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1 Woman, 8 Years of Effort & 28,000 Turtles Saved: An Incredible Conservation Story

1 Woman, 8 Years of Effort & 28,000 Turtles Saved: An Incredible Conservation Story

One of India’s most hardworking conservationists, Arunima Singh has won the NatWest Group Earth Heroes Save the Species Award 2021 for her exemplary efforts towards saving turtles, tortoises, crocodilians and Gangetic dolphins.

In late October this year, Arunima Singh was conferred with the NatWest Group Earth Heroes Save the Species Award 2021 for her exemplary grassroots conservation efforts to safeguard north Indian freshwater turtles and tortoises, crocodilians and Gangetic river dolphins.

Since 2013, Arunima, a resident of Lucknow and staff of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) – India, has used various initiatives to further the cause of conservation — from educating over 50,000 children from rural and urban communities about conserving freshwater reptiles through formal and informal means in Uttar Pradesh, to assisting with rescue, rehabilitation and release of over 28,000 turtles, 25 Gangetic dolphins, 6 marsh crocodiles and 4 gharials in the last 8 years.

Over the years, Arunima’s efforts have led to many changes.

Through the joint Uttar Pradesh Forest Department and TSA India Program for Aquatic Biology, she was instrumental in establishing assurance colonies for more than 10 species of turtles and most of which are critically endangered. Her efforts further bolstered rear and release programmes for certain imperiled turtle species such as Indian Narrow-headed Softshell Turtle (Chitra indica).

Moreover she helped sensitise and built capacities of hundreds of frontline forest department staff and veterinarians. Her research has facilitated understanding the breeding of a few elusive species. If this wasn’t enough, she has also been on the frontline of operationalising on-site care for tens of thousands of turtles rescued from clandestine trade.

As Dr Shailendra Singh, the Director of TSA India Program, said upon receiving news of the award, “Arunima has been one of the most remarkable conservationists in the country, single-handedly attending to several wildlife distress calls. Her research on elusive freshwater turtle species, the Crowned River Turtle (Hardella thurjii), has provided watershed moments for scientific turtle conservation communities and aids our organization in the development of species-specific conservation strategies.”

But it was a visit to the Kukrail Gharial Rehabilitation Center (KGRC) at the start of her Master’s course in Life Science from Lucknow University in 2010 that set her on the path of conservation.

“Dr. Shailendra gave me an insight into how I could be involved with wildlife conservation in the long term and gave me opportunities to obtain a greater understanding of it in areas like the Chambal Valley. In 2011, I began doing some volunteering work with the TSA and enrolled in a small awareness and educational programme at Lucknow University for wildlife conservation. Upon completing my Master’s degree, I got involved full time in conservation work of endangered freshwater turtles, tortoises and other aquatic species. At present, I’m also pursuing a PhD focussing on freshwater turtles,” she says.


Satish Jain at moratmarit.com

Scientists are mapping the world’s underground fungi network to fight climate change

Scientists are mapping the world’s underground fungi network to fight climate change

‘You can think of fungal networks as kind of the coral reefs of the soil,’ says biologist Toby Kiers

There is a global blind spot in the fight against climate change, says evolutionary biologist Toby Kiers, and she is on a quest to map it out.

Kiers is leading a team of scientists known as the Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN) to study networks of fungi across the world.

“We’ve documented their importance for decades, but this work has largely been inaccessible,” she said.

The biologist says the overlooked organism sustains much of life on Earth by isolating carbon from plants, but through increasing land use changes, various types of fungi get destroyed.

Kiers spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about her plans to create a global map of fungi. Here is part of their conversation.

Toby, why do you want to map the world’s fungi?

They’ve been a total global blind spot in conservation and climate agendas. They’re this ancient life support system [and] they need to be mapped the same way that ocean currents and global vegetation are mapped.

People who dig and garden, who know what the soil looks like, can [they] see these things?

They’re just too small to see with the naked eye. They’re thinner than threads of cotton. 

But what they do is they form these living nutrient highways between plant roots and the soil. So if you wanted to be able to see underground, you would see these plant roots become colonized by the symbiotic fungi…. Plants feed carbon to these fungi in exchange for phosphorus and nitrogen that the fungi collect out in the soil. 

This is what we’re doing in my lab right now…. We see these nutrient highways that are full of carbon and phosphorus and other kinds of nutrients.

The fungi mycelium network is like a series of ‘living nutrient highways,’ says evolutionary biologist Toby Kiers. (Loreto Oyarte Galvez)

When you talk about mapping it … how much territory does this cover?

If you hold even a handful of soil in your hand, that’s about 100 kilometres of fungal networks. So they’re incredibly dense. Like 50 per cent of the living biomass in these soils is fungal network. 

When we talk about mapping, what we’re talking about is actually understanding who is where. The biodiversity of these fungi. So we have to go out and take those samples and extract the DNA and look for these fungal networks and look for the biodiversity hotspots.

You can think of fungal networks as kind of the coral reefs of the soil. They’re the ecosystem engineers, but they’re completely invisible to the naked eye. And so people haven’t been focused on them as a conservation priority.

Toby Kiers, evolutionary biologist

Why do you think it’s necessary for conservation that we should have a map of these networks?

These fungal networks are disappearing at an alarming rate. 

The destruction of the underground really accelerates climate change, biodiversity loss and interrupts all of our global nutrient cycles. 

You can think of fungal networks as kind of the coral reefs of the soil. They’re the ecosystem engineers, but they’re completely invisible to the naked eye. And so people haven’t been focused on them as a conservation priority.

This initiative, I think it signals sort of an emergence of a new underground climate movement.

Toby Kiers, far left, and her team are embarking on a quest to map the world’s fungi. (Seth Carnill)

What are the chief threats, then, to these networks of fungi?

Networks are really threatened by agricultural expansion, by deforestation, by urbanization. 

Urbanization, in particular with layers of concrete, it’s very hard for these fungal networks to survive. And so one of the things we’re doing is advocating, for example, for a living roof — the green roofs — because surprisingly, these fungal networks, they actually can disperse by spores in the air. And so if we have things like living roofs that form these corridors, it can help fungal networks survive big urbanization centres.

What you’re saying is not just the urbanization of the planet, but also farming itself … the use of chemicals and tillage, right? That’s how most of our agriculture is done. So what needs to change, then?

There’s really compelling data suggesting that pesticides and fertilizers are really disrupting the symbiosis between plant roots and their fungal networks. And this is bad for agriculture because if you have an agricultural system with a healthy fungal network, it can keep the nutrients in the ecosystem. But as soon as the network is gone, you have leaching. [There is] about 50 per cent more leaching in the absence of a fungal network.

A fungal network with reproductive spores containing nuclei. (Vasilis Kokkoris)

When you’re looking at things like beautiful trees and rainforests or coral reefs, they are so lovely to look at. When you’re talking about fungi, though, we can’t even see it. It’s underground. What message do you have for people [on] how to understand and to appreciate what you’re talking about?

What we’re saying to people is to try to switch our mentality about what it means to conserve … and not necessarily always focus on high-priority or high-profile plants and animals. 

Focus on things that we can’t see as structures and flows.

We’re developing some of the first visuals of what these fungal networks look like when they’re underground. And they look like nutrient rivers.

They have very complex flows inside of them because … this carbon and phosphorus and nitrogen and all of the organelles of the fungi [are] moving through. And it’s a giant pipe system, and you can actually watch the behaviour of these fungi as they navigate [the] landscape. 

Watching the flows inside of them really changes people’s perspective about walking on top of them.


Mehek Mazhar & Kate Swoger at CBC Radio

South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

South Africans took to their beaches on Sunday to protest against plans by Royal Dutch Shell to do seimsic oil exploration they say will threaten marine wildlife such as whales, dolphins, seals and penguins on a pristine coastal stretch.

A South African court on Friday struck down an application brought by environmentalists to stop the oil major exploring in the eastern seaboard’s Wild Coast, rejecting as unproven their argument that it would cause “irreparable harm” to the marine environment, especially migrating hump-back whales. read more

The Wild Coast is home of some of the country’s most undisturbed wildlife refuges, and it’s stunning coastal wildernesses are also a major tourist draw.

At least 1,000 demonstrators gathered on a beach near Port Edward, a Reuters TV correspondent saw.

“It’s just absolutely horrendous that they are even considering this. Look around you?” said demonstrator Kas Wilson, indicating an unspoilt stretch of beach. “It’s unacceptable and … we will stop it.”

Shell officials were not immediately available for comment, but the company said on Friday that its planned exploration has regulatory approval, and it will significantly contribute to South Africa’s energy security if resources are found.

But local people fear the seismic blasting conducted over 6,000 square kilometres will kill or scare away the fish they depend on to live.

“I don’t want them to operate here because if they do we won’t be able to catch fish,” said 62-year-old free dive fisherwoman Toloza Mzobe, after pulling a wild lobster from the ground. “What are we going to eat?”

Environmentalists are urging Shell and other oil companies to stop prospecting for oil, arguing that the world has no chance of reaching net zero carbon by 2050 if existing oil deposits are burned, let alone if new ones are found.

Earlier this year, a Dutch court ordered Shell to reduce its planet warming carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels, a decision it plans to appeal.

South Africa’s environment ministry referred Reuters to a statement late last month that “the Minister responsible for environmental affairs is … not mandated to consider the application or to make a decision on the authorisation of the seismic survey.”

South Africans protest against Shell oil exploration in pristine coastal area

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A protestor joins a demonstration against Royal Dutch Shell's plans to start seismic surveys to explore petroleum systems off the country's popular Wild Coast at Mzamba Beach, Sigidi, South Africa, December 5, 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

What is seismic blasting?

The process involves blasting the seafloor with highly powered airguns at intervals, and then measuring the echoes, which helps map out oil and gas reserves.

The process can continue for weeks or months at a time. The sound of the blasts can travel for hundreds of kilometers.

Ecologists believe the exploration technique could upset the behavior of marine animals including their feeding, reproduction and migration patterns, especially animals like whales who depend on their sense of hearing.

Why are people protesting?

There are fears the prospecting activity will have a devastating impact on marine life.

The area Shell is planning to explore is known as the Wild Coast along the country’s eastern coastline. It’s a popular tourist area and environmental groups regard it as an ecologically sensitive marine sanctuary. 

“It’s just absolutely horrendous that they are even considering this. Look around you!” said demonstrator Kas Wilson. “It’s unacceptable and… we will stop it,” he said.

“Seismic blasting on the Wild Coast will not only destroy precious ecosystems but will also impact local communities, all in the name of profit,” Greenpeace Africa said in a tweet.

Local fishermen believe the prospecting will have an impact on their livelihoods. “I don’t want them to operate here because if they do we won’t be able to catch fish,” said fisherwoman Toloza Mzobe.

Shell says discoveries will be good for South Africa

However, Shell has said that its exploration had received regulatory approval and that its activity would contribute significantly to South Africa’s energy sector if resources were discovered.

The oil company plans to spend four to five months exploring in the region. Speaking to AFP in November, a company spokesman said: “We take great care to prevent or minimize impacts on fish, marine mammals and other wildlife.”

But environmentalist contend that there will be no chance of meeting net zero carbon emissions targets by 2050 if prospecting for new reserves is allowed to continue.


Siyabonga Sishi via Reuters

kb/jsi at DW News

Polaris announces full specs for all-electric Ranger XP Kinetic UTV

Polaris announces full specs for all-electric Ranger XP Kinetic UTV

Last September, Polaris and Zero Motorcycles announced their “rEV’d up” collaborative program, aimed at the development of electric off-road vehicles. The first product to result from that initiative is Polaris’ Ranger XP Kinetic UTV, which can now be reserved for a 2022 delivery.

Initially teased back in March, the side-by-side/two-seater Ranger XP Kinetic UTV (utility task vehicle) is being offered in two models – the Ultimate and the Premium.

The Ultimate delivers 110 HP and 140 lb-ft (190 Nm) of torque, a sub-four-second 0 to 40 mph (64 km/h) acceleration time, plus the ability to tow up to 2,500 lb (1,134 kg) and carry as much as 1,250 lb (567 kg) in its cargo box. One charge of its 29.8-KWh lithium-ion battery pack should reportedly be good for a range of approximately 80 miles (129 km).

Some of its other features include 14 inches (356 mm) of ground clearance; 29-inch Pro Armor X-Terrain Tires on 14-inch wheels; a 7-inch vehicle data/navigation touchscreen display; LED headlights and tail lights; a full-body skid plate; integrated winch and plow mounts; along with a 12-volt power port in the cargo box.


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The Premium offers most of those same features, the main difference being that it has a 14.9-KWh battery pack that delivers a range of 45 miles (72 km).

On both models, users can switch between between Eco-plus, Standard and Sport drive modes as the situation dictates. Additionally, the vehicle will automatically switch from two-wheel-drive to all-wheel-drive whenever a loss of traction is detected – it can also be switched on demand.

nterested parties can reserve a vehicle now, via either the Polaris website or a Polaris dealer. Pricing for the Ultimate starts at US$29,999, with the Premium coming in at $24,999.

Shipments should begin next summer (Northern Hemisphere). In the meantime, you can see the Ranger XP Kinetic in action, in the video below.

All-Electric RANGER XP Kinetic | Polaris Off Road Vehicles


Ben Coxworth at New Atlas

Sperm is being used to create an eco-friendly alternative to plastic

Sperm is being used to create an eco-friendly alternative to plastic

A new eco-friendly plastic made from salmon sperm has been invented by scientists in China.

Two short strands of DNA from the sperm were combined with a chemical from vegetable oil that binds them together. What this creates is a squishy material known as hydrogel.

From here the gel is then moulded into different shapes and freeze-dried to remove the moisture, which makes it solidify. Researchers have already created a cup, puzzle pieces and a DNA molecule from the eco-friendly plastic.

Researchers have already created a cup, puzzle pieces and a DNA molecule from the eco-friendly plastic.

Though the team of Chinese scientists created their raw materials from salmon sperm, DNA carries the genetic code for every living thing on Earth. A study from 2015 estimates that there are around 50 billion tonnes of DNA on the planet.

That means we could technically make the plastic out of other sustainable sources such as waste material from crops, algae or bacteria.

Is this plastic better than other alternatives?

Plastic is a big problem for the environment as it is made from petrochemicals that require a lot of heat and toxic substances to manufacture. It also takes centuries to break down and very little is recycled – with most ending up incinerated or sent to landfill.

For that reason, a lot of research has been done to find alternatives which are less damaging to our natural environment.

Biodegradable plastics have already been created using materials like cornstarch and algae, but they require a lot of energy to make and can be difficult to recycle.

Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Plastic bottles and other garbage floats in the Potpecko lake near Priboj, in southwest Serbia.Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Dayong Yang and his team at Tianjin University wanted to create a material that solved these problems.

The creation of DNA-based plastic produces 97 per cent fewer carbon emissions than polystyrene plastics, they say. Dipping items created from the material into water turns them back into a gel that can be reformed into new objects meaning it is easy to recycle too. The plastic can be broken down by DNA digesting enzymes if it is no longer needed.

But the new material does have some limitations.

The fact that it can be recycled using water alone means that it would need to be kept dry. While waterproof coatings could be added, this would make it more difficult to recycle.

It could, however, be used for items like electronics that need to be kept dry anyway and some forms of packaging, the researchers believe.


Rosie Frost at euronews.green

‘Deluge of plastic waste’: US is world’s biggest plastic polluter

‘Deluge of plastic waste’: US is world’s biggest plastic polluter

At 42m metric tons of plastic waste a year, the US generates more waste than all EU countries combined

The US is the world’s biggest culprit in generating plastic waste and the country urgently needs a new strategy to curb the vast amount of plastic that ends up in the oceans, a new report submitted to the federal government has found.

The advent of cheap, versatile plastics has created “a global scale deluge of plastic waste seemingly everywhere we look”, the report states, with the US a leading contributor of disposable plastics that ends up entangling and choking marine life, harming ecosystems and bringing harmful pollution up through the food chain.

Plastic waste has increased sharply in the US since 1960, with the country now generating about 42m metric tons of plastic waste a year, amounting to about 130kg of waste for every person in America. This total is more than all European Union member countries combined. The overall amount of municipal waste created in the US is also two to eight times greater than comparable countries around the world, the report found.

Recycling infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the huge growth in American plastic production. Littering, dumping and inefficient waste disposal in landfills has caused up to 2.2m tons of plastic – including everything from plastic bottles and straws to packaging – to “leak” into the environment each year. The total waste may be even greater than this due to data gaps in tracking it.

Much of this plastic ends up, via rivers and streams, in the world’s oceans.

Worldwide, at least 8.8m tons of plastic waste enters the marine environment each year, the equivalent of dumping a garbage truck filled with plastic into the ocean every single minute. If current trends continue, scientists have estimated this total could leap to 53m tons annually by 2030, which is roughly half of the weight of all fish caught from the oceans globally each year.

“Plastic waste is an environmental and social crisis that the US needs to affirmatively address from source to sea,” said Margaret Spring, chief conservation and science officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Spring chaired a committee of experts who compiled the congressionally mandated report for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act introduced by Democratic lawmakers, would be the most ambitious regulation the US plastics industry has ever seen.
The proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, introduced by Democratic lawmakers, would be the most ambitious regulation the US plastics industry has ever seen. Photograph: Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

Spring added: “Plastic waste generated by the US has so many consequences, impacting inland and coastal communities, polluting our rivers, lakes, beaches, bays, and waterways, placing social and economic burdens on vulnerable populations, endangering marine habitats and wildlife and contaminating waters upon which humans depend for food and livelihoods.”

The committee’s report recommends that a new national strategy is required by the end of next year to stem the flow of plastics into the ocean. The strategy, the report states, should aim to slash plastic production, particularly for plastics not reusable or recyclable, help promote alternative materials that can be reused and set better standards for waste collection and capture.

Related post:


A new eco-friendly plastic made from salmon sperm has been invented by scientists in China.

Two short strands of DNA from the sperm were combined with a chemical from vegetable oil that binds them together. What this creates is a squishy material known as hydrogel.

Broader international and industrial trends will influence any effort to cut plastic pollution. The US, along with many other developed countries, used to outsource its waste problem by shipping plastics to China but these imports were halted by the Chinese in 2018. This has led to an increase in plastic waste sent to other countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand, as well as “recycled” plastic being burned in domestic landfills unable to cope with the sheer volume of waste.

The fossil fuel industry, meanwhile, is considering a huge expansion in plastic production as it sees its primary business squeezed due to concerns over the climate crisis. Plastic polymers can be formed from a feedstock of crude oil and the industry is pinning its hopes on a glut of new plastic to flood the market and therefore waterways, beaches and oceans, in the coming years.

“There is an urgency to the issue because production is increasing, waste generation is increasing and therefore leakage impacts have the potential to increase too,” said Jenna Jambeck, a member of the scientific committee behind the report.


Oliver Milman at The Guardian

Maralinga nuclear tests: descendants of displaced buy shares in company planning WA uranium mine

Maralinga nuclear tests: descendants of displaced buy shares in company planning WA uranium mine

Purchase designed to enable Indigenous objections to Mulga Rock project as environmental approval set to expire in three weeks

The descendants of people displaced by nuclear testing at Maralinga bought shares in a company planning to build a uranium mine on their country, in order to lodge an in-person objection to the project.

The proposed Mulga Rock uranium mine, about 240km west of Kalgoorlie, is in an area of land subject to a native title claim by the Upurli Upurli Nguratja people.

The mine is run by Perth-based Vimy Resources, which has just three weeks to convince the Western Australian government that it has met the threshold for substantially commencing development on the site before its environmental approval expires.

The approval was granted five years ago, before the McGowan government was elected on a platform of opposing uranium mining in the state. Premier Mark McGowan has said his government will not approve any new uranium mines but will honour existing approvals.

Mulga Rock’s environmental approval is due to expire on 16 December, unless it can prove it has substantially commenced work on the project. One uranium mine approved around the same time has already fallen over, and the deadline for two more mines is looming in January.

The company received mining approval only in September and began ground clearing this month. It has yet to secure the US$255m (A$357m) required to build the project but filed a notice of substantial commencement with the WA government this week.

Debbie Carmody, an Anangu Spinifex woman and registered Upurli Upurli Nguratjia (UUN) claimant, used shares in Vimy Resources – purchased on behalf of the claimants and environment groups – to gain a seat at the company’s annual general meeting on Perth on Friday and raise her people’s objection in person.

The UUN had invited a representative from Vimy to meet with them earlier this month, but the company cancelled.

They are strongly opposed to uranium mining, and wrote to the government this month to formally state their opposition to the proposal and disappointment in the lack of consultation.

Carmody is a descendent of people displaced by the nuclear tests conducted at Maralinga in South Australia in the 1950s.

She said Vimy Resources was trying to use competing native title claims over the area to divide traditional owners and avoid proper consultation.

“The company is really happy to wedge our community between mining dollars and cultural heritage, so they have been very selective with who they consult with,” Carmody said. “They are supposed to consult with the registered group, not individuals. It’s important that everyone understands that consultation is not consent.”

The UUN claim was filed on 2 December 2020, and the Kakarra Part B claim, which overlaps part of the claimed area, was filed two weeks later. An earlier native title claim by the Wongatha people was rejected by the federal court in 2007.

The company has recognised the Nanataddjarra, Nangaanya-Ku and Wongatha people as stakeholders and recorded two meetings in the past five years.

Carmody said: “After a decade of Vimy denying that there are any Aboriginal people with connection or knowledge of that country, it’s pretty hard to take them seriously when they have denied our existence for so long.”

In a response to Guardian Australia, a spokeswoman for Vimy said the company was unable to attend the 4 November meeting with UUP with eight days’ notice, but had scheduled another meeting for Monday.

The company said it had met with the UUN’s lawyers, the Central Desert Native Title Services, and engaged with the group through its own lawyers as a respondent to the native title claim.

That was not consultation, Carmody said.

Vimy also said it was awaiting the outcome of mediation on the issue of the competing native title claim.

“Vimy understands the significance of engaging with Aboriginal people with knowledge of country at the Mulga Rock Project, and has done so since 2009,” the spokeswoman said. “We look forward to continuing to engage with the Upurli Upurli Nguratja claimants to ensure we meet the highest standards of engagement with all stakeholders.”

The proposed development is near the Seven Sisters women’s dreaming. There are also four registered Aboriginal heritage sites on the project, which Vimy says it plans to avoid.

“As caretakers we have a cultural responsibility to protect land that is near the Seven Sisters, a sacred site for women,” Carmody said. “The land is a special place for women – the beautiful, soft desert sands are healing sands.

“Vimy don’t understand that a site is not just the immediate site but the whole area around it. That whole area is important.”

The site is also home to the endangered sandhill dunnart. Developing a sandhill dunnart conservation plan is a condition of the mine’s federal and state environmental approvals, but the company told Guardian Australia the plan was “still in draft format”.

Mia Pepper from the Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA) said beginning land clearing without having an approved conservation plan was a breach of the project’s federal approval under the Environment, Protection and Biodiversity Act.

The CCWA wrote to the federal and state environment departments earlier this month alleging the company had breached the conditions of its approval and requesting an urgent investigation.

The letter, seen by Guardian Australia, said the WA Department of Mines had informed the CCWA that Vimy had begun clearing to construct a new airstrip in an area recognised as prime sandhill dunnart habitat.

The federal Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment said it was aware of the allegation and was “making a number of inquiries”.

“The department routinely monitors compliance and is not in a position to comment further on this matter,” a spokesperson said.

Vimy rejected the allegations and said it had not undertaken any clearing on the airstrip site and had not cleared outside the development envelope.

It said it had “begun vegetation clearing and soil and growth medium stripping at Mulga Rock East mining area and the location of the accommodation village”.

Pepper said the works undertaken so far should not meet the threshold for substantial commencement.

The company is yet to secure export licences, a licence to hold radioactive material and a permit to establish a nuclear facility, which will be required to build a processing plant.

It has also lost three senior executives in the past few months and is currently steered by an interim CEO. The project itself was subject to a hostile merger offer and is now under strategic review.

“The company has not even made a final investment decision about whether to develop the proposal,” Pepper said. “It’s definitely a long way from where we are now to an established mine.”


Calla Wahlquist at The Guardian

Court hears Steven Donziger’s criminal appeal in Chevron saga

Court hears Steven Donziger’s criminal appeal in Chevron saga

A federal appeals court in Manhattan heard dueling arguments Tuesday over whether to throw out the criminal conviction of environmental lawyer Steven Donziger on constitutional grounds.

Donziger has been imprisoned since Oct. 27 for criminal contempt in connection with his long-running legal battle with Chevron Corp over oil pollution in Ecuador. His lawyers say the private attorneys appointed as special federal prosecutors in his contempt case lacked supervision by a higher U.S. authority, violating the Constitution’s Appointments Clause.

Arguing before a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Donziger’s lawyer Stephen Vladeck said Tuesday that because the special prosecutors acted as officers of the United States without proper supervision, the court must exercise its authority by reining them in.

“Whatever powers district courts still have to appoint a prosecutor to try criminal contempt, that power must be limited,” Vladeck said.

One of the special prosecutors, Rita Glavin, countered that “I do want to say for the record that at no point did we state that we were not under the supervision of the attorney general.”

Donziger, who was disbarred in New York last year, was charged in 2019 with failing to turn over his computer and other electronic devices in the Chevron pollution case. In that case, a Manhattan judge in 2014 barred enforcement in the United States of a $9.5 billion judgment that Donziger won against Chevron in Ecuador, finding it was secured through bribery, fraud and extortion.

A federal judge in Manhattan appointed the special prosecutors after the Department of Justice declined a court referral to prosecute him.

During Tuesday’s arguments, U.S. Circuit Judge Steven Menashi asked Glavin, “if the policy of the United States was they don’t want Mr. Donziger prosecuted, you would abide by that policy?”

“If they directed me to take that position in court, yes,” Glavin responded, adding later that she was subject to “a mix of judicial and executive supervision.”

Justice Department attorney Robert Parker told the panel that the special prosecutors were not acting as officers of the United States to begin with, undercutting Donziger’s Appointments Clause argument.

Donziger, meanwhile, has continued to generate support outside the courtroom. On Monday, nine members of Congress sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland asking his office to “rectify the unprecedented and unjust imprisonment of Mr. Donziger.”

The case is United States v. Donziger, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-2486.


Sebastien Malo via Reuters

New lead testing method could reveal higher levels in water

New lead testing method could reveal higher levels in water

For years, testing of the tap water in an upscale Detroit suburb showed the city was in the clear. Then residents got a notice seemingly out of the blue: Their water could be contaminated with elevated levels of lead.

The city of Royal Oak had not made drastic changes to its water. It was simply using a new testing method that showed lead levels high enough that the utility was legally required to inform residents about the problem.

“We wanted to start a family, so hearing about lead in our drinking water was a little daunting,” said Nicole Obarto, who moved to Royal Oak with her husband in 2017.

In coming years, communities around the country could be in store for similarly unsettling news as U.S. officials consider adopting a more rigorous sampling method for lead in water. What happened in Royal Oak in 2019 offers a preview.

After the Flint water crisis, Michigan passed the country’s most aggressive lead measures, including more stringent testing of water. When using methods similar to what is currently required by the Environmental Protection Agency, testing of 170 systems in Michigan with lead lines resulted in 11 samples that exceeded the federal lead level requiring corrective action. When using another method like the one the EPA is reviewing and could soon mandate nationally, the figure doubled to 22.

Nicole and Simon Obarto, holding a lead and copper analysis of water from the Oakland County Health Division, stand outside their home in Royal Oak, Mich., on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. The couple had their water line tested for lead and the results were high enough to have the lead service line replaced. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

With an even more thorough testing method Michigan adopted, it climbed to 31.

Other states are likely to see more elevated lead results as well under new testing; lead pipes still deliver water to millions of homes and businesses, a relic of the country’s outdated infrastructure.

“We should expect to see a very large number of utilities that are in compliance with the current rule no longer being in compliance,” said Daniel E. Giammar, an environmental engineering expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

Testing for lead involves turning on the tap and collecting a sample. Currently, federal regulations require sampling the first liter of water out of the tap. The new rule under review would leave the tap on longer to collect the fifth liter. Instead of water sitting near the faucet, the change is intended to test water that sits in the lead service lines that connect buildings to water mains.

A cut lead pipe is pulled from a dig site for testing at a home in Royal Oak, Mich., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Communities with lead pipes could see higher test results for lead in their tap water if a new method of water sampling goes into effect. The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak historically had low test results but it had to notify the public of a problem after the state mandated new sampling methods. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The new approach is part of the Trump administration’s overhaul of a rule that regulates lead and copper in drinking water. Under the revamped rule, utilities with lead service lines would also have to confirm a building is served by lead lines before including it in sampling pools. When tests show lead levels at 10 parts per billion, the rule would require systems to address corrosion control, a treatment that helps prevent lead in pipes from seeping into the water. Water systems must take actions — such as replacing lead service lines — at 15 ppb.

The new rule was set to be implemented in early 2024, but the Biden administration delayed it to conduct a review after advocacy groups said it should require faster and more complete replacement of lead service lines.

The EPA plans to announce the results of its review by mid-December, and advocacy groups are hopeful the agency will keep the new lead sampling method intact — or make it even stricter. Environmental groups have been pushing the agency to require sampling of both the first and fifth liters, similar to the approach in Michigan.

Though data is limited, roughly 25% to 40% of water systems with lead service lines could breach the 10 ppb trigger level under the new rule requiring testing of the fifth liter and only buildings with lead lines, said David A. Cornwell, president of Cornwell Engineer Group, which provides consulting for water systems. A recent paper co-authored by Giammar used sampling data from 294 major water systems to estimate the new rule may push as many as 90% of systems above the trigger level.

A crew breaks the concrete floor as they replace the lead water main with copper tubing at a home in Royal Oak, Mich., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Communities with lead pipes could see higher test results for lead in their tap water if a new method of water sampling goes into effect. The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak historically had low test results but it had to notify the public of a problem after the state mandated new sampling methods. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

How much of a change a city sees will depend on factors like the effectiveness of its corrosion control and the characteristics of its water, said Mark A. Edwards, a Virginia Tech water treatment researcher.

Still, some experts and environmental groups say many cities are not prepared for the change and should be taking more aggressive action in the meantime.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no amount of lead in drinking water is considered safe. Young children are especially vulnerable since exposure can slow their cognitive development and cause other health problems. Elin Warn Betanzo of Safe Water Engineering, a consulting firm, said water systems may have limited information on safety because of their sampling methods.

“They’ve used the absence of data to back up their statements that the water is safe,” she said.

Acrew pushes new copper tubing as they replace the lead water main at a home in Royal Oak, Mich., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Communities with lead pipes could see higher test results for lead in their tap water if a new method of water sampling goes into effect. The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak historically had low test results but it had to notify the public of a problem after the state mandated new sampling methods. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

To avoid alarming people under the new sampling method, utilities should inform customers about the measures they’re taking to minimize lead exposure, said Steve Via, director of government relations at the American Water Works Association, which counts water utilities as members. He said utilities have worked for years to reduce lead levels, but that government funding for the work has been limited.

The recently passed infrastructure bill will provide $15 billion to replace lead service lines and the reconciliation package pending in Congress includes billions more. Some experts say it won’t be enough to fully rid the country of lead pipes.

In Royal Oak, sampling between 2014 and 2017 came back at 4 ppb and 2 ppb — below the federal guideline of 15 ppb requiring action. When the city began testing both the first and fifth liters in 2019, levels shot up to 23 ppb.

In the first 24 hours after residents were alerted, a hotline to field questions got more than 300 calls, said Judy Davids, a community engagement specialist for Royal Oak. Normally, she said even four calls a day about a single topic is a red flag in the city of about 60,000.

A discarded lead pipe is shown after crews replaced with copper fixtures at a home in Royal Oak, Mich., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. Communities with lead pipes could see higher test results for lead in their tap water if a new method of water sampling goes into effect. The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak historically had low test results but it had to notify the public of a problem after the state mandated new sampling methods. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The city distributed water filters and advised residents in buildings with lead service lines to flush their systems for at least five minutes. Work identifying and replacing lead pipes was accelerated, according to Aaron Filipski, the city’s director of public services and recreation.

After being notified of the risk, Obarto and her husband were relieved when blood tests didn’t indicate any problems from lead exposure. But testing in their home showed lead levels high enough to bump them up the list for new service lines.

Carol Mastroianni, another Royal Oak resident, worried about her twins, now in their 20s. She recalled encouraging them to drink water when they were young, thinking it was safe to do so from the tap.

“It’s like, ‘Oh gosh, is this going to counteract all of the good I thought I was doing?’” she said.

Still, Mastroianni said the new testing method is a positive step. Since the city began working to fix the problem, lead test results have dropped below the federal action level.

“When you know better, you can do better,” she said.


Michael Phillis via Associated Press

Okaloosa Darter saved from extinction

Okaloosa Darter saved from extinction

Federal officials this week announced a major conservation milestone for the once-endangered Okaloosa Darter. The small fish that inhabits streams mostly located on Eglin Air Force Base is now being proposed for delisting.

“Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove the Okaloosa Darter from the federal endangered species list,” said Shannon EstenozU.S. Department of Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, making the the announcement Tuesday near Anderson Pond on Eglin property, which is home to much of the Okaloosa Darter population.

“There are only two ways off the list. Once you’re on the list, there are only two ways off. Either you go extinct or you recover, and the first, of course is a tragedy and the second is a triumph, so I’m really excited to be here to celebrate this triumph and moment for the darter and everyone who’s been working so long.”

Okaloosa Darter saved from extinction

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Bill Tate, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist, watches two Okaloosa darters in a fish viewing box. More than 90 percent of the darter's stream habitat is found on the Eglin Air Force Base reservation. (Air Force photo by Jerron Barnett)

Estenoz notes she was just five years old in 1973, when Congress passed the Endangered Species Act and the Okaloosa Darter was classified as “endangered” and added to the Endangered Species List.

Recently back from the U.N. Climate Summit in Scotland, she said one could draw a straight line between the work that’s been done at the local level for the Okaloosa Darter – to – the intersecting crisis of climate change and biodiversity loss being experienced globally. Addressing the issue, she said, will include building a renewable energy future, reducing carbon emissions, and conserving nature.

“You know, President Biden set a goal, the first national conservation goal. He said we’re going to conserve 30% of our land and water by 2030. And, we’re going to do it the only way we know how, which is how you guys have done it here.”

The Okaloosa Darter is now a success story, coming back from the brink of extinction, largely due to the long-term commitment of the U.S. Air Force and the staff from Eglin Air Force Base, including its Natural Resources and Management division known as Jackson Guard.

Estenoz also noted the importance of partnerships with organizations including the U.S. Geological SurveyU.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceFlorida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and Loyola University at New Orleans.

“I’m very happy that the species is approaching recovery,” said Dr. Frank Jordan, a professor and chairman of Biological Sciences at Loyola-New Orleans. Along with colleague Howard Jelks of the Geological Survey, Jordan has been studying the Okaloosa Darter for nearly 30 years, conducting summer field research at Eglin since 1992.

“Our work actually preceded the recovery plan,” he began. “We had actually started studies on where Okaloosa Darters lived in the streams that they inhabit, what we call the micro-habitat. And, in the process, we were snorkeling to find the fish. We discovered that was a very easy way to locate and count them.”

Okaloosa Darter saved from extinction

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In April 2007, WUWF caught up Jordan and his team as they lying in the middle of the stream, snorkels on with their heads submerged, in Mill Creek on the Eglin Golf Course, where a major habitat restoration project was underway.

In this section of the creek, he hasn’t seen any yet, “They haven’t made it this far yet.”

At that time, Dr. Jordan described their search for the tiny Okaloosa Darter as looking for needles in a haystack.

“The darters are 2-3 inches long and they like to hang out in the substrate along the edges, where there are lots of place to hide, provides cover from predators,” he explained.

“So, we’re moving away debris and substrate material and looking around and trying to find the darters. It shouldn’t be too hard because most of the darters that they’ve caught recently they’re marked, so they have neon colors on their backs, big racing stripes on their backs.”

Pondering the notion of big racing stripes on a two-inch fish brings a few chuckles.

Dr. Jordan was joined hosting students from the Young Women’s Leadership School of Harlem. They were helping to create habitat by planting a grass-like, aquatic plant called Sparganium, along the water’s edge. And, they, too, were looking for the small fish.

“Oh man, look there’s another one behind me,” exclaims one of the girls.

Soon, the Okaloosa Darter began to show up in the newly restored areas of the creek and Dr. Jordan seemed to be pleased.

“But, the habitat looks really good. It looks like a natural stream already. So, the darter should…be if you build it they should come.”

And, they have come.

Back in 1973, the Okaloosa Darter numbered few than 10,000 – close to disappearing forever. Today, there are more than 600,000 swimming in six stream systems in Walton and Okaloosa counties, with over 90% located entirely on land managed by the U.S. Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base (AFB).

As a result of years of conservation efforts, more than 480 acres of Eglin AFB stream erosion has been reduced, fish barriers have been removed and stream habitat has been restored.

Col. Joseph Augustine, Vice Commander of the 96th Test Wing thanked all who contributed and touted the big impact of the tiny fish on the local environment, noting that for the future such conservation work is essential.

“Of all the questions which can come before this nation, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land an even better land for our descendants than it is for us,” Augustine stated.

In 2011, the Fish & Wildlife Service was able to downlist the Okaloosa darter from “endangered” to “threatened.” In 2018, a five-year review of the species was initiated. And, it is this data on current status and future population projections that is now serving as the foundational science for the proposal to delist.

“There is a very small number of people on this planet who can say, ‘I brought a species back from the brink of extinction,” Asst. Interior Sec. Estenoz declared with pride.

Loyola University’s Frank Jordan is one of those few people, after countless summers with dozens of students monitoring the Okaloosa Darter.

“It feels great is the short answer,” he acknowledged. “It makes all those long days laying in that very cold water, it makes it all worthwhile.”

To help ensure the fish remains healthy and secure from the risk of extinction after it is delisted, a draft post-delisting monitoring (PDM) plan has been created. Public comment on the monitoring plan and the proposal to delist the Okaloosa darter will be received until Jan. 18, 2022.


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