Environment

Stories about the environment focused on the Pacific Northwest, with many from KPLU's Environment reporter, Bellamy Pailthorp.

Unhealthy smoke continued to blanket large parts of central and eastern Washington state and north Idaho Wednesday. Some workers in north central Washington were sent home because the dense smoke was rated downright “hazardous.”

AP Images

This summer’s extreme drought is becoming increasingly deadly for fish in the northwest.

The state department of Fish and Wildlife had already lost about one and a half million juvenile fish in overheated rivers and streams in Washington at the end of July, due to this summer’s historically warm temperatures and low water levels.

Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Mount Rainier is famous as the most glaciated peak in  the contiguous United States. But the massive flows of ice and snow that cover the mountain are retreating rapidly, likely more rapidly than ever in the record warmth of this summer.

Participants in the 2015 "Climate Boot Camp" put on by the Northwest Climate Science Center gathered this week in Mount Rainier National Park to learn more about the dynamics behind this phenomenon. 

Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Energy efficiency is not just a money saver. The freed up capital also drives economic growth and productivity. That’s the message in a new study released in Seattle Tuesday by the non-profit Northwest Energy Efficiency Council. 

The study was commissioned to show the benefits of conserving. It concluded that recent energy efficiency investments by utilities and consumers pumped an extra $216 million dollars a year into Washington state’s economy. That’s money that is spent on productivity instead of wasted.

AP Images

Environmental groups are calling the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan the strongest action the U.S. has ever taken to fight climate change.

Yet in Washington State, a plan to cap-and-trade carbon emissions failed to get through the legislature – despite a Governor who won an election on the promise of a clean-energy economy.

Gov. Jay Inslee blames the legislature for the lack of a clear climate policy in the state. He acknowledges his political reputation is riding on it. But, he says, lawmakers are not cooperating with him.  

“They’ve produced zero when it comes to any meaningful carbon reduction plan," Inslee said Monday. "So now it’s time for the Executive branch to act because it is our responsibility.”

That’s why Inslee last week directed the state department of Ecology to forge ahead with the cap portion of his cap-and-trade plan.

Bellamy Pailthorp

A who’s who of scientists from about a dozen local agencies gathered on Thursday to share what they’re learning about the warm patch of water off the west coast that’s been keeping temperatures higher than normal.

Standing near the Viking statue at Seattle’s Shilshole Bay, State Climatologist Nick Bond said he could go on and on about all the local temperature records being broken lately. But what’s concerning many scientists now, he said, is how warm the water is becoming. And some of those concerns focus specifically on "the blob."

AP Images

Humans should be part of any consideration of how well Puget Sound’s ecological recovery is going. How we’re thriving and benefiting are critical parts of the equation, according to new research conducted for the state agency in charge of the cleanup.

The agency, called Puget Sound Partnership, is adding indicators of human well-being and quality of life to the “vital signs” it tracks. They’ll be included on the colorful pinwheel “dashboard” that anyone can see online.

Erin Hennessey / KPLU

Seattle, Tacoma and Everett have activated their water shortage response plans. The hot, dry weather has increased demand for water just as river levels are at historic lows. Seattle Public Utilities, Tacoma Public Utilities and the city of Everett issued a joint  release announcing the implementation of the first stage of the response plans.

Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

Upgrades to old infrastructure are often needed to help reduce the risk of flooding. That can lead to inconvenient road closures.

But the payoff is not just for humans. Replacing old culverts and pavement can also help endangered fish.

Backhoes and bulldozers will be working alongside SR 522 at Lake Forest Park Towne Center for the next couple of months. The city is re-plumbing the culverts beneath this roadside mall. The main motivation for the work, at least initially, was major flooding.

AP Images

A year ago Friday, an oil train from North Dakota derailed under Seattle’s busy Magnolia Bridge during the height of the morning commute.

No one was hurt and nothing burned in that accident but the scare has prompted changes to the emergency response to a similar accident should one occur. The reason? As many as two thousand black oil tanker cars now roll through Seattle each week, carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region.

AP Images

It's been nearly a year since a train derailed under a busy Seattle bridge, tipping three oil tanker cars off the tracks in Magnolia during the morning commute. No one was hurt in the accident but the near-miss spurred city officials into action.  

A new resolution is going before the city council that outlines Seattle's wish list for regulations of crude oil shipments by rail. 

AP Images

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is in Rome this morning (Tues.)  for the first ever gathering of mayors at the Vatican.

They’re there to discuss human trafficking – as well as climate change and the role of cities in fighting it. 

Murray joins mayors from New York City, Boston, San Francisco and Portland as well as Mexico City, Berlin and Oslo, among others. Pope Francis invited the municipal leaders, calling for a renewed international conversation about ending social and environmental exploitation.

David Neiwert

If you ever thought of Puget Sound Orcas as some kind of magical being, you’re not alone. A new book by local author and investigative journalist David Neiwert details some of their most impressive qualities.

Of Orcas and Men –What Killerwhales Can Teach Us weaves personal narratives with the latest science.

The clouds and cooler temperatures might have some Seattle homeowners thinking it’s okay to get out those sprinklers and garden hoses again and bring the green back to their lawns.

Actually, it’s still pretty hot out there and the small amount of rain coming in won’t make much of a difference.  Seattle Public Utilities recently changed the water supply outlook from “good” to “fair ” because people are using more water this summer due to the unprecedented heat.

NASA's Earth Observatory

A number of forest fires are continuing to burn in British Columbia.  As Craig McCulloch reports, the cost and smoke permeating the Vancouver area is getting attention.

The British Columbia Wildlife Service is reporting that 76 active fires larger than 25 acres (10 hectares) are currently burning across the province. There are many more smaller fires engulfing forests.

Shivani Bhalla

UPDATED: University of Washington Biology Professor Samuel Wasser calls elephants and their poaching for ivory “the original blood diamonds.”

He’s been mapping the illegal destruction and devastating decline of the majestic animals for decades and has now identified two main hotspots from which a huge portion of poached ivory originates.

The Seattle-based researcher said two main areas in Africa are the sources of 85 percent of both forest and savanna elephant tusks that were seized by law enforcement during an eight-year period from 2006-2014.

Mark MacIntyre / EPA

The wetlands and tributaries which supply major waterways also must be protected, the federal Environmental Protection Agency ruled last month when it expanded the Clean Water Act to regulate upstream pollution. 

This expansion the landmark 1972 environmental law -- which has joint backing from the Army Corps of Engineers -- was celebrated in Seattle Thursday by a handful of  environmental advocacy groups including WASHPIRG  and Environment Washington.  They joined EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran  at the Fremont Brewing Company to talk about the importance of clean water for businesses such as micro-breweries and agriculture. 

It’s the latest front in the growing global movement to stop fossil fuel extraction. The Port of Seattle, a longtime staging point for expeditions to cash in on Alaska’s natural resources, has been home this spring to a standoff between oil giant Shell and legions of protesting “kayaktivists” and others hoping to foil the company’s plans to send a massive drilling rig to the Arctic Ocean next month.

AP Images

 

As the Port of Seattle joins with Tacoma to compete against other ports in British Columbia and California, concerns have arisen that it might be losing sight of some of key environmental goals, such as creating sustainable jobs.

The concerns come as Seattle moves forward with a controversial deal to temporarily host Royal Dutch Shell’s oil drilling fleet at terminal 5 in West Seattle.

Two rigs are headed for the Arctic later this summer, along with support vessels.  And the port says it needs the revenue from that lease to pay for upgrades to the terminal and keep it competitive – for Panamax ships and other things in the long haul.

At the same time, Seattle has joined forces with Tacoma to bring in more revenue from lots of other kinds of shippers – and that agreement, called the Seaport Alliance - has some environmentalists crying foul.

Fred Felleman is the Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth and served on a port citizens’ committee to develop future goals.

"We're going to be perfectly positioned to roll out the red carpet for Arctic exploitation - not for sustainable clean-green jobs that we worked so hard with the Century Agenda Committee to make our emphasis,"Fellemen said.

He says that Century Agenda is fading into the background.

Felleman has been watch-dogging the port for years. He’s also just joined the race for an open seat on the port commission.

AP Images

Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic prospecting plans have sparked two new lawsuits. An alliance of environmental and Alaska-based community groups is challenging the sale of leases in the Chukchi Sea. The second suit takes issue with Shell’s exploration plan, which was recently approved by a federal agency.

Eric Grafe is with Earthjustice, which filed the suit against Shell’s Arctic exploration plan in Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Grafe is representing ten other groups, including the Alaska Wilderness League, Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth.

The plan recently  got a green light from the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

“The specific plan that Shell’s developed was approved very quickly, in 30 days, with just a very cursory environmental review,” said Grafe.

He says Shell’s record in the Arctic was already bad after its failed attempts to explore there in 2012, with one drilling rig, the Kulluk, running aground and totaled, and another catching fire.

The company subsequently paid more than a million dollars for air pollution violations and its main contractor pled guilty for felony convictions and paid $12 million in fines. 

AP Images

Several hundred facilities in Washington handle medical and pharmaceutical waste. It’s a process that can easily go wrong. An enforcement action this week is sparking a fresh look at the rules surrounding the industry.

The state department of Ecology has fined Stericycle $72,000 for repeated violations of federal waste regulations. K Seiler, who manages compliance and enforcement, says spot checks found the company’s facility in Morton was sterilizing solid materials. That took care of the germs in its infectious waste. But there were also residuals from pharmaceuticals.

Matthew Brown/AP Photo

BNSF Railway and oil refineries in Washington are teaming up to better respond to accidents.  The railroad and BP Cherry Point, Phillips 66, Shell Oil Products US, Tesoro Companies and U.S. Oil Refining Company have all signed the agreement.

But, environmentalists say it doesn't address safety problems with oil trains.

Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

 The City of Seattle has determined that some of the oil drilling equipment parked on the edge of Elliott Bay does not have the right kind of permit. This includes the large yellow platform called the Polar Pioneer.

The Port has appealed the decision. The City’s Hearing Examiner is scheduled to  take up the issue on June 3rd.

AP Images

The Washington Commissioner of Public Lands said warmer than usual weather has not only increased the wildfire risk, it also has increased the likelihood that firefighting resources across the west will be stretched thin come summer.

“We need to be more self sufficient ,” Commissioner Peter Goldmark said.

He said so many communities are struggling with drought that the state can’t count on outside help if wildfires strike.

“In the past, sometimes we’ve been able to rely on contract resources or other states," Goldmark said. "But because of the widespread nature of the drought, and the ensuing fire potential, we can no longer count on other states or adjacent states or other entities coming to help us.”

That’s why he is requesting an additional $4.5 million dollars to pay for emergency staffing and equipment. That’s on top of an unprecedented ask for $20-million for longer-term forest health work, thinning stands and making public forests more resistant to wildfire.

Goldmark says last year’s Carlton Complex Fire was the worst he has ever seen.  The current draught declarations combined with this year’s warmer than normal forecast for the summer is making him nervous.

Goldmark says he won't count on help from anyone this season. Last year, the deadly Carlton Complex required help from 40 states.  

Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU

As Royal Dutch Shell’s Polar Pioneer oil rig arrived in Puget Sound, the noise coming from a  Coast Guard helicopter rang out across the water. It was deafening and added to the drama of watching an enormous new oil rig enter Elliott Bay.

Royal Dutch Shell is planning to send the Polar Pioneer along with a fleet of ships to the Arctic to drill this summer, now that President Obama has approved the oil giant's plans.

The bright yellow drilling machine took its place at Terminal 5 in West Seattle Thursday afternoon, accompanied by local tugs.

Bellamy Pailthorp, KPLU

While the Polar Pioneer remains parked in Port Angeles, 

a second oil drilling rig -- the Noble Discoverer -- arrived Everett Tuesday, where it was greeted by activists and onlookers. 

The arrival brings additional attention to the Port of Seattle which is facing continued controversy over its agreement with Royal Dutch Shell to service the oil giant's Arctic  drilling vessels. And despite a port commission request for a delay of any moorage of oil exploration vessels and a city council vote in opposition to the deal, the two rigs are on their way. 

AP Images

After hearing testimony in favor of Arctic oil drilling, the Seattle City Council voted unanimously to join Mayor Ed Murray in opposing the Port of Seattle’s lease with Royal Dutch Shell.  

The resolution doesn’t carry the legal authority to block the port's decision to host Royal Dutch Shell's drilling fleet. But it was enough of a statement that several Alaska Native leaders traveled from remote areas in the Arctic to lobby in favor of the lease with the city council. 

The jobs drilling would bring are vital, the Alaska representatives said.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

A statewide citizens’ committee on pipeline safety has criticized a federal proposal to take additional control of pipeline safety away from the states and remand it to the federal government. 

The latest annual report from 13-member the Citizens’ Oversight Committee says the federal proposal effectively would take away states’ authority over interstate pipelines. The committee's concern is that inspectors would have to come from too far away, slowing response times and loosening enforcement.

The citizens committee on pipeline safety was created by the legislature fifteen years ago, after a tragic explosion in Bellingham that killed a man and two boys.  According to an investigation by the state that took three years to complete, the line to the oil refinery at Cherry Point had ruptured and the Olympic Pipeline Company was at fault. 

John Grade

A storefront in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood has been the site of an ever-evolving sculpture, of a tree turned on its side. About a year ago, the site became a hub for a new kind of collaboration with one of the city’s most productive public artists.

Sculptor John Grade and his supporters at the Mad Art Gallery invited hundreds of people in, to help assemble Middle Fork. It’s now a 40-foot long model of a Western Hemlock, suspended inside a large gallery space that’s just down the block from a Tesla Motors showroom and across from the Seattle offices of Microsoft.

Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

In 2011, there was no crude oil transported by train in Washington. Two years later, 700 million gallons of crude came through the state.

Concern over those trains has prompted officials in Anacortes to hold a forum Wednesday evening to discuss emergency response. 

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