The Greene Report is a compilation of environmental stories written by Linda Greene for the Alternative and WFHB Community Radio's EcoReport. This week's edition includes:

  • Mercury from coal-fired power plans ruining Indiana’s waterways
  • Sad state of recycling in Indiana
  • Military burn pits threaten the environment and troops’ health
  • KFC destroying Indonesia’s rainforest
  • Chemical industry determined to undermine HHS listing of styrene as a potential carcinogen
  • Impending risky schemes for 'dirty bombs on wheels'
  • Malaysian “Penan Peace Park” combines forest protection with socioeconomic development
  • Global climate change in mind
  • Increase in plastic waste polluting the North Pacific
  • Nanotechnology threatens firefighters

Read The Greene Report archive on The Bloomington Alternative.

Mercury from coal-fired power plans ruining Indiana’s waterways

Mercury from coal-fired power plants is the main culprit responsible for the contamination of Indiana’s waterways and threatens human health, according to Indiana activists.

The Sierra Club and Hoosier Environmental Council are two of the organizations urging IDEM to improve its tracking and cleaning up of waterways sufficiently polluted to make the agency’s “Impaired Waters List,” which is issued every three years.

“There are 348 water assessment units listed as impaired for mercury contamination,” said Bowden Quinn, conservation program coordinator for the Indiana Chapter of the Sierra Club. “But women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and children under 15 should not be eating fish from those waters at all.”

A recent study by IUPUI and the University of Toronto demonstrated that mercury from coal-fired power plants in the Indianapolis area is being deposited on the northeast side of the county and causing mercury pollution in the White River.

Burning coal isn’t the only human activity that’s contaminating Indiana’s waterways. Quinn says untreated human and animal waste is entering the state’s waterways from failing septic systems and combined sewer overflows.

Another contaminant is algae blooms, the result of runoff from fertilizer used in agriculture and landscaping.

The worst impairment category a waterway can fall into is category 5, which indicates that “aquatic life use, recreational use or drinking water use list impaired or threatened by one or more pollutant; the ‘fishable use’ of the waterway is impaired; and/or the concentration of mercury or PCBs in the edible tissue of fish removed from the waterway exceeds Indiana’s human health criteria for those contaminants.”

Sad state of recycling in Indiana

On May 19 the Indianapolis Business Journal reported that some Indiana manufacturers favor legislation “that would encourage consumers to return their empties.”

Indiana companies that manufacture glass, plastic and aluminum beverage containers are facing a shortage of recycled materials. As a result, they claim, manufacturing costs are escalating “and could discourage others from locating here,” according to the post. 

Each year $35 million worth of metal ends up in landfills in Indiana. That’s equivalent to about 1,000 airliners.

“There is a robust market for returned glass. We are hungry for all the cullet [recyclable glass] we can get,” said Stephen Segebarth, a senior vice president at glass maker Verallia’s Muncie factory.

The situation is even worse when it comes to plastic bottles, made predominantly of PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Only some 30 percent of such containers are recycled in the U.S.

“[T]he availability of recyclable feedstock can drive decisions on where to build plants," said the post. "Late this year, Perpetual Recycling Solutions plans to open a $30 million, 55-employee plant in Richmond. It will transform discarded containers into food-grade plastic flake, which will be sold to container makers.”

Glass can be recycled indefinitely. “Segebarth tells college students that the beer bottle they drink from today may have been made from bottles their parents swigged when they were in college,” according to the post.

For every ton of glass recycled, more than a ton of natural resources is saved, Segebarth said. Energy use decreases 2-3 percent for every 10 percent of recycled glass used in manufacturing. That means concomitant reductions in nitrogen, sulfur, particulate and greenhouse gases.

The answer, some recyclers say, would be a bottle bill.

“Indiana’s last flirtation with a bottle bill was in 2009, with a proposed 10-cent rate,” the post says. "The bill did not get a committee hearing."

Military burn pits threaten the environment and troops’ health

Thanks to a leaked memo, it’s now public knowledge that the “burn pits” the military uses to dispose of everything from plastics to human excrement in Iraq and Afghanistan adversely affect the heart and lungs over the long term.

At Bagram Airfield the burn pit is a mere 300 yards from the runway.

The April 15, 2011, memo indicates that high concentrations of particulate matter from the trash incineration cause “reduced lung function or exacerbated chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, atherosclerosis or other cardiopulmonary diseases.” Not all service members will acquire those diseases, but all have an increased risk for them.

“The memo’s findings,” the post says, “contradict years of U.S. military assurances that the burn pits are no big deal.”

For the last decade thousands of vets “have experienced respiratory and cardiopulmonary problems that they associate with their service. Some have sued military contractors for exposing them to unsafe conditions.”

Months after the memo is was written, the Pentagon maintained it didn’t have enough evidence to link environmental conditions to long-term health effects.

“The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) has collected ‘hundreds’ of anecdotes from vets complaining of health problems connected to serving near burn pits,” the memo says.

Tom Tarantino, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America deputy policy director, who served in Iraq in 2005 as an Army captain, said it is good to see someone in the military is acknowledging there are will be long-term problems with burn pits.

"But it’s disturbing that this memo is more than a year old, and it doesn’t seem like the military has done anything about it,” he says. “I lived next to a burn pit for six months at Abu Ghraib. You can’t tell me that was okay. That was pretty nasty. While I was there everyone was hacking up weird shit.”

The burn pits are usually operated by Afghan citizens, whose medical breathing masks don’t prevent them from inhaling the burning waste.

When the memo was issued, it said that the affected population at Bagram was 40,000 troops and contractors. However, hundreds of thousands have passed through the base since the U.S. appropriated it 11 years ago.

“Millions more have served in Iraq and Afghanistan near similar burn pits,” the post says.

The EPA has determined that there is “a significant association between exposure to fine particles and premature mortality.”

KFC destroying Indonesia’s rainforest

Greenpeace researchers, as reported in a May 23 email, have discovered that Kentucky Fried Chicken is using fiber from Indonesia’s threatened rainforest in its disposable packaging.

“KFC is destroying the habitat of the last remaining Sumatran tigers for potato wedges and 12-piece buckets of extra crispy chicken,” the email says.

KFC buys its packaging from an infamously destructive company, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP). Greenpeace has successfully convinced Nestle, Mattel and Kroger to stop dealing with APP. Now it’s asking people to sign a message to KFC urging the company to cease destroying the Indonesian rainforest by cutting its ties with APP.

Chemical industry determined to undermine HHS listing of styrene as a potential carcinogen

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has listed styrene as a potential carcinogen, but the chemical industry is fighting the listing with a lawsuit that tries to force the agency to withdraw the listing, as reported in a May 21 news release.

HHS is the government’s main agency for protecting Americans’ health. Styrene is used heavily to manufacture plastics, boats, cars, bathtubs and products made with rubber, including tires and conveyor belts.

Styrene is best known to consumers as an ingredient in polystyrene (Styrofoam), used for such products as disposable cups and insulating “popcorn.” It also is an ingredient in building insulation, floor waxes and polishes, and personal care products.

“It is also approved for use in containers and food-contact materials, and is an FDA-approved synthetic flavoring in ice cream and candy,” according to the news release.

Earthjustice, Environmental Defense Fund and United Steelworkers are fighting back with a motion to intervene, filed on April 18 in D.C. District Court, that aims to ensure the government can warn the public of the potential hazards of styrene. The motion attempts to help defend HHS’s listing of the chemical as “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

“This case is about the public’s right to have scientifically sound information on the link between styrene exposure and cancer,” said Marianne Engelman Lado, Earthjustice attorney representing the groups. “Styrene is a dangerous chemical that is all around us because of its widespread use in plastics manufacturing. It’s clear that industry is trying to prevent people from getting scientific information about this toxic chemical and we intend to make sure government can inform the public of the risk of styrene, as well as the potential dangers of other chemicals.”

The human health threats from styrene aren’t news. The HHS listing resulted from seven years of scientific review, including many panels of experts.

The steelworkers are involved because thousands of its members face exposure to styrene at work.

EPA regulates styrene as a “hazardous air pollutant” that’s also “a suspected toxin to the gastrointestinal tract, kidney, and respiratory system, among others.”

Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer and World Health Organization have designated styrene as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Immediately after the listing was initiated, the Styrene Information and Research Center, a trade association, and Dart Container Corporation, the world’s principal maker of polystyrene cups, sued HHS, attempting to force the agency to renounce the listing.

“Should this industry lawsuit be successful, it will prevent workers, consumers and members of the public who may be exposed to styrene, as well as health professionals, from receiving authoritative information about styrene and its impacts on human health,” said Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and an expert on chemical safety. “It could have a major chilling effect on the ability of government agencies to carry out their responsibilities to identify toxic chemicals and provide the public with potentially life-saving information about them.”

Impending risky schemes for 'dirty bombs on wheels'

“Very risky decisions are impending on radioactive waste in both the U.S. and Canada,” says a May 17 email alert from Beyond Nuclear.

Beyond Nuclear recommends contacting your U.S. senators immediately to stop “a bill that would rush irradiated nuclear fuel shipments onto the roads, rails, and waterways,” or what the organization calls “mobile Chernobyls” and “dirty bombs on wheels.”

The bill “could launch high-level radioactive waste shipments much sooner rather than later, even though the destination ‘centralized storage sites’ would only be ‘interim’ and could well result in the wastes simply being ‘returned to sender’ someday, doubling transport risks for no good reason whatsoever.

The nuclear power industry's lobbyists love the idea, for liability would transfer to U.S. taxpayers as soon as the wastes started rolling away from reactor sites.” The nuclear waste could pass through heavily populated metropolitan areas. For instance, around the Great Lakes hundreds or thousands of high-level radioactive waste train cars could pass within a quarter-mile of the Chicago Art Institute and on barges in Lake Michigan.

Meanwhile, on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, “several municipalities have sold out the drinking water supply for 40 million people by offering to host a ‘deep underground dump’ for high-level radioactive waste,” according to Beyond Nuclear.

Ontario Power Generation (OPG), which owns the Bruce Nuclear Complex on the shore of Lake Huron in Kincardine, Ontario, and produces radioactive waste, wants to develop a “deep geological repository” for so-called low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste. Lake Huron provides the drinking water for tens of millions of people. The Michigan state line is 50 miles west of Bruce.

OPG has already brought nuclear waste form 20 nuclear reactors in Ontario to “surface warehouses and storage cells” at the Western Waste Management Facility, adjacent to Bruce. There it has incinerated much low-level nuclear waste, “with untold radiological emissions to the atmosphere.”

Recently several cities near Bruce, their residents primarily nuclear workers, have expressed interest in becoming national Canadian high-level radioactive waste dumps.

Beyond Nuclear recommends immediately telling the Canadian federal government’s environmental joint review panel to cancel the project, a threat to the Great Lakes, which constitute 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water.

Malaysian Penan Peace Park combines forest protection with socioeconomic development

The goal of the Penan Peace Park, a Malaysian project conceived of by the indigenous Penan people, is to unite forest protection with socioeconomic development.

A delegation of Penan proposed the model community-based conservation project before the State Assembly in Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian state of Sarawak, on May 22.

“The project is not only groundbreaking for the Penan people, who for the first time in their history decided to collectively model a development plan for their future, but it also presents an alternative vision for Sarawak, a Malaysian state that has become infamous for its unsustainable management of forests and for the violations of the rights of its native inhabitants,” the website says.

The peace park includes 153,000 hectares of forest and farmland in the Upper Baram and Tutoh regions of Sarawak. An estimated 60 percent is still intact primary rainforest.

“Within the framework of the “Penan Peace Park,” the website says, “the Penan communities are proposing the implementation of 16 projects in the areas of cultural heritage protection, nature conservation, as well as economic and institutional development. It is envisaged that, within the park area, the remaining primary forests should be protected and logging-afflicted secondary forests restored.”

The proposal represents the first time the Penan people have ever collectively created a development plan for their communities, “but it also presents an alternative vision for Sarawak, [which] has become infamous for its unsustainable management of forests and for the violations of the rights of its native inhabitants,” the website says.

The communities propose to make a living by selling nontimber forest products and generating tourism.

Ruled by long-term Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, the Sarawak government has rejected the Penan people’s vision for their communities.

Global climate change in mind

According to the May 4 Guardian, “new data released last month by researchers at Yale and George Mason universities show that a lot of Americans are growing far more concerned about climate change, precisely because they are drawing the links between freaky weather, a climate kicked off-kilter by a fossil-fuel guzzling civilization and their own lives. After a year with a record number of multibillion dollar weather disasters, seven in 10 Americans now believe that 'global warming is affecting the weather.'"

Further, 35 percent of those surveyed said extreme weather had affected them personally in 2011.

This past March, the weather broke 15,000 temperature records, primarily in the East and Midwest.

The news media do almost nothing to spread the word about climate change. In 2011, for example, ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX News spent twice as much time on Donald Trump as on climate change, says the Guardian.

Over the past three years, the Sunday talk shows “have devoted 98 minutes total to the planet’s biggest challenge,” according to the Guardian.

Increase in plastic waste polluting the North Pacific

In the last 40 years, the number of small plastic fragments in the north-east Pacific Ocean has increased 100 times, according to the BBC.

Any plastic in the sea will sink or eventually break down into fragments the size of a fingernail or smaller, the post says. One obvious problem is that marine animals will swallow the material.

The scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography who performed the plastics study found another problem: the tiny pieces of plastic “make it easier for the marine insect Halobates sericeus to lay its eggs out over the ocean,” the post says.

The study’s findings, published in Marine Ecology Progress Series, estimated that fish at medium ocean depths in the North Pacific could be swallowing about 12,000-24,000 tons of plastic each year.

Earlier Scripps research demonstrated that 9 percent of fish caught had plastic waste in their stomachs.

“The natural circulation of water -- the North Pacific Gyre -- tends to retain the debris in reasonably discrete, long-lived collections, which have popularly become known as ‘garbage patches,’” the post says. “In the north-eastern Pacific, one of these concentrations is seen in waters between Hawaii and California.”

With reference to plastic pollution, toxicity is usually the main concern, but “broader ecosystem effects also need to be studied,” according to the post.

Nanotechnology threatens firefighters

Nanotechnology, using particles one billionth of a meter in diameter, are proving to be an occupational hazard for firefighters according to an April 24, 2012, article in News.

Consumer products contain a wealth of nanoparticles. One example is sporting goods made of carbon fiber.

“Firefighters and responders have known for decades that smoke is harmful to their health, but the latest studies have shown that the microscopic materials that become airborne during fires are far more deadly than ever realized,” the article says.

Smoke is composed primarily of well-known aerosols, gases and particulate matter, but the dangerous particulate matter that nanoparticles emit when burned are fairly new.

Flat-screen TVs and the many items that have been coated with power are some of the culprits. These items, when burned, “release compounds with unknown and not well understood health risks.”

Linda Greene can be reached at .