Category Archives: Ecology

Buzz Fugazi Twitter Bombs The Frack Out of Chickenhawk Clowns

Check out the twitter feed of Buzz Fugazi and grab some pithy talking points. Use them the next time you visit some wingnut Congresstool wanting to slash funding for public infrastructure and environmental regulations and cut taxes for the wealthy while piling on sales taxes, making your speeding ticket cost $2000, reducing the minimum wage, and exploding the debt for another unfunded pointless war that will not make us more safe.

When was the last time we reduced the size of the Federal Bureaucracy by getting into another war? The same every time we collapsed the economy by raising the minimum wage. It happens every year on the 5th of Never!

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change — But Congress Forbids It

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change — But Congress Forbids It.

 

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change — But Congress Forbids It

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids It

As rising sea levels begin to engulf naval bases and extreme weather exacerbates conflicts worldwide, the military has sounded the alarm that climate change poses a long-term threat to U.S. security. The GOP response? It passed legislation that blocks funding for any Pentagon program that tackles climate change.

Just prior to Memorial Day weekend, the House of Representatives stuck an amendment onto the National Defense Authorization Act, which stipulates that:

None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act may be used to implement the U.S. Global Change Research Program National Climate Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, the United Nation’s Agenda 21 sustainable development plan, or the May 2013 Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis Under Executive Order.

In other words, don’t even THINK about initiating programs to prepare for the potential impacts of climate change, either in the United States or abroad.

The amendment, which was approved by the Republican-controlled House in a 231-192 vote, was introduced by Rep. David McKinley (R-WV), who said:

Our climate is obviously changing; it has always been changing. With all the unrest around the global [sic], why should Congress divert funds from the mission of our military and national security to support a political ideology. This amendment will ensure we maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Bobby Rush (D-IL) wrote a letter in strong opposition to the amendment, saying:

The flat earth society is at it again….The McKinley amendment would require the Defense Department to assume that the cost of carbon pollution is zero. That’s science denial at its worst and it fails our moral obligation to our children and grandchildren.

The Pentagon’s Case for Dealing with Climate Change

The legislation comes at a time when military officials have been cranking up the volume on this issue—notably, through the recent publication of two reports, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (a Congressionally mandated assessment of Department of Defense strategy and priorities) and a study written by an advisory group of retired, high-ranking military officers, titled “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change.”

The 2014 QDR, which is the second consecutive review that has addressed the implications of climate change for Pentagon planning, observed that:

As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. These changes, coupled with other global dynamics….are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions—conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.

This is more than simply a rhetorical nod to an issue that is a high priority for the White House. Comments by military officials over the past few years have made it clear that it’s a problem they take very seriously. Last March, the Boston Globe reported, Admiral Samuel Locklear—America’s top military officer in charge of monitoring hostile actions by North Korea and escalating tensions between China and Japan—identified climate change as the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region. “You have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level,” he said. “Certainly weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past. We are on super typhoon 27 or 28 this year in the Western Pacific. The average is about 17.”

The U.S. military, Locklear added, has taken the initiative to reach out to other armed forces in the region. “We have interjected into our multilateral dialogue—even with China and India—the imperative to kind of get military capabilities aligned [for] when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations,” he told the Boston Globe. “If it goes bad, you could have hundreds of thousands or millions of people displaced and then security will start to crumble pretty quickly.”

“I’m not seeing intransigence [on the issue] in the Pentagon,” retired Army Brig. Gen. John Adams told the online publication Defense One. Adams, who is an advisor to the Center for Climate Security, spoke specifically about how climate change is already having an influence on military decision-making near Pensacola, Florida, where he lives. “We have major installations in this area. We predict the sea level will rise here. That means that Navy ship berths will have to change, because they’re not floating docks, they’re built into the land. And when the sea level rises above the point where it’s safe to berth a Navy ship, then you have to change the berthing structure … so climate change will have an effect on our basing structures.”

The impact on military facilities is the subject of considerable discussion in the aforementioned report, “National Security and the Accelerating Risks of Climate Change.” The study was written by 11 retired U.S. generals and admirals who are members of the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board (MAB), a respected government-funded military research organization.

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids ItExpand

One case study that MAB addressed is the Hampton Roads metropolitan area (see map above), located near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in the southeastern part of Virginia:

All military branches and the Coast Guard have facilities in the region. In all, there are 29 military sites in Hampton Roads, including Naval Station Norfolk (the largest naval complex in the world), Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek–Fort Story, and Naval Air Station Oceana, including critical defense industry partners such as Huntington Ingalls Shipyard, which builds half our submarines and all of our aircraft carriers. Many of the facilities are at or only a few meters above sea level.

The area has hundreds of miles of waterfront from three major rivers that all flow into the Chesapeake Bay. It is an extremely low-lying area, which makes it particularly susceptible to flooding from relative sea level rise—a combination of global sea level rise, land subsidence, and ocean circulation.

Estimates of relative sea level rise in the Hampton Roads area range from 1.5 feet over the next 20–50 years to as high as a 7.5-foot rise by 2100 (above the 1992 mean sea level baseline).

“Political posturing and budgetary woes cannot be allowed to inhibit discussion and debate over what so many believe to be a salient national security concern for our nation,” MAB added. “Time and tide wait for no one.”

Conservatives Respond to the Military

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids ItExpand

This kind of talk makes conservatives grouchy. They’ve spent years making the case that climate change is the latest fad in environmental hysteria, a liberal plot to “create global government” and a scheme for scientists and universities to keep their pockets lined with grant money. And now conservatives find themselves at odds with the guardians of our national security? (Awkward!)

But never underestimate the power of political spin. Over the last few years, conservative commentators have developed a series of talking points to distance themselves from climate change without attacking our active-duty military officers:

Talking point #1: Our military is a victim of political peer pressure

The Weekly Standard:

According to a draft copy of the Quadrennial Defense Review, DoD wonks are planning to mold an already over-tasked military to meet rising challenges associated with global warming climate change.

Consider how drastically the Pentagon has been forced to adapt since the end of the Cold War….Now we are proposing a massive shakeup to Pentagon policy by adding yet another core mission— climate change, which has nothing to do with winning battles— to an already crowded task list….is it wise to continue to violently disrupt a culture which is fueled by tradition and a fierce warrior ethos by forcing them to constantly adjust to the popular political trends of the day?

The National Review:

QDRs are now squarely aimed at defending present budgets and ongoing activities. Worse, they often cannot resist throwing support behind the political hot item of the day.

Talking point #2: Fight wars, not climate change

Forbes:

Let’s free up the Navy from responsibility for protecting our planet from natural climate change so that they can concentrate on addressing real man-made threats to our national independence…a mission they can actually do something about!

The National Review:

The QDR sees the potential consequences of global warming—retreating glaciers, extreme weather, rising sea levels and temperatures, food security and water scarcity, disease—as potential contributors to instability and conflict.

This approach leads to recommendations that limit the flexibility of the military by, for example, limiting its options regarding the use of energy. While the QDR asserts that such steps will not undermine the military’s ability to perform its missions, it is likely they will. This is like telling the fire department to cut down on hydrant use in order to conserve water.

Talking point #3: The Democrats made them do it!

Forbes:

In 2007, Senate Armed Services Committee members Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and John Warner (R-VA) snuck some language into the National Defense Authorization Act which got our military into the climate protection business whether they wanted to or not. The amendment required DoD to consider the effects of climate change upon their facilities, capabilities and missions. Now, through the QDR, the DoD is incorporating and considering the “threat” of climate change into its long-range strategic plans. This despite the fact that no evidence of a climate crisis, much less any human-caused one, actually exists.

Talking point #4: Military strategists are making decisions based on bad data

National Review:

The link between extreme weather and global warming is debatable….All of this seems to be a very shaky foundation upon which to reshape America’s defense strategy. In its oversight role, Congress should challenge the administration’s inclusion of climate change as a defense priority.

Talking point #5: Retired military officers yearn for more glory

Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, described the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board’s report as nothing more than ex-military men seeking attention.

“There is no one in more pursuit of publicity than a retired military officer,” Inhofe said of the report’s authors. “I look back wistfully at the days of the Cold War. Now you have people who are mentally imbalanced, with the ability to deploy a nuclear weapon. For anyone to say that any type of global warming is anywhere close to the threat that we have with crazy people running around with nuclear weapons, it shows how desperate they are to get the public to buy this.”

General Consensus

Climate change deniers in Congress should be worried. The problem for them is not just that the military is a respected voice of authority. Their real problem is that the military is quite adept at communicating the urgency to address climate change. While conservative pundits prattle on about how military culture is defined by “tradition and a fierce warrior ethos,” the men and women who serve this country discuss climate change in terms that reflect how the military actually operates—by emphasizing the importance of risk management, logistics and scenario planning.

The Pentagon Wants to Tackle Climate Change -- But Congress Forbids ItExpand

Consider some of these excerpts from the MAB report—

The risk of inaction:

Some in the political realm continue to debate the cause of a warming planet and demand more data. Yet MAB member General Gordon Sullivan, United States Army, Retired, has noted: “Speaking as a soldier, we never have 100 percent certainty. If you wait until you have 100 percent certainty, something bad is going to happen on the battlefield.”

We recognize that skepticism is important in the scientific process, especially in the continual refinement of theories, and that healthy debate in the area of climate change can serve to advance science, but falling short of 100 percent agreement is not a justifiable reason for inaction. As noted by MAB member Admiral Frank “Skip” Bowman, United States Navy, Retired: “Managing risk is seldom about dealing with absolute certainties but, rather, involves careful analysis of the probability of an event and the resultant consequences of that event occurring. Even very low probability events with devastating consequences must be considered and mitigation/adaptation schemes developed and employed.”

We operate our nuclear submarine fleet in this manner. Some may argue that this continuing process results in overdesign and over cautiousness. Maybe so, but our U.S. submarine safety record testifies to the wisdom of this approach. That’s where we should be with climate change knowns and unknowns.

Climate vs. weather:

Contributing to the ongoing climate change debate are natural variations in weather patterns. Although pundits may try, no individual weather event or weather season can be attributed decisively to climate change. Weather is what occurs day-to-day; climate describes weather patterns over decades. However, rather than wondering if any specific events are “caused” by climate change, MAB member Rear Admiral David Titley, United States Navy, Retired, suggests an alternative way of thinking about recent weather phenomena: “It is more useful to think of climate as the deck of cards from which our daily weather events are dealt. As the climate changes, so does our deck of cards. For every degree of warming, we add an extra ace into the deck. Over time, unusual hands such as a full house with aces high become more plausible and more common.”

 

The need to build alliances:

Addressing climate change is expensive, so those costs should be shared as much as possible, General Wald agreed. “It’s also massive and unpredictable as to where it’s going to be,” he said. “You’d like to interface with other governments to arrive at an understanding of interoperability issues. When people train together, they become more accepting of what the perceived threat is.”

General Stalder said he’d like to see a new multilateral arrangement emerge to address climate change. “From my perspective,” he said, “the opportunity that it creates is an operating construct among the coalition of the willing to respond to things in a more cohesive way than is done right now, including a sort of standing command arrangement or coordination arrangement where countries could contribute to that and offer relief more quickly.

The risks of ceding American leadership:

When Admiral Gunn thinks about climate change, he remembers a plaque on the desk of the late Vice Admiral Paul Butcher, a gruff, cigar-chomping figure with whom he served in the 1970s: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.”

“That’s the kind of the way I feel about this—we need to be leaders,” said Admiral Gunn, a 35-year Navy veteran who is president of CNA’s Institute for Public Research….”During the last seven years, it appears that America has begun to surrender world leadership in this collection of issues dealing with climate change and national security,” he said. “Ceding this has serious economic and national security implications, and as the U.S. desires to provide security and stability in various parts of the world, the fact that we are ceding our leadership will make it more and more difficult.”

It remains to be seen whether the McKinley amendment will make it past the Senate and onto the president’s desk. But, no matter what the outcome, it’s further proof that Congressional Republicans have abrogated any effort to lead responsibly on this issue. It’s time for them to follow—or get out of the way.

Scientists Warn of Melting Ice Sheet, Rising Sea Level – WSJ.com

Ruh roh!

Scientists Warn of Melting Ice Sheet, Rising Sea Level

Melt Happening Faster Than Expected; Researchers Point to Broad Climate Change as Cause

 

By

Robert Lee Hotz

Updated May 12, 2014 7:34 p.m. ET

Thwaites Glacier is one of the six rapidly melting glaciers leading to the shrinking of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. AFP/Getty Images

Six rapidly melting glaciers in Antarctica are destabilizing one of the world’s largest ice sheets, a process which, if unchecked, could release enough water to raise sea levels world-wide significantly in centuries to come, two groups of scientists said Monday.

On the basis of decades of satellite measurements and aircraft observations, researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California at Irvine calculated that the glaciers’ retreat may have already “reached the point of no return.”

An ice sheet is part of a vast, continent-size ice cap—often miles thick—that is drained by flowing glaciers the way a lake is drained by streams.

By themselves, the Antarctic coastal glaciers already contribute as much to sea-level rise every year as, for example, the melting Greenland ice sheet in the Arctic. All told, melt water from the Antarctic glaciers could raise sea level by four feet, the researchers said at a news conference held by NASA. Their findings have been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters.

“Ice is going to retreat in this sector for decades and centuries to come and we can’t stop it,” said NASA glaciologist Eric Rignot, who led the study. “It is quite likely the retreat of these glaciers will accelerate in the future rather than slow down.”

The researchers said that the rapid melting was caused by broad patterns of climate change, including rising regional temperatures, warming ocean currents, and changing wind patterns.

In recent years, overall global surface temperatures haven’t risen as quickly as in the past, even as emissions of so-called greenhouse gases have continued to grow, leading some skeptics to suggest that global warming has already peaked. In their view, predictions of dire future climate consequences—such as the ice melts and sea-level rises projected in the latest findings —are overblown.

In all, Antarctica holds about 60% of the planet’s fresh water, locked into the millions of cubic miles of polar ice. Polar-ice experts worry about how the changes in these glaciers will affect the stability of the continent’s vast West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains enough fresh water in its ice to increase sea levels around the world by 10 feet or so.

Until now, polar experts were confident that the coastal glaciers, which were anchored to the sea floor, held the ice sheet in place. As the glaciers have been undercut in recent years by warming ocean water, they have floated free of the sea bottom and melted more rapidly.

Dr. Rignot and his colleagues relied on radar observations captured between 1992 and 2011 by the European Earth Remote Sensing satellites to track the ice. The Pine Island Glacier, for example, retreated 19 miles since 2005, according to the researchers, while the Smith and Kohler glaciers retreated 21 miles inland.

“In West Antarctica, the situation is particularly bad,” said Sridhar Anandakrishnan, a glaciologist at Pennsylvania State University, who has studied the ice sheet but wasn’t involved in the current research. “The ice is flowing faster, which puts more water into the ocean.”

That makes the entire region unstable, according to the scientists.

In an independent computer study released Monday, researchers at the University of Washington concluded that the coastal melting may have already set in motion the slow collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

By their calculations, to be published this week in Science, it could take from 200 to 900 years for the entire ice sheet to melt, they said.

via Scientists Warn of Melting Ice Sheet, Rising Sea Level – WSJ.com.

The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming | Mother Jones

Something green for St. Pat’s Day. Bummer. And another reason why we need legal regulated growing, not this criminal free market bullshit.

The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming | Mother Jones.

The Landscape-Scarring, Energy-Sucking, Wildlife-Killing Reality of Pot Farming

This is your wilderness on drugs.

Starting about 90 miles northwest of Sacramento, an unbroken swath of national forestland follows the spine of California’s rugged coastal mountains all the way to the Oregon border. Near the center of this vast wilderness, along the grassy banks of the Trinity River’s south fork, lies the remote enclave of Hyampom (pop. 241), where, on a crisp November morning, I climb into a four-wheel-drive government pickup and bounce up a dirt logging road deep into the Six Rivers National Forest. I’ve come to visit what’s known in cannabis country as a “trespass grow.”

“This one probably has the most plants I’ve seen,” says my driver, a young Forest Service cop who spends his summers lugging an AR-15 through the backcountry of the Emerald Triangle—the triad of Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties that is to pot what the Central Valley is to almonds and tomatoes. Fearing retaliation from growers, the officer asks that I not use his name. Back in August he was hiking through the bush, trying to locate the grow from an aerial photo, when he surprised a guy carrying an iPod, gardening tools, and a 9 mm pistol on his hip. He arrested the man and alerted his tactical team, which found about 5,500 plants growing nearby, with a potential street yield approaching $16 million.

“This is unicorns and rainbows, isn’t it?” says wildlife ecologist Mourad Gabriel as he stuffs a garbage bag with trash the growers left behind.

Today, a work crew is hauling away the detritus by helicopter. Our little group, which includes a second federal officer and a Forest Service flack, hikes down an old skid trail lined with mossy oaks and madrones, passing the scat of a mountain lion, and a few minutes later, fresh black bear droppings. We follow what looks like a game trail to the lip of a wooded slope, a site known as Bear Camp. There, amid a scattering of garbage bags disemboweled by animals, we find the growers’ tarps and eight dingy sleeping bags, the propane grill where they had cooked oatmeal for breakfast, and the backpack sprayers they used to douse the surrounding 50 acres with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The air smells faintly of ammonia and weed. “This is unicorns and rainbows, isn’t it?” says Mourad Gabriel, a former University of California-Davis wildlife ecologist who has joined us at the site, as he maniacally stuffs a garbage bag with empty booze bottles, Vienna Beef sausage tins, and Miracle-Gro refill packs.

According to federal stats, trespass grows in California alone account for more than one-third of the cannabis seized nationwide by law enforcement, which means they could well be the largest single source of domestically grown marijuana. Of course, nobody can say precisely how much pot comes from indoor grows and private plots that are less accessible to the authorities. What’s clear is that California’s marijuana harvest is vast—”likely the largest value crop (by far) in the state’s lineup,” notes the Field Guide to California Agriculture. Assuming, as the guide does, that the authorities seize about 10 percent of the harvest, that means they would have left behind more than 10 million outdoor plants last year, enough to yield about $31 billion worth of product. That’s more than the combined value of the state’s top 10 legal farm commodities.

“It simply isn’t regulated, and the upshot is that nobody really knows what’s in their cannabis.”

Even before voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational pot in 2012, marijuana was quasi-legal in California, and not just for medical use. Senate Bill 1449, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010, reclassified possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to a maximum $100 infraction—you’ll get a bigger fine for jaywalking in Los Angeles. Indeed, many states have eased restrictions on pot use. But with the exception of Colorado and Washington, whose laws dictate where, how, and by whom marijuana may be grown, they have had little to say about the manner in which it is cultivated—which is challenging to dictate in any case, since growers who cooperate with state regulators could still be prosecuted under federal statutes that classify pot as a Schedule 1 drug, the legal equivalent of LSD and heroin. So where is all this legal and semilegal weed supposed to come from? The answer, increasingly, is an unregulated backwoods economy, the scale of which makes Prohibition-era moonshining look quaint.

To meet demand, researchers say, the acreage dedicated to marijuana grows in the Emerald Triangle has doubled in the past five years. Like the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s, this “green rush,” as it is known locally, has brought great wealth at a great cost to the environment. Whether grown in bunkers lit with pollution-spewing diesel generators, or doused with restricted pesticides and sown on muddy, deforested slopes that choke off salmon streams during the rainy season, this “pollution pot” isn’t exactly high quality, or even a quality high. “The cannabis industry right now is in sort of the same position that the meatpacking industry was in before The Jungle was written by Upton Sinclair,” says Stephen DeAngelo, the founder of Oakland’s Harborside Health Center, a large medical marijuana dispensary. “It simply isn’t regulated, and the upshot is that nobody really knows what’s in their cannabis.”

It’s not just stoners who are at risk. Trespass grows have turned up everywhere from a stand of cottonwoods in Death Valley National Park to a clearing amid the pines in Yosemite. “I now have to spend 100 percent of my time working on the environmental impacts of marijuana,” says Gabriel, who showed up at Bear Camp in military-style cargo pants and a kaffiyeh scarf. “I would never have envisioned that.”

Gabriel grew up in Fresno, the son of immigrants from Mexico and Iraq, at a time when the Central Valley city was plagued by turf wars among pot-dealing street gangs, notably the local Norteños chapter and their rivals, the Bulldogs. That world did not interest Gabriel, who spent a lot of his free time catching frogs and crawdads on the banks of the San Joaquin River. His love of the outdoors led him to study wildlife management at Humboldt State University, where he became fascinated with fishers, the only predators besides mountain lions clever and tough enough to prey on porcupines. The fisher, which resembles the love child of a ferret and a wolverine, was nearly eradicated from the West by logging and trapping during the early 20th century. It still hasn’t rebounded. This year, the US Fish and Wildlife Service will consider listing it as a threatened species.

On local blogs, people have threatened Gabriel and his family. In February, one of his dogs was fatally poisoned.

When Gabriel first began venturing into the woods to trap and radio-collar fishers, he assumed that most of them were dying from bobcat attacks, disease, and cars running them over. But then, in 2009, he discovered a dead fisher deep in the Sierra National Forest that showed no signs of any of those things. A toxicology test indicated that it had ingested large quantities of rat poison.

Back in his lab, he tested frozen tissue from 58 other fisher carcasses he’d collected on some of California’s most remote public lands and found rodenticide traces in nearly 80 percent of them. Rat poison isn’t used in national forests by anyone except marijuana cultivators, who put it out to protect their seedlings. Rodents that eat the poison stumble around for a few days before they die, making them easy prey for hungry fishers.

In 2012, after Gabriel published his rat poison results, he was the target of angry calls and messages. One person accused him of helping the feds “greenwash the war on drugs.” Another made vague threats against his family and his dogs. Gabriel also received a prying email, later traced by federal agents to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, soliciting the locations of his home, office, and field study sites. In Lost Coast Outpost and other local news sites, commenters shared links to his home address. “Snitches end up in ditches,” one warned.

Then, last month, Gabriel’s Labrador retriever, Nyxo, died after someone fed him meat infused with De-Con rat bait.

The types of threats Gabriel has received are not uncommon, and they have frightened scientists away from studying the environmental impacts of pot farming. “At my university, there is nobody who will even go near it,” says Anthony Silvaggio, a sociologist with the state university’s Humboldt Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research. Biologists who used to venture into the wilderness alone to survey wildlife now often pair up for protection. In July 2011, armed growers in the Sequoia National Forest chased a federal biologist through the woods for a half-hour before giving up. The following year, researchers surveying northern spotted owls on Humboldt County’s Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation were shot at with high-caliber rifles. Each growing season, a significant chunk of one designated fisher habitat in the Sierra National Forest becomes inaccessible to scientists because it’s dangerously close to illegal gardens.

Gabriel won’t go near a known grow site before it’s been cleared by law enforcement, as Bear Camp has. Scattered across the hillside, his team finds 4,200 pounds of chemical fertilizer, five kinds of insecticide, and three kinds of rodenticide. The stash includes a restricted pesticide capable of killing humans in small doses. Gabriel’s friend and colleague Mark Higley dons a gas mask and seals the canister in a garbage bag. “If it does erupt, I want everyone to be at least 20 to 30 feet away,” Gabriel warns. “It’s aluminum phosphide, and when it hits the air, it turns into phosphine gas.” Breathing it can kill you.
The Emerald Triangle’s pot culture has changed a lot since the hippies drove up from San Francisco in the early 1970s in search of peace, freedom, and blissful communion with nature. At first, the back-to-the-landers grew pot primarily for themselves, but news that the United States was paying to have Mexican pot farms sprayed with paraquat, a toxic weed killer, convinced American stoners to seek out the hippie weed.

Before long, Humboldt had become a name brand, but marijuana might never have come to define the Emerald Triangle had the old-growth timber industry not logged itself out of business by the mid-1990s. In 1996, when California became the first state to legalize pot for medical use, out-of-work loggers took advantage of the opportunity. “Then you had everybody like, ‘Sure, I’ll grow some weed,'” recalls Humboldt State’s Silvaggio. The size of the harvest grew, helped along by post-9/11 border enforcement, which made it harder for Mexican pot to enter the country. The latest leap in production was the result of Prop. 19, California’s 2010 legalization measure; although it lost narrowly at the polls, the Emerald Triangle’s growers boosted output in anticipation of having a mainstream product. Now marijuana “is all we have,” Silvaggio says. “Every other thing is built here to serve that economy.”

Drive around the Emerald Triangle during harvest season with the radio on, and you’ll hear ads openly pitching Dutch hydroponic lamps, machines “for trimming flowers,” and 2,800-gallon water storage tanks—because “you don’t want to be the one that has to call the water truck in for multiple water deliveries late in the season.” Even mainstream businesses like furniture stores get in on the green rush with “harvest sales.” Talk of bud-trimming parties and the going price per pound dominates restaurant conversations. And in backwoods hamlets where you’d expect high unemployment, you come across a lot of $50,000 pickups.

With prices dropping as domestic supply expands, “you’ve got to go bigger these days to make the amount of money you used to make.”

As with much of the state’s agricultural industry, the pot trade is stratified, and much of the labor is done by undocumented farmworkers. The man arrested at Bear Camp confessed to the police that he’d traveled north from Michoacán, Mexico, to pick apples in Washington, but knew he could make more money tending pot in California. Industry observers believe that at least some of the trespass grows are run from south of the border, but Silvaggio adds that many are financed by locals. Either way, the grunt workers tend to be the only ones busted when the grows are raided.

Although the original Northern California growers saw pot cultivation as an extension of their hippie lifestyles, their environmental values haven’t readily carried over to the next generation. “They are given a free pass to become wealthy at a young age, to get what they want,” Silvaggio explains. “And do you think they are going to give it up when they turn 20, with a kid in the box? They can’t get off that gravy train.” But with prices dropping as domestic supply expands, “you can’t go smaller; you’ve got to go bigger these days to make the amount of money you used to make. So what does that mean? You have to get another generator. You have to take more water. You’ve got to spray something because you may lose 20, 30 grand if you don’t.”

Smaller growers operating on their own properties tend to use slightly better environmental practices— avoiding rodenticides, for instance—than the industrial growers who have moved in solely to make money. Even so, Silvaggio says, “we found that it’s just a tiny fraction of folks who are growing organic.”

Among the downsides of the green rush is the strain it puts on water resources in a drought-plagued region. Scott Bauer, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, calculates that irrigation for cannabis farms has sucked up all of the water that would ordinarily keep local salmon streams running through the dry season. Marijuana cultivation, he believes, “is a big reason why” at least 24 salmon and steelhead streams stopped flowing last summer. “I would consider it probably the No. 1 threat” to salmon in the area, he told me. “We are spending millions of dollars on restoring streams. We are investing all this money in removing roads and trying to contain sediment and fixing fish path barriers, but without water there’s no fish.”

Thirty square miles in one Emerald Triangle watershed, where pot farms siphon up roughly 29 million gallons of water per season California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

At Bear Camp, Gabriel leads me to a steep slope where the growers have plugged a freshwater spring with a makeshift dam of logs and tarps, one of 17 water diversions found at the site. Where moisture-loving ferns and horsetails should be flourishing, a plastic pipe leads downhill to a 1,000-gallon reservoir feeding a vast irrigation network. Gabriel unkinks a hose to release an arc of water from a sprinkler. National Guard troops enlisted to help out have already yanked the cannabis plants here, leaving behind a hillside of girdled white oaks and bare soil. “When we have a two-to-four-inch rain, this will just be a mud river,” Gabriel says. Sediment laced with pesticides and other chemicals will find its way into the salmon stream below. We hike down to a clearing where a helicopter is pulling out sling loads of irrigation piping. “Look at this!” Gabriel shouts after plunging into a thicket to help the soldiers rip out another dam. “Insect killer right in the middle of it!”

He and his colleagues have seen much worse. At a grow site in July, he found a fisher that had died from eating one of many poisoned hot dogs strung around the site on a trotline. A state game warden raiding a grow in 2011 discovered a black bear and her cubs convulsing on the ground, having eaten into a stash of pesticides. Two threatened northern spotted owls, the species once at the center of a bitter fight between loggers and environmentalists, tested positive for rodenticides in Gabriel’s lab; he’s now looking into whether toxins from grow sites could be impeding that species’ recovery as well. “When there is no adequate regulatory framework,” Silvaggio warns, “you are going to have nature taking a hit.”
Most growers just want to be left alone, but the small minority who are politically outspoken tend to favor regulation. Kristin Nevedal chairs the Emerald Growers Association, the triangle’s marijuana trade group. The coauthor of an ecofriendly pot-farming guide, she often consults with state and local lawmakers about how to make the industry more responsible. “Prohibition hasn’t curbed the desire for cannabis,” she says. “So we really need to look at changing our policy and starting to treat it like agriculture, so we can manage it.”

“The trespass grows are really an issue because of prohibition,” says one enviro. The growers “are just a symptom. The real disease is the failed drug war.”

One of the most serious efforts on that front was a system put in place by Mendocino County, which as of 2010 allowed the cultivation of up to 99 plants, provided growers registered and tagged each one with zip ties purchased from the county. Sheriff’s deputies monitored the grow sites and checked that they complied with environmental laws. “That program was in a lot of ways fabulous,” Nevedal recalls. Almost 100 growers participated, but the program was shut down in early 2012, after federal agents raided one of the grows and US Attorney Melinda Haag hinted that she might just take the county to court. Later that year, a federal grand jury subpoenaed the county’s zip tie records.

Since then, efforts to regulate pot farming have mostly shifted to the state level. In Colorado, pot vendors are required to list on their packaging all the farm chemicals used to produce their products, and the state recently implemented a “seed to sale” tracking system. Most Coloradans grow indoors due to the climate, which reduces pesticide use and makes it easier to keep pot off the black market, but it’s highly energy intensive. In the journal Energy Policy, researcher Evan Mills estimated that indoor grows suck up enough electricity to supply 1.7 million homes—in California, they account for a whopping 9 percent of household energy use. The newly minted regulations for Washington state allow outdoor grows so long as they are well fenced and outfitted with security cameras and an alarm system.

In the next few years, new legalization measures appear destined for the ballot in California, Alaska, and Oregon. But while it may help create a market for responsibly grown cannabis, legalizing pot in a few states won’t wipe out the black market, with its steep environmental toll. There’s simply too much money to be made shipping weed to New Yorkers at $3,600 per pound, and too few cops to find all the grows and rip them out. “The trespass grows are really an issue because of prohibition,” says Gary Hughes, the executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center, a 37-year-old Emerald Triangle environmental group that cut its teeth fighting the logging industry. “It is not the growers who are a disease. They are just a symptom. The real disease is the failed drug war.”

Yet without the drug war, the region’s pot sector might fade into oblivion. Take away the threat of federal raids, and to some extent pot becomes just another row crop, grown en masse wherever it’s cheapest. “A shift in cultivation to the Central Valley is definitely possible,” Hughes acknowledges.

There will likely still be a niche for the Emerald Triangle growers who started it all, Nevedal believes, just as there has been for craft whiskey distilleries in post-Prohibition Kentucky. Growing really good weed is simply too much work and too much strain on the environment to make sense on an industrial scale. As it happens, Nevedal speculates, the Emerald Triangle might just end up where it started, providing artisanal dank for a high-end market. “The future,” she says, “is the small family farm.”

Illustration by Gina Triplett

Radio icon: nakorn/Shutterstock

How to Destroy Species, Including Us

From the Facebook Notes of Fuse editor Lee Dynamo:

This article is from the New York Review of Books, March 20, 2014, Volume LXI, Number 5,
NYBooks.com.  I am posting it as a note because it is behind the pay wall.

How to Destroy Species, Including Us

Verlyn Klinkenborg

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

by Elizabeth Kolbert

Holt, 319 pp., $28.00

 

The better we understand the earth’s natural systems, the more dynamic they appear to be. (The same could be said of the universe itself.) Two and a half centuries ago earth looked like a planet of remarkable fixity and a short time scale. Since then, of course, the past has deepened or widened or lengthened enormously, depending on how you think of it. The planetary time scale has expanded from several thousand years to some 4.5 billion years, and now we know that this one earth is really a seemingly endless succession of earths. Continents roam, climate changes, oceans warm and cool, species come and go.

 

The old idea of an earth with relatively static natural systems fit more than just the biblical evidence. It also fit the common sense of most observers. In a way, it still does. As Elizabeth Kolbert makes clear in her excellent new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, nothing about who we are or how we’ve evolved as a species makes it easy for us to perceive the depth of geological time, to feel it in our bones the way we feel the passing of the seasons. Common sense fails us often enough in the hours and days of ordinary life. It fails us completely on any time scale much longer than that. The extraordinary, deep-yawning present concealed in the earth’s past—the day-by-dayness of all those billions of years—constantly puts the lie to what our senses, common or otherwise, tell us. Historically speaking, we have walked around on one earth—the earth we believe we perceive—while unaware of another earth—shaped in geological time—beneath our feet. For billions of earthlings, “historically speaking” happens, unfortunately, to contain the present.

 

Nothing we do will ever change the speed at which tectonic plates shift and continents wander. But everything we do now shifts the speed at which other natural processes occur—natural processes that once shifted at roughly geological speed. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (and the oceans) has changed again and again in earth’s history, but almost always at a rate imperceptible to humans. The same is true of the mix of species on this planet. Catastrophes apart, species haven’t become extinct very often. They disappear at a roughly measurable, roughly steady background rate.

The way we live now—and have lived for the past couple of centuries—has accelerated climate change and the extinction of species into a wholly different temporal dimension. The lifespan of a human being used to be an indiscernible increment in geological time—an immeasurably infinitesimal instant. Now, a human lifespan—measured by the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide and the demise of species—takes place during genuinely geological changes. One way to talk about the Anthropocene—the geological age that begins with direct human influence over the earth’s natural systems—is to say that at last, tragically, geological time is all too observable.

 

Around the globe, species of every kind are dying out, silently, invisibly. At a very conservative estimate, they are dying out a thousand times faster than the rate of extinction before humans arose. At least half the tortoises and turtles, a third of the amphibians, a quarter of the mammals, and an eighth of the birds on this planet face a risk of extinction in the near future. What’s worse, these numbers apply only to the small fraction of known species whose conservation status has actually been assessed. The overall picture is likely to be much worse.

 

Nearly everyone goes about not noticing this. The reason is fairly obvious. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert quotes a paleontologist who is summarizing the likely risk of extinction caused by global warming. “Look around you,” he writes. “Kill half of what you see. Or if you’re feeling generous, just kill about a quarter of what you see. That’s what we could be talking about.” Now go to the window and look around you. If you live in or near a city, what do you see? Perhaps a pair of pigeons on the cornice of the building across the street, a Norway maple or a gingko, perhaps a tight cluster of small birds at the feeder, an expanse of grass, a dog, a cat, and people, plenty of people. For all but a small number of humans on this planet, extinction is occurring somewhere else, far offstage.

 

Nor is extinction something you can witness, even if you’re the zookeeper who, nearly a century ago, found Martha, the final passenger pigeon, dead in her enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. In human experience, extinction is an absence, a sudden gap in the world noticeable only to the extent that there’s a scientific record of the world as it existed before the gap occurred. (The fossil record is a different story.) Not a week passes without a new account of a species—or group of species—at risk of extinction, or a new paper investigating the forces behind the current rate of extinction, or a new study examining what happens to ecosystems when species go missing.1

 

Some species on the brink of vanishing, like the Sumatran rhino, are well known to scientists (and, in some cases, nonscientists too). But an untold number of unknown, undiscovered species are dying out too, never having left a trace of themselves in the awareness of humans. Scientists can estimate possible rates of extinction under different climatic models, but they can’t take into account the species that no one knows about. Again and again, scientists discover a new species that’s already threatened by poaching or deforestation at the moment of its discovery. It’s as if human attention were fatal.

 

The last time species died out as fast as they’re doing now was 65 million years ago, when an asteroid crashed into earth at a low angle, leaving an enormous crater near what is now the Yucatán and causing a long-lasting global winter. Think of Homo sapiens as that asteroid. No one knows precisely how many species are likely to die in this, the sixth major biological crisis in our planet’s history. And no one knows whether we’ll be able to prevent the rate of extinction from rising, never mind lowering it or stopping it altogether. Most important of all, no one knows what the cascading effects of these extinctions—the eventual loss of entire ecosystems, like coral reefs—are likely to be. Will Homo sapiens become extinct as the extinctions caused by our species mount up? No one knows.

 

Humans began erasing species in the late Pleistocene, which ended about twelve thousand years ago. The species that went down then were the big ones, megafauna like the American mastodon. Whenever I’ve tried to imagine this extinction, I find myself falling prey to the worst kinds of paleo-prejudices. I imagine small bands of early hunters moving rapaciously across the landscape, killing beasts many times their size with the indifference of buffalo hunters working the Great Plains in the 1870s. It looks, in my mind, like a museum diorama come to life but stuck on replay. Why, in their own self-interest, didn’t those early hunters moderate the rate at which they killed the big beasts?

 

This picture is chronologically simple-minded, of course, the way so many of our mental pictures of the past—and our effort to imagine the sheer extent of the past—tend to be. It took hundreds if not thousands of years to kill off the mammoths and the giant ground sloths, and because they reproduced so slowly, there needed to be nothing especially ravenous about the hunting in order to cause their extinction. To eliminate those creatures—the largest mammals to have lived on the planet—it would have taken only a kill here, a kill there, repeated over hundreds of years. “For the people involved in it,” Kolbert writes, “the decline of the megafauna would have been so slow as to be imperceptible.” The paleobiologist John Alroy sums it up with a chronological paradox that’s worth remembering: the megafauna extinction was a “geologically instantaneous ecological catastrophe too gradual to be perceived by the people who unleashed it.” Until just the past couple of decades, the same could be said of the ecological catastrophe we are causing: it was geologically instantaneous but too slow to be perceptible. Now that we perceive it, will it make a difference?

 

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, having been down the pit in Lancashire, stops to think about the economic ubiquity of coal. Substitute the word “fossil fuel” for “coal” (itself a fossil fuel), and you have our predicament. “Practically everything we do,” Orwell wrote, “from eating an ice to crossing the Atlantic, from baking a loaf to writing a novel, involves the use of coal, directly or indirectly. For all the arts of peace, coal is needed; if war breaks out, it is needed all the more.”

 

But what Orwell is really talking about is awareness. “Coal has got to be forthcoming,” he writes, “but on the whole we are not aware of it.” And he points out, we prefer not to be aware of it or of the means and consequences of getting it. So it is with our economic lives now. It’s all too easy to think of extinction as a series of one-off events in the past, caused by unexpected catastrophe or the extraordinary folly of humans or, perhaps, the exceptional stupidity (i.e., tameness) of some creatures. The dinosaurs, the passenger pigeon, and the dodo come to mind.

 

There are many different immediate causes for the different extinctions occurring now—deforestation, destruction and fragmentation of habitat, rising temperatures, increasing acidity in the oceans, the feverish global traffic that has helped spread chytrid fungi around the world, destroying amphibian populations wherever it’s found. But all these causes can be resolved into one: the ordinary, daily economic activity of our species at this point in its history. As Kolbert notes, to understand extinction, you don’t have to imagine a poacher killing elephants with an AK-47. “You can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap.”

 

When I first read The Sixth Extinction, I thought there was a chapter missing. It might have been called “Why We Should Care.” In fact, Kolbert has compressed that chapter into two sentences. “It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care,” she writes. “What matters is that people change the world.” (There’s a slight ambiguity in that second sentence, which may sound as though Kolbert is saying that people should change the world. That’s not what she means.) Caring and not caring don’t alter the gross systemic changes that are forcing extinctions—the rapid pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and its absorption by the oceans. Caring and not caring are merely indiscernible emotional effluents emitted by the dominant species on this planet. How much we care or don’t care about the well-being of other species is overwhelmed—utterly engulfed—by how much we care about ourselves. There’s a really good reason for not writing that chapter.

 

So far, nearly all the arguments for caring about the loss of other species boil down to caring about the welfare of our own. There’s the biophilia argument of E.O. Wilson, which emphasizes the biotic richness of the world we evolved in—and worries about the many possible consequences of losing that richness. There’s the ecosystem services argument, which proposes that nature is a sort of service economy dedicated to providing tolerable weather, edible food, drinkable water, and breathable air for humans. There’s the unintended consequences argument, best summed up by a scientist commenting on a new study of the serious, unexpected effects of overfishing: “You don’t understand how interdependent species are until it all unravels.” Take the idea of interdependence far enough and you get the Gaia argument, the hypothesis that earth is a single living organism. Many believe, more or less, that we’re interdependent with other species, though we behave as if we’re not.

 

These arguments tend to converge, naturally enough. But one argument is nearly always shunted aside, shelved under the heading of religion. I’d put it this way. Every species that has ever existed on this planet is or was a successful experiment in living. Existence is the only measure of success, not pervasiveness or ubiquity or intelligence. Unsuccess would be nothingness. No species is more valuable or meaningful than another, except in the minds of humans, where the balls and strikes are called. The shorthand for one version of this argument is that all life is sacred. But there’s something inadequate about that way of putting it. It seems to shift categories in midstream, because saying that life is sacred usually implies a sacred being to warrant the sacredness of all life. Humans love the idea of the sacredness of all life, as long as it applies chiefly to humans and as long as we ignore all the ways we’ve demonstrated, historically, that life—even human life—isn’t sacred at all.

 

Nature too demonstrates that life isn’t sacred, not for the individual or the species. Every species has some effect on the species it interacts with, for better or worse. Nature itself, since Darwin, looks essentially amoral, like a struggle for existence, for shelf space on this planet. And yet the amorality of what we call nature is also completely consistent with the interdependence, the coexistence, and the profusion of all species and of life itself. The morality of humans isn’t. Neither, of course, is our amorality.

 

That is the measure of our failing, our biotic indecency. The general tendency of our species—a tendency that seems to be intensifying all the time—is to decrease biological diversity on this planet. We do so by destroying habitats, overconsuming natural resources, and spreading invasive species, willingly or not. It’s tempting to say that this is the cost of consciousness. We like to imagine that cultural diversity is an adequate substitute for biological diversity—for ourselves, if not for other species. It isn’t.

 

Kolbert is right. Whether you care or not is immaterial. The question is this: Have we arrived at this point because of something inherent in our nature? Or has something peculiar in our circumstances brought us here, something we can still hope to alter?

 

The Sixth Extinction is the kind of book that helps us recognize the actual planet we live upon, apart from the planet of our daily walking dreams. Kolbert notes, for instance, that biologists now talk about the “new Pangaea” to describe the effects of global travel and the rapid dispersal of species. The old Pangaea was a kind of ur-continent—all our present continents huddled together as one—that existed some 300 million years ago. As the continents drifted into their present positions, Pangaea slowly broke apart, causing a divergence among species as new barriers arose and they became separated from each other. Part of what constituted the apparent common-sense stability of earth several hundred years ago was the fact that no species could move far very quickly under its own power. But species no longer need to move only under their own power. We carry them about the world with us, on planes, in the bilges of ships, unintentionally, on purpose, in business and in pleasure. It’s as though the continents have reconverged, reconstituting Pangaea. As Kolbert puts it, “humans are running geologic history backward and at high speed.”

 

And as Kolbert notes, we’re also “deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.” This is the kind of point that’s easy to miss. As species begin to go down in our presence, we’re not only altering earthly existence now. We’re also altering the very potential for earthly existence. Among all the determinants that govern evolution, we have emerged as the only superdeterminant.

 

The precondition for this lamentable state of affairs is the status quo. The way we live now has allowed us, until now, to entertain the illusion that we’re technologically invulnerable to nature. But the state of our apparent invulnerability depends on the state of our social and economic stability, which is the very thing most threatened by the changes our way of life is bringing about through climate change. As one teeters, so does the other. This is an old lesson. But we seem to be as immune to the past as we are oblivious to the present. All the old tales of cultures that have failed through long droughts and successive years of unseasonable cold sound like outmoded fables about a time when houses were built of straw. Even a book as eloquent and vivid as Global Crisis, Geoffrey Parker’s recent study of “War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century,”2 seems to pale a little when set against the news that farmers, globally, harvested a bumper crop last year. But then we produced, globally, a bumper crop of people last year too.

 

Near the end of her previous book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” She is talking about pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It may also seem impossible that an advanced society could choose to destroy other species and go on destroying them without regard to the consequences and without regard to the validity of every life form on this planet. To paraphrase Orwell, it raises in you a momentary doubt about our status as an advanced society. Or perhaps a doubt not so momentary after all.

 

 

1.  See, for example, William J. Ripple and others, “Status and Ecological Effects of the World’s Largest Carnivores,” Science, January 10, 2014.

 

2.   Yale University Press, 2013.

 

© 1963-2014 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

13 Workers Exposed To Radiation At N.M. Nuclear Waste Dump : The Two-Way : NPR

13 Workers Exposed To Radiation At N.M. Nuclear Waste Dump : The Two-Way : NPR.

 

13 Workers Exposed To Radiation At N.M. Nuclear Waste Dump

4 min 9 sec
In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, a shipment of nuclear waste arrives at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, N.M.

In this undated photo provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, a shipment of nuclear waste arrives at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, near Carlsbad, N.M.

U.S. Department of Energy, Carlsbad Field Office/AP

There’s never a good week for nuclear waste, but this week has been a particularly bad one. Officials at the in New Mexico have disclosed that 13 employees inhaled radioactive material after a major accident earlier this month.

While there’s no risk to the public and the exposed workers did not need immediate medical treatment, the incident is shaping up to be a major setback for the nation’s only dedicated nuclear waste dump.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant is a one-of-a-kind facility. Located just outside Carlsbad, the plant is mostly underground — more than 2,000 feet beneath the surface is a network of tunnels and rooms dug from an ancient salt bed left over from when the area was an ocean. Inside, the government stores radioactive junk from Cold War nuclear bomb production facilities. So far, the plant has accepted more than 80,000 cubic meters of waste, enough to fill several soccer fields.

On Feb. 14 around 11:30 p.m. local time, underground. Nobody knows exactly what went wrong, but the most likely scenario is that a huge chunk of salt fell from the ceiling and ruptured a drum or multiple drums of waste. The plant’s safety systems quickly kicked in: The air from inside the underground facility was sucked through a series of filters designed to catch radiation before it escaped.

A hunk of salt from the underground nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad, New Mexico. A piece of salt is believed to have fallen from a cavern ceiling and crushed drums of waste.

A hunk of salt from the underground nuclear waste dump in Carlsbad, New Mexico. A piece of salt is believed to have fallen from a cavern ceiling and crushed drums of waste.

Meg Vogel/NPR

Initially, it seemed the system had worked flawlessly. But two days later, independent monitoring stations operated by New Mexico State University . The levels are extremely low, well below Environmental Protection Agency reporting limits, according to , head of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, which runs the stations.

“I do not believe there’s any environmental or health concern associated with what information we have to date,” Hardy told NPR.

The story didn’t end there. On Wednesday, samples from 13 employees on duty the night of the accident indicated they had inhaled radioactive americium. At a news conference on Thursday, Farok Sharif, president of , the contracting firm that runs the plant, said the levels appeared to be very low. They are continuing to monitor the workers closely.

Sharif also said more workers might have been exposed. The morning after the accident, personnel returned to the plant apparently unaware that radiation had been detected on the surface. The workers were instructed to shelter in place later that morning, after a radiation release was confirmed. They were allowed to return home in the afternoon, but now those workers, too, must be checked for possible exposure.

Sharif says a plan is being formulated to re-enter the underground tunnel system and assess the damage. It’s a process that likely will take weeks. It may be many months, a year or even longer before operations can resume.

While Hardy says the health and environmental risks are low, the incident is a big blow to nuclear waste disposal in this country. Until this month, the plant had operated for 15 years without a single incident. This accident (and an ) will likely force a hard look at safety procedures.

And more broadly, it could be yet another setback for long-delayed plans to take nuclear waste from power plants and store it underground.

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