EPA Recovers Material From Houston-area Superfund Sites

The Environmental Protection Agency says it has recovered 517 containers of “unidentified, potentially hazardous material” from highly contaminated toxic waste sites in Texas that flooded last month during Hurricane Harvey.

The agency has not provided details about which Superfund sites the material came from, why the contaminants at issue have not been identified and whether there’s a threat to human health.

The one-sentence disclosure about the 517 containers was made Friday night deep within a media release from the Federal Emergency Management Agency summarizing the government’s response to the devastating storm.

A dozen sites

At least a dozen Superfund sites in and around Houston were flooded in the days after Harvey’s record-shattering rains stopped. Associated Press journalists surveyed seven of the flooded sites by boat, vehicle and on foot. The EPA said at the time that its personnel had been unable to reach the sites, though they surveyed the locations using aerial photos.

The Associated Press reported Monday that a government hotline also received calls about three spills at the U.S. Oil Recovery Superfund site, a former petroleum waste processing plant outside Houston contaminated with a dangerous brew of cancer-causing chemicals. Records obtained by the AP showed workers at the site reported spills of unknown materials in unknown amounts.

Local pollution control officials photographed three large tanks used to store potentially hazardous waste completely underwater Aug. 29. The EPA later said there was no evidence that nearby Vince Bayou had been impacted.

PRP Group, the company formed to clean up the U.S. Oil Recovery site, said it does not know how much material leaked from the tanks, soaking into the soil or flowing into the bayou. As part of the post-storm cleanup, workers have vacuumed up 63 truckloads of potentially contaminated storm water, totaling about 315,000 gallons.

It was not immediately clear whether those truckloads accounted for any of the 517 containers cited in the FEMA media release Friday. The EPA has not responded to questions from AP about activities at U.S. Oil Recovery for more than a week.

Waste pit underwater

About a dozen miles east, the San Jacinto River Waste Pits Superfund site is on and around a low-lying island that was the site of a paper mill in the 1960s, leaving behind dangerous levels of dioxins and other long-lasting toxins linked to birth defects and cancer. The site was covered with floodwaters when the AP surveyed it Sept. 1.

To prevent contaminated soil and sediments from being washed down river, about 16 acres of the site was covered in 2011 with an “armored cap” of fabric and rock. The cap was reportedly designed to last for up to 100 years, but it has required extensive repairs on at least six occasions in recent years, with large sections having become displaced or been washed away.

The EPA has not responded to repeated inquiries over the past two weeks about whether its assessment has determined whether the cap was similarly damaged during Harvey.

The companies responsible for cleaning up the site, Waste Management Inc. and International Paper, have said there were “a small number of areas where the current layer of armored cap is thinner than required.”

“There was no evidence of a release from any of these areas,” the companies said, adding that sediments there were sampled last week.

The EPA has not yet released those test results to the public.


hosting

US to Award $59 Million for Opioid Addiction Treatment

The U.S. Justice Department has announced it is putting nearly $59 million toward fighting the epidemic of opioid drug addiction.

In a news release Friday, the department cited preliminary figures from the National Center for Health Statistics showing that drug overdose deaths in the United States rose 21 percent from 2015 to 2016. In 2016, a record high of around 65,000 people died from drug overdoses, driven by the opioid crisis.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new figures Thursday, blaming opioid painkiller addiction for the rise.

The 2016 estimate “would be the highest drug death toll and the fastest increase in that death toll in American history,” Sessions said. “And every day this crisis continues to grow, as more than 5,000 Americans abuse painkillers for the first time [daily].”

Opioids such as heroin and the synthetic drug fentanyl were responsible for most of the fatal overdoses, killing more than 33,000 Americans — quadruple the number from 20 years ago.

The Justice Department said about $24 million in federal grants would be awarded to 50 cities, counties and public health departments for creation of “comprehensive diversion and alternatives to incarceration programs” for people impacted by the epidemic.

An additional $3.1 million will be awarded by the National Institute of Justice for research and evaluation on drugs and crime, prioritizing heroin and other opioids and synthetic drugs.

Also, $22 million is being awarded to 53 jurisdictions to support implementation of adult drug courts and veterans’ services.

And $9.5 million is going to juvenile and family treatment to “build effective family drug treatment courts and ensure current juvenile drug treatment courts follow established guidelines.”

In March, U.S. President Donald Trump named New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a former presidential candidate, to head the newly formed President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

Last month, the commission urged the administration to declare the opioid crisis a national emergency.

“With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks,” the commission said in an interim report.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said that no declaration was necessary to combat the crisis, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later said Trump was taking the idea “absolutely seriously.”


hosting

NASA’s Asteroid Chaser Swings by Earth on Way to Space Rock

NASA’s asteroid-chasing spacecraft is swinging by Earth on its way to a space rock.

Launched a year ago, Osiris-Rex will pass within about 11,000 miles (17,700 kilometers) of the home planet Friday afternoon. It will use Earth’s gravity as a slingshot to put it on a path toward the asteroid Bennu.

If all goes well, Osiris-Rex should reach the small, roundish asteroid next year and, in 2020, collect some of its gravel for return to Earth.

Friday’s close approach will occur over Antarctica. It will be a quick hello: The spacecraft will speed by at about 19,000 mph (31,000 kph). NASA has taken precautions to ensure Osiris-Rex does not slam into any satellites. Ground telescopes, meanwhile, have been trying to observe the spacecraft while it’s in the neighborhood.


hosting

As Africa Warms, Mosquito Carrying Zika, Dengue More Likely to Thrive

From deadly droughts and destroyed crops to shrinking water sources, communities across sub-Saharan Africa are struggling to withstand the onslaught of global record-breaking temperatures.

But the dangers do not end there. Rising heat poses another threat, one that is far less known and studied but could spark disease epidemics across the continent, scientists say.

Mosquitoes are the menace, and the risk goes beyond malaria.

The Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads debilitating and potentially deadly viruses, from Zika and dengue to chikungunya, thrives in warmer climates than its malaria-carrying cousin, known as Anopheles, say researchers at Stanford University.

In sub-Saharan Africa, this means malaria rates could rise in cooler areas as they heat up, but fall in hotter places that now battle the disease. In those areas, malaria, one of the continent’s biggest killers, may be rivaled by other vector-borne diseases as major health crises.

“As temperatures go past 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit), you move away from the peak transmission window for malaria, and towards that of diseases such as dengue,” said Erin Mordecai, an assistant professor at Stanford.

“We have this intriguing prospect of the threat of malaria declining in Africa, while Zika, dengue and chikungunya become more of a danger,” she said. 

Besides a warming planet, scientists fear growing urbanization across Africa could also fuel the transmission of diseases carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which flourishes in cities and slums, the opposite of the country-loving Anopheles.

Half of Africans are expected to live in cities by 2030, up from 36 percent in 2010, according to World Bank data.

A soaring number may become prey to vector-borne viruses like dengue, which have struck Africa at a record pace in recent years, fuelled by urbanization, population growth, poor sanitation and global warming, the World Health Organization (WHO) says.

“We see poorly planned development in Africa, not just with megacities but smaller settlements … which often lack proper water and sanitation,” said Marianne Comparet, director of the International Society for Neglected Tropical Diseases.

“Climate change, disease and the interaction between man and habitat — it is a crisis going under the radar … a time bomb for public health problems,” she added.

Neglected diseases

Last year was the hottest on record, for the third year in a row, with global temperature rise edging nearer a ceiling set by some 200 nations for limiting global warming, according to the European Union’s climate change service.

Parts of Africa were among the regions suffering from unusual heat.

As temperatures keep rising, mosquitoes in low-latitude regions in East African countries are finding new habitats in higher altitude areas, yet malaria rates are falling in warmer regions, such as northern Senegal in the Sahel, studies show.

So as cooler parts of sub-Saharan Africa gear up for the spread of malaria, hotter areas should prepare for future epidemics like chikungunya and dengue, experts say.

While not as lethal as malaria, chikungunya lasts longer and can lead to people developing long-term joint pain. Dengue causes flulike symptoms and can develop into a deadly hemorrhagic fever.

There is a danger that the global drive to end malaria, which absorbed $2.9 billion in international investment in 2015, has left African countries ill-prepared to deal with other vector-borne diseases, said Larry Slutsker of the international health organization PATH.

“Diseases such as dengue and chikungunya have been neglected and under-funded,” said Slutsker, the leader of PATH’s malaria and neglected tropical diseases programs. “There needs to be much better surveillance and understanding.”

Malaria kills around 430,000 people a year, about 90 percent of them young African children.

Dengue, the world’s fastest-spreading tropical disease, infects about 390 million annually but is often badly recorded and misdiagnosed, health experts say.

Some experts believe the global alarm triggered by Zika, which can cause birth defects such as small brain size, may see more money pumped into fighting neglected tropical diseases in sub-Saharan Africa, especially after outbreaks in Angola, Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau in the last year.

Although 26 African nations, almost half of the continent, have strategies in place to fight vector-borne diseases, most of them only target malaria, according to data from the WHO.

Malaria rates have been slashed in recent decades through the use of bed nets, indoor spraying and drugs. But there are no dedicated treatments or vaccines for chikungunya and dengue.

“The most important preventive and control intervention is vector management, particularly through community engagement,” said Magaran Bagayoko, a team leader for the WHO in Africa.

Disentangling data

However, efforts to beat back mosquitoes are hampered by a lack of quality and affordable climate data that could help predict outbreaks and indicate risks, said Madeleine Thomson of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society.

“What countries really want to know is what they can do to improve their programs, as well as the capacity of their health workers,” said the scientist at the Columbia University-based institute.

But to do that, “climate information must be put into practice,” Thomson added.

African nations also must improve coordination between their health ministries and meteorological agencies, said the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), a new continentwide public health agency launched this year by the African Union.

“They are not linked, or talking to each other,” said Sheila Shawa, a project officer at the Africa CDC headquarters in Ethiopia. “There needs to be better communication in order to model neglected diseases, such as chikungunya, across Africa.”

Yet climate scientists and health experts warn of the difficulty of analyzing the impact of rising temperature on mosquito-borne diseases without looking at other factors.

“We have a major challenge of isolating effects of rising temperatures — which are really variable — from all the other aspects like rainfall patterns, humidity, mobility and migration, as well as socioeconomic factors,” said Stanford’s Mordecai.

“They are all changing at the same time, making individual drivers very difficult to isolate and disentangle for analysis.”


hosting

Huge Sea Turtles Slowly Coming Back From Brink of Extinction

Sea turtles are lumbering back from the brink of extinction, a new study says.

Scientists found more populations of the large turtles improving than declining when they looked at nearly 60 regions across the globe. That’s a big change from a decade or two ago, experts said.

Long-living sea turtles have been pushed to endangered levels by hunting, accidentally being caught in fishing nets, habitat loss, plastics pollution and climate change, experts say.

But massive efforts to save the egg-laying turtles by changing fishing nets and creating protected and darkened beaches are working, said study lead author Antonios Mazaris, an ecology professor at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece.

 

“There’s a positive sign at the end of the story,” Mazaris said. “We should be more optimistic about our efforts in society.”

Seven species of sea turtles

The research was published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

 

There are seven different species of sea turtles, all but one endangered. The slow creatures live for several decades with some species weighing about 100 pounds and others well over 1,000 pounds.

Mazaris pointed to Hawaiian green sea turtles, once in trouble 40 years ago, as story of success. Maybe too much success.

“They have more turtles than they know what to do with,” said Roderic Mast, a sea turtle advisory group co-chairman at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which determines the global list of endangered species.

‘Good problem to have’

“Tourists seeking sea turtles create traffic problems and fishermen complain the creatures get in the way, said Mast, who wasn’t part of the study and is president of the Oceanic Society advocacy group. He added: “It’s a good problem to have.”

Mazaris and colleagues looked at 299 sets of turtle populations over different lengths of time around the globe, finding 95 of them increased, while 35 went down. The rest didn’t change or there wasn’t enough data.

 

 There were increases in North and South America on the Atlantic coast but setbacks in the Asia Pacific region.

 “The evidence is widespread and convincing,” said Selina Heppell, head of Oregon State University’s department of fisheries and wildlife, who wasn’t part of the study.

Changes in laws make difference

Mast pointed to Kemp’s ridley sea turtles as a good example of what’s happening, especially in the United States.  In the 1940s, there about 40,000 of them, mostly in the southern U.S. and Mexico. By the 70s, there were only 1,200 left.

The U.S. and Mexican governments changed laws, fishing practices and set aside dark, quiet areas for turtles to nest. That population is increasing by about 10 to 15 percent annually, Mast said. That’s good, but he said they remain critically endangered.

“Sea turtles are bellwethers. They’re flagships that we use to tell the story of what’s going on in the oceans,” Mast said. “And that’s why people should care about turtles.”

 


hosting