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From toxic mining to bats and bees, some recent great reads to savor

Care to guess which U.S. town is the nation’s most tainted by chemical discharges?

View of Bristol Bay from Kotzebue
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

How’s this for an irresistible headline: “America’s Most Toxic Town Is Not Where You Think.”

Nah, don’t bother guessing unless you happen to have kin in or near Kotzebue. That’s the northwest Alaskan town of about 3,500 people, the large majority Inupiat Eskimos, which happens to hold first place in last year’s toxic release inventory by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It’s not a per capita measure.

The idea of the TRI is to track the output of 650 harmful chemicals from industrial sources, which are required to self-report their discharges. The volume in tiny Kotzebue is 756 million pounds, all of it from the mining of sulfide ores to produce zinc and lead, along with a bit of silver and some other metals.

I learned this from a fine National Geographic piece by Justin Nobel, which made me think it might be time to offer Earth Journal regulars another selection of recent good reads that I have appreciated, but may not have gotten all the circulation they deserve.

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Kotzebue sits roughly at the intersection of the Arctic Circle and the coast of the Chukchi Sea, and so does the nearby Red Dog Mine, which appears to be the world’s largest producer of zinc. The mine is operated by a subsidiary of Canada’s Teck Resources Ltd., which has long held mineral leases on sulfide ores in northern Minnesota.

(Nobel does not himself characterize the Red Dog ores as sulfides, I should acknowledge, but given the proposals for mining such materials in Minnesota’s north woods to produce an array of metals, I thought I’d best check out my surmise; confirmation comes from this report at the United States Geological Survey.)

Teck’s website devoted to the mine portrays it as an environmentally responsible engine of economic growth, managed in partnership with and devoted to the well-being of an Inupiat tundra community that still relies heavily on subsistence hunting and fishing.

Nobel’s piece offers a balanced but rather more complex picture of the relationship between village and mine, which is the sole source of inventoried lead, mercury and cadmium contamination:

The village has long had issues with the mine. Ore from Red Dog is transported by eighty-ton haul trucks along a 50-mile road that links the mine to a port on the Chukchi Sea south of Kivalina. There it’s stored in buildings, then transferred via barges to awaiting offshore bulk carrier ships. The haul road runs through a section of Cape Krusenstern National Monument.

A 2001 National Park Service report documented elevated levels of lead, cadmium, and zinc in vegetation along the road, as well as near the storage area by the port. Concentrations of lead and cadmium, the National Park Service report stated, exceed levels found in “many of the most polluted countries in Central and Eastern Europe and all areas of western Russia.”

… [S]ince its issue Teck has made considerable efforts to improve their operation. Trucks on the haul road are now covered in a more comprehensive manner. Emissions along the road are monitored by Teck and reported to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Any spills along the route are reported to this office as well, such as a zinc concentrate spill that occurred in 2015, and another one that occurred in 2016. The mine also works with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to analyze caribou meat and organs for possible contaminants that could harm subsistence hunters. …

Still, a paper on heavy metal deposition along the haul road published in 2017 in the journal PLOS One, and co-authored by several National Park Service scientists, analyzed data from the years 2001 and 2006 and found that, “fugitive dust escapement, while much reduced, is still resulting in elevated concentrations” of zinc, lead, and cadmium along sections of the haul road.

Nevertheless, Kotzebue’s rise to the top of the TRI apparently is not widely known in the region; the city manager told Nobel, “As far as I know, [the mine] is safe. And as far as toxic releases, I wasn’t aware of anything like that.”

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In picking up  “Building a Backup Bee,” I was anticipating an update on efforts to develop disease- and pesticide-resistant hybrid species — or maybe pollinating robots — to take over the agricultural contributions of our beleaguered honeybees. 

The headline turned out to be just a bit misleading, but who cares: Here is a fascinating look at an effort to propogate a natural, indigenous type of bee in volumes huge enough to save, say, the California almond crop.

Written by Paige Embry for the Food & Environment Reporting Network (and co-published by Scientific American), the piece has two main characters: Gordon Wardell of the Wonderful Company, which leads the world in almond production, and the blue orchard bee, aka BOB.

Almonds are the second-largest crop in California’s agriculture sector, worth $21 billion a year and growing, and growers are hopelessly reliant on managed honeybees — almost three quarters of the country’s commercial colonies, Embry says, work these groves at some point.

Natural alternatives are slim, she explains, because only three bee species have been widely used as managed pollinators, “two cannot be woken from their winter’s sleep in time for almond bloom, and the third is banned for open field use in California.”

BOBs are nothing like honeybees, however. Honeybees are social. One queen and thousands of female workers live together in colonies that can last for years. Multiple generations of workers divvy up the jobs that keep the hive functioning. BOBs are solitary, spending their entire lives alone except when they mate. Mating is a male bee’s only job. Because they do not collect pollen for the babies, males often are not even counted in pollination work. …

BOBs also work harder, from a grower’s perspective: “a few hundred females can do the pollination work of 10,000 honeybees,” and they can be “woken up from diapause, a dormant state, and delivered to the crops when needed.”

But their breeding cycle makes them fragile, too. While a honeybee’s death “is trivial because a healthy colony generates tens of thousands of workers across a year,”

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Any loss of a BOB female matters: it permanently reduces the current year’s pollination workforce and diminishes next year’s crew because fewer eggs are laid…. With only one generation annually, it is not surprising that it has taken Wardell so long to figure out how to mass-produce BOBs. “If you make a mistake, you have to wait a whole year to make another mistake,” he says. “My boss doesn’t appreciate the humor in that.”

Since 2009, Wardell has developed a program for large-scale breeding of BOBs in a 20-acre array of mesh-walled cages, with the potential to produce 2 million bees per year. The coming year will determine whether his solution is going to work at the scale the marketplace may soon require:

In 2017 Wonderful needed about 76,000 honeybee colonies to pollinate its almonds (at two colonies per acre). But that number will diminish by 320 this spring because Wardell will put 128,000 female BOBs into the orchards—the largest deployment ever. If Wardell’s experiment succeeds, the results could have far-reaching implications for the almond industry as well as a host of other early-blooming crops—from apples and cherries to apricots and peaches.

All told, more than a million and a half acres could benefit from having BOBs as a backup—if they prove worthy this year. It has taken years to get this far, and problems still await.

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Not nearly enough media attention is paid to the use of voluntary, business-based certification programs to restrain environmental mayhem. It’s contentious topic and a complex story, and most treatments rarely get past a summary of predictable arguments for and against.

So Richard Conniff’s recent analysis in Yale Environment 360 of certification efforts in logging and lumber production is a welcome addition, starting with its authoritative headline: “Greenwashed Timber: How Sustainable Forest Certification Has Failed.”

His primary focus is on efforts of the 25-year-old Forest Stewardship Council (not to be confused with the Sustainable Forestry Institute, which was in the local news a while back when the 3M Co. decided to stop relying on its counsel):

When the Forest Stewardship Council got its start in 1993, it seemed to represent a triumph of market-based thinking over plodding command-and-control government regulation…. [It] soon set standards that seemed genuinely exciting to environmental and social activists, covering the conservation and restoration of forests, indigenous rights, and the economic and social well-being of workers, among other criteria. For industry, FSC certification promised not just a better way of doing business, but also higher prices for wood products carrying the FSC seal of environmental friendliness.

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A quarter-century later, frustrated supporters of FSC say it hasn’t worked out as planned, except maybe for the higher prices: FSC reports that tropical forest timber carrying its label brings 15 to 25 percent more at auction. But environmental critics and some academic researchers say FSC has had little or no effect on tropical deforestation. Moreover, a number of recent logging industry scandals suggest that the FSC label has at times served merely to “greenwash” or “launder” trafficking in illegal timber….

One of FSC’s main challengers is the Environmental Investigation Agency, based in Washington, whose undercover inquiries led to exposure of the council’s questionable, if not clearly improper, involvement with illegal logging, smuggling or labeling in countries around the world. An EIA official told Conniff  that investigators didn’t pick FSC as a target for investigation; rather, it looked at places where illegality was rampant and kept finding the council involved.

FSC gets an opportunity to respond to EIA, Greenpeace and other challengers, saying that nobody’s perfect and there have been problems and the council is steadily correcting what is basically a solid certification system. Skepticism persists:

Simon Counsell, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK and an early proponent of the forest certification idea, argues that the opposite is true. His frustration with FSC led him to co-found the website, “where you can see many, many scores of examples right across the span of FSC’s life, and all types of forests and plantations, that suggest there are still some very serious systemic problems in the FSC. One of them is that the FSC secretariat is unable and arguably unwilling to control the certifying bodies that are responsible for issuing certifications in FSC’s name.” 

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Finally, how about this for an opening scene:

Late last summer, the biologist Mark Gumbert began flying over the farmlands of Iowa, looking for bats. As the animals foraged and moved through the night, he followed from above, circling the rivers and fields in his single-engine Cessna 172, trying his best not to lose the signals from their transmitters.

Over the past decade or so, Gumbert has pioneered the study of bat migrations using radio telemetry, a method of wildlife tracking typically reserved for caribou, moose, and other big game, which tend to travel at moderate speeds. “A wolf running across the ground can move pretty quick, but they’re not going to run all night,” Gumbert told me recently.

A bat, on the other hand, can be nearly impossible to trail on foot or by truck.

Bat tracking matters, of course, because of the continuing spread of white-nose syndrome among hibernating bats, in this case the northern long-eared bat. J.R. Sullivan covers the background and current status of the problem gracefully in his New Yorker piece, “A Fatal Disease Is Ravaging America’s Bats, and Scientists Are Struggling to Stop It.”

But it’s really the fieldwork by Gumbert at colleagues that makes this story special, charming and I guess I’ll even say inspiring, as it follows them through months of nocturnal, aerial stalking of a creature that can’t be seen, and must be tracked via Tic-Tac-sized radio gear banded to the “forearm.” Another complication: The wings of this little mammal can carry it more than 200 miles in a few days.

Gumbert’s efforts in Iowa, which began last August, were something of a stopgap measure. The thinking was that, if he could track the northern long-eared bats, often known simply as northerns, along their migration routes, he would be able to identify where they ended up hibernating. This, in turn, would allow state officials to protect the animals from human encroachment, including wind-energy development, while they were at their most vulnerable.

As [Kelly] Poole, who is overseeing the project for the D.N.R., put it, “We don’t know where the bats are hanging out.” The fact that they are small and secretive complicates the process. Unlike the bats of campy horror films, northerns tend not to form large clusters in caves. If they did, Poole said, “then you’d have, like, one cave to protect.”

Instead, Gumbert told me, “They may actually be roosting in the ground and in little crevices they can crawl into.” They might be in groups of two or three, or they might be alone. He and his team fitted thirty bats with transmitters in the course of the project, seven of which were active in the field at the time. None, it seemed, had ended up in the same winter refuge, known as a hibernaculum, or had really migrated much at all; they were mostly making small jumps.