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Whales Are Wailing Less and Fighting More

February 19, 2023

Water Contamination Concerns Linger Two Weeks After Train Wreck

It’s been about two weeks since a Norfolk Southern freight train with 11 cars carrying dangerous chemicals derailed in the town of East Palestine, Ohio, about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Concerns still linger for the safety of people and wildlife, although the disaster is not on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 or the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan.

Drone footage shows the freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 6, 2023  |  Credit: National Transportation Safety Board

Over fears of an explosion, officials burned off a carcinogenic chemical, vinyl chloride, which was being transported in the tank cars, creating huge smoke clouds that loomed over the Palestine area. Recently, shimmering chemicals appeared in creeks near Palestine, which experts told USA Today was likely vinyl chloride. State officials said that 3,500 fish across 7.5 miles of streams had been killed, and a plume of contamination had made its way to the Ohio River from which some cities get their drinking water.

However, an official with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said the river is large enough to dilute pollutants fairly quickly. An official with the Greater Cincinnati Water Works told CNN that there were no high concentrations of chemicals downstream.

In an interview with The Conversation, Andrew Whelton of Purdue University said people in the area were understandably worried. They have had headaches, which can be caused by chemicals and volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Whelton said there could be possible contamination of homes, soils, and water from VOCs, and while an explosion was avoided, a number of chemicals were created by the fire. Officials might not know what they are or their fate. He said the long-term impact will depend in part on how fast and thoroughly cleanup occurs.    
About ten days ago, authorities told residents that it was safe to return to their homes after the mandatory evacuation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said there could be lingering odors, but byproducts of vinyl chloride can emit smells at a level that is not considered hazardous.

On Thursday, last week, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said that the municipal water in East Palestine was safe to drink after testing by the EPA, the Norfolk Southern, and other agencies. Nevertheless, the governor asked the federal government for medical assistance to assess the dangers that may still exist. The Biden administration has sent a team to determine the health needs of the community of about 5,000.

According to USA Today, in the last ten years, over 5,000 incidents of hazardous material spilling or leaking from trains have occurred, some of which were from cars sitting in rail yards. Last year, there were 337 leaks or spills of hazardous materials, six of which caused injuries.

Western Urban Conservation Is Working As Residents Reduce Their Footprint

The Colorado River Basin is in a crisis brought on by a long-term drought made much worse from climate-change-induced aridification. As the levels of the two large reservoirs on the river, Lakes Powell and Mead, continue to drop, it’s encouraging news that per capita urban water usage in large populated areas that depend on the Colorado, or its tributaries, has dropped.

Xeriscape garden | Credit: James Steakley

A study led by Brian Richter of the organization Sustainable Waters shows that cities over one million in population have cut their per person usage by 18 percent from 2000 to 2020, even as those areas grew by 24 percent. The use of water in smaller cities increased three percent because of two factors, according to Richter: they are growing very fast, while not having the financial capability to invest in conservation programs.

The residents of Las Vegas, Nevada, served by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, are a good example of urban conservation. They reduced their total water use by ten percent and cut the number of gallons used per person each day in half, even while its population grew by almost 70 percent.

Water conservation programs—like paying homeowners to remove turf and to replace old toilets—are working, as are rate structures that increase the cost for a household that uses more.

Last week, Lake Powell reached its lowest level since it was filled in the 1960s, despite high snowfall in much of the West in January. Experts say it would take years of such moisture to restore the West’s water resources.

The study was published in the Journal of Water Resources Management & Planning.

If You Haven’t Heard of Biochar, That May Change

If you haven’t heard of biochar, that may soon change. Known also as black carbon, biochar is made from heating biomass like wood and crop residues at very high temperatures without oxygen—a process called pyrolysis.

Biochar is an evolved charcoal made from woody biomass. Current uses include soil amendment, stormwater filtration, and environmental remediation. | Credit: Oregon Department of Forestry / Flickr

The resulting charcoal-like product is being used to improve soil health and keep pollutants out of waterways—and it’s also being touted as a climate solution by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for its ability to lock carbon in the ground from waste that, if left to rot, would emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  

Instead, carbon that was once rice hulls, corn stover, or forest logs would be converted into biochar to filter wastewater at treatment plants, fertilize crops—or if lawmakers in Colorado have their way—prevent abandoned oil and gas wells from leaking climate-warming gases. As the Associated Press reports, last week, state legislators gave initial approval to study plugging wells with biochar to prevent methane leaks, which orphaned wells release even after they’ve been shut down.

Biochar is having a moment on the national stage as well. Last year, Congress introduced the Biochar Research Network Act of 2022, which if passed, would establish 20 research stations to test the impact of biochar across various soil types, application methods, and climates to learn more about the material’s potential to benefit farmers and the environment.

Male Humpbacks Are Singing Less and Fighting More As Numbers Increase

Male humpback whales in Australia are changing their tune when it comes to finding love. Instead of singing to attract a mate, they’re playing the tough guy.

Australian humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) | Credit: NOAA

The number of Australian humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) has rebounded dramatically since commercial whaling was banned. One population off Australia’s east coast grew from fewer than 500 in the 1960s to an estimated 30,000 today.  Rebecca Dunlop, at the University of Queensland, who studies whales near the Great Barrier Reef, says that means there’s more competition among males to court females. Singing out to them would alert rivals, so the guys have changed their strategy to quietly find a mate—and if need be, fight an interloper through ramming, charging, or even head slapping.

The new behavior is a sign of a conservation success, and Dunlop isn’t concerned that singing will stop—just that mating might be more confrontational in the future.

The research was published in the journal Communications Biology.