The Story of Electronics has made its debut today (teaser above), following the form of the original Story of Stuff video in 2007. The Story of Stuff, written and narrated by Annie Leonard, created waves of discussion about the environment and consumption in classrooms, homes, and workplaces around the country.
She [created the movie], she said, after tiring of traveling often to present her views at philanthropic and environmental conferences. She attributes the response to the video’s simplicity. “A lot of what’s in the film was already out there,” Ms. Leonard said, “but the style of the animation makes it easy to watch. It is a nice counterbalance to the starkness of the facts.” [New York Times]
The new electronics chapter takes a step beyond the original video’s take on the manufacturing process and consumerism to explain the concept of planned obsolescence, the idea that our electronics are being “designed for the dump”–that is, to be cheaply replaceable as quickly as possible. The video makes a point that these cheap electronics come with hidden costs–to factory workers, people in unsafe electronics recycling facilities, and to the environment.
Rare earth metals are a hot commodity in today’s high-tech world. Until recently these elements were fairly obscure members of the periodic table; now, their usefulness in everything from hybrid cars to solar panels has boosted their profile.
The 17 rare earth metals, some with exotic names like lanthanum and europium, form unusually strong lightweight magnetic materials. Lanthanum is used in the batteries of hybrid cars, neodymium is used in magnets in the electric generators of wind turbines and europium is used in colored phosphors for energy-efficient lighting. [Reuters]
Their new necessity has also provided a boost to China, where the vast majority of these elements are currently mined. China’s dominance has been brought into sharp focus over the past three weeks, when China blocked all shipments of rare earth metals to Japan in response to a diplomatic incident concerning a Chinese fishing boat in territorially disputed waters.
Beijing has denied the embargo, yet the lack of supply may soon disrupt manufacturing in Japan, trade and industry minister Akihiro Ohata told reporters Tuesday. [Technology Review]
On Tuesday the U.S. government repealed the six-month ban on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, enacted in May in response to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
“We are open for business,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in a phone call Tuesday afternoon, adding, “We have made, and continue to make, significant progress in reducing the risks associated with deep-water drilling.” [The Washington Post].
The ban was supposed to be lifted on November 30th, but the government lifted it a few weeks early under pressure from Gulf Coast lawmakers. The drilling halt was deeply unpopular in the Gulf states where up to 12,000 jobs were temporarily lost (though some experts number the jobs directly and indirectly lost by the moratorium at around 175,000).
Drilling won’t resume immediately. The Obama administration has issued strict new operating and safety rules, and each offshore rig will need to pass inspection before it can resume work. The first permits allowing drilling will likely be issued before the new year. Says Michael Bromwich, director of the new Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement:
“We’ll be inspecting in a very careful and comprehensive way those rigs to make sure they’re compliant with the new rules,” Bromwich said…. “We won’t know [if they're compliant] until we begin to do those inspections.” [The Washington Post].
Ever since the wall burst on a reservoir of industrial waste at a Hungarian alumina plant last week–killing eight people and deluging the countryside with red muck–shocked environmental officials have been scrambling to determine how dangerous the sludge is. It’s common knowledge that the initial torrent was highly basic in pH, which caused hundreds of people to suffer from chemical burns. But once the material was neutralized, the thinking went, the danger should be past.
However, Greenpeace activists have been on the ground in Hungary over the past week, and the red mud they’ve collected and analyzed contained twice as much arsenic as expected, as well as surprisingly high levels of mercury and chromium.
The study has met with scepticism from Hungarian chemists, partly because bauxite, the ore from which most aluminium oxide (and ultimately aluminium) is derived, contains neither mercury nor much arsenic. However, Greenpeace says that the findings have been confirmed by an independent laboratory in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s own figures — based on samples taken by scientists last week at two sites in the area — are yet to be published. [Nature News]
The head of Greenpeace campaigns in Central and Eastern Europe, a chemist named Herwig Schuster, says there may be an obvious explanation for the arsenic and mecury’s presence: The alumina plant may have mixed its industrial wastes.
When the Environmental Protection Agency issued new rules in April attempting to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining, you knew it was only a matter of time before the major push-back arrived. With elections looming and politicians looking to score some points at home, that time is now.
Joe Manchin, the Democratic governor of coal-rich West Virginia, says his state will sue the EPA and ask a U.S. District Court to throw out the agency’s strict new guidelines. For Mr. Manchin, the timing is certainly good:
Mr. Manchin is running for the U.S. Senate seat, formerly held by the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, against Republican businessman John Raese, who has pulled ahead in some polls. The EPA’s policies on mining and climate change are controversial in West Virginia, where coal mining is a major industry supporting thousands of jobs. [Wall Street Journal]
The rust-colored flood that has been spreading across Hungary all week after an alumina plant accident on Monday is far from contained, and five deaths have been attributed to the wave of toxic sludge so far. Responders there say, however, that at least the worst has been avoided.
The blue Danube turned red?
After the spill began spreading, the concern that jumped off the page when you looked at a map was that the stuff would reach rivers that feed the Danube. Europe’s second-longest river (after the Volga in Russia) weaves its way past Hungary through Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and on into the Black Sea.
Indeed, parts of the spill reached the Danube on Wednesday, but Hungarian responders say today that pH of the main river is just over 8, down from about 9 when the material first arrived. Neutral pH is 7, but a range of about 6.5 to 8.5 is considered a safe zone for consumption.
It was a deadly accident and an ecological disaster. On Monday, a reservoir at a Hungarian aluminum refinery ruptured, sending a wave of toxic sludge across three counties (click image to see a map of the area).
The spill sent 185 million gallons–a mini-tsunami–of caustic red mud flooding over 16 square miles of the countryside, killing four and sending 120 more to the hospital with chemical burns from the mud, which is an industrial waste product.
The chemical burns could take days to reveal themselves and what may seem like superficial injuries could disguise damage to deeper tissue, Peter Jakabos, a doctor at a hospital in Gyor where several of the injured were taken, said on state television. [The Guardian]
The red flood also destroyed homes and businesses in seven villages in three different counties, and threatens to contaminate nearby rivers, including the mighty Danube. Scientists worry that the highly alkaline substance may kill many of the river’s plants and animals.
At 1,775 miles (2,850 kilometers) long, the Danube is Europe’s second largest river and holds one of the continent’s greatest treasuries of wildlife…. The river has already been the focus of a multibillion dollar post-communist cleanup, but high-risk industries such as Hungary’s Ajkai Timfoldgyar alumina plant, where the disaster occurred, are still producing waste near some of its tributaries. [AP]
Earlier this week we brought you news of water woes in the American southwest, where reservoir levels have dropped dangerously low, and in China, where the government is spending $60 billion to route water to parched cites like Beijing. Now comes news of just how widespread the world’s water problems really are. A study in Nature reports that nearly 80 percent of the world’s population lives in areas where the fresh water supply isn’t secure. And while industrialized nations have made massive investments in infrastructure to keep the faucets flowing, those projects have taken a toll on the environment.
[The researchers] say that in western countries, conserving water for people through reservoirs and dams works for people, but not nature. They urge developing countries not to follow the same path. Instead, they say governments should to invest in water management strategies that combine infrastructure with “natural” options such as safeguarding watersheds, wetlands and flood plains. [BBC News]
80beats: Water Woes: The Southwest’s Supply Dwindles; China’s Behemoth Plumbing Project Goes On
80beats: Saudi to Use Plentiful Resource (Sunlight) to Produce Scarce Resource (Fresh Water)
80beats: From 300 Miles Up, Satellites See Water Crisis in India’s Future
DISCOVER: How Big Is Your Water Footprint?
DISCOVER: Dams, From Hoover to Three Gorges to the Crumbling Ones
Images: Nature / C. J. Vörösmarty et al.
According to the calendar, summer officially ends this week. But unofficially, it ended over the weekend: BP’s leaking oil well, which cast a gooey black malaise over the last five months, is finally dead.
Crews pumped in cement Friday to plug the well nearly 2.5 miles below the sea floor. The mixture had hardened by Saturday, and a pressure test completed early yesterday confirmed that the plug would hold. [Boston Globe]
Now it time for cleanup, lawsuits, and a whole lot of unanswered questions, including:
Will we drill again?
Five months later, BP might finally stop up its leaking well for good this week. As of yesterday, drilling crews had about 50 feet of rock left to drill through to complete their “bottom kill” operation.
Federal officials have said it should take about four days to drill the final stretch of the relief well so that it intersects with the original well. From there, it will probably take a few days to pump in mud and cement and perform tests to determine that the well is fully killed. [Los Angeles Times]
Meanwhile, we continue to hear conflicting reports regarding the whereabouts of the leaked oil, and how much of it persists in the Gulf environment. Last week we heard good news from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which said that not only were microbes consuming much of the oil, but they also weren’t depleting the Gulf of Mexico’s oxygen to dangerously low level, which had been feared.