Thursday, April 30, 2015

NASA Completes MESSENGER Mission with Expected Impact on Mercury's Surface

A NASA planetary exploration mission came to a planned, but nonetheless dramatic, end Thursday when it slammed into Mercury’s surface at about 8,750 mph and created a new crater on the planet’s surface.

Mission controllers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland, have confirmed NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft impacted the surface of Mercury, as anticipated, at 3:26 p.m. EDT.

Mission control confirmed end of operations just a few minutes later, at 3:40 p.m., when no signal was detected by NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN) station in Goldstone, California, at the time the spacecraft would have emerged from behind the planet. This conclusion was independently confirmed by the DSN’s Radio Science team, which also was monitoring for a signal from MESSENGER.

“Going out with a bang as it impacts the surface of Mercury, we are celebrating MESSENGER as more than a successful mission,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The MESSENGER mission will continue to provide scientists with a bonanza of new results as we begin the next phase of this mission--analyzing the exciting data already in the archives, and unravelling the mysteries of Mercury.”

Prior to impact, MESSENGER’s mission design team predicted the spacecraft would pass a few miles over a lava-filled basin on the planet before striking the surface and creating a crater estimated to be as wide as 50 feet.

Mercury’s lonely demise on the small, scorched planet closest to the sun went unobserved because the probe hit the side of the planet facing away from Earth, so ground-based telescopes were not able to capture the moment of impact. Space-based telescopes also were unable to view the impact, as Mercury’s proximity to the sun would damage optics.

MESSENGER’s last day of real-time flight operations began at 11:15 a.m., with initiation of the final delivery of data and images from Mercury via a 230-foot (70-meter) DSN antenna located in Madrid, Spain. After a planned transition to a 111-foot (34-meter) DSN antenna in California, at 2:40 p.m., mission operators later confirmed the switch to a beacon-only communication signal at 3:04 p.m.
The mood in the Mission Operations Center at APL was both somber and celebratory as team members watched MESSENGER’s telemetry drop out for the last time, after more than four years and 4,105 orbits around Mercury.

“We monitored MESSENGER’s beacon signal for about 20 additional minutes,” said mission operations manager Andy Calloway of APL. “It was strange to think during that time MESSENGER had already impacted, but we could not confirm it immediately due to the vast distance across space between Mercury and Earth.”
MESSENGER was launched on Aug. 3, 2004, and began orbiting Mercury on March 17, 2011. Although it completed its primary science objectives by March 2012, the spacecraft’s mission was extended two times, allowing it to capture images and information about the planet in unprecedented detail.

During a final extension of the mission in March, referred to as XM2, the team began a hover campaign that allowed the spacecraft to operate within a narrow band of altitudes from five to 35 kilometers from the planet’s surface.

On Tuesday, the team successfully executed the last of seven daring orbit correction maneuvers that kept MESSENGER aloft long enough for the spacecraft’s instruments to collect critical information on Mercury’s crustal magnetic anomalies and ice-filled polar craters, among other features. After running out of fuel, and with no way to increase its altitude, MESSENGER was finally unable to resist the sun’s gravitational pull on its orbit.

“Today we bid a fond farewell to one of the most resilient and accomplished spacecraft to ever explore our neighboring planets,” said Sean Solomon, MESSENGER’s principal investigator and director of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. “A resourceful and committed team of engineers, mission operators, scientists, and managers can be extremely proud that the MESSENGER mission has surpassed all expectations and delivered a stunningly long list of discoveries that have changed our views--not only of one of Earth’s sibling planets, but of the entire inner solar system.”

Among its many accomplishments, the MESSENGER mission determined Mercury’s surface composition, revealed its geological history, discovered its internal magnetic field is offset from the planet’s center, and verified its polar deposits are dominantly water ice.

APL built and operated the MESSENGER spacecraft and managed the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

Urban farming is booming, but what does it really yield?

City-based agriculture produces 15 to 20 percent of food globally. In the U.S., its benefits go far beyond nutrition.

Editor’s note: This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative news organization.

Midway through spring, the nearly bare planting beds of Carolyn Leadley’s Rising Pheasant Farms, in the Poletown neighborhood of Detroit, barely foreshadow the cornucopian abundance to come. It will be many months before Leadley is selling produce from this one-fifth-acre plot. But the affable young farmer has hardly been idle, even during the snowiest days of winter. Twice daily, she has been trekking from her house to a small greenhouse in her side yard, where she waves her watering wand over roughly 100 trays of sprouts, shoots and microgreens. She sells this miniature bounty, year round, at the city’s eastern market and to restaurateurs delighted to place some hyperlocal greens on their guests’ plates.

Leadley is a key player in Detroit’s vibrant communal and commercial farming community, which in 2014 produced nearly 400,000 pounds (18,000 kg) of produce — enough to feed more than 600 people — in its more than 1,300 community, market, family and school gardens. Other farms in postindustrial cities are also prolific: In 2008, Philadelphia’s 226 community and squatter gardens grew roughly 2 million pounds of mid-summer vegetables and herbs, worth US$4.9 million. Running at full bore, Brooklyn’s Added-Value Farm, which occupies 2.75 acres, funnels 40,000 pounds of fruit and vegetables into the low-income neighborhood of Red Hook. And in Camden, New Jersey — an extremely poor city of 80,000 with only one full-service supermarket — community gardeners at 44 sites harvested almost 31,000 pounds (14,000 kg) of vegetables during an unusually wet and cold summer. That’s enough food during the growing season to feed 508 people three servings a day.

That researchers are even bothering to quantify the amount of food produced on tiny city farms — whether community gardens, like those of Camden and Philly, or for-profit operations, like Leadley’s — is testament to the nation’s burgeoning local-foods movement and its data-hungry supporters. Young farmers are, in increasing numbers, planting market gardens in cities, and “local” produce (a term with no formal definition) now fills grocery shelves across the U.S., from Walmart to Whole Foods, and is promoted in more than 150 nations around the world.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that 800 million people worldwide grow vegetables or fruits or raise animals in cities, producing an astonishing 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food. In developing nations, city dwellers farm for subsistence, but in the U.S., urban ag is more often driven by capitalism or ideology. The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t track numbers of city farmers, but based on demand for its programs that fund education and infrastructure in support of urban-ag projects, and on surveys of urban ag in select cities, it affirms that business is booming. How far — and in what direction — can this trend go? What portion of a city’s food can local farmers grow, at what price, and who will be privileged to eat it? And can such projects make a meaningful contribution to food security in an increasingly crowded world?

Urban Advantages

Like anyone who farms in a city, Leadley waxes eloquent on the freshness of her product. Pea shoots that have traveled 3 miles (4.8 km) to grace a salad are bound to taste better and be more nutritious, she says, than those that have traveled half a continent or farther. “One local restaurant that I sell to used to buy its sprouts from Norway,” Leadley says. Fresher food also lasts longer on shelves and in refrigerators, reducing waste.

Food that’s grown and consumed in cities has other advantages: During times of abundance, it may cost less than supermarket fare that’s come long distances, and during times of emergency — when transportation and distribution channels break down — it can fill a vegetable void. Following large storms such as Hurricane Sandy and the blizzards of this past winter, says Viraj Puri, cofounder of New York City–based Gotham Greens (which produces more than 300 tons [272 metric tons] of herbs and microgreens per year in two rooftop hydroponic operations and has another farm planned for Chicago), “our produce was the only produce on the shelf at many supermarkets across the city.”

Despite their relatively small size, urban farms grow a surprising amount of food, with yields that often surpass those of their rural cousins. This is possible for a couple reasons. First, city farms don’t experience heavy insect pressure, and they don’t have to deal with hungry deer or groundhogs. Second, city farmers can walk their plots in minutes, rather than hours, addressing problems as they arise and harvesting produce at its peak. They can also plant more densely because they hand cultivate, nourish their soil more frequently and micromanage applications of water and fertilizer.

As social enterprises, community gardens operate in an alternate financial universe: they don’t sustain themselves with sales, nor do they have to pay employees.Though they don’t get as much press as for-profit farms and heavily capitalized rooftop operations, community gardens — which are collectively tended by people using individual or shared plots of public or private land, and have been a feature in U.S. cities for well over a century — are the most common form of urban agriculture in the nation, producing far more food and feeding more people, in aggregate, than their commercial counterparts. As social enterprises, community gardens operate in an alternate financial universe: they don’t sustain themselves with sales, nor do they have to pay employees. Instead, they rely on volunteer or cheap youth labor, they pay little or nothing in rent, and they solicit outside aid from government programs and foundations that support their social and environmental missions. These may include job training, health and nutrition education, and increasing the community’s resilience to climate change by absorbing stormwater, counteracting the urban heat island effect and converting food waste into compost.

Funders don’t necessarily expect community gardens to become self-sustaining. These farms may increase their revenue streams by selling at farmers markets or to restaurants, or they may collect fees from restaurants or other food-waste generators for accepting scraps that will be converted into compost, says Ruth Goldman, a program officer at the Merck Family Fund, which funds urban agriculture projects. “But margins on vegetable farming are very slim, and because these farms are doing community education and training teen leaders, they’re not likely to operate in the black.”

[I]t’s the microgreens that keep Leadley from joining the ranks of the vast majority of U.S. farmers and taking a second job.Several years ago, Elizabeth Bee Ayer, who until recently ran a training program for city farmers, took a hard look at the beets growing in her Youth Farm, in the Lefferts Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. She counted the hand movements involved in harvesting the roots and the minutes it took to wash and prepare them for sale. “Tiny things can make or break a farm,” Ayer notes. “Our beets cost US$2.50 for a bunch of four, and people in the neighborhood loved them. But we were losing 12 cents on every beet.” Ultimately, Ayer decided not to raise the price: “No one would have bought them,” she says. Instead, she doubled down on callaloo, a Caribbean herb that cost less to produce but sold enough to subsidize the beets. “People love it, it grows like a weed, it’s low maintenance and requires very little labor.” In the end, she says, “We are a nonprofit, and we didn’t want to make a profit.”

Sustainable and Resilient

Few would begrudge Ayer her loss leader, but such practices can undercut for-profit city farmers who are already struggling to compete with regional farmers at crowded urban markets and with cheap supermarket produce shipped from California and Mexico. Leadley, of Rising Pheasant Farms, realized long ago that she wouldn’t survive selling only the vegetables from her outdoor garden, which is why she invested in a plastic-draped greenhouse and heating system. Her tiny shoots, sprouts, amaranth and kohlrabi leaves grow year-round; they grow quickly — in the summer, Leadley can make a crop in seven days — and they sell for well over a dollar an ounce.

Nodding toward her backyard plot, Leadley says, “I grow those vegetables because they look good on the farm stand. They attract more customers to our table, and I really love growing outdoors.” But it’s the microgreens that keep Leadley from joining the ranks of the vast majority of U.S. farmers and taking a second job.

Mchezaji Axum, an agronomist with the University of the District of Columbia, the first exclusively urban land-grant university in the nation, helps urban farmers increase their yields whether they are selling into wealthy markets, like Leadley, or poorer markets, like Ayer. He promotes the use of plant varieties adapted to city conditions (short corn that produces four instead of two ears, for example). He also recommends biointensive methods, such as planting densely, intercropping, applying compost, rotating crops and employing season-extension methods (growing cold-tolerant vegetables like kale, spinach or carrots in winter hoop houses, for example, or starting plants in cold frames — boxes with transparent tops that let in sunlight but protect plants from extreme cold and rain).

“You learn to improve your soil health, and you learn how to space your plants to get more sunshine,” Axum says. Surveying D.C.’s scores of communal gardens, Axum has been surprised by how little food they actually grow. “People aren’t using their space well. More than 90 percent aren’t producing intensively. Some people just want to grow and be left alone.

“Using biointensive methods may not be part of your cultural tradition,” Laura J. Lawson, a professor of landscape architecture at Rutgers State University and the author of City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America, says. “It depends who you learned gardening from.” Lawson recalls the story of a well-meaning visitor to a Philadelphia garden who suggested that the farmers had planted their corn in a spot that wasn’t photosynthetically ideal. The women told their visitor, “We always plant it there; that way we can pee behind it.”

Axum is all about scaling up and aggregating hyperlocal foods to meet the demands of large buyers like city schools, hospitals or grocery stores. Selling to nearby institutions, say food policy councils established by grassroots organizations and local governments to strengthen and support local food systemsis key to making urban food systems more sustainable and resilient, to say nothing of providing a living to local growers. But scaling up often requires more land, and therefore more expensive labor to cultivate it, in addition to changes in local land use and other policies, marketing expertise and efficient distribution networks.

“Lots of local institutions want to source their food here,” says Detroit farmer Noah Link, whose Food Field, a commercial operation, encompasses a nascent orchard, vast areas of raised beds, two tightly wrapped 150-foot-long hoop houses (one of which shelters a long, narrow raceway crammed with catfish), chickens, beehives and enough solar panels to power the whole shebang. “But local farms aren’t producing enough food yet. We’d need an aggregator to pull it together for bulk sales.”

Link doesn’t grow microgreens — the secret sauce for so many commercial operations — because he can break even on volume: His farm occupies an entire city block. Annie Novak, who co-founded New York City’s first for-profit rooftop farm in 2009, doesn’t have the luxury of space. She realized early on that she couldn’t grow a wide enough diversity of food to satisfy her community-supported agriculture customers in just 5,800 square feet (540 square meters) of shallow raised beds. “So I partnered with a farm upstate to supplement and diversify the boxes,” she says. Now, Novak focuses on niche and value-added products. “I make a hot sauce from my peppers and market the bejesus out of it,” she says. She also grows microgreens for restaurants, plus honey, herbs, flowers and “crops that are narratively interesting, like purple carrots, or heirloom tomatoes, which give us an opportunity to educate people about the value of food, green spaces and our connection to nature,” she says.

Sometimes being strategic with crop selection isn’t enough. Brooklyn Grange, a for-profit farm atop two roofs in New York City, grows more than 50,000 pounds (23,000 kg) of tomatoes, kale, lettuce, carrots, radishes and beans, among other crops, each year. It sells them through its CSA, at farm stands and to local restaurants. But to further boost its income, Brooklyn Grange also offers a summerlong training program for beekeepers (US$850 tuition), yoga classes and tours, and it rents its Edenic garden spaces, which have million-dollar views of the Manhattan skyline, for photo shoots, weddings, private dinners and other events.

“Urban farms are like small farms in rural areas,” says Carolyn Dimitri, an applied economist who studies food systems and food policy at New York University. “They have the same set of problems: people don’t want to pay a lot for their food, and labor is expensive. So they have to sell high-value products and do some agritourism.”

Under Control

On a miserable March morning, with a sparkling layer of ice glazing a foot of filthy snow, a coterie of Chicago’s urban farmers toils in shirtsleeves and sneakers, their fingernails conspicuously clean. In their gardens, no metal or wood scrap accumulates in corners, no chickens scratch in hoop-house soil. In fact, these farmers use no soil at all. Their densely planted basil and arugula leaves sprout from growing medium in barcoded trays. The trays sit on shelves stacked 12 feet (3.7 meters) high and illuminated, like tanning beds, by purple and white lights. Fans hum, water gurgles, computer screens flicker.

[W]ith 25 high-density crops per year, as opposed to a conventional farmer’s five or so, CEA yields are 10 to 20 times higher than the same crop grown outdoors.FarmedHere, the nation’s largest player in controlled environment agriculture — CEA —pumps out roughly a million pounds (500,000 kg) per year of baby salad greens, basil and mint in its 90,000-square-foot (8,000-square-meter) warehouse on the industrial outskirts of Chicago. Like many hydroponic or aquaponic operations (in which water from fish tanks nourishes plants, which filter the water before it’s returned to the fish), the farm has a futuristic feel — all glowing lights and stainless steel. Employees wear hairnets and nitrile gloves. But without interference from weather, insects or even too many people, the farm quickly and reliably fulfills year-round contracts with local supermarkets, including nearly 50 Whole Foods Markets.

“We can’t keep up with demand,” Nick Greens, a deejay turned master grower, says.

Unlike outdoor farms, CEA has no call for pesticides and contributes no nitrogen to waterways. Its closed-loop irrigation systems consume 10 times less water than conventional systems. And with 25 high-density crops per year, as opposed to a conventional farmer’s five or so, CEA yields are 10 to 20 times higher than the same crop grown outdoors — in theory sparing forests and grasslands from the plow.

Is CEA the future of urban farming? It produces a lot of food in a small space, to be sure. But until economies of scale kick in, these operations — which are capital intensive to build and maintain — must concentrate exclusively on high-value crops like microgreens, winter tomatoes and herbs.

Reducing food miles reduces transit-related costs, as well as the carbon emissions associated with transport, packaging and cooling. But growing indoors under lights, with heating and cooling provided by fossil fuels, may negate those savings. When Louis Albright, an emeritus professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, dug into the numbers, he discovered that closed-system farming is expensive, energy intensive and, at some latitudes, unlikely to survive on solar or wind power. Growing a pound of hydroponic lettuce in Ithaca, New York, Albright reports, generates 8 pounds (4 kg) of carbon dioxide at the local power plant: a pound of tomatoes would generate twice that much. Grow that lettuce without artificial lights in a greenhouse and emissions drop by two thirds.

Food Security

In the world’s poorest nations, city dwellers have always farmed for subsistence. But more of them are farming now than ever before. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, it’s estimated that 40 percent of the urban population is engaged in agriculture. Long-time residents and recent transplants alike farm because they’re hungry, they know how to grow food, land values in marginal areas (under power lines and along highways) are low, and inputs like organic wastes — fertilizer — are cheap. Another driver is the price of food: People in developing nations pay a far higher percentage of their total income for food than Americans do, and poor transportation and refrigeration infrastructure make perishable goods, like fruits and vegetables, especially dear. Focusing on these high-value crops, urban farmers both feed themselves and supplement their incomes.

In the U.S., urban farming is likely to have its biggest impact on food security in places that, in some ways, resemble the global south — that is, in cities or neighborhoods where land is cheap, median incomes are low and the need for fresh food is high. Detroit, by this metric, is particularly fertile ground. Michael Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture at Michigan State University, calculated that the city, which has just under 700,000 residents and more than 100,000 vacant lots (many of which can be purchased, thanks to the city’s recent bankruptcy, for less than the price of a refrigerator), could grow three quarters of its current vegetable consumption and nearly half its fruit consumption on available parcels of land using biointensive methods.

No one expects city farms in the U.S. to replace peri-urban or rural vegetable farms: cities don’t have the acreage or the trained farmers, and most can’t produce food anything close to year-round. But can city farms take a bite from long-distance supply chains? NYU’s Dimitri doesn’t think so. Considering the size and global nature of the nation’s food supply, she says, urban ag in our cities “isn’t going to make a dent. And it’s completely inefficient, economically. Urban farmers can’t charge what they should, and they’re too small to take advantage of economies of scale and use their resources more efficiently.”

That doesn’t mean that community gardeners, who don’t even try to be profitable, aren’t making a big difference in their immediate communities. Camden’s 31,000 pounds (14,000 kg) of produce might not seem like a lot, but it’s a very big deal for those lucky enough to get their hands on it. “In poor communities where households earn very little income,” says Domenic Vitiello, an associate professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, “a few thousand dollars’ worth of vegetables and fruit grown in the garden makes a much bigger difference than for more affluent households.”

History tells us that community gardening — supported by individuals, government agencies and philanthropies — is here to stay. And whether these gardens ultimately produce more food or more knowledge about food — where it comes from, what it takes to produce it, how to prepare and eat it — they still have enormous value as gathering places and classrooms and as conduits between people and nature. Whether or not cultivating fruits and vegetables in tiny urban spaces makes economic or food-security sense, people who want to grow food in cities will find a way to do so. As Laura Lawson says, “City gardens are part of our ideal sense of what a community should be. And so their value is priceless.” View Ensia homepage

Chernobyl Is Burning, But Who's to Blame?

Chernobyl reactor #4 seen from across the man-made cooling river, Ukraine, in 2013. Image by Guy Corbishley from Demotix.

As Russia recovers from massive wildfires in the Siberian regions of Khakassia and Zabaikal, Ukraine has encountered an even more alarming problem: a 400-hectare wildfire dangerously close to the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

Ukrainian officials have said that Reactor Four, which failed during the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, is not in danger from the wildfire. Still, Ukraine has mobilized firefighters, the National Guard, and head officials to the affected area to prevent a potential crisis. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who arrived at the scene of the fire on April 28, has said that even though the situation is “under control,” it is the largest wildfire near Chernobyl since a massive 1992 blaze.

The Ukrainian Minister of Interior Affairs, Arsen Avakov, initially announced the situation on his Facebook page on the evening of April 28, when strong winds were making it likely the fire could spread to the 20 km (12.5 mile) exclusion zone around Chernobyl.
 "Работаем. Понимаем ответственность и не допустим недооценки рисков!"
 ("We're working. We understand the responsibility and we won't allow risks to be underestimated!")

As in the case with the wildfires in Russia, social media has already emerged as a vital tool in distributing information to local residents regarding the status of the wildfire. Along with Minister Avakov, the Ukrainian head of the State Service of Emergency Situations, Zoryan Shkiryak, has been providing regular updates on the wildfire on Facebook, detailing the response to and the extent of the blaze.

However, much as Greenpeace had criticized the Russian response to the Siberian wildfires, the environmental organization has cited different figures on the Chernobyl wildfire from those released by Ukrainian officials. Soon after statements from Avakov and Shkiryak putting the size of the wildfire at 4,000 hectares or fewer, Greenpeace put the blaze at 10,000 hectares.

Reactions From Nearby
Many in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv, which lies about 100 km (62 miles) south of Chernobyl, have expressed concerns regarding the fire online. A poll on the popular “Typical Kyiv” (Типичный Киев) VK group asked users if they could smell the smoke from the wildfire, garnering about 4000 responses (only 20% said yes).

Though it is unlikely than the smoke these 20% were smelling was smoke from the wildfire, another popular post in the group offering tips for dealing with radiation demonstrated the anxiety that still looms over Ukraine a generation after the Chernobyl disaster. But radiation levels in the capital remained within norm, as journalist Sergiy Karazy demonstrated in a FB post:

("Today you could do an express IQ test in the Ukrainian Fb segment. All of those who are seriously discussing taping up windows, staying inside and drink iodine, have failed this test hopelessly.
 "The photo shows the level of gamma radiation in downtown Kyiv at 0.09 μSv/h with an acceptable maximum of 0.30 μSv/h.")

Reactions From Further Away

While the online reaction in Kyiv was one of panicked concern, the response from separatist-held eastern Ukraine was slightly more bizarre. According to a conspiracy theory from one pro-separatist news website, the Ukrainian government may have started the wildfire as a “provokatsiya” (provocation, roughly equating to a “false flag”) in order to extract financial assistance from the European Union, representatives of which had recently visited Kyiv.

"Примечательно, что пожар вспыхнул как раз во время проведения в Киеве саммита «Украина-ЕС». Учитывая, насколько Евросоюз озабочен безопасностью объектов, подобных Чернобыльской АЭС, и в этой связи на протяжении нескольких десятилетий выделяет немалые средства на предотвращение техногенных катастроф, то исключать вероятность провокации со стороны киевской хунты нельзя."
("It's worth noting that the fire erupted during the exact time the “Ukraine-EU” summit was happening in Kyiv. Knowing how concerned the EU is with the safety of objects like the Chernobyl power station, and how it has been giving sizable amounts of money for decades to prevent tehcnogenic catastrophes, we can't exclude the possibility of a provocation from the Kyiv junta.")

Though it seems implausible that Ukrainian officials plotted a fire near the site of a nuclear disaster only to provide by-the-minute social media updates on firefighting later, Minister Avakov has indicated via his Facebook that arson could be a likely cause of the fire.

As of the morning of Wednesday, April 29, emergency officials said the fire was contained, with over 300 people and 50 vehicles working to extinguish the remaining blazes in an area narrowed down to 270 hectares. Whatever the facts, both the panic and the conspiracy theories will likely smolder for a while. As Ukrainian emergency responders fight to prevent a further disaster in Chernobyl, the information war seems to burn as hot as ever.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

#NewsBham: @cspan Coming to Bham Tomorrow, Apr29 to Honor @StudentCam Documentary Winners

National Winners from Spain Park High School will be honored in Ceremony, in partnership with Charter

WASHINGTON April 27, 2015 – C-SPAN and Charter will visit Spain Park High School on April 29, 2015 to honor local winners for C-SPAN’s annual student video documentary competition, StudentCam. 

During the visit, a C-SPAN Representative will present a StudentCam certificate of merit to Elizabeth Sturgeon and Emily Spradling during a ceremony in front of classmates, teachers, and family members to recognize their winning achievement in the national competition. The winning video will also be viewed during the congratulatory event.

StudentCam encourages middle and high school students to think critically about issues that affect our communities and nation. This year, students were asked to create a 5-7 minute video documentary about the topic “The Three Branches and You: Tell a story that demonstrates how a policy, law, or action, by either the executive, legislative, or judicial branch has affected you or your community.” In response, C-SPAN received 2,280 video submissions from almost 5,000 students in 45 states and Washington, DC. 150 student and 53 teacher prizes were awarded, totaling $100,000 in prize money. Visit to watch all the winning videos for 2015.

EVENTS (press invited):
8:15am-9:05am                 Assembly to honor winning students at Spain Park High School
                                                4700 Jaguar Drive, Birmingham, AL 35242
                                                Elizabeth Sturgeon and Emily Spradling (Honorable Mention)
                                                Funding for the Arts: The Why and How

“Charter is proud of Spain Park High School students actively interested and engaged in their government through the StudentCam competition,” said Patti Michel, Regional Director of Communications for Charter.  “We join C-SPAN and the Birmingham community in congratulating Elizabeth Sturgeon and Emily Spradling for their winning documentary.”
In Birmingham, C-SPAN programming is provided by Charter on channel 95; C-SPAN2 on channel 85; and C-SPAN3 on channel 84 as a commercial-free public service.  All funding for C-SPAN operations is provided by local TV providers.

About C-SPAN
Created by the cable TV industry and available in nearly 100 million households, C-SPAN offers three public affairs television networks in both SD and HD; C- SPAN Radio, heard in Washington, D.C., and nationwide via XM Satellite Radio; and a video-rich website that hosts live and archived video. Visit for coverage and schedules; like us on Facebook/cspan and follow @cspan on Twitter.

About C-SPAN Classroom
C-SPAN Classroom is a free membership service dedicated to supporting educators’ use of C-SPAN programming and websites in their classes or for research.  Members of C-SPAN Classroom may access free Timely Teachable Videos and video clips for use in the classroom, as well as lesson plans, handouts and ways to connect with other C-SPAN Classroom members. C-SPAN Classroom has reached more than one million students since its inception in 1987. For more information on C-SPAN Classroom visit the website: or follow on twitter: @CSPAN_Classroom.

About Charter
Charter (NASDAQ: CHTR) is a leading broadband communications company and the fourth-largest cable operator in the United States. Charter provides a full range of advanced broadband services, including advanced Charter Spectrum TV® video entertainment programming, Charter Spectrum Internet® access, and Charter Spectrum Voice®. Spectrum Business similarly provides scalable, tailored, and cost-effective broadband communications solutions to business organizations, such as business-to-business Internet access, data networking, business telephone, video and music entertainment services, and wireless backhaul. Charter's advertising sales and production services are sold under the Charter Media® brand. More information about Charter can be found at

Russian Resupply Ship Experiencing Difficulties; International Space Station, Crew are Fine

The six crew members of the International Space Station (ISS) are safe and continuing regular operations with sufficient supplies as Russian flight controllers plan for another attempt to communicate with a cargo resupply spacecraft bound for the station. The next attempt to link with the spacecraft comes at 8:50 p.m. EDT Tuesday.

The ISS Progress 59 cargo spacecraft launched successfully from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 3:09 a.m. (1:09 p.m. in Kazakhstan) Tuesday on a Soyuz rocket bound for the space station. Right after it separated from the Soyuz booster’s third stage, an unspecified problem prevented Russian flight controllers from determining whether navigational antennas had deployed and whether fuel system manifolds had pressurized as planned.

When flight controllers initially could not confirm deployment of the antennas in the minutes following its launch, they selected the backup rendezvous plan of two days and 34 orbits instead of the planned four-orbit, six-hour rendezvous.

During the spacecraft’s first four Earth orbits, the Russian flight control team made several unsuccessful attempts to confirm the status of the spacecraft’s systems but were unable to receive telemetry from some spacecraft systems. As a result, ISS flight controllers informed the crew a docking attempt to the station has been postponed.

The spacecraft was not carrying any supplies critical for the United States Operating Segment (USOS) of the station. Both the Russian and USOS segments of the station continue to operate normally and are adequately supplied well beyond the next planned resupply flight. The next mission scheduled to deliver cargo to the station is the seventh SpaceX commercial resupply services mission targeted for launch no earlier than June 19. It will carry about 5,000 pounds of science investigations and supplies.

The cargo of Progress 59 includes more than three tons of food, fuel, and supplies for the space station crew, including 1,940 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds of oxygen, 926 pounds of water, and 3,128 pounds of spare parts, supplies and scientific experiment hardware. Among the U.S. supplies on board are spare parts for the station’s environmental control and life support system, backup spacewalk hardware, and crew clothing, all of which are replaceable.

As teams continue to monitor the spacecraft, additional updates and more information about the International Space Station will be available online at:

Monday, April 20, 2015

'Stop TTIP': Global Day of Action Draws Tens of Thousands

'Rising anti-American sentiment linked to revelations of U.S. spying and fears of digital domination by firms like Google'
Thousands march against the planned free trade agreement TTIP between the European Union and the USA in Stuttgart, Germany on April 18, 2015. Negotiations on TTIP are due to resume in New York on Monday April 20, 2015. (EFE/EPA/Michael Latz)
Demonstrators marched around the globe Saturday to protest the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a 'free trade' agreement currently being negotiated between the European Union (EU) and the United States.

Opponents fear that TTIP will erode food, labor and environmental standards particularly with regard to the EU's strict regulations on food additives, genetically modified crops and the use of pesticides. "There is a very big risk: TTIP will restrict our democratic rights. In the future, large corporations will have an even greater influence on the legislative process," said Thilo Bode of Foodwatch.

The EU and US began TTIP talks nearly two years over creating the world’s biggest trade zone. The ninth round of negotiations will begin on Monday, April 20 in New York.

Tens of thousands marched across Germany where more than 200 demonstrations took place.

In Barcelona, 50,000 marched through city streets:

Reuters reports:

Opposition to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is particularly high in Germany, in part due to rising anti-American sentiment linked to revelations of U.S. spying and fears of digital domination by firms like Google.
A recent YouGov poll showed that 43 percent of Germans believe TTIP would be bad for the country, compared to 26 percent who see it as positive.

More than 7,000 gathered in front of the Austrian parliament chanting slogans such as “Stop TTIP”, “humanity and the environment before profit”, and “TTIP is a threat to democracy, and people’s health.”

In all, some 600 anti-TTIP protests were planned across the world for Saturday.

A Call to Action on, which is co-ordinating promotion of the protests, reads:

We, civil society organizations, trade unions, farmers, youth, women, indigenous movements and grassroots activists from across the world, are calling for a Global Day of Action on 18 April 2015 to stop free trade and investment deals and promote an economy that works for people and the planet.
For the last decades, secret trade and investment agreements have been pushed by corporations and governments, damaging our rights and the environment.

For the last decades, we have been fighting for food sovereignty, for the commons, to defend our jobs, our lands, internet freedom and to reclaim democracy. Along the way, we have grown as a movement, we have made our voices heard and we had victories.

Together, we can stop the agreements that are being negotiated and reverse the negative impacts of past agreements. We can drive forward our alternatives based on human rights over corporate privileges.

We call on organizations, individuals and alliances to participate by organizing decentralized actions across the five continents. We welcome a diversity of tactics and solidarity actions from across the world that will help raise awareness, engage and mobilize people locally towards a new trade and economic model that works for people and the planet.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Can saltwater quench our growing thirst?

An increasingly water-stressed world takes a new look at desalination. 



It seems simple enough: Take the salt out of water so it’s drinkable.

But it’s far more complex than it appears at first glance. It’s also increasingly crucial in a world where freshwater resources are progressively strained by population growth, development, droughts, climate change and more. That’s why researchers and companies from the United States to Australia are fine-tuning a centuries-old concept that might be the future of quenching the world’s thirst.

“When it comes to increasing water supplies, you have four options: Increase your amount of reuse, increase storage, conserve it or turn to a new source,” says Tom Pankratz, a desalination consultant and current editor of the weekly trade publication Water Desalination Report. “And for many places around the world, the only new source is desalination.”

Costly Process

Desalination technology has been around for centuries. In the Middle East, people have long evaporated brackish groundwater or seawater, then condensed the vapor to produce salt-free water for drinking or, in some cases, for agricultural irrigation.

Carlsbad Desalination Project construction as of April 2015
A $1 billion desalination plant under construction in Carlsbad, Calif., is expected to produce 50 million gallons of freshwater per day when it goes online in late 2015. Photo courtesy of Poseidon Water.
Over time the process has become more sophisticated. Most modern desalination facilities use reverse osmosis, in which water is pumped at high pressure through semipermeable membranes that remove salt and other minerals.

Worldwide about 300 million people get some freshwater from more than 17,000 desalination plants in 150 countries. Middle East countries have dominated that market out of necessity and energy availability, but with threats of freshwater shortages spreading around the world, others are rapidly joining their ranks. Industry capacity is growing about 8 percent per year, according to Randy Truby, comptroller and past president of the International Desalination Association, an industry group, with “bursts of activity” in places such as Australia and Singapore. In the United States, a $1 billion plant is being built in Carlsbad, Calif., to provide about 7 percent of the drinking water needs for the San Diego region. When it goes online in late 2015 it will be the biggest in North America, with a 50-million-gallon-per-day capacity. And California currently has about 16 desalination plant proposals in the works.

But desalination is expensive. A thousand gallons of freshwater from a desalination plant costs the average U.S. consumer $2.50 to $5, Pankratz says, compared to $2 for conventional freshwater.

It’s also an energy hog: Desalination plants around the world consume more than 200 million kilowatt-hours each day, with energy costs an estimated 55 percent of plants’ total operation and maintenance costs. It takes most reverse osmosis plants about 3 to 10 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce one cubic meter of freshwater from seawater. Traditional drinking water treatment plants typically use well under 1 kWh per cubic meter.

And it can cause environmental problems, from displacing ocean-dwelling creatures to adversely altering the salt concentrations around them.

Research into a suite of seawater desalination improvements is underway to make the process cheaper and more environmentally friendly — including reducing dependence on fossil fuel–derived energy, which perpetuates the vicious cycle by contributing to climate change that contributes to freshwater shortages in the first place.

Membrane Upgrade

Most experts say that reverse osmosis is as efficient as it’s going to get. But some researchers are trying to squeeze more by improving the membranes used to separate salt from water.

Membranes currently used for desalination are mainly thin polyamide films rolled into a hollow tube through which the water wicks. One way to save energy is to increase the diameter of the membranes, which is directly correlated with how much freshwater they can make. Companies are increasingly moving from 8-inch to 16-inch diameter membranes, which have four times the active area.

“You can produce more water while reducing the footprint for the equipment,” says Harold Fravel Jr., executive director of the American Membrane Technology Association, an organization that advances the use of water purification systems.

A lot of membrane research is focused on nanomaterials — materials about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers reported in 2012 that a membrane made of a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms called graphene could work just as well and requires less pressure to pump water through than polyamide, which is about a thousand times thicker. Less pressure means less energy to operate the system, and, therefore, lower energy bills.

Graphene is not only durable and incredibly thin, but, unlike polyamide, it’s not sensitive to water treatment compounds such as chlorine. In 2013, Lockheed Martin patented the Perforene membrane, which is one atom thick with holes small enough to trap salt and other minerals but that allow water to pass.

Another popular nanomaterial solution is carbon nanotubes, says Philip Davies, an Aston University researcher who specializes in energy efficient systems for water treatment. Carbon nanotubes are attractive for the same reasons as graphene — strong, durable material packed in a tiny package — and can absorb more than 400 percent of their weight in salt.

Membranes have to be swapped out, so carbon nanotubes’ durability and high absorption rate could reduce replacement frequency, saving time and money.

Membrane technology all “sounds sexy, but it’s not easy,” Pankratz says. “There are engineering challenges when making something so thin that still maintains integrity.”

Graphene and carbon nanotubes are decades away from widespread use, says Wendell Ela, a University of Arizona chemical and environmental engineering professor. “I do see them having an impact, but it’s a ways out.”

Truby said barriers to commercialization include engineering such small materials and making new membranes compatible with current plants and infrastructure.

“It’ll be key to upgrade systems without tearing [them] down and building a whole new plant,” he says.

Forward Osmosis

Others are looking beyond reverse osmosis to another process known as forward osmosis. In forward osmosis, seawater is drawn into the system by a solution that has salts and gases, which creates a high osmotic pressure difference between the solutions. The solutions pass through a membrane together, leaving the salts behind.

Ela says forward osmosis will “probably be most efficient as a pretreatment and not as a stand-alone treatment at commercial seawater plants” because reverse osmosis performs better at large scale. As a pretreatment, forward osmosis can lengthen reverse osmosis membranes’ lifespan and promote overall system health by reducing the needed disinfectants and other pretreatment options.
The process should use less energy than reverse osmosis, Ela says, since it’s driven by thermodynamics. But last summer MIT scientists reported that forward osmosis for desalination might prove more energy intensive than reverse osmosis due to the high salt concentration in the solution resulting from the first step.
British company Modern Water operates the first commercial forward osmosis plant in Oman, in the Arabian Peninsula’s southeastern coast. At 26,000 gallons per day, the system has a much smaller capacity than most large-scale reverse osmosis systems. Company officials did not return requests for comments on the plant. However a company report noted that the plant had a 42 percent reduction in energy compared to reverse osmosis.
Heather Cooley, water program director with the Pacific Institute, a California-based sustainability research organization, says most forward osmosis technology is still in the research and development phase, and that commercial use is five to 10 years out.

Dilution Solution

Another approach to reducing the energy cost of desalination is RO-PRO, or reverse osmosis pressure retarded osmosis. RO-PRO works by passing an impaired freshwater source, such as wastewater, through a membrane into the highly saline solution leftover from reverse osmosis, which would normally be discharged to the ocean. The mixing of the two produces pressure and energy that is used to power a reverse osmosis pump.
Inspired by a system used by Statkraft, a Norway-based hydropower and renewable energy company, University of Southern California environmental engineering professor Amy Childress and colleagues are now piloting RO-PRO in California. Childress says “optimistic” estimates show RO-PRO can reduce the energy needed for reverse osmosis 30 percent. She notes that some unspecified companies have shown interest in their pilot.

Recapturing and Renewable Energy
Fravel says many plants are trying to recapture energy from within the process. Turbochargers, for example, take kinetic energy from the outgoing stream of concentrated saltwater and reapply it to the side of incoming seawater. “You might have 900 [pounds per square inch] on the feed side and the concentrate might be coming out at 700 psi. That’s a lot of energy in the concentrate stream,” he says.

Incorporating renewables into the energy input side of things is a particularly promising approach to enhancing desalination’s sustainability.Pretreating water before it goes to membranes can also save energy. “The better you can clean water before it goes into reverse osmosis, the better it runs,” Fravel says. Plants in Bahrain, Japan, Saudi Arabia and China are using pretreatment for a smoother reverse osmosis process.

Incorporating renewables into the energy input side of things is a particularly promising approach to enhancing desalination’s sustainability. Currently an estimated 1 percent of desalinated water comes from energy from renewable sources, mainly in small-scale facilities. But larger plants are starting to add renewables to their energy portfolio.

After years of struggling with drought, Australia brought six desalination plants online from 2006 to 2012, investing more than $10 billion. The plants all use some renewables for power, mostly through nearby wind farms that put energy into the grid, Pankratz says. And the Sydney Water desalination plant, which supplies about 15 percent of water to Australia’s most populous city, is powered by offsets from the 67-turbine Capital Wind Farm about 170 miles to the south.

Solar energy is attractive for many heavy desalination countries — particularly those in the Middle East and the Caribbean where sun is plentiful. In one of the more ambitious projects, the United Arab Emirates energy company Masdar announced in 2013 it’s working on the world’s largest solar powered desalination plant, capable of producing more than 22 million gallons per day, with a planned launch in 2020.

Environmental impacts

Plans to use seawater, of course, must consider the implications for sea life. A lot of desalination facilities use open ocean intakes; these are often screened, but the desalination process can still kill organisms during intake or inside the plant’s treatment phases, Cooley says. New subsurface intakes, which go beneath the sand to use it as a natural filter, could help alleviate this concern.

Also, there’s the problem of how to get rid of a lot of very briny water after desalination. Every two gallons a facility takes in means one gallon of drinkable water and one gallon of water that is about twice as salty as when it came in. Most plants discharge this back into the same body of water that serves as the intake source.

Ela says smaller plants, such as the forward osmosis plant in Oman, could be the future of desalination technology.The RO-PRO technology offers one way to reduce the salt concentration in the discharge, which can harm bottom-dwelling creatures. Another method gaining popularity is the use of diffusers, a series of nozzles that increase the volume of seawater mixing with the concentrate discharge preventing spots of high salt.

In one of the more novel recent studies addressing ocean discharge, Davies of Aston University heated up briny discharge with solar energy to convert magnesium chloride into magnesium oxide, which he calls “a good agent to absorb carbon dioxide.” The research is still is the nascent stages, but could have the dual environmental benefit of reducing discharge and removing CO2 from the ocean using solar power to zap the concentrate.

Size Wise

Ela says smaller plants, such as the forward osmosis plant in Oman, could be the future of desalination technology. A lot of the newer innovations could make economic sense on a smaller scale, and companies wouldn’t have to invest so much in infrastructure, he says.

“Instead of large plants, we might get down to 10,000 gallons per day desalination plants,” Ela says. “I see decentralization and small desalination plants serving small communities.”

This also would provide environmental benefits such as allowing renewable energy to play a larger role, since it’s much easier to power small plants with solar and wind than large ones, he says.
Pankratz says desalination will always be more expensive than treating freshwater. Still, innovations will help desalination become an increasingly workable option as the demand for freshwater grows in an increasingly thirsty world. View Ensia homepage

Monday, April 13, 2015

'Our Governments Will Continue to Have Differences': Historic US-Cuba Talks Start

Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro outline different priorities in first face-to-face meeting of U.S. and Cuban leaders in 50 years
Cuban President Raúl Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands for the second time at the Summit of the Americas, marking the start of historic talks between the two countries on April 11, 2015. (Photo: AP)
U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro began talks in Panama on Saturday in the first face-to-face meeting between leaders of the two nations in 50 years.

The historic event at the seventh Summit of the Americas, which Cuba was attending for the first time, was another step toward easing tensions between the U.S. and Cuba after a thawing of relations was announced last December.

Both leaders acknowledged that progress had been made during Saturday's meeting, but outlined different priorities.

"Our governments will continue to have differences," Obama said after the meeting. He added that some of the immediate goals were to open embassies in Havana and Washington, D.C., but stopped short of confirming whether he would remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror.

However, during a speech earlier in the day, Castro made clear that Cuba's main concern was in the U.S. lifting the embargo against the country and returning Guantanamo Bay, which he said was illegally occupied by the U.S. military.

The Guardian reports:
The meeting between the two men followed an often heated plenary session in which Obama tried to focus attention on the possibilities of closer regional ties, while leftwing leaders lined up to remind the US of its past aggression and interference in the hemisphere.
Still, Castro said during his speech that Obama was not responsible for the misdeeds of previous presidents and expressed his respect for the U.S. leader. "In my opinion, Obama is an honest man," he said. "I admire him."

He added that he wanted a new beginning with the U.S. despite a "long and complicated history" between the two countries, and said "we are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient—very patient."

Obama echoed that he looked forward to a "new chapter" with Cuba, adding that he was "not interested in having battles that started before I was born."

But current tensions with other countries in the region were another matter. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called on Obama to lift an executive order declaring the country a threat to U.S. national security and imposing sanctions on seven officials in Caracas who were accused of human rights abuses. Maduro called the sanctions "threatening" and "dangerous."

"I respect Obama, but I do not trust him," Maduro said on Saturday. "We've never been against the U.S. We're anti-imperialist."

The Defining Moment, and Hillary Rodham Clinton

It’s a paradox. 

Almost all the economic gains are still going to the top, leaving America’s vast middle class with stagnant wages and little or no job security. Two-thirds of Americans are working paycheck to paycheck. 

Meanwhile, big money is taking over our democracy.
If there were ever a time for a bold Democratic voice on behalf of hardworking Americans, it is now. 

Yet I don’t recall a time when the Democratic Party’s most prominent office holders sounded as meek. With the exception of Elizabeth Warren, they’re pussycats. If Paul Wellstone, Teddy Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, or Ann Richards were still with us, they’d be hollering. 

The fire now is on the right, stoked by the Koch brothers, Rupert Murdoch, and a pocketful of hedge-fund billionaires. 

Today’s Republican firebrands, beginning with Ted Cruz, blame the poor, blacks, Latinos, and immigrants for what’s been happening. They avoid any mention of wealth and power. 

Which brings me to Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In declaring her candidacy for President she said “The deck is stacked in favor of those at the top. Everyday Americans need a champion and I want to be that champion.”

Exactly the right words, but will she deliver? 

Some wonder about the strength of her values and ideals. I don’t. I’ve known her since she was 19 years old, and have no doubt where her heart is. For her entire career she’s been deeply committed to equal opportunity and upward mobility. 

Some worry she’s been too compromised by big money – that the circle of wealthy donors she and her husband have cultivated over the years has dulled her sensitivity to the struggling middle class and poor.

But it’s wrong to assume great wealth, or even a social circle of the wealthy, is incompatible with a deep commitment to reform – as Teddy Roosevelt and his fifth-cousin Franklin clearly demonstrated. 

The more relevant concern is her willingness to fight.
After a devastating first midterm election, her husband famously “triangulated” between Democrats and Republicans, seeking to find a middle position above the fray.

But if Hillary Clinton is to get the mandate she needs for America to get back on track, she will have to be clear with the American people about what is happening and why – and what must be done.  
For example, she will need to admit that Wall Street is still running the economy, and still out of control. 

So we must resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act and bust up the biggest banks, so millions of Americans don’t ever again lose their homes, jobs, and savings because of Wall Street’s excesses. 

Also: Increase taxes on the rich in order to finance the investments in schools and infrastructure the nation desperately needs.
Strengthen unions so working Americans have the bargaining power to get a fair share of the gains from economic growth. 

Limit the deductibility of executive pay, and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

Oppose trade agreements like the Trans Pacific Partnership designed to protect corporate property but not American jobs.
And nominate Supreme Court justices who will reverse “Citizens United.” 

I’m not suggesting a long list. Democratic candidates too often offer mind-numbing policy proposals without explaining why they’re important. 

She should use such policies to illustrate the problem, and make a vivid moral case for why such policies are necessary. 

In recent decades Republicans have made a moral case for less government and lower taxes on the rich, based on their idea of “freedom.” 

They talk endlessly about freedom but they never talk about power. But it’s power that’s askew in America –concentrated power that’s constraining the freedom of the vast majority. 

Hillary Clinton should make the moral case about power: for taking it out of the hands of those with great wealth and putting it back into the hands of average working people.  

In these times, such a voice and message make sense politically. The 2016 election will be decided by turnout, and turnout will depend on enthusiasm. 

If she talks about what’s really going on and what must be done about it, she can arouse the Democratic base as well as millions of Independents and even Republicans who have concluded, with reason, that the game is rigged against them. 

The question is not her values and ideals. It’s her willingness to be bold and to fight, at a time when average working people need a president who will fight for them more than they’ve needed such a president in living memory. 

This is a defining moment for Democrats, and for America. It is also a defining moment for Hillary Clinton. 

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

#NewsBham: Feral Hogs Impacting Alabama Farmers and Wildlife


For the past two years, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division has adjusted its regulations to try to empower landowners and lease holders in their battle against the scourge of feral hogs.

One of the reasons the feral hog population is widespread across Alabama is the illegal transportation and release of live feral swine. The law for many years reduced feral hogs to personal possession once the animals were caught, but that regulation was changed last year to take out the personal possession clause and require that all feral hogs must be killed before being transported.

“It’s always been illegal to transport feral hogs,” said WFF Director Chuck Sykes. “However, it was impossible to prove it. The way the regulation read, once they were trapped they were reduced to personal possession. So unless one of our people saw them do it, if they were stopped going down the road, they could say, ‘No, these are my hogs.’ It was extremely difficult for our officers to make a case unless they witnessed somebody catching the hogs. Taking the personal possession language out of it would take that question out of it. Now if our officers find live feral hogs in the back of the truck, they know it’s illegal.”

Farmers are particularly susceptible to feral hog impact from the damage done to row crops, pastures and farm roads. A 2009 study conducted by Auburn University concluded that more than $74 million in damage was caused by feral hogs in Alabama.

While the damage to farm production can be somewhat assessed, feral hogs do untold damage to the habitat for much of Alabama’s wildlife. Like WFF Biologist Chris Jaworowski says, “You may have 30 pigs going through your hardwood bottom like a Hoover vacuum cleaner, sucking up all the acorns that deer, turkey and squirrels depend on. That doesn’t get mentioned enough. And you’ve got these threatened and endangered plant communities, like the pitcher plant bogs that have been destroyed by hogs. Some of those habitats will never come back.”

Because of emerging technology and efforts to reduce feral hogs by whatever methods available, new questions have been raised about what to do with the animals after they are dispatched.

“Some people would trap for landowners and to pay for their expenses, they would sell the hogs,” Sykes said. “If they had been running trail cameras and knew they had 10 hogs coming to the trap, they would set the trap on a Friday night. They would tell people, ‘Give me $20 and I’ll have you a hog on Saturday morning.’ However, if a hog is just a game animal, you can’t do that.”

To solve that problem, WFF proposed and the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board approved a change in the feral hog regulations that would also extend fur bearer status to the feral hogs. That provides the legal method for trappers to legally sell the hog carcasses.

“That gives people the leeway to trap as many as they want to,” Sykes said. “We want people to catch as many as they can. And this allows them to sell the carcasses.

“However, that does not allow people to set up a backyard market to sell bacon, pork chops and ham. If you kill a hog, you can legally sell it to somebody. But you cannot sell processed pork. That has to be inspected before it can be sold.”

Alabama State Veterinarian Dr. Tony Frazier said that he and Agriculture and Industries Commissioner John McMillan have had discussions on the state law that requires all processed pork to be officially inspected and how it applies to feral hogs.

“With feral hogs that are trapped and killed right there, we don’t have any issues with selling that hog from one person to another or giving it away,” Frazier said. “Once you start selling meat, once it’s processed meat, that can only be done under inspection. And that’s not me saying that. That’s the federal meat inspection act that we have adopted in Alabama.

“You can’t kill a wild hog, take it to a processor and have sausage made out of it and then turn around and sell that. Once you render a wild pig captive and kill it, then you can do whatever you want to with the carcass. But you can’t part it out or process it without it going through the inspection process.”

Kevin Dodd, WFF’s Enforcement Chief, said that people who trap hogs will be required to have a fur catcher’s (trapping) license to sell feral hog carcasses.

“You don’t have to have a trapping license for feral hogs unless you’re doing it commercially for someone else,” Dodd said. “If you’re on your own land or leased land, you don’t have to have a trapping license to trap wild pigs. If you are hired by the landowner to do it, you are supposed to have a fur catcher’s license. To sell the hog carcasses, you have to have a fur catcher’s license.”

Concerning the sale of feral hog carcasses, Dodd said the change in the feral hog’s status to fur bearer will fall under the regulation that allows the sale of some fur bearer carcasses – raccoons for example.

Director Sykes and Commissioner McMillan cautioned that those who come in contact with feral hogs should handle the animals carefully to minimize the exposure to the bacteria that causes swine brucellosis, which can cause flu-like symptoms in humans. 

Although infections are relatively rare, swine brucellosis can be transmitted to humans if blood, fluid or tissue from an infected animal comes into contact with the eyes, nose, mouth or a skin cut. The edibility of the meat is not affected by swine brucellosis, but it should be thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

When field-dressing feral hogs, hunters should follow the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

1. Use clean, sharp knives for field dressing and butchering.
2. Wear eye protection and rubber or latex gloves when handling carcasses; avoid direct contact of bare skin with fluid or organs from the animal.
3. After butchering, burn or bury disposable gloves and parts of the carcass that will not be eaten.
4. Avoid feeding raw meat or other parts of the carcass to dogs.
5. Wash hands as soon as possible with soap and warm water for 20 seconds or more.
6. Dry hands with a clean cloth.
7. Clean all tools and reusable gloves with a disinfectant, such as diluted bleach.
8. Be aware that freezing, smoking, drying and pickling do not kill the bacteria that cause brucellosis.

“We want people to kill as many feral hogs as they can,” Sykes. “We just want to remind hunters that preventive measures should be standard when handling hogs.”

Sykes said the feral hog problem has not impacted the whole state, yet.

“It’s bad in certain areas,” he said. “Luckily they’re not found everywhere, but there are pockets where hog problems can be devastating. We want to give people all the tools we can to manage the problem on their property.”

PHOTOS: Although hunters in Alabama have ample opportunity to take feral swine during much of the year, the only effective way to manage wild pig populations is through intensive trapping efforts. Feral hogs cause significant damage to farm property and wildlife habitat in Alabama.