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Daily Report: Environment

Stories to make you rethink your relationship to water

March 15, 2013, 1:50 PM | Kelly Chen, California Watch

We drink it, we bathe with it, we even swim in it – but we may not often think about water. What is the source of the water we're drinking? What happens when whole communities don't have access to clean water? Here are four stories that explore how we interact with water.

We spend $11 billion a year on bottled water, but we don’t really know where it comes from

Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones reports most of us don’t know where our water comes from, due, in part, to regulations around bottled water. “In order to be called ‘spring water,’ according to the EPA, a product has to be either ‘collected at the point where water flows naturally to the earth’s surface or from a borehole that taps into the underground source,’ ” Sheppard writes. “Glacier water” and “mountain water” aren’t regulated by the EPA.

In some parts of unincorporated California, wastewater backs up into toilets, sinks and showers

Max Whittaker/Prime Francisco González pours bleach into pits where he diverts his washing machine and kitchen sink. ...

How NASA scientists are turning LA into one big climate change lab

March 4, 2013, 11:49 AM | John Metcalfe, Climate Desk

John Metcalfe/The Atlantic Los Angeles on a "clear" day, as seen from atop the CLARS monitoring station, which remotely tests the atmosphere above more than two dozen points in the Los Angeles Basin.

Southern California’s Mount Wilson is a lonesome, hostile peak – prone to sudden rock falls, sometimes ringed by wildfire – that nevertheless has attracted some of the greatest minds in modern science.

Today, Mount Wilson is the site of a more terrestrial but no less ambitious endeavor. Scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and elsewhere are turning the entire Los Angeles metro region into a state-of-the-art climate laboratory. From the ridgeline, they deploy a mechanical lung that senses airborne chemicals and a unique sunbeam analyzer that scans the skies over the Los Angeles Basin. At a sister site at the California Institute of Technology, researchers slice the clouds with a shimmering green laser, trap air samples in glass flasks and stare at the sun with a massive mirrored contraption that looks like God’s own microscope...

PetSmart selling unregistered pesticide products despite state order

December 5, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch


About two months after the state’s environmental agency ordered a major pet products retailer to immediately cease selling unregistered pesticide products, many of those products remain on the retailer’s shelves and website.

“It’s illegal to sell a product that makes pesticidal claims in California unless it has been registered by both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Pesticide Regulation,” said Lea Brooks, a spokeswoman for California’s Environmental Protection Agency and its Department of Pesticide Regulation.

In September, the pesticide department fined Phoenix-based PetSmart nearly $400,000 for selling 33 unregistered pesticide products [PDF] to California consumers. The products ranged from dog and cat shampoos to reptile cage liners. Once a product is registered, the state can evaluate it for toxins, which could be transferred from animals to humans.

The state's requirement applies to retailers, not product manufacturers. According to Brooks, the retailer...

Air Force ships Calif. radioactive waste to Idaho landfill

November 9, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, California Watch

A Periam Photograph/Shutterstock

After California regulators refused to allow the U.S. Air Force to label residue from radioactive aircraft instruments as “naturally occurring” – declaring it unsuitable for a Bakersfield-area dump – the military turned to Idaho with the same story.

There, military officials met with success. The Air Force is now sending radioactive waste from Sacramento County’s McClellan Air Force Base to a Grand View, Idaho, hazardous waste landfill.

This solution involved a bit of legal semantics rejected in California despite 10 months of Air Force lobbying: The military claimed radium dust left over from glow-in-the-dark aircraft instruments actually was naturally occurring, putting it the same relatively lax regulatory category as mine tailings, according to government memos obtained by California Watch through a public records request.

Larry Morgan, a health physicist with the California Department of Public Health, disagreed with that characterization. Radioactive paint does not “meet the definition” of naturally occurring waste, he wrote in a September 2011 memo.

The Idaho facility’s permit allows it to accept materials defined as natural without notifying state regulators...

Facebook gives cash to N. Calif. town over traffic concerns

November 8, 2012, 12:05 AM | Matt Drange, The Bay Citizen

Noah Berger/For The Bay Citizen Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park 

Facebook’s move to Menlo Park late last year has created a small windfall for one of the richest communities on the Peninsula.

The town of Atherton, a wealthy enclave near the new Facebook campus, received $350,000 from the social media giant last month to allay its concerns over increased traffic.

Now the question for the town of 7,000 people is what to do with the cash.

“We’re not in a big hurry to spend the money,” said Atherton Mayor Bill Widmer. “We have a number of issues we’re looking at.”

The payment is the smallest Facebook has made to appease its new hometown and neighboring communities.


East Palo Alto, one of the poorest cities in the region, received $650,000 from Facebook to compensate for increased congestion on its streets.

Menlo Park, meanwhile, received $1.1 million to finance street improvements and other projects to handle the thousands of employees working at the new location.

Facebook also will pay Menlo Park at least $8.5 million over the next 10 years to offset the loss of local sales taxes formerly generated by Sun Microsystems, the computer software company that used to occupy the space Facebook now calls home. Menlo Park does not levy a sales tax on...

New environmental curriculum corrects plastic bag information

October 29, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch


The state’s Environmental Protection Agency finalized a revision of a controversial K-12 environmental curriculum on plastic bags Friday.

California Watch reported last year that whole sections of an 11th-grade teachers' edition guide for a new curriculum had been lifted almost verbatim from comments and suggestions submitted by the American Chemistry Council, the chemical and plastics industry trade group.

That investigation spurred politicians and state regulators to demand an examination into how the controversial text was compiled and changed, and whether industry bias was present.

State schools chief Tom Torlakson issued a statement saying his office would work with Cal/EPA to examine the material and identify areas “where further review may be warranted.”


And state Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, also called for an investigation, to which Cal/EPA responded by saying it would review the chapter.

The new text provides more updated statistics on plastic bag consumption and recycling rates, many of which were provided by California Watch in its story on the...

Matches made in food heaven get scientific explanation

October 9, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch


It’s not just researchers who have noticed that people enjoy a nice glass of dark, red wine with their steaks.

But they now know why.

Common knowledge suggests that it is the cleansing sensation people appreciate in astringent foods such as a vinegary salad, a cup of tea or a lemon sorbet. Wine acts in the same way.

But a team from Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Monell Chemical Sense Institute – a Philadelphia-based nonprofit scientific organization focused on the senses of taste and smell – says it’s more.

The research is published in this week's Current Biology.

"We were not setting out initially to determine why steak and wine go together. It was more theoretical," said Paul Breslin of Rutgers University and the Monell Chemical Senses Center. 

"Fat makes the mouth overly lubricated and astringents make the mouth underlubricated," Breslin said. "So we wanted to test the idea that these two sensations were at opposite ends of oral lubrication sensations. And if this were true, they should oppose one another the...

Big earthquakes can trigger temblors across globe, USGS says

September 28, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

USGS The incidence of magnitude 5.5-or-greater earthquakes increased across the globe after a magnitude 8.6 temblor an April. 

A large earthquake in one part of the globe can trigger earthquakes elsewhere, according to new research by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Berkeley.

The global aftershocks are fairly immediate, taking place within a week of the original large quake, the researchers said. And the observation might require seismologists to change their definition of an aftershock, from one that stresses quakes caused in the immediate region of an earthquake to one that can occur anywhere.

“Earthquakes are immense forces of nature, involving complex rock physics and failure mechanisms occurring over time and space scales that cannot be re-created in a laboratory environment,” USGS Director Marcia McNutt said in a press statement.

“A large, unusual event such as the East Indian earthquake last April is a once-in-a-century opportunity to uncover first order responses of the planet to sudden changes in state of stress that bring us a little closer to understanding the mystery of earthquake generation,” she said...

Biofuel startups turn to cosmetics, health supplements for profits

September 27, 2012, 12:05 AM | Tia Ghose, California Watch

Oleksii Sagitov/Shutterstock

Once a promising source of green energy, high-tech biofuel is being eclipsed by skin cream and food products as manufacturers shift to more lucrative products.

After Congress enacted a renewable fuel standard in 2005, more than a dozen Bay Area companies joined the race to design new biofuels. The idea was to use genetically engineered microorganisms or other novel techniques to convert renewable crops into fuel with half the carbon emissions of gasoline.

So far, however, the push to use new technology to make advanced biofuel has fallen short. None of the Bay Area startups have produced commercially significant amounts of the high-tech fuels, industry members say, and some have begun focusing on other products, such as cosmetics and health supplements.

“All the biofuels share one set of fundamental problems, which is you’ve got to use resources to grow those biofuels,” said Dave Jones, chief operating officer of LiveFuels, a San Carlos company that extracts oils from algae. “The cost is quite high. You are spending $5 to make a $3 gallon of gas.”...

Avian malaria marches north as climate warms

September 25, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Courtesy of Ravinder Sehgal Researchers say avian malaria is pushing northward as the climate warms. 

Super-hot summers, explosive storms and melting ice caps are the usual images that spring up when discussing climate change.

But researchers at San Francisco State University are bringing the conversation to the birds.

These scientists have found that as the climate changes and the northern latitudes heat up, avian malaria – a devastating bird disease – is steadily creeping toward the North Pole.

And when it gets there, it could prove to be devastating to arctic birds that have no immunity to the virus.

"Right now, there's no avian malaria above latitude 64 degrees,” said Ravinder Sehgal, an SFSU associate professor of biology. “But in the future, with global warming, that will certainly change.”

Sehgal and his team took blood samples from birds in three Alaskan cities: Anchorage, Fairbanks and Coldfoot.

They found that of the 676 birds they sampled, slightly more than 7 percent were infected. These included Boreal chickadees, black-capped chickadees and fox sparrows. 

Claire Loiseau, lead author on the study and an SFSU postdoctoral student, could not be reached for comment; she is in French Guiana...

Scientists stage earwig battles to see asymmetry's advantage

August 27, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Andrew Zink/San Francisco State University Male maritime earwig 

Throughout the animal kingdom, symmetry is considered beautiful.

Female house finches like a male bird’s plumage to be the same shape and color on the right and left side of the body. White-tailed zygaenid moth females prefer males with symmetrical genital claspers, hind wings and antennae. And even in our own species, scientists have shown that men find women with evenly sized and leveled eyes more attractive than asymmetric ladies, and vice versa.

Evolutionary biologists say it makes sense: Symmetry signals good health and good genes.

But there are exceptions. And researchers at San Francisco State University have found a case in which asymmetry provides a benefit to an animal: earwigs.

“This is the first example where we have seen asymmetry provide a benefit in terms of weaponry,” said Andrew Zink, co-author of the study and a behavioral ecologist at SFSU.

The study appears in the journal Ethology...

Bills to limit genetically modified fish struggle

August 8, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Zhukov Oleg/Shutterstock

The latest move by politicians to limit or ban the sale of genetically modified fish has been stymied.

A U.S. Senate bill, which would have prohibited the sale of genetically engineered salmon unless the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could find the fish would cause no significant environmental harm, was withdrawn from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee late last week.

It's just one of many such bills proposed in the last two years that haven’t gotten any traction.

A bill advanced in the California Assembly, requiring the labeling of all genetically engineered fish sold in the state, was struck down in January by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.


A U.S. Senate amendment that would have required rigorous environmental testing of the salmon failed in May on a 46-50 vote...

Boom-and-bust salmon catch is booming again

August 7, 2012, 12:09 PM | Maria Finn, Food & Environment Reporting Network

Eric Kilby/Flickr

SAN FRANCISCO – After years of going begging, Northern California is awash in salmon. Charter boats are booked up to two weeks in advance, and anglers claim to be bagging their limits before noon. The smell of gurry and the glimmer of scales are back at San Francisco’s Pier 45, where commercial fishermen unload their catch.

The return is also a boon to eager chefs, diners and fishmongers, who saw California salmon disappear from dinner plates when the fishery was closed for the 2008 and 2009 seasons and declared an endangered species.

“We’re making a living for the first time in a while,” said Larry Collins, who explained that he and his fellow commercial anglers barely survived when the fishery shut down.

Cooks are busy in the kitchen: “These fish are so fresh and delicious,” said Pam Mazzola, chef at San Francisco’s Prospect, whose summer menu features local wild Chinook salmon with nasturtium pesto.

The 2010 fishing season lasted only 10 days, but a year later, 114,741 fish came in from the sea to spawn in the Sacramento River – nearly triple the number from two years before. And this year, fishery scientists expect 820,000 Chinook to swim up the Sacramento River and even more to head to the Klamath...

Sitting vs. hunting: Both use same amount of energy, study says

July 26, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Courtesy of Brian Wood A Hadza man stalks prey in East Africa. 

Get this: Although you may be just sitting at your desk or planted on your couch while reading this, you are burning the same number of calories as the hardest-working hunter-gatherer in East Africa.

Indeed, the fact that you get from one place to another in your car, on a train or on a bus; that you ride an escalator or elevator to go up and down floors; and that you move only when you absolutely must makes no difference.

You still are expending the same amount of energy as the Hadza, who generally walk between five and seven miles a day to find food.

And this finding indicates that our Western propensity for obesity is not so much related to a sedentary lifestyle, but easy access to high-calorie and processed foods.

This finding is the result of new research, which appears today in the Public Library of Science journal.

“This is one of those great ‘a-ha’ moments in science,” said Brian Wood, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University while doing the research, but now is an assistant professor of anthropology at Yale University. “Where we went in and did some methodical testing, and came out with a...

'Green' homes sell for 9 percent more, study says

July 23, 2012, 12:05 AM | Anika Anand, California Watch

Andy Dean Photography/Shutterstock.com

California homes that meet environmental standards, such as energy efficiency and proximity to public transportation, are selling at higher prices than homes that don't, according to a new report.

The study, conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA, looked at homes that were labeled green by LEED, GreenPoint Rated and Energy Star – rating systems that give green label certifications to homes. To be certified, each rating system has a list of criteria homes must meet, including well-insulated ceilings and walls and energy-efficient lighting. 

"This is the first systematic evidence of the financial value of green label homes as measured in the marketplace," said one of the study’s researchers, Nils Kok, a visiting professor at UC Berkeley. "Green labels seem to inform and influence the opinions of consumers."


A green label increased the selling price of a single-family home by an average of 9 percent compared with nongreen label homes. Researchers controlled the data for the age, location and size of the home so that all homes were comparable. They studied data from 1.6 million homes sold in the state in the past five years.

Based on the average California home price of $400,000, a green label increased the value...

Stanford researchers estimate more deaths from Fukushima fallout

July 19, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

kutsuks/istockphoto.com Stanford researchers suggest the cancer and death toll from Fukushima may be higher than previously claimed. 

New research suggests that the cancer and death toll from Fukushima may be higher than previously claimed.

According to a team of Stanford University researchers, most of these deaths will likely occur in Japan, but there could be as many as 30 casualties from radiation exposure in North America.

These numbers are in addition to the roughly 600 people who died as result of the evacuation near Fukushima after the plant’s meltdown in March 2011.

The new estimates stand in stark contrast to others, including the United Nations Science Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, which suggested there would be no deaths as a result of the radioactive release.


Mark Jacobson, co-author of the study and an environmental and civil engineer at Stanford University, said he didn't have any expectations when he started looking into the issue but wasn't surprised that the claim of "zero health impacts" was not correct...

Rat poison in remote pot gardens linked to rare wildlife deaths

July 13, 2012, 2:05 PM | Andrew Becker, California Watch

USFS Region 5/Flickr Fishers are members of the weasel family and formerly ranged across the northern forests of North America. 

Toxic chemicals used to rid rodents from illicit marijuana gardens in the Sierra Nevada range and elsewhere in California may have inadvertently poisoned dozens of vulnerable weasel-like mammals called fishers, according to a new study released today.

Biologists from UC Davis, the nonprofit Integral Ecology Research Center, and state and federal land agencies found that nearly 80 percent of a sample size of fishers found dead in the wild were exposed directly or indirectly to anticoagulant rodenticides – rat poison. They point to illegal marijuana cultivation as a likely culprit for the introduction of the chemicals to remote areas where the animals live...

S. Calif. black widows losing ground to less-toxic cousin

July 3, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Richard Vetter/UC Riverside Non-native brown widow spiders are taking over Southern California habitat from more poisonous native black widows. 

Can the invasion of a non-native species ever be a good thing?

In one case, while arachnologists might say no, homeowners in Southern California are likely to say yes.

The brown widow spider, a less-poisonous species than its cousin, the black widow spider, is making its claim in the dark recesses of Southern California trash can lids, plant pot lips and wood piles – and pushing its deadly cousin out of the region.

The new spider was first spotted in Torrance in 2003, though it’s been recorded in the southern U.S. since the 1930s. Researchers think the species originated in South Africa.

A new study by researchers at UC Riverside, Fullerton College and Humboldt State University found 20 times more brown widows in the Los Angeles Basin than black widows during a recent census. The research appears in this week's...

Small sea-level changes could pose big problems for Calif. coast

July 2, 2012, 12:05 AM | G.W. Schulz, California Watch

San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission Areas around San Francisco and Oakland highlighted in blue could be exposed to the rise in sea levels. 

Experts believe sea levels on the California coastline could rise as much as 30 centimeters over the next 20 years. Doesn’t sound like much, but what could it mean for you?

Airports, stadiums and housing developments in the Bay Area were built just a few feet over the highest tides on landfill, which means San Francisco International Airport could flood within decades.

Some residents already have been forced to leave their homes in the town of Pacifica, south of San Francisco, due to the erosion of sediment from cliffs. Bluffs and cliffs are retreating in Santa Cruz and San Diego counties, too. Housing developments constructed on sand dunes are threatened and already have been damaged.

“Dunes … can be expected to retreat quickly under rising sea levels and larger waves,” concludes a recent report from the National Research Council that contains numerous findings for the West Coast...

Study: Climate change would lead to increased fire activity

June 27, 2012, 5:40 AM | Coulter Jones, California Watch

ilya/FlickrA new study suggests that climate change would alter fire patterns around the world.

Climate change is likely to alter fire patterns around the world, including a potential increase in the number of fires for much of California in the next 30 years, according to a new study led by UC Berkeley researchers. 

The study, published in Ecosphere, modeled projected climate changes and how those changes would affect fire activity. The Northern Hemisphere would see the largest increases in the frequency of wildfires, with some parts of the globe potentially seeing decreases, said Max A. Moritz, the study’s lead author.

“We’ve set ourselves up for some pretty tough situations already, but I think climate change is really going to force us to deal with fire-prone landscapes in a substantial way,” said Moritz, who teaches at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management...

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