Bat guano, bones, rock mining, and clean water

7 Jul

Yale e360 has an article today about the importance and future scarcity of phosphate, a key mineral in fertilizers and therefore essential to our ability to feed ourselves.  Read the article and you can learn that phosphate, which is a key ingredient in animal bones and supplies phosphorous to plants, has long been used to boost fertility in agriculture and it is now inseparable from modern farming practices.  During the era of the British empire the mineral was shipped around the world in the form of bones to be ground into bonemeal, and later it was shoveled up from huge historic piles of bat and bird guano.  Some tiny islands in the Pacific, that were essentially just bird colonies, were leveled almost to the ever-encroaching tide line as their guano was mined and shipped away.  Now, phosphate is mined largely from deposits of mineral-rich rock, with most of the world’s exports coming from Morocco.  Other significant deposits are in the US and China, which use them mainly for their own use and don’t export them.  This brings me to this interesting passage, at the bottom of the article:

Phosphate strip mines are environment wreckers. They produce around 150 million tons of toxic spoil a year. Their massive draglines, huge slurry pipes, and mountainous spoil heaps dominate the landscape for tens of miles in key mining zones, whether in the North African desert or in Florida, a state that still provides three-quarters of American farmers’ phosphate needs.

The world’s largest mine is at Four Corners in an area known as Bone Valley in central Florida. The Four Corners mine covers 58,000 acres, an area five times the size of Manhattan. It is owned by Mosaic, a company recently spun off from agribusiness giant Cargill. Next door is the world’s second-largest mine, South Fort Meade. But South Fort Meade is living on borrowed time — its expansion plans are being opposed by local groups, and unless it can expand, the mine will have to close.

As the drag mines move south in Florida, anger has been growing about the environmental impacts. A million tons of mine waste, containing lows levels of radioactivity, are already piled up at dump sites around the state, and disputes are growing over promised mine cleanups. Rivers have dried up, and settling ponds have leaked.

Last year, the local chapter of the Sierra Club went to court to block Mosaic’s plans to extend the life of the South Fort Meade mine by expanding its footprint. The group is concerned about the fate of the Peace River, a vital source of Florida’s drinking water; it says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave approval for the expansion without first conducting a full environmental audit. The case is unresolved to date.

As for the impending shortages of phosphate, will technological advances and market forces solve the problem? We certainly waste a lot of this most valuable resource. Globally, we allow some 37 million tons of phosphorus to spill into the environment each year. It mostly flows down sewers and agricultural drains into rivers and lakes, where it feeds the growth of toxic cyanobacteria and consumes oxygen, creating eutrophication and “dead zones.”

Ah, eutrophication.  Now we’re looking at water quality.  As a matter of fact, these tremendous phosphate mines in Florida sit at the western edge of the Everglades, consuming huge quantities of land and wetland:

 

The movie above ends with the plea “Please stop phosphate mining.”  It’s not that simple.  Our entire agricultural model is built upon the availability of phosphorous inputs, and there is no engineered replacement for mined phosphorous (unlike nitrogen, which can be produced from petroleum).  The proposal of another anti-mining advocate is not much better:

Fortunately, the solution is easy. We did it for our first 100,000 years, and we’re the only creatures not currently doing it. The answer is eat, poo, and die in one place.

That doesn’t mean we all have to be farmers, but it does mean we need to be localvores and get over being sqweamish about the fact that we’re animals that are part of the web of life.

Plant food in your yard. Buy the food you don’t grow from local farmers. Insist on pasture raised meat. Compost every organic material you can find. Crap in a bucket. When it’s time to die, have yourself planted in the ground without preservatives so that a tree can build itself out of the molecules you’ve been using.

It’s just not practical for going on 7 billion people to “eat, poo, and die in one place” anymore.  The phosphorous that contributes to poor water quality comes not just directly from mining (permitted in Florida by the Army Corps, which is also responsible for the restoration of the nearby Everglades, which suffers from eutrophication) but from farm runoff all over the world–and we need those farms.  Their productivity would drop dramatically without added phosphorous.

What to do?  It’s too hard to say.  As a finite resource we may be approaching “peak phosphate,” and as we are currently seeing with concerns about “peak oil,” it is very hard to make a global switch in fuels or raw materials used at such a large scale.  Just as with oil, however, we will need to find technological, economic, and behavioral ways to wean ourselves off of phosphate before price and scarcity make it nigh impossible to find.

 

Thanks to Gabriel Mejias for a tip about the e360 article!

“Essayons!”: The Army Corps of Engineers and Water Management

28 Jun

In pursuing my Master of Environmental Science degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I conducted research on the Army Corps of Engineers to examine whether and how the institutional culture of the agency has been changing in response to increased societal pressure to concentrate on environmental management and protection.  The unique perspective this research gave me on the culture and history of the Corps inspired this analysis on the agency’s current challenges.

This is the first in a series of posts about the Army Corps.  This first post contains background on the Army Corps, its history of flood control management, and some of the factors behind the strength of this year’s flooding.

Army Corps red and white castle logo

The Army Corps of Engineers usually lies pretty low.  Engineers speaking earnestly while wearing hard hats and castle logos do not make for very tempting paparazzi bait, so the last time we heard this much about them was five years ago, when the levees failed in New Orleans during Katrina.  Five years before that they were also in the news, when journalist and author Mike Grunwald wrote a series for The Washington Post detailing pork-barrel spending, economic boondoggles, environmental destruction, and other ills that he considers the hallmarks of the agency.

2011 Spring Flooding in Minot, ND. From ND Dept. of Emergency Services

We’re beginning to hear from the Corps again as the divisions on the shores of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries are forced to make tremendous decisions day after day in order to deal with the record-smashing flooding in that region. These rivers, along with the Ohio river, cover over 1 million square miles of the United States.   More small communities and tracts of cropland fall victim daily to inundation as levees either fail due to the incoming cascades of water or are deliberately destroyed in order to spare an urban or industrial center downstream.

Interesting–it turns out that when the Army Corps makes the news, it’s usually for something terrible.  It almost makes you feel sorry for them.

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Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

21 Jun

Today is the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  I was thinking of writing about the beauty of the passage of time, of watching and noticing the way the light changes and taking joy in it–but, James Carroll at the Boston Globe said it much better than I could:

Intimate awareness of nature and its cycles…was an ancient mode of survival. But survival is at issue again. Noticing the length of light now, reveling in the sun’s achievement, rejoicing in Earth’s perfect balance, honoring the summer solstice — loving it: This is how we became human, and it is how we stay human.

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, reads “The Summer Day,” which ends with the beautiful line that titles this post:



Happy solstice!

The Arctic Irony

20 Jun

A version of this essay without photographs was published in SAGE Magazine in April 2011, and can be viewed as originally published here.

It’s ten thirty at night, and in the bright light the wet caribou comes over the rise and rolls her eyes at me.  Thirty more caribou does and calves follow, knee joints popping and hooves clicking on the loose gravel of the hilltop.  Frozen in place, I watch the caribou walk steadily past, nose to tail, shaking off fur still damp from their river crossing in the valley below.  Brown with lighter spots on top and short, fuzzy horns, the animals are so near and yet seem oblivious to our presence.  Their breath hangs in the air, shot through with buzzing flies.  The enchantment lasts until one nearly steps on my knapsack and the camera inside.  I take an involuntary step forward, my shadow crosses the face of one of the mothers, and the herd takes off—thundering down the slope and across the mountain bowl faster than seems possible.  In their wake, a few long, thick hairs settle down onto the rocks at our feet and we gaze after the herd, watching mothers and babies scatter across the bowl like so many white ants on a dull green background. Continue reading

Climate change: do not, I repeat, do not be alarmed

15 Jun

A recent post on Grist  highlights the writings of a guy who really thinks hard about nexus and connections, Bill McKibben of 350.org.  His May Washington Post op-ed was turned into a video mashup (below) by Stephen Thompson of Plomomedia, and it is must-see.  I was going to comment further about the connections between climate change and extreme weather events, but well, you should just watch the video or read the op-ed and see for yourself.

One point, though: it is not pessimistic or apocalyptic to point out the reality of what is going on right now.  We need to adapt to climate change as it is and as it will be on the ground, and there’s plenty of tough adjustment to be done without scaring one another about far-off probabilities.  This video uses current news footage to show what’s happening now.  It’s frightening because it’s a wake-up call, but we can deal with it if we get to work now.

My 2011 commencement speech from Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

14 Jun

My classmates elected me and another graduate, Pablo Reed, to give 5-minute speeches on our commencement from graduate school.  I gave this speech on May 23, 2011, in New Haven, CT.

This is not the highest-quality video, but it’s all audible.  Transcript after the jump.

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About this blog: with a significant nexus to navigable waters

14 Jun

“Wetlands possess the requisite [significant] nexus, and thus come within the statutory phrase ‘navigable waters,’ if the wetlands, either alone or in combination with similarly situated lands in the region, significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable’.”

–Justice Kennedy’s concurrence in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715, 780 (U.S. 2006)

In two rulings over the past ten years the Supreme Court dramatically narrowed the definition of “navigable waters of the United States” for the purpose of maintaining federal jurisdiction over wetlands under the Clean Water Act.  The most recent case, Rapanos, set a confusing multi-part standard that has essentially boiled down to Justice Kennedy’s “significant nexus” concept as summarized above.  As a wetlands ecologist and water resources manager, the case fascinates me as an example of the tangled jurisprudential relationship that the United States has with its land, air, and water resources.  How can a wetland not have a significant “chemical, physical, [or] biological” nexus with other waters of the United States?  The water cycle by definition is not confined to any one place, phase, or administrative jurisdiction.  Ecologically, not only is all water within the United States a “water of the United States,” but it is also a water of the rest of the world.  Human legal structures were created to give meaning to the socio-cultural systems that we created, but they fail in strange ways when confronted with ecological systems where property, boundaries, and rights are meaningless.

Walking in the Big Cypress with my father

As a policy analyst and a citizen, I wonder where else this significant nexus concept might be useful.  It’s a strong (if ultimately unhelpful) attempt by Justice Kennedy to make sense of two completely different systems of existence (legal and natural), and as such creates a model for thinking about other cases where different systems interact or clash.

This blog will be an attempt to explore the significant nexuses we confront when we work in the environmental field.  People and ecosystems have so much in common, yet we insist upon seeing ourselves as separate.  When we bump into the reality of the ecological world, we find nexuses that surprise us and invite us in.

I will try to update about once a week.  Please jump in, comment away, and send me your thoughts and links!