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A Project to Turn Corpses Into Compost


Katrina Spade, the founder and director of the Urban Death Project, monitoring the temperature of a mound of wood chips that contains a human body.Credit Mike Belleme for The New York Times

Cullowhee, N.C. — The body of the tiny 78-year-old woman, gray hair falling over stiffened shoulders, was brought to a hillside at Western Carolina University still clad in a blue hospital gown and chartreuse socks.

She was laid on a bed of wood chips, and then more were heaped atop her. If all goes as hoped, the body will turn into compost.

It is a startling next step in the natural burial movement. Even as more people opt for interment in simple shrouds or biodegradable caskets, urban cemeteries continue to fill up. For the environmentally conscious, cremation is a problematic option, as the process releases greenhouse gases.

Armed with a prestigious environmental fellowship, Katrina Spade, a 37-year-old Seattle resident with a degree in architecture, has proposed an alternative: a facility for human composting.

The idea is attracting interest from environmental advocates and scientists. The woman laid to rest in wood chips is a first step in testing how it would work.

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Our Chemical Lives

Over 80,000 chemicals are used in everyday products. We handle them, they're in our water, our food and in the air we breathe. It's impossible to escape them. But now there's growing concern that these chemicals are not safe.

Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher

FEB. 21, 2015

For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.

One of the names they invoke most often is Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. He has often appeared on conservative news programs, testified before Congress and in state capitals, and starred at conferences of people who deny the risks of global warming.

He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

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Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA

February 23, 2015

Book Author: Evaggelos Vallianatos with McKay Jenkins

Reviewed by: Carol Van Strum

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” Richard Feynman famously declared in 1966. Ever quick to challenge accepted wisdom, he distinguished the laudable ignorance of science, forever seeking unattainable certainties, from the dangerous ignorance of experts who professed such certainty.

Twenty years later, he would drop a rubber ring into a glass of ice water to show a panel of clueless rocket experts how willful ignorance of basic temperature effects likely caused the Challenger shuttle disaster (1).

Experts with delusions of certainty create imitative forms of science, he warned, producing “the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisors.” (2)

Feynman’s warning against faith in the phony trappings of “cargo cult science” fell on deaf ears. Policies affecting every aspect of our lives are now based on dangerous forms of ignorance.

A prime case in point is the noble edifice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where a high-ranking EPA official was recently jailed and fined for collecting pay and bonuses for decades of non-existent work while he claimed to be working elsewhere for the CIA. Such long-standing fraud would hardly come as a surprise to Evaggelos Vallianatos, who toiled for a quarter of a century in the EPA’s Pesticide Division, ostensibly responsible for protecting human health and the environment from commercial poisons. His new book, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA, documents a culture of fraud and corruption infesting every corner and closet of the agency.

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Water Use: 

The dead trees and fallen leaves near Chernobyl aren’t decaying

March 17, 2014 | by Janet Fang

Photo credit: Radioactivity warning sign on a hill at the east end of Red Forest / Timm Suess via Wikimedia
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It’s been nearly 30 years since the catastrophe at Chernobyl, and as the cleanup grinds on, the far-reaching effects continue to be documented. Birds with smaller brains, increasing spiders, decreasing butterflies, all these and more have been reported from the areas surrounding Chernobyl. One group you don’t hear very much about are the decomposers -- those bugs, microbes, fungi, and slime molds who nourish themselves by consuming the remains of dead organisms. Without these recyclers, carbon, nitrogen, and other elements essential to life would be locked in plant corpses.

The effects of radioactive contamination on the decay of plant material remains unknown… until now. Scientists examining the forests around Chernobyl have found that radioactive contamination has reduced the rate of litter mass loss. The dead leaves on the forest floor, along with the dead pine trees in the infamous Red Forest, don’t seem to be decaying -- even a couple decades after the incident.

“Apart from a few ants, the dead tree trunks were largely unscathed when we first encountered them,” study researcher Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina tells Smithsonian. “It was striking, given that in the forests where I live, a fallen tree is mostly sawdust after a decade of lying on the ground.”

Mousseau and an international team led by Anders Pape Møller from Université Paris-Sud decided to investigate the accumulation of litter, which was two to three times thicker in the areas where radiation poisoning was most intense. They predicted that decomposing rate would be reduced in the most contaminated sites due to the absence or reduced densities of soil invertebrates and microorganisms.

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Vermonters Lobby for Public Bank—And Win Millions for Local Investment Instead

Advocates didn’t get the public bank they wanted. But the compromise they reached in the end was still a rare and significant win over Wall Street banks.

Alexis Goldstein posted Jan 07, 2015

Right before 2014 came to a close, Wall Street won an enormous victory in the year-end spending bill. The so-called “CRomnibus” bill, which included language written by Citigroup lobbyists, gutted a key piece of Wall Street reform meant to prevent future bailouts of big banks with taxpayer money.

This win came after the financial industry spent years chipping away at the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which passed in 2010. Wall Street lobbyists gained little victories along the way, but never stopped asking for more. By making bold and ongoing asks, Wall Street was able to win, even when lawmakers sought a compromise.

There’s another group of Americans, however, with a different agenda for the future of banking—people who are also pushing hard for policy change. They’re advocates of public banking, and they want to see new banks created that would be owned and operated by the government, usually at the state or city level. (This would greatly increase the amount of investment capital available for small business development, local infrastructure, and affordable public transportation, none of which are much favored by private banks seeking a high return on investment.)

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“Dude, why didn’t you just sue these people?”: Portrait of an environmental whistleblower

Salon speaks with embattled biologist Tyrone Hayes, subject of a new mini-documentary

by Jonathan Demme

In an era where scientists are eyed with suspicion and science itself is treated as something to be debated by politicians and industry lobbyists, the last thing you’d ever want to be is the researcher whose findings conflict with corporate interests. You might find yourself followed, your reputation dismantled, your very well-being threatened — all of which happened to University of California-Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes when he discovered that atrazine, one of our most commonly used herbicides, might be causing gender and reproductive deformities in frogs, with potential implications for human health.

Hayes’ research was enough to provoke a years-long war between him and Syngenta, the company that manufactures atrazine; the saga already got the 8,000-word treatment last year in the New Yorker as well as in a 2011 Mother Jones story. But filmmaker Jonathan Demme told Salon he felt there was even more to add to Hayes’ story, which he produced in mini-documentary form for the first episode of “The New Yorker Presents,” a new series streaming on Amazon Prime.


Obama administration proposes drilling off Carolinas coast


The Charlotte ObserverJanuary 27, 2015

An Obama administration plan for drilling off the Atlantic coast could rekindle an old debate pitting the lure of oil and gas revenues against North Carolina's environment and its tourist industry.

The Interior Department on Tuesday proposed offering one drilling lease for sale in 2021 in federal waters off the Carolinas, Virginia and Georgia, the first since the 1980s. The department plans 13 other sales in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaska coast.

With Tuesday's announcement, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, the agency seeks to "build up our understanding" of deposits and environmental risks. Drilling would begin only after environmental studies, public comment and a finding that it is consistent with state coastal management policies.

The Obama administration reopened the East Coast from Delaware to Florida to offshore exploration last July, allowing seismic testing that can pinpoint deposits under the sea floor.

Most of the 10 testing applications before the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management include North Carolina, indicating that the industry views its coast as a sweet spot for drilling. Testing could begin this year.

"Generally speaking, we are geographically well positioned here in that a large portion of the Mid-Atlantic resource is off the North Carolina coast," said David McGowan of the N.C. Petroleum Council.

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EPA Still Slow to Study Toxic Chemicals, Despite Obama Pledge

David Heath / Center for Public Integrity
5:00 AM ET

It might sound arcane as a presidential priority, but it was a big deal at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Political interference from the Bush White House had delayed or derailed dozens of the EPA’s findings on potential health risks posed by toxic chemicals.

Some of those findings applied to chemicals to which all of us are exposed. Formaldehyde is in our kitchen cabinets and carpet. Arsenic is in our drinking water and rice. EPA scientists had determined that both of these carcinogens were more deadly than previously thought. Yet, officially, the agency remains unable to say so or to do anything about it.

On her first day on the job, Lisa Jackson, the new EPA administrator, sent employees a memo echoing the president’s promise to divorce politics from science. The agency has said it needs to assess 50 chemicals a year to do its job properly. Yet in the Bush years it was averaging only five assessments a year. Jackson quickly rolled out a plan to break through the logjam.

The plan seemed easily achievable. It required no congressional approval and involved tweaking the inner workings of bureaucracy. Republicans never passed any legislation to block it.

Yet the Obama administration’s plan has been a failure. In the past three years, the EPA has assessed fewer chemicals than ever. Last year, it completed only one assessment. Today, the agency has even embraced measures sought by the chemical industry that have led to endless delays.

“Of late, the administration has displayed a disturbing tendency to retreat in the face of a blistering and self-serving industry campaign to stifle this vital program once and for all,” said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor who closely follows the EPA’s chemical assessment program.

The story of how this happened is a lesson in how Washington works.

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