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CURRENT DIGEST
OF LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL NEWS
December 22-28, 2008

      Click on a story title below and you will be linked to the original story at the newspaper's web site. Note: Occasionally a story becomes unavailable online after the original publication date.

  1. Mini-city project on shaky ground
    Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008, Los Angeles Daily News, By Brandon Lowrey, Staff Writer
            While a judge's ruling earlier this month has left the proposed Las Lomas 555-acre mini-city battered and bloodied, experts say it's the dismal economy that may deal the death blow. An appeal is likely," Carlyle W. Hall Jr., an attorney for Las Lomas, said in a written statement. But even if the company were to win an appeal, the company probably couldn't build it now because the economy is so bad, said Phil Hart, managing director of the Los Angeles Urban Land Institute. Hart added:,  "Sometimes a pause can be a refresher. Real estate developers by nature are optimists. It's still a long shot, but it's possible."
            The ambitious project would have included more than 5,500 homes along with shops and offices in the hills along Interstate 5 in the Newhall Pass between Los Angeles and Santa Clarita. Los Angeles, Santa Clarita and Los Angeles County all passionately rejected Las Lomas, citing concerns over wildlife corridors, traffic, water and other infrastructure problems. County planning standards allow only about 200 homes in the space Las Lomas has planned for more than 5,500.
  2. Yard wars: homeowner, city declare a truce
    Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008, Orange County Register, posted by Pat Brennan, green living, environment editor
            A naturalist who ran afoul of his neighbors — and Orange code enforcement officials — after filling his front yard with wild-looking native plants appears to have reached an agreement with the city, ending months of sometimes heated conflict. Joel Robinson recently received the all-clear from city code enforcement officials, who said they would close his file if he keeps his yard well maintained. There seemed to be a few concessions on both sides.
            The carefully planted and tended native garden earned Robinson’s yard certification as wild habitat from the National Wildlife Federation, a safe haven for birds, butterflies and other wildlife. It also earned him the wrath of people living on his block. But the neighbors, who have manicured lawns and carefully trimmed, ornamental plants, said Robinson’s yard looked like it was filled with “weeds.”
            It appears, city code enforcement officials got an earful about the difference between dead weeds and dormant, but living, native plants. For his part, Robinson is keeping his plants well trimmed, giving them extra water, and growing evergreen natives, such as laurel sumac or toyon, on the outside perimeter of his yard to try to make it more visually appealing to his neighbors.
  3. Court decides against refiners
    Tuesday, Dec 23, 2008, Long Beach Press Telegram, By Gene Maddaus, Staff Writer
            Environmental groups on Monday hailed a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that could force local refineries to cut back on flares of toxic chemicals. In its lawsuit against the federal government, the Sierra Club had argued that refineries, chemical plants and other industries were exploiting a loophole in federal law that allowed them to exceed pollution limits during start-ups, shut-downs and equipment malfunctions. The appellate court agreed, striking down the Environmental Protection Agency regulation as a violation of the Clean Air Act.
            The exemption had been in place since 1994, but environmental groups say it was significantly expanded under the Bush administration. Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the AQMD, noted that the AQMD imposes tougher standards than the federal government.
  4. Clean-air regulation reinstated by court
    Wednesday, Dec 24, 2008, Los Angeles Daily News, The New York Times
            A federal appeals court in Washington reversed itself Tuesday and temporarily reinstated a Bush administration plan to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants. In July, the court had struck down the rule, saying the Environmental Protection Agency had exceeded its authority in designing a new emissions-trading system to reduce that pollution, and must rewrite the rule to fix its "fundamental flaws." In Tuesday's decision, the court said that having a flawed rule temporarily in place was better than having no rule at all. The agency must still revise the rule but has no deadline for doing so.
            Tuesday's decision, by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, means that levels of smog-forming nitrogen oxides must be reduced in 28 eastern states and the District of Columbia beginning Jan. 1. Levels of sulfur dioxide, closely associated with the formation of deadly fine soot particles, must be reduced beginning a year later.
  5. Agencies' report warns of faster climate change
    Friday, Dec 26, 2008, Los Angeles Times, By Juliet Eilperin
            WASHINGTON – The United States faces the possibility of much more rapid climate change by the end of the century than previous studies have suggested, according to a report led by the U.S. Geological Survey. The study  expands on the 2007 findings of the United Nations Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change. Looking at factors such as rapid sea ice loss in the Arctic and prolonged drought in the Southwest, the new assessment suggests that earlier projections may have underestimated the climatic shifts that could take place by 2100. However, the assessment also suggests that some other feared effects of global warming are not likely to occur by the end of the century, such as an abrupt release of methane from the seabed and permafrost or a shutdown of the Atlantic Ocean circulation system that brings warm water north and colder water south. But the report projects an amount of potential sea level rise during that period that may be greater than what other researchers have anticipated, as well as a shift to a more arid climate pattern in the Southwest by midcentury.
            Tom Armstrong, senior advisor for global change programs at the U.S. Geological Survey, said the report "shows how quickly the information is advancing" on potential climate shifts. The prospect of abrupt climate change, he said, "is one of those things that keeps people up at night, because it's a low-probability but high-risk scenario. It's unlikely to happen in our lifetimes, but if it were to occur, it would be life-changing."
            In one of the report's most worrisome findings, the agency estimates that in light of recent ice sheet melting, global sea levels could rise as much as 4 feet by 2100. Satellite data over the last two years show the world's major ice sheets are melting much more rapidly than previously thought. Konrad Steffen and his collaborators have identified, among other things, a process of "lubrication," in which warmer ocean water gets underneath coastal ice sheets and accelerates melting.
            Scientists also looked at the prospect of prolonged drought over the next 100 years. They said it was impossible to determine yet whether human activity is responsible for the drought the Southwestern United States has experienced over the last decade, but every indication suggests the region will become consistently drier in the next several decades.
            The report is reassuring, however, on the prospects for some potentially drastic effects, such as a huge release of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, that is now locked deep in the seabed and underneath the Arctic permafrost. That is unlikely to occur in the near future, the scientists said.
  6. Colorado seeks protections amid energy boom
    Friday, Dec 26, 2008, Los Angeles Times, by DeeDee Correll
    DENVER – When a Colorado emergency room nurse fell gravely ill after treating a gas field worker, doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong with her. Her liver, heart and lungs were failing, probably a result of inhaling ZetaFlow -- a substance used in natural-gas drilling -- from the patient's boots. But doctors could find little treatment information in the medical texts or on the Internet because the fluid's formulation is a closely guarded trade secret.
            New regulations adopted this month to govern Colorado's booming oil and gas industry aim to make future incidents easier to handle by, among other things, requiring companies to disclose to doctors and emergency workers the ingredients they use. Regarded as the most comprehensive in the country, the rules have been hailed by some as providing much-needed protections for the wildlife and environment, but they are assailed by others as punitive -- and potentially crippling -- for an industry critical to Colorado's economy. The regulations:
    • Create a 300-foot-wide protection zone around streams that provide drinking water.
    • Require operators to disclose information about their chemicals to emergency responders and physicians, although the information may not be released publicly.
    • Require emission controls on operations within a quarter of a mile of schools and homes in northwestern Colorado.
    • Allow state health and wildlife officials to review and provide input on applications for operations that could affect public health or wildlife habitat.
  7. Tennessee coal-sludge spill twice size of early estimate
    Saturday, Dec 27, 2008, Los Angeles Daily News, By Kristin M. Hall, The Associated Press
    NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A burst dike at a coal-fired power plant in eastern Tennessee spilled millions more cubic yards of ash than originally estimated, officials said Friday, and residents fear that the muck coating their area is endangering the drinking water. Tennessee Valley Authority spokesman John Moulton said about 5.4 million cubic yards of coal fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal, broke out of a retention pond at the Kingston Fossil Plant. "We are cleaning it up," he said.
            An Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman has said the muck could contain some toxic metals, including mercury and arsenic, but EPA tests were not finished. Dead fish were seen floating downstream, but the TVA said that could have been caused by freezing temperatures that may have contributed to the dike bursting. The results of water sampling downstream from the plant indicated that concentrations of toxic contaminants were less than what state standards deem harmful to fish and aquatic life, the TVA said in a news release Thursday.
            Environmentalists and the coal industry have argued for years over whether coal ash should be regulated as hazardous waste, which would make it subject to more stringent rules. In 2000, the EPA backed away from labeling it a hazardous waste but encouraged states to strengthen their regulations. Rick Hind, Greenpeace legislative director, said his group will ask President-elect Barack Obama's administration to renew efforts to regulate coal ash.
  8. Standing up to a flood of trash
    Saturday, Dec 27, 2008, Los Angeles Times, by Louis Sagahun
            When it rains, Lennie Arkinstall scrambles to stanch the outflow of urban debris churning along the Long Beach area's swollen rivers and channels. It's a routine task for Arkinstall, who last week was out in blustery weather resetting yellow trash-catching booms used to corral tons of lawn clippings, toys, plastic bottles, sofas and tens of thousands of cigarette butts.
            It didn't take long for him to discover flaws in downtown rubbish control systems. At a small estuary known as Golden Shore Marine Reserve, a floating tree had rammed a chain-link fence, ripping a gaping hole in the mesh. A few blocks away at the Rainbow Harbor tourist complex, one end of a boom sagged beneath the surface of the water.
            "After the last big rain we had, I collected 20,000 pounds of debris at Los Cerritos Wetlands alone," he said. Arkinstall is paid by the city to clean up nine coastal sites and parks. Separately, federal biologists and local officials have credited his volunteer work for making east Long Beach's Los Cerritos Wetlands an environmental showcase.
  9. Energy dispute over Rockies riches
    Sunday, Dec 28, 2008, Los Angeles Times, By Julie Cart
    SALT LAKE CITY – A titanic battle between the West's two traditional power brokers -- Big Oil and Big Water -- has begun. At stake is one of the largest oil reserves in the world, a vast cache trapped beneath the Rocky Mountains containing an estimated 800 billion barrels -- about three times the reserves of Saudi Arabia. Extracting oil from rocky seams of underground shale is not only expensive, but also requires massive amounts of water, a precious resource crucial to continued development in the nation's fastest-growing region.
            Oil shale companies acknowledge that the technology required to superheat shale to extract oil is unproven. They also acknowledge that they are uncertain how much water would be needed in the process, although some experts calculate it would take 10 barrels of water to get one barrel of oil from shale. That water-to-oil equation has inflamed officials in the upper Rockies, who are raising the alarm about the cumulative effect of energy projects on the region's water supplies, which ultimately feed Southern California reservoirs via the Colorado River. "There are estimates that oil shale could use all of the remaining water in upper Colorado River Basin," said Susan Daggett, a commissioner on the Denver Water Board.
            Prospectors have known about the oil shale deposits in the Rockies for more than a century, but the technology to extract it has remained imperfect, expensive and polluting. Shell has sunk heaters half a mile into oil shale seams and subjected the rock to 700-degree temperatures. Over weeks or even months, a liquid known as kerogen is produced, which can be refined into diesel and jet fuel. To prevent the brewing hydrocarbons from spoiling groundwater, the heated rock core is surrounded by 20-to-30-foot-thick impermeable ice walls, frozen by electric refrigeration units. Other companies' methods are more akin to open pit mining, in which millions of tons of rock are excavated and then fed into a massive above-ground cooker. All of the processes require prodigious amounts of water, either for the electrical plants needed for heating and freezing or for the web of industrial facilities needed to extract the oil.
            The renewed push for oil shale development comes at a time when conventional energy companies are being blamed for squandering and fouling water across the West.  Colorado and New Mexico towns have discovered benzene and other dangerous chemicals in their wells, with energy projects the suspected culprits. Ranchers in the region say their crops and livestock suffer as oil and gas production drains underground aquifers. Sportsmen complain that rivers and streams are being compromised by the energy industry. The Environmental Protection Agency expressed concerns about the possibility that oil shale production would deposit "salts, selenium, arsenic, and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons in groundwater."

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