Monthly Archives: April 2012

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3/30/2012 Scientific American: Fossil Free: Microbe Helps Convert Solar Power to Liquid Fuel

Fossil Free: Microbe Helps Convert Solar Power to Liquid Fuel  By pairing biology and photovoltaics, a new “electrofuel” system could build alternative fuels  By David Biello  | March 30, 2012 |  A new “bioreactor” could store electricity as liquid fuel with the help of a genetically engineered microbe and copious carbon dioxide. The idea—dubbed “electrofuels” by a federal agency funding the research—could offer electricity storage that would have the energy density of fuels such as gasoline. If it works, the hybrid bioelectric system would also offer a more efficient way of turning sunlight to fuel than growing plants and converting them into biofuel.

“The method provides a way to store electrical energy in a form that can be readily used as a transportation fuel,” chemical engineer James Liao of the University of California, Los Angeles, explains. Liao and his colleagues report on their “integrated electro-microbial bioreactor” in Science on March 30.

To convert electricity into liquid fuel, Liao and his colleagues focused on Ralstonia eutropha, a soil microbe that can use hydrogen as an energy source to build CO2 into more microbial growth. Already, the microbe’s biological machinery is being harnessed for industrial purposes—for example, to churn out plastic instead of proteins. By tweaking the industrial microorganism’s genetics, the team now has coaxed it to churn out various butanols—a liquid fuel. “If one speaks with combustion engineers, then they will tell you that the simplest real fuel is butanol,” says chemist Andrew Bocarsly of Princeton University, who is not involved in the electrofuel project.

Liao’s bioreactor gets its electricity from a solar panel. The current flows into an electrode in the bioreactor, which is full of water, CO2 and R. eutropha. The electricity starts a chemical reaction that uses the CO2 to make formate—carbon dioxide with a hydrogen atom attached, which is an ion (electrically charged) that substitutes for insoluble hydrogen as an energy source for the microbe. The genetically engineered R. eutropha then consumes the formate, yielding butanols, plus more CO2 as a waste product—the latter of which is recycled back through the biochemical process.

R. eutropha doesn’t particularly like to be shocked, however, so Liao’s team built a “porous ceramic cup” to shield the microbe from the electrical current. Powered by its photovoltaic panel, the bioreactor produced 140 milligrams per liter of butanol fuel over 80 hours, although it then stopped working. “In principle, we can use the same approach to produce other kinds of fuels or chemicals,” Liao says.

The approach combines the appeal of energy-dense liquid fuels—packing 50-times or more the energy per kilogram of even the best batteries—with the potential to produce more fuel in a limited area than plants. Photosynthesis achieves the same thing, absorbing sunlight and storing its energy in the bonds of carbohydrate molecules—otherwise known as food and, nowadays, fuel. But photosynthesis is inefficient. For example, corn converted to ethanol captures less than 0.2 percent of the original energy in the sunlight as fuel. A photovoltaic cell can convert 15 percent of incoming photons into electricity, but such solar electricity is hard to store. Using solar power in an electrofuel bioreactor such as Liao’s could theoretically convert as much as 9 percent of the incoming sunlight into the final and storable fuel. “By combining a man-made device, which has a great potential for improvement, with biological CO2 fixation, we get the best of both worlds,” Liao argues, although that kind of efficiency has yet to be demonstrated. Even this demonstration process turns more sunlight into liquid fuel, however, than biofuels such as corn ethanol or even photosynthetic microbes genetically altered to make butanols. Plus, Liao adds, “it is possible to increase the productivity much higher, since Ralstonia is an industrial microorganism.”


4/3/2012 Blog posting by Wenona Benally Baldenegro: Senators Seek to Extinguish Navajo & Hopi Water Rights

Senators Seek to Extinguish Navajo & Hopi Water Rights by Wenona Benally Baldenegro, April 3, 2012 at 9:53pm. S.2109 and the “Settlement Agreement” require Navajo and Hopi to give Peabody Coal Mining Company and the Salt River Project and other owners of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) tens of thousands of acre-feet of Navajo and Hopi water annually – without any compensation – and to force the extension of Peabody and NGS leases without Navajo and Hopi community input, or regard for past and continuing harmful impacts to public health, water supplies and water quality – as necessary pre-conditions to Navajo and Hopi receiving Congressional appropriations for minimal domestic water development. This is coercive and wrong

4/4/2012 National Geographic News Watch: Indigenous Peoples Can Show the Path to Low-Carbon Living If Their Land Rights Are Recognized

Indigenous Peoples Can Show the Path to Low-Carbon Living If Their Land Rights Are Recognized Posted by Stephen Leahy in Climate Change and Indigenous Peoples on April 4, 2012  Youba Sokona of Mali is co-chair of the IPCC Working Group III. Photo: Citt Williams, OurWorld2.0  Many indigenous peoples are living examples of societies thriving with sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles. Successfully meeting the global climate change challenge requires that much of the world shift from high carbon-living to low.  This shift is daunting. Current emissions for Australia and the United States average about 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. In the coming decades that needs to fall to two tonnes per person as it is currently in Brazil or the Dominican Republic.  Emissions from most indigenous peoples are even lower and are amongst the lowest in the world.

All options for making the shift from high- to low-carbon living need to be explored and that’s why the United Nations University Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) invited indigenous peoples to a special three-day workshop in Cairns, Australia last week.

“Climate change is the result of our behaviour,” said Youba Sokona, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group III that will report to governments in 2014 on ways carbon emissions can be reduced.

The IPCC is the world authority on climate, assessing the state of knowledge on the issue every five to six years. Traditional knowledge of local and indigenous peoples have been left out until now.

“One of the critical solutions is to change our behavior, to change our production and consumption systems,” said Sokona, a climate expert from the African nation of Mali.

The Climate Change Mitigation with Local Communities and Indigenous peoples workshop offered a number of “examples of local peoples in Siberia, in Australia, northern Canada and in some African countries demonstrating that it is possible to change our behavior,” he said.

Marilyn Wallace, a Kuku Nyungkal Aboriginal woman. Photo: Citt Williams, OneWorld 2.0 

“I live in a shack but I love being on my ‘bubu’, my traditional land,” said Marilyn Wallace of the Kuku Nyungka ‘mob’ (tribe) in northern Queensland, Australia.

Wallace has lived in towns but fought for years to “return to country” and live in her tropical forest homeland 60 kilometers from Cooktown.

At the workshop Wallace and every other indigenous delegate focused on land rights. The simple truth is that if they can’t live on and manage their lands with time-tested traditional methods, they can’t be part of the solution to climate change.

“It is clear that rights, equity and ownership of land are crucial issues for indigenous peoples,” agreed Sokona.

While Sokona thought the workshop went well he was surprised at the laser-like focus on land rights issues.

“The IPCC has to talk about rights and culture. You cannot separate it from climate change,” said Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, Executive Director, Tebtebba(Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education).

Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, Executive Director, Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education and member of the indigenous Kankana-ey Igorot community in the Philippines. Photo: IISD

“The IPCC has been issuing major reports for 20 years now and things have only gotten worse. What does that say? It says it is not changing the way people behave or the systems that reinforce this,” said Tauli-Corpuz, a member of the indigenous Kankana-ey Igorot community in the Philippines.

Dealing with climate change means changing the current economic system that was created to dominate and extract resources from nature, she said.

“Modern education and knowledge is mainly about how to better dominate nature. It is never about how to live harmoniously with nature.”

“Living well is all about keeping good relations with Mother Earth and not living by domination or extraction.”

That kind of talk confused some participants looking for case studies, techniques and data on how to reduce carbon emissions. In the hallways one scientist complained that indigenous presentations lacked hard data and therefore nothing could be done with what they were presenting.

Even the physical workshop set up demonstrated the difference in worldviews. Held in the meeting rooms of a very nice Hilton Hotel, the speakers sat on a raised dais, looking down on participants sitting in rows classroom style. For many this echoed school systems that suppressed and continue to suppress traditional knowledge. When indigenous people discuss things everyone sits or stands in a circle. And people talk, especially elders, until they have said what they wish to convey no matter the time or schedule.

“The workshop was not structured to reflect the indigenous peoples’ way of sharing their knowledge,” said Tero Mustonen, Head of the Village of Selkie in North Karelia, Finland.

“If this is supposed to be an intercultural change, it did not work very well,” said Mustonen, who has a doctorate and has written scientific papers.

The IPCC’s structure is rigid, with an emphasis on technical information, he said. “Indigenous peoples’ worldview and traditional knowledge can’t be conveyed by numbers and charts.”

However, if the oral history of traditional people can be recognized as valid as science that would be a major breakthrough, said Mustonen.

“No one has all the answers,” said Jean Pierre Laurent, Ethnobotanist at TRAMIL (Traditional Medicines of the Islands) in the Caribbean nation of St Lucia.

Translating traditional knowledge into academic language is possible. “My role in St Lucia has been to bridge science and traditional knowledge,” said Laurent, who was raised on a farm there.

This UNU-sponsored workshop sends an important message to indigenous people to hold on to their traditional knowledge, he said.

And one indigenous person has a climate change message for those who are most responsible.

“Are the Europeans (industrialized nations) delivering climate mitigation from their heart? Are they ready to do that?” Wallace, an Aboriginal woman, asked.

“It was a hard journey for us to get back on our land. Now we say: “come and learn from us.”

4/4/2012 New York Times Green Blog: Uranium, Cattle Grazing and Risks Unknown

April 4, 2012, 3:40 pm Uranium, Cattle Grazing and Risks Unknown By LESLIE MACMILLAN Joshua Lott for The New York TimesA cattle ranch near an abandoned uranium mine in Cameron, Ariz.  As I reported last weekend in The Times, a cattle rancher stumbled upon an abandoned uranium mine in the summer of 2010 on his grazing land, about 60 miles east of the Grand Canyon on the Navajo reservation, and notified federal officials. They came in with Geiger counters and found levels of radioactivity that were alarmingly high.  A year and a half later, the former mine in Cameron, Ariz., is not fenced off to either humans or animals, and cattle continue to roam through the site and eat grass that might be tainted with uranium and other toxic substances.

“Those cattle go to auction in Sun Valley and are sold on the open market,” said Ronald Tohannie, a project manager with the Navajo advocacy group Forgotten People. “Then people eat the meat.”

The owner of Valley Livestock Auction in Sun Valley, Ariz., Derrek Wagoner, confirmed that he buys cattle from the Navajo reservation and is aware that cattle graze on uranium mines there. He added that cattle come to him from all over the Southwest, where there are plenty of former uranium mines.

There is no dispute that beef and milk from those cattle make their way into the food chain. What is not precisely known is how much radioactive material plants absorb through the soil, how much the cattle ingest by grazing on the plants and what the effect might be on humans.

Livestock grazing around the abandoned mines is common throughout the Southwest, according to many environmentalists, scientists, government officials and people in the cattle business. The Colorado Plateau is particularly rich in minerals and in the former mines, which for 40 years supplied crucial materials for the nation’s cold-war nuclear weapons program.

But the effect of the radioactivity on the food chain remains an open question. “There’s just not a lot of data,” said Chris Shuey, an environmental health specialist with the Southwest Research and Information Center. “That’s because mining ended 25 years ago, and the studies ended then, too.”

Yet a resurgence in corporate interest in mining uranium has brought a new wave of studies. In a 2010 report, the Department of the Interior said that proposals for uranium mining at sites adjacent to the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona had prompted the agency “to investigate physical, chemical, and biological issues potentially affected by mining.”

In January, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a 20-year moratorium on new uranium and other hard-rock mining claims on a million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon, saying it was needed to preserve the mile-deep canyon and the river that runs through it. The mining industry is challenging that decision in court.

The Interior report summarizes the available findings, saying that although conclusive data is lacking, studies have indicated that toxic substances like uranium and its decay products — including radium and radon — “can affect the survival, growth, and reproduction of plants and animals.” It cited reptiles, birds and “mammalian wildlife that represent essential components of the food web.”

David Shafer, a manager in Colorado for the Department of Energy, one of several federal agencies involved in cleaning up the legacy of cold-war uranium mining on the Navajo reservation, said the Department of Energy was studying how much uranium is absorbed by plants but that its research remained incomplete. “We don’t know what the uptake is,” he said.

“Milk is very stringently tested,” possibly because it is a staple of children’s diets, Mr. Shafer said. “Beef is less so.”

After cattle are auctioned off, they go to various processing facilities where they are butchered and tested for contaminants under U.S.D.A. standards, Mr. Wagoner of the livestock auction company said.

However, federal standards do not include routine screening for toxic chemicals like uranium and its decay products. Standard testing includes biological contaminants like E. coli and salmonella and physical substances like bits of metal that might fall inside a meat grinder. But beef is only spot-checked for chemical contaminants, said Janet McGinn, a senior officer with the U.S.D.A.’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.

When an animal is spot-checked for such substances, it is either because it was chosen as part of a random sampling of the entire population or because it is suspected to be ill.

The lack of data makes some experts uneasy. “We still can’t answer fundamental questions — are there wide population health effects due to uranium mining?” said Mr. Shuey, the environmental health specialist.

“Immune function, kidney disease, high blood pressure — all these things contribute to the burden of ill health” and could be affected by uranium, he said, “but we don’t know for sure.”

“Now there are companies that want to mine uranium again,” he said, “and we’re still a couple of generations away from dealing with the totality of that legacy.”

“We still can’t answer fundamental questions — are there wide population health effects due to uranium mining?”

Chris Shuey,
Southwest Research
and Information Center

For people who make a living off the land, tainted cattle is a topic of endless speculation. “They get it in multiple pathways,” said Larry Gordy, the rancher who found the mine on his property and alerted federal officials two years ago. “Cattle eat plants covered with radioactive dust, they breathe in radon, and they drink contaminated water.”

In the arid Southwestern region, water is a precious commodity, and it is collected through various systems throughout the Navajo reservation. Dan Canyon, a former rancher, said that irrigation dams collect water from runoff and some of it comes from former uranium mines, where it can be contaminated by ore tailings.

Standing atop one such dam in Cameron, Ariz., a slope of earth dotted by sagebrush and scored by rivets, Mr. Canyon gestured toward the former mine directly above it. For years, his cattle grazed here.

“I sold my cattle,” he said. “I didn’t want to be responsible for contaminated meat on the market.”

Joshua Lott for The New York TimesLarry Gordy, a Navajo rancher, near the abandoned uranium mine he found on his property in Cameron, Ariz.  Federal officials measured high levels of radioactivity there.

4/1/2012 New York Times: Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous

4/1/2012 New York Times: Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous: An abandoned uranium mine on the Navajo reservation in Cameron, Ariz., emits dangerous levels of radiation. By LESLIE MACMILLAN New York Times April 1, 2012 CAMERON, Ariz. — In the summer of 2010, a Navajo cattle rancher named Larry Gordy stumbled upon an abandoned uranium mine in the middle of his grazing land and figured he had better call in the feds. Engineers from the Environmental Protection Agency arrived a few months later, Geiger counters in hand, and found radioactivity levels that buried the needles on their equipment.

The abandoned mine here, about 60 miles east of the Grand Canyon, joins the list of hundreds of such sites identified across the 27,000 square miles of Navajo territory in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico that are the legacy of shoddy mining practices and federal neglect. From the 1940s through the 1980s, the mines supplied critical materials to the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

For years, unsuspecting Navajos inhaled radioactive dust and drank contaminated well water. Many of them became sick with cancer and other diseases.


The radioactivity at the former mine is said to measure one million counts per minute, translating to a human dose that scientists say can lead directly to malignant tumors and other serious health damage, according to Lee Greer, a biologist at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. Two days of exposure at the Cameron site would expose a person to more external radiation than the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers safe for an entire year.

The E.P.A. filed a report on the rancher’s find early last year and pledged to continue its environmental review. But there are still no warning signs or fencing around the secluded and decaying site. Crushed beer cans and spent shell casings dot the ground, revealing that the old mine has become a sort of toxic playground.

“If this level of radioactivity were found in a middle-class suburb, the response would be immediate and aggressive,” said Doug Brugge, a public health professor at Tufts University medical school and an expert on uranium. “The site is remote, but there are obviously people spending time on it. Don’t they deserve some concern?”

Navajo advocates, scientists and politicians are asking the same question.

The discovery came in the midst of the largest federal effort to date to clean up uranium mines on the vast Indian reservation. A hearing in 2007 before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform led to a multiagency effort to assess and clean up hundreds of structures on the reservation through a five-year plan that ends this year.

Yet while some mines have been “surgically scraped” of contamination and are impressive showpieces for the E.P.A., others, like the Cameron site, are still contaminated. Officials at the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy attribute the delay to the complexity of prioritizing mine sites. Some say it is also about politics and money.

“The government can’t afford it; that’s a big reason why it hasn’t stepped in and done more,” said Bob Darr, a spokesman for the Department of Energy. “The contamination problem is vast.”

If the government can track down a responsible party, he said, it could require it to pay for remediation. But most of the mining companies that operated on the reservation have long since gone out of business, Mr. Darr said.

To date, the E.P.A., the Department of Energy and other agencies have evaluated 683 mine sites on the land and have selected 34 structures and 12 residential yards for remediation. The E.P.A. alone has spent $60 million on assessment and cleanup.

Cleaning up all the mines would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said Clancy Tenley, a senior E.P.A. official who oversees the uranium legacy program for the agency in the Southwest.

Some say the effort has been marred by bureaucratic squabbles and a tendency to duck responsibility. “I’ll be the first to admit that the D.O.E. could work better with the E.P.A.,” said David Shafer, an environmental manager at the energy agency.

Determining whether uranium is a result of past mining or is naturally occurring is “a real debate” and can delay addressing the problem, Mr. Shafer said. He cited seepage of uranium contaminants into the San Juan River, which runs along the boundary of the reservation, as an example. “We need to look at things like this collectively and not just say it’s E.P.A.’s problem or D.O.E.’s problem,” he said.

E.P.A. officials said their first priority was to address sites near people’s homes. “In places where we see people living in close proximity to a mine and there are elevated readings, those are rising to the top of the list for urgent action,” Mr. Tenley said.

Agency officials said they planned a more thorough review of the Cameron site — which still has no warning signs posted — within the next six months.

Meanwhile, Navajos continue to be exposed to high levels of radioactivity in the form of uranium and its decay products, like radon and radium. Those materials are known to cause health problems, including bone, liver, breast and lung cancer.

Lucy Knorr, 68, of Tuba City, Ariz., grew up near the VCA No. 2 mine operated by the Kerr-McGee Corporation, now defunct. Her father, a former miner, died of lung cancer at age 55 in 1980, and her family received a payout of $100,000 under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, a law that was enacted after her mother hired a lawyer and testified before Congress.

The program has awarded $1.5 billion for 23,408 approved claims since it was enacted in 1990.

Ms. Knorr’s father was one of hundreds of Navajos who did not wear protective gear while working in the mine. “He’d wash at a basin outside” after leaving the mine, she said, “and the water would just turn yellow.”

The government has been successful in tracking down and holding some former mining companies accountable. The E.P.A. is requiring that General Electric spend $44 million to clean up its Northeast Church Rock Mine, near Gallup, N. M. Chevron is paying to clean up the Mariano Lake Mine, also in New Mexico.

When the government cannot locate a responsible party, which is most often the case, the E.P.A. and the Department of Energy work with the tribal authorities to reach cleanup decisions. In general, the E.P.A. handles mines, while the Energy Department is responsible for the mills where the ore was processed and enriched.

One of the Department of Energy’s biggest priorities is a billion-dollar uranium mine cleanup that is under way in Moab, Utah, and that received $108 million in federal stimulus money and the backing of nine congressmen.

Some Navajo officials point out that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a 20-year moratorium on new uranium and other hard-rock mining claims on one million acres of federal land around the Grand Canyon in January, saying it was needed to preserve the mile-deep canyon and the river that runs through it. The mining industry is challenging that decision in court.

But the Navajo Nation, considered a sovereign government entity, has not gotten similar treatment from the federal government for its land, some of its officials say. The nation has asked for $500 million for mine cleanup, but the money has not materialized, said Eugene Esplain, one of two officials with the Navajo E.P.A. responsible for patrolling an area the size of West Virginia.

Taylor McKinnon, a director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that worked to halt new mining claims near the Grand Canyon, said the Cameron site was the worst he had seen in the Southwest. He has even seen cow droppings near the mine, he said, an indication that cattle are grazing there. And “people are eating those livestock,” he said.

Ronald Tohannie, a project manager with the Navajo advocacy group Forgotten People, said the locally grown beef was tested at the slaughterhouse, but not for the presence of radioactive substances like uranium.

When E.P.A. officials in the California office overseeing the region were asked to accompany a reporter to the Cameron mine site, they countered with an offer to visit the Skyline Mine in Utah, on the northern boundary of the reservation in Monument Valley, where a big federal cleanup was completed last October.

The onetime mine, atop a 1,000-foot mesa, provides a sweeping panorama of the red valley below. Just one tiny dwelling is visible, the packed-earth hogan of Elsie Begay, a 71-year-old Navajo woman. Ms. Begay was featured in a series of articles in The Los Angeles Times in 2006 about serious illnesses that several of her family members developed after living in the area for many years.

The publicity “might have bumped the site up the priority list,” said Jason Musante, who oversaw the $7.5 million cleanup of the mine for the E.P.A.

In trailers and cinder-block dwellings on the Navajo reservation, there is deep cynicism and apprehension about the federal effort. “That’s what they want you to see: something that’s all nice and cleaned up,” said the Navajo manager of a hotel near the Skyline mine. He asked not to be identified, saying that he had already come under government scrutiny for collecting water samples from the San Juan River for uranium testing at a private lab.

For some Navajos, the uranium contamination is all of a piece with their fraught relationship with the federal government.

“They’re making excuses, and they’ve always made excuses,” Ms. Knorr said. “The government should have had a law in place that told these mining companies: you clean up your mess when you leave.”

A version of this article appeared in print on April 1, 2012, on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous.

Tainted Desert, Tufts magazine article by Leslie Macmillian

“Tainted Desert”, Tufts magazine article by Leslie MacmillianTainted Desert, Tufts Magazine by Leslie Mac Mill Ian