of the higher dividends in our industry,” Dill said. Nadia Levine, meanwhile, says conditions at the refinery — and communication about incidents — don’t seem to have improved since PBF took over. “It all seems to be cloaked in secrecy,” she said. Jie Jenny Zou is a reporter at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. This story was produced in collaboration with Southern California Public Radio.
News Article | February 17, 2017
In 2010 the mining industry’s $22m campaign against Kevin Rudd’s resources tax helped bring down a prime minister. For years it has spent huge sums on donations and advertising and lobbying to exert enormous political influence. But the deep-pocketed miners really don’t like it when those with different views find the cash and the smarts to wield some clout. The latest squeal came this week in an appearance by the Minerals Council of Australia before the joint standing committee on electoral donations, which seems likely to reach a bipartisan consensus on banning foreign donations to political parties and other organisations that might influence the outcome of elections – including associated entities (like unions or fundraising foundations) and activist groups like GetUp. While a ban on foreign donations is, in my view, a good idea, and broader reform of political donation laws is screamingly necessary if politics is to be saved from itself, the MCA seemed mostly intent on using the process to maximise the impact of any changes on environmental groups campaigning against new coalmines. In its submission the MCA listed the declared political expenditure of Greenpeace, the Climate Institute, WWF-Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation in 2015-16 (just under $582,000 combined) and compared it with the MCA’s own political expenditure for the same period ($789,706). This conveniently omitted another $2.48m in political expenditure declared by ACA Low Emissions Technology (an associated company which grew from the coal industry’s fund for researching “clean coal” but which can now be used for “promoting the use of coal both within Australia and overseas and promoting the economic and social benefits of the coal industry”.) Then again, the appearance wasn’t really focused on self reflection about the political impact of the miners’ own lobbying efforts. They argued environmental groups should have to disclose their donors, including foreign donors, and should categorise much more of what they do as “political expenditure” that has to be declared to the Australian Electoral Commission. I generally agree on the first point. Emails leaked last year showed foreign donors were bankrolling the campaign to prevent the development of the Adani coalmine. It would be far better for such arrangements to be transparent. The arguments also highlight the complexity of defining which organisations should be hit by a ban, or new disclosure rules, and in relation to what proportion of their operations. Any ban has to extend further than the parties themselves otherwise foreign donations will be channelled through the equivalent of the US political action committees. But most of the Mineral Council’s biggest members are multinationals, listed on Australian and overseas stock exchanges. Could their membership fees or fighting fund donations be used for the MCA’s political campaigns if foreign donations were banned? Should their individual contributions be revealed? What about campaigns like the one a few years back by Peabody, then the world’s largest private-sector coal company, which teamed with the global PR firm Burson-Marsteller to produce a website and social media push targeting China, the US and Australia, called “Advanced Energy for Life”, with the stated aim of “educating and mobilising world leaders, multinational organisations, a wide range of institutions and stakeholders and the general public to end the crisis of global energy poverty” (by supporting the greater use of coal, of course). Some environmental groups are also global entities. But most say their foreign donations are tiny – in the case of ACF less than 1% of income over the past 10 years, and similarly small for GetUp, which voluntarily declares all its revenue and income anyway. And not everything the miners or the greenies do is designed to influence the outcome of elections, so how far do we go with any bans or new transparency requirements? And who would be caught by increased requirements for disclosure? The Institute of Public Affairs runs campaigns that are obviously political but doesn’t disclose its funders. The Australia Institute doesn’t make its donors public either. What about donations from the foreign-owned Adani itself? But the miners appeared only worried about the greenies, having already helped convince a separate inquiry to recommend that conservation groups should have limits placed on the amount of advocacy work they can do (as opposed to on the ground “environmental remediation”) if they want to receive tax-deductible status. “The MCA is not questioning the right of environmental groups to pursue objectives or to raise money for this purpose,” the council says in its submission to the current inquiry, but adds “no organisation should be allowed to pursue an undeclared political campaign with undisclosed foreign donations.” The political battle over the legitimacy of the coal industry is fierce, and the miners have, of late, been trying to stage a fight back – this week launching the sequel to their somewhat mocked “Little Black Rock” campaign promoting high efficiency coal-fired generation plants – TV ads, a website and a social media campaign under the new slogan “Making the Future Possible”. It makes a whole range of debatable claims, including that the International Energy Agency forecasts Australia’s coal exports to grow by 18% out to 2040, which is true, but only under the scenario where the world does nothing more about climate change and warms by at least three degrees. That kind of fact checking is all part of a proper public debate, where, despite the miners’ best efforts, the idea that coal really isn’t part of the long-term future appears to be winning. It would be a terrible shame if electoral laws were used in a desperate attempt hobble that argument, and an even bigger shame if attempting it did anything to undermine a bipartisan effort to clean up politics.
News Article | November 12, 2015
The Science Museum will not renew a controversial sponsorship deal with Shell in which the oil company provided significant funding for its high-profile climate change exhibition. The museum in London answered a freedom of information request saying: “No, the Science Museum Group [formerly the National Museum of Science & Industry] does not have plans to renew its existing sponsorship deal or initiate a new deal or funding agreement with Royal Dutch Shell.” The Shell arrangement – the value of which has not been made public – will lapse in December despite the fact that the museum’s director argued in June that such external funding was vital at a time of declining government funding. Critics have previously attacked the choice of a fossil fuel company as a funder for the museum’s Atmosphere gallery on climate science and said emails show Shell sought to influence the programme. However, current and former directors of the museum have rejected the charges, saying no curatorial changes had been made on Shell’s behalf. Chris Garrard, of campaign group BP or not BP?, which discovered the deal would not be renewed, called on the museum to end its relationship with BP as well. “It’s no secret that Shell relentlessly lobbies against measures to tackle climate change – but the Science Museum went ahead with this ill-advised deal nonetheless. This is a step in the right direction, but the museum needs to stop legitimising the fossil fuel industry completely by ditching its deal with BP too,” he said. Ian Blatchford, the museum’s director, has defended the sponsorship, saying: “I know some people will have a broader disagreement with our decision to form partnerships with corporations such as Shell. I respect their right to hold that opinion, but I fundamentally disagree.” The Science Museum told the Guardian it had not changed its position, and the five-year deal was simply coming to an end. It did not rule out future partnerships with Shell. “For the avoidance of doubt, we have a long-term relationship with Shell, with whom we remain in open dialogue. We may or may not enter into partnership agreements with Shell in the future,” a spokesman said. Former director Chris Rapley, who approved the Shell deal, did not want to comment. He has robustly defended the sponsorship, saying the museum needed the funding and that disengagement from oil companies was “too simplistic” because society still relied on their products. The lapsing of the deal will be seen as a blow to Shell after it was forced out of the Prince of Wales’s climate change project earlier this year because of its efforts to drill for oil in the Arctic. Last year, toy firm Lego also ended its partnership with the oil company after a sustained campaign by Greenpeace, which said Shell’s polar plans were at odds with the Danish company’s green image. A Shell spokesperson said: “Shell and the Science Museum have a longstanding relationship, based on shared interests such as the need to inspire young people about science. Shell will continue to be a supporter of the museum and we look forward to maintaining our strong relationship into the future.” Shell has successfully lobbied in Europe to undermine targets for renewable energy, which is seen by the world’s top climate science panel as key in tackling climate change. In September, the company shelved its plans for Arctic drilling off the coast of Alaska, conceding privately that opposition from environmentalists had played a part in its decision. Campaigners against fossil fuel sponsorship in the arts said the Science Museum’s decision not to renew its deal with Shell would put pressure on other top cultural institutions to do the same. BP has deals in place worth £10m over five years with Tate, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum and the Royal Opera House. Shell is a sponsor of the National Theatre on London’s Southbank. Anna Galkina of the art and environment group Platform London, which this year won an FOI battle to force the Tate to reveal how much it was paid by BP, said: “Tate is among four other cultural institutions that have BP sponsorship deals that expire at the end of 2016. They’re going to be deciding what to do on that. So really the Science Museum news should be a useful prod to reconsider these relationships, especially with the Paris climate talks coming up.” However, the director of the Museums Association said that the issue was not straightforward. “I think that’s too much of a black and white way of approaching it,” said Sharon Heal of the idea that all museums and galleries should stop taking money from oil companies. “Obviously we do recognise that museums are in a difficult place in terms of their public funding environment. However they are in a good place in terms of public trust and the public don’t want to see that abused or misused through any sponsorship arrangements.” National institutions such as the Science Museum face budget cuts of between 25 and 40% as part of the government’s comprehensive spending review, details of which are due to be announced on 25 November, she said. Heal added that museums had been encouraged by the government to develop alternative sources of income. Activists are planning to target the Louvre in Paris during the UN climate summit that opens in three weeks’ time, over the art gallery’s ties with French oil company Total and Italian oil company Eni.
News Article | February 17, 2017
There is a flickering, bright glimmer of sky as the two-person submarine descends beneath the muddy equatorial waters to a place no human has ever seen – a vast, complex coral reef at the mouth of the world’s greatest river. Thirty metres under the murky plume of the sediment-heavy Amazon, the sub enters a darker, richer world. A school of curious remora fish approaches the two-tonne machine. Crabs and starfish loom in its eerie lights. A metre-long amberjack swims past, then a two-metre ray. At a depth of 80 metres, the pilot pauses to record large mounds of coral covered in rainbow-coloured pygmy angelfish, wrasses and parrotfish. There are sponges 30ft long. At 120 metres the sub settles on the nearly level ocean floor in a field of soft coral, sea whips and fans. The pilot manoeuvres its remote cameras to within inches of the reef wall. It consists mainly of sponges and colourful rhodolith beds – masses of coral-like red algae – which are formed by chemical synthesis and thrive in the low light. Most of the world’s shallow reefs are in trouble due to bleaching, climate change and fishing, but this one is pristine. Its wall is full of minute grooves and cracks, each hole and fissure home to something alive. Small, brave crabs approach the sub and raise their claws as if to defend themselves against this alien monster. There are four Brazilian oceanographers, ecologists and marine scientists taking turns to dive in the sub from the Greenpeace boat Esperanza. For them, the chance to observe the reef, which they and others discovered three years ago after dredging brought up corals, is as thrilling as winning the World Cup. Last year, based on chemical analysis of the plume and measurements of oxygen levels, they estimated the reef to be about 600 miles long, to cover 3,600 square miles, and be about 30 to 120 metres deep. They thought it was biologically relatively impoverished compared to other equatorial reefs, but nevertheless they recorded more than 60 species of sponge, 73 species of fish, spiny lobsters, stars and other reef life. Their find left marine ecologists flabbergasted. There is no record of any coral reef at the mouth of a major river because sunlight can barely penetrate the plume of sediment, so photosynthesis, the driver of most coral reefs, cannot happen. “We found a reef where the textbooks said there shouldn’t be one. We think it is unique,” said Fabiano Thompson, an oceanographer of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on board the Esperanza. Now, in a handful of dives, they must totally revise their findings, he said. “We have identified at least three new fish species, seen possibly 40 species new to the area, found large numbers of critically endangered fish, and a corridor through the reef allowing fish to pass from the Caribbean through to southern Brazil. “Not only is the reef far deeper and richer than what we thought, it is bigger and far more important to science,” said Thompson. “It is a megabiome, a major ecological community of plants and animals with its own endemic species. This makes everything we published out of date. We are rewriting the textbooks.” Ronaldo Francini-Filho, an ecologist from Paraíba University, said: “We have realised quickly that our knowledge is completely out of date. In just one dive we counted double the number of species that we thought were here. We thought it was a scattered reef with about 20 species. Now we know it is maybe three times the size and has possibly hundreds of species. It is gigantic. We are talking of something of global significance. “I have dived 6,000 times and I have never seen anything like this. On a scale between interesting and amazing, this is beyond believable. We can definitely say it is a hotspot of biodiversity, on the same level as the Great Barrier Reef. It is far deeper than we ever expected, and far richer in species. Yet we have barely scratched the surface.” “Its discovery raises so many questions. We want to know how it functions, and what are its environmental drivers. This could rewrite the ecology of the whole Amazon. We must now see the river, the forest and the reef working together, interconnected, and making up the richest biodiversity in the world – a mega biome,” said Francini-Filho. But the scientists are now racing the oil companies. Even as the Amazon reef is found and gives up its secrets, BP, Total and Brazilian oil companies are preparing to start exploratory drilling for what they estimate to be 15-20bn barrels of oil at depths of more than 1,000 metres. The Brazilian government has already licensed 80 blocks off the coast of Amapá, with the closest just five miles from the reef. For Greenpeace, which has paid for the submarine to allow the scientists to explore the reef ahead of any drilling, the stakes are equally high. “This is oil’s new frontier and we must stop the oil being exploited. This oil must never be used. The reef is a natural wonder of the world. We cannot open up this new frontier if we want to keep temperatures to 1.5C [above pre-industrial levels],” said Thiago Almeida, a Greenpeace campaigner. “This biome may change our understanding of reefs, even the oceans. If there is one reef here, where else are they? On scientific grounds alone they should not be allowed to drill. There is always the risk of another oil spill. Imagine what would happen here if there was contamination. It would wreck the reef, kill the coast and the largest mangrove forest in the world,” he said. BP says its drilling would not affect the reef, and that any spill would be swept by currents away from the land. In a statement to the Guardian, it said: “BP operates one block, and has non-operating interests in others operated by Total. The BP-operated block is about 160km (100 miles) offshore in water depths between 2.4 and 3.4km. The reef system that is described in the 2016 study is in much shallower water and approximately 35km distant from the BP block. “BP expects to begin exploratory drilling operations before August 2018. There is no certainty that any commercial quantities of oil will be discovered by this exploration. The initial exploration phase would be expected to be short term and onshore activity would primarily involve only supporting the transport and change of the crew of the drilling rig via the existing airport in Oiapoque.” “BP’s primary focus is on the prevention of oil spills. Drilling operations will only begin after a drilling licence is granted by Ibama [the Brazilian environment agency]. Our analysis shows that, even in a worst case scenario, there is a very high probability that any oil would flow away from the reef area,” said the company. Getting permission to drill will not be easy, said Silvana Grott, a spokeswoman for the independent Brazilian government public prosecutor in Macapá, the capital of the state of Amapá which is closest to the reef. “We are investigating. We want more information from BP, Total and Ibama. We will look very closely at what they say and then consult our specialist experts. The oil companies have said there will be no impact on the reef but we are worried about pollution. They have not told us about possible direct and indirect effects on the reef or on land, or about their ability to clean up a spill,” she said. “We start friendly. If necessary this will move to the courts. We have the power to stop the drilling. It could take BP and Total a long time, but we hope to resolve this by the end of 2017.” Thompson says he would hate to see the pristine reef he and others discovered polluted by oil. “Can oil companies operate with a reef like this so close? I think not. We must do everything to ensure that no oil ever approaches the coral.”
News Article | April 2, 2012
Mauritania's waters are crowded. Twenty-five miles out to sea and in great danger from turbulent seas are small, open pirogues crewed by handfuls of local fishermen, taking pitifully few fish. Also here within 50 miles of us are at least 20 of the biggest EU fishing vessels, along with Chinese, Russian and Icelandic trawlers and unidentifiable pirate ships. We are closest to the Margaris, a giant 9,499-tonne Lithuanian factory trawler able to catch, process and freeze 250 tonnes of fish a day, and a small Mauritanian vessel, the Bab El Ishajr 3. Here too, in the early mists, its radio identification signal switched off, is Spanish beam trawler the Rojamar. The Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace's 40-year-old former ice-breaker, is shadowing one of Britain's biggest factory trawlers – the 4,957-tonne Cornelis Vrolijk. Operated by the North Atlantic Fishing Company (NAFC), based in Caterham, Surrey, it is one of 34 giant freezer vessels that regularly work the west African coast as part of the Pelagic Freezer Association (PFA), which represents nine European trawler owners. The ship, which employs Mauritanian fish processing workers aboard, is five miles away, heading due south at 13 knots out of dirty weather around Cape Blanc on the western Saharan border. By following the continental ledge in search of sardines, sardinella, and mackerel, it hopes to catch 3,000 tonnes of fish in a four- to six-week voyage before it offloads them, possibly in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands. But, says NAFC managing director Stewart Harper, while most of its fish will end up in Africa, none will go to Mauritania, despite the country facing a famine in parts. "Unfortunately Mauritania does not yet have the infrastructure to handle cargoes of frozen fish or vessels of our size," he says. The west African coast has some of the world's most abundant fishing grounds, but they are barely monitored or policed, and wide open to legal and illegal plunder. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, all west African fishing grounds are fully or over-exploited to the detriment of over 1.5 million local fishermen who cannot compete with them or feed their growing populations. Heavily subsidised EU-registered fleets catch 235,000 tonnes of small pelagic species from Mauritania and Moroccan waters alone a year, and tens of thousands of tonnes of other species in waters off Sierra Leone, Ghana, Guinea Bissau and elsewhere. A further unknown amount is caught by other countries' vessels, but the individual agreements made between west African countries and foreign companies are mostly secret. Despite possible ecological collapse, and growing evidence of declining catches in coastal waters, west African countries are now some of the EU's most-targeted fishing grounds, with 25% of all fish caught by its fleets coming from the waters of developing countries. Willie MacKenzie, a Greenpeace ocean campaigner, said: "Europe has over-exploited its own waters, and now is exporting the problem to Africa. It is using EU taxpayers' money to subsidise powerful vessels to expand into the fishing grounds of some of the world's poorest countries and undermine the communities who rely on them for work and food. The EU has committed some €477m for agreements with Mauritania over the past 10 years, essentially paying for vessels like the Cornelis Vrolijk to be able to access these waters," he adds. According to the PFA, about 50 international freezer-trawlers are active in Mauritanian waters at any one time, of which 30 originate from countries such as Russia, China, Korea or Belize. "By targeting fish species that cannot be fished by local fishermen, we avoid disrupting local competition and growth and always fish outside the 12-13 mile fishing limit for our type of vessel," says a spokesman. "Not all international operators active in Mauritanian waters meet the EU's safety and environmental standards. This threatens our efforts to foster sustainable practices in the region." Greenpeace says the over-exploitation of African fisheries by rich countries is ecologically unsustainable and also prevents Africans from developing their own fisheries. It takes 56 traditional Mauritanian boats one year to catch the volume of fish that a PFA vessel can capture and process in a single day. Since the 1990s, the once-abundant west African waters have seen a rapid decline of fish stocks. Local fishermen say their catches are shrinking and they are forced to travel further and compete with the industrial trawlers in dangerous waters unsuitable for their boats. "Our catch is down 75% on 10 years ago. When the foreign boats first arrived there was less competition for resources with local fishermen and fewer people relied on fishing for food and income. Governments have become dependent on the income received by selling fishing rights to foreign corporations and countries," says Samb Ibrahim, manager of Senegal's largest fishing port, Joal. "Senegal's only resource is the sea. One in five people work in the industry but if you put those people out of work then you can imagine what will happen. Europe is not far away and Senegal could become like Somalia," said Abdou Karim Sall, president of the Fishermen's Association of Joal and the Committee of Marine Reserves in West Africa. "People are getting desperate. For sure, in 10 years' time, we will carry guns. The society here destabilises as the fishing resource is over-exploited. As the situation become more difficult, so it will become more and more like Somalia," he said. There is now growing concern that illegal or "pirate" fishing is out of control in some waters. According to the UN, across the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, losses to illegal fishing amount to about $1bn a year – 25% of Africa's total annual fisheries exports. Guinea is thought to lose $105m of fish to pirate fishing a year, Sierra Leone $29m, and Liberia $12m. An investigation by Greenpeace and the Environmental Justice Foundation in 2006 found that over half of the 104 vessels observed off the coast of Guinea were either engaging in or linked to illegal fishing activities. Surveillance and monitoring of overfishing is now urgently needed or fish stocks will collapse, leading to humanitarian disasters in many countries, says the UN. Increasingly, ships are transferring their catches to other vessels while at sea, rather than directly off-loading in ports. This conceals any connection between the fish and the vessel by the time the fish arrives on the market, meaning the true origin of the catch is unknown. However, the PFA says banning EU vessels from African waters would not be sensible. In a statement it said: "Less regulated, less transparent and less sustainable fishing operators would replace the European vessels. This would be a bad deal for Europe and the African countries we partner with. "They would see less strategic infrastructure investment, reduced transfer of skills and knowhow, as well as scientific research and more depleted fish stocks. And in Europe we would damage a viable part of EU's fishing economy to the benefit of countries such as China. "All of the fish caught by the PFA is destined for west-central African communities rather than consumers in developed countries. In fact, the fish caught and distributed by the PFA is often the only source of essential protein for the people in countries such as Nigeria." • John Vidal's travel costs to Senegal were paid by Greenpeace. The NGO had no say over editorial content.
News Article | February 15, 2012
The inner workings of a libertarian thinktank working to discredit the established science on climate change have been exposed by a leak of confidential documents detailing its strategy and fundraising networks. DeSmogBlog, which broke the story, said it had received the confidential documents from an "insider" at the Heartland Institute, which is based in Chicago. The blog monitors industry efforts to discredit climate science. The scheme includes spending $100,000 for spreading the message in K-12 schools that "the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain - two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science", the documents said. It was not possible to immediately verify the authenticity of the documents, although Heartland issued a statement on Wednesday claiming at least one document was fake, and that it was the victim of theft and forgery. However, Anthony Watts, a weathercaster who runs one of the most prominent anti-science blogs, Watts Up With That?, acknowledged Heartland was helping him with $90,000 for a new project. He added: "They do not regularly fund me nor (sic) my WUWT website, I take no salary from them of any kind." Watts, in an email, did not mention the entire cost of his temperature station initiative but said: "Heartland simply helped me find a donor for funding a special project." "There is nothing I can tell you," Jim Lakely, Heartland's communications director, said in a telephone interview. "We are investigating what we have seen on the internet and we will have more to say in the morning." Lakely made no attempt to deny the veracity of information contained in the documents. The Heartland Institute, founded in 1984, has built a reputation over the years for providing a forum for climate change sceptics. But it is especially known for hosting a series of lavish conferences of climate science doubters at expensive hotels in New York's Times Square as well as in Washington DC. If authentic the documents provide an intriguing glimpse at the fundraising and political priorities of one of the most powerful and vocal groups working to discredit the established science on climate change and so block any chance of policies to reduce global warming pollution. "It's a rare glimpse behind the wall of a key climate denial organisation," Kert Davies, director of research for Greenpeace, said in a telephone interview. "It's more than just a gotcha to have these documents. It shows there is a co-ordinated effort to have an alternative reality on the climate science in order to have an impact on the policy." The Valentine's Day exposé of Heartland is reminscent to a certain extent of the hacking of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit in 2009. Those documents helped sink the UN's climate summit later that year. In this instance, however, the Heartland documents are policy statements – not private email correspondence. Desmogblog said they came from an insider at Heartland and were not the result of a hack. The documents posted on Desmog's website include confidential memos of Heartland's climate science denial strategy, its 2012 budget and fundraising plan, and minutes from a recent board meeting. The fundraising plan suggests Heartland is hoping for a banner year, projecting it will raise $7.7m in 2012, up 70% from last year. The papers indicate that discrediting established climate science remains a core mission of the organisation, which has received support from a network of wealthy individuals – including the Koch oil billionaires as well as corporations such as Microsoft and RJR Tobacco. The documents confirm what environmental groups such as Greenpeace have long suspected: that Heartland itself is a major source of funding to a network of experts and bloggers who have been prominent in the campaign to discredit established science. Heartland is anxious to retain its hold over mainstream media outlets, fretting in the documents about how Forbes magazine is publishing prominent climate scientists such as Peter Gleick. "This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out," Heartland documents warn. But the cache raises an equal number of questions – such as the identity of an anonymous donor that has been a mainstay of Heartland. The unnamed donor, who contributed $4.6m in 2008, has since scaled back contributions. Even so, the donor's $979,000 contribution in 2011 accounted for 20% of Heartland's overall budget, the fundraising plan says According to the fundraising document Heartland hopes to bump that up to $1.25m in 2012 [click for PDF]. The importance of one or two wealthy individuals to Heartland's operations is underscored by a line in the fundraising document noting that a foundation connected to the oil billionaire Charles Koch had returned as a donor after a lengthy hiatus with a gift of $200,000 in 2011. "We expect to ramp up their level of support in 2012 and gain access to the network of philanthropists they work with," the document said. Heartland hopes to cash in on its vocal support for the controversial mining method known as fracking, the document suggests. Heartland operates on a range of issues besides the environment. But discrediting the science of climate change remains a key mission. The group spends $300,000 on salaries for a team of experts working to undermine the findings of the UN climate body, the IPCC. It plans to expand that this year by paying a former US department of energy employee to write an alternative curriculum for schoolchildren that will cast doubt on global warming. The fundraising plan notes the anonymous donor has set aside $100,000 for the project. The plan also notes the difficulty of injecting non-scientific topics in schools. "Heartland has tried to make material available to teachers, but has had only limited success. Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective. Moreover, material for classroom use must be carefully written to meet curriculum guidelines, and the amount of time teachers have for supplemental material is steadily shrinking due to the spread of standardized tests in K-12 education," the fundraising plan said. The documents suggest several prominent voices in the campaign to deny established climate science are recipients of Heartland funding. They include, according to the documents, a number of contrarian climate experts. "At the moment, this funding goes primarily to Craig Idso ($11,600 per month), Fred Singer ($5,000 per month, plus expenses), Robert Carter ($1,667 per month), and a number of other individuals, but we will consider expanding it, if funding can be found," the documents say. Whether these funding arrangements actually exist cannot be verified. However, Heartland's website notes that Idso, Singer, and Carter were commissioned to write a report for the organisation.
News Article | March 1, 2017
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Authorities in Democratic Republic of Congo have expelled a Greenpeace employee and a filmmaker following a trip to forest communities affected by industrial logging.
News Article | February 14, 2017
More than half of the British public believe air pollution levels across the UK are damaging to their health and almost two-thirds back proposals for new laws to tackle the issue, according to research. Canvassing the views of 1,670 adults, the survey found that 58% believed the current levels of air pollution in the UK to be either harmful or very harmful to health, a figure that rose to 73% among Londoners. What’s more, 65% of those polled said they would support a new Clean Air Act to tackle the issue. The study, undertaken by YouGov, was commissioned by the environmental law organisation ClientEarth on behalf of the campaign for a new Clean Air Act. Launched this week, the campaign is a coalition of organisations, charities and activists – including Greenpeace, the British Lung Foundation and Sustrans – calling for fresh legislation to reduce air pollution. “This poll clearly shows that people across the UK want the prime minister to get serious about the toxic and illegal levels of air pollution,” said James Thornton, the chief executive of ClientEarth which is leading the coalition. “This is an urgent public health crisis over which the prime minister must take personal control,” he added. “She must listen to the country and come up with a credible plan that will reduce air pollution as soon as possible, so we are not choking on illegal levels of pollution until 2025 or beyond. The time for excuses is over.” Poor air quality is a growing issue in cities around the world and is linked to a host of health problems, including heart failure, strokes and dementia. “It’s no exaggeration to say that air pollution is a public health crisis. It contributes to up to 40,000 early deaths a year across the UK,” said Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation. “Toxic air is a risk to everyone but hits those with a lung condition, children and the elderly hardest.” The problem is acute. Last month it was found that parts of London had exceeded their annual legal limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the first five days of the year, while January’s cold, still weather exacerbated problems across swaths of the UK, with multiple regions rated as having high or very high pollution levels, and the capital put on high alert. Last week, the European commission announced it was escalating action against the UK for its failure to keep to agreed limits on air pollution. But while the study suggests the majority of Britons would back attempts to improve air quality, the fervour appears to be split along Brexit lines. Those who voted to leave the EU were less concerned about air pollution, less likely to support the banning of diesel vehicles in areas of high pollution, and were less inclined to place the burden of addressing the problem on the government’s shoulders; while 67% of remain voters held the government among those chiefly responsible for keeping our air clean, only 47% of leave voters felt the same. By contrast both camps strongly believed the motor industry and other businesses linked to air pollution should lead the way. What’s more, while half of remain voters said air pollution had worsened over the last eight years, those who voted leave were more sanguine, with only 36% believing the problem had grown. Although 57% of leave voters support a new Clean Air Act, with mooted measures including reducing traffic and shifting to low-emission vehicles, only 33% felt that when Britain leaves the EU, there should be stronger laws on air quality in Britain. More than half of remain voters said they supported stronger laws. Simon Birkett, founder and director of Clean Air in London, part of the new coalition, stressed the need for action, adding that any legislation should ensure powers and responsibilities are given to the mayor and local authorities to tackle the problem. “Sixty years after the first Clean Air Act, which fought respiratory problems from short-term exposure to visible air pollution from coal and wood burning, we need a new Clean Air Act to address newly understood health effects that include heart attacks and strokes from long-term exposure to invisible air pollution from diesel fumes,” he said. A government spokesperson defended current plans to tackle the issue. “We are firmly committed to improving the UK’s air quality and cutting harmful emissions. We have committed more than £2bn since 2011 to increase the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles, we support greener transport schemes, and have set out how we will improve air quality through a new programme of clean air zones. “In addition, in the autumn statement, we announced a further £290m to support electric vehicles, low-emission buses and taxis, and alternative fuels. We will update our air quality plans in the spring to further improve the nation’s air quality.” Guardian Cities is dedicating a week to investigating one of the worst preventable causes of death around the world: air pollution. Explore our coverage in The Air We Breathe and follow Guardian Cities on Twitter and Facebook to join the discussion
News Article | February 15, 2017
It’s about four o’clock in the afternoon on a clear day last November onboard the S/Y Christianshavn, a 54-foot Danish steel sailboat, which is bound to Honolulu from Los Angeles, across the most famous plastic-clogged place on Earth: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As most days on the 23-day journey, I spend my free time in the cockpit on the lookout for trash. Every once in awhile I see disturbingly familiar plastic items float by—a pink dustpan, a punctured green condiment bottle, a barnacle-covered Tupperware lid, a white Styrofoam packing wedge. Then I notice a cloudy white blob floating on the water’s surface—hundreds of white plastic pieces, some tiny confettilike bits and some robust, rugged chunks that look like peeled paint chips. I stick my head over the ship’s railing for a closer look. Near the floating mass of white plastic there is something else in the water—something small, finned. Something alive. I watch as a quarter-size blue-green larval fish swims to the surface, opens its mouth and swallows a bit of plastic the size of a pencil eraser. Within moments the fish and plastic have floated away. “You just got a firsthand look at how plastic gets into the food chain,” Kristian Syberg tells me a few minutes later. Syberg is an associate professor of environmental risk at Roskilde University in Denmark and one of two resident scientists onboard the vessel, which has set out to measure the smallest, most toxic pieces of plastic in the ocean, called “microplastic.” Prior to this voyage scientists have never before searched for plastic deep in the Pacific Ocean water column. “It’s the smallest fish that eat the most plastic and become toxic. Then the middle-sized fish eat those smallest fish and become a little more toxic. Then the larger fish eat those middle-sized fish and become even more toxic. And then we eat the largest fish…,” he notes. Suddenly, I think twice about consuming the mahi-mahi we’ve caught for dinner that night. Plastic can be detected in the bodies of more than 50 percent of the world’s sea turtles. Scientists estimate 90 percent of all seabirds have ingested plastic at some time in their lives. Fish, too, contain plastic and appear to consume it in large quantities when it is available. Although there is a huge amount of plastic trash that has accumulated on land, much of the world’s plastic resides in the oceans, where it is deposited after being whisked there by the wind from land, being dumped at sea or on the shore or being carried there in runoff from rivers and streams. Scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. Current estimates put the oceans’ total plastic load at 165 million tons. But that is just based on plastic samples collected from surface trawling. More microplastic found at greater depths in the oceans means scientists might be greatly underestimating the total amount of plastic in the ocean—and its total effect. Syberg’s expedition entails collecting water samples and trawling this famous stretch of ocean for evidence of microplastic. His group's previous research in the Atlantic Ocean revealed that microplastic exists at a greater depth than previously believed. What is more, a 2016 study found that seafloor animals like lobsters, sea cucumbers and hermit crabs, which can live at depths of up to 6,000 feet, have consumed the stuff. Plastic is so pervasive in the natural environment that if you took a look inside the body of any animal—on land or sea—you would likely find at least a trace of plastic, Syberg says. That includes inside us humans. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “to date no systematic studies can confirm plastic is present in people on a wide scale. Not enough money or attention has been allotted to address this issue.” Although the garbage patch is typically portrayed as “a floating island of plastic trash the size of Texas,” in actuality it only contains the occasional large piece of trash or fishing gear, and is mostly a large soup of microscopic plastic bits, many of which are too small to see with the naked eye. That is because plastic breaks up over time, but never fully breaks down. When plastic is exposed to UV radiation from the sun and mechanical movement of waves, it breaks into little pieces. As I saw firsthand, fish tend to eat small pieces of plastic, mistaking it for plankton, their preferred food source. Research reveals consuming plastics can increase fish mortality by causing behavioral and physical abnormalities such as slowed reaction time and reduced size. Scientists hypothesize these problems are caused by the man-made chemicals plastic absorbs from seawater. The worry now is these tiny toxic pieces of plastic may affect more than just fish—possibly causing cancer in humans, altering our hormones and maybe even killing us. “In a little more than 60 years, we know we’ve littered more than 150 million tons of plastic into the oceans,” says Henrik Beha Pedersen, founder and president of the Danish nonprofit Plastic Change. “Where does it all end up? Is it in the fish? Is it in the birds? Is it on the beaches? Is it on the deep-sea floor? Where has all the plastic gone? Is it in us, us humans?” Over the course of the expedition, Syberg and Malene Møhl, an advisor on chemicals to The Danish Ecological Council and Plastic Change volunteer, trawl for plastic, and additionally gather water at 200 meters down in the water column, flesh samples from fish and bits of seaweed. Back in Denmark it will be Syberg’s responsibility to process the samples, estimating how much microplastic is in the Pacific. He will also test for chemicals in the plastic, fish and seaweed, which will help him determine to what degree plastic acts as a “vector,” soaking up and delivering toxic chemicals in the bodies of living things. It is research that is most helpful in combating our plastic problem, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration agent Mark Manuel, regional coordinator of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Marine Debris Program, whom I meet up with in Honolulu a few weeks after Christianshavn's journey ended in Kewalo Basin Harbor. He says with government environmental agencies—including his own—strapped for cash and staff, it is largely up to nonprofits like Plastic Change to gather data that, when analyzed and published, can push plastic-curbing policies like plastic bag, microbead and Styrofoam bans, which he says appear effective in curbing plastic use and reducing pollution. For example, San Jose, Calif., officials found a 2012 ban on plastic bags in their city helped reduce plastic litter in streets by 59 percent, storm drains by 89 percent and creeks by 60 percent as well as increased consumer use of reusable shopping bags. In the future Syberg hopes he and other researchers will be able to get the funding they need to pursue studies on the effects plastic has on human health—the last big question remaining after the total amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is properly quantified. As of now a substantial portion of the research effort comes from the nonprofit sphere—organizations currently collaborating with scientists to study plastic include 5 Gyres Institute, Mission Blue and Greenpeace. NOAA currently provides grants to nonprofits for plastic education, cleanup, pollution prevention and research projects—such as trash surveys—in the Pacific and in coastal regions across the U.S. Manuel says he has found one of the biggest challenges to getting more data on marine debris and microplastic is garnering enough volunteer help. “Changing behaviors can be hard, but we’ve seen how nonprofits’ research can help get policies passed,” says Manuel, a Big Island native and father of two young sons. “It can be hard to incentivize spending hours counting and cleaning up trash on a beach, for free. Yet the more people that get involved, that help to get the science done…the closer we get to cleaning up this mess.”