July 15, 2013

Largest Illinois Ash Tree Treated Against Beetle

Jay Hayek says the green ash tree growing on property owned by a family in Clinton is the largest of its kind in Illinois.

The forestry specialist at the University of Illinois Extension says that makes it worth protecting against the emerald ash borer. Hayek maintains the official list of largest trees by species in the state.

The tree in Clinton was being treated Monday with a chemical designed to prevent ash borer infestation.

The 90-foot-tall tree is in Clinton about 40 miles west of Champaign.

The invasive beetle has already killed tens of millions of trees throughout the Midwest.

Warren Goetsch of the state Department of Agriculture says such treatments are too expensive to use on all ash trees but effective on those the owners really value.

Crop consultant Dan Steiner inspects a field of corn near Norfolk, Nebraska.
(Dan Charles/NPR)
July 09, 2013

As Biotech Seed Falters, Insecticide Use Surges In Corn Belt

Across the Midwestern corn belt, a familiar battle has resumed, hidden in the soil.

On one side are tiny, white larvae of the corn rootworm. On the other side are farmers and the insect-killing arsenal of modern agriculture.

We've reported on earlier phases of this battle: The discovery of rootworms resistant to one type of genetically engineered corn, and an appeal from scientists for the government to limit the use of this new corn to preserve the effectiveness of its protection against rootworm.

It appears that farmers have gotten part of the message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their rootworm problems. But instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many are doubling down on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies like Syngenta or AMVAC Chemical that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.

This is a return to the old days, before biotech seeds came along, when farmers relied heavily on pesticides. For Dan Steiner, an independent crop consultant in northeastern Nebraska, it brings back bad memories. "We used to get sick [from the chemicals]," he says. "We'd dig [in the soil] to see how the corn's coming along, and we didn't use the gloves or anything, and we'd kind of puke in the middle of the day. Well, I think we were low-dosing poison on ourselves!"

For a while, biotechnology came to his rescue. Biotech companies such as Monsanto spent many millions of dollars creating and inserting genes that would make corn plants poisonous to the corn rootworm but harmless to other creatures.

The first corn hybrids containing such a gene went on sale in 2003. They were hugely popular, especially in places like northeastern Nebraska where the rootworm has been a major problem. Sales of soil insecticides fell. "Ever since, I'm like, hey, we feel good every spring!" says Steiner.

But all along, scientists wondered how long the good times would last. Some argued that these genes — a gift of nature — were being misused. (For a longer explanation, read my post from two years ago.)

Those inserted genes, derived from genes in a strain of the bacterial Bacillus thuringiensis, worked well for a while. In fact, the Bt genes remain a rock-solid defense against one pest, the European corn borer.

In parts of Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, though, farmers are running into increasing problems with corn rootworms.

"You never really know for sure, until that big rain with strong wind, and you get the phone call the next morning: 'What's going on out there?'" says Steiner.

Entire hillsides of corn, with no support from their eaten-away roots, may be blown flat.

Monsanto has downplayed such reports, blaming extraordinary circumstances. But in half a dozen universities around the Midwest, scientists are now trying to figure out whether, in fact, the Bt genes have lost their power.

At the University of Nebraska, entomologist Lance Meinke is turning colonies of rootworms loose on potted corn plants that contain different versions of the anti-rootworm gene, to see how well they survive.

The larvae get to feed on the corn roots for about two weeks. The soil from each pot then is dumped into a kind of steel container. If the larvae are still alive, a bright light will drive them into little glass jars filled with alcohol. "They try to escape from the heat," says David Wangila, a graduate student who is managing this experiment.

If the rootworm-fighting genes in the corn are working well, no larvae should emerge.

But some have. Wangila points to one of the little glass jars. Inside, there are three nice plump corn rootworm larvae.

This is not good. Those insects, originally collected from a cornfield in Nebraska, were feeding on corn that contained the first rootworm-fighting gene that Monsanto introduced ten years ago. Technically, it's known as the Cry 3Bb gene.

Meinke and Wangila will compare the survival rate of these rootworms with others that have never been exposed to Bt. They're looking for signs that rootworms in the corn fields of Nebraska have evolved resistance to genetically engineered crops.

An identical experiment in Iowa, carried out more than a year ago, found corn rootworms resistant to the Cry 3Bb gene.

Nobody knows how widely those insects have spread, but farmers aren't waiting to find out. Some are switching to other versions of biotech corn, containing anti-rootworm genes that do still work. Others are going back to pesticides.

Steiner, the Nebraska crop consultant, usually argues for another strategy: Starve the rootworms, he tells his clients. Just switch that field to another crop. "One rotation can do a lot of good," he says. "Go to beans, wheat, oats. It's the No. 1 right thing to do."

Insect experts say it's also likely to work better in the long run.

Meinke, who's been studying the corn rootworm for decades, tells farmers that if they plant just corn, year after year, rootworms are likely to overwhelm any weapon someday.

The problem, Meinke says, is that farmers are thinking about the money they can make today. "I think economics are driving everything," he says. "Corn prices have been so high the last three years, everybody is trying to protect every kernel. People are just really going for it right now, to be as profitable as they can."

As a result, they may just keep growing corn, fighting rootworms with insecticides — and there's a possibility that those chemicals will eventually stop working, too.


July 08, 2013

Most Of Forbes Hall Demolition Being Recycled

The University of Illinois is recycling almost all the 10,000 tons of material from a 60-year-old residence hall.

The Champaign News-Gazette reports about 98 percent of rubble from Forbes Hall is being reused or recycled as part of a sustainable construction effort.

Built in 1958, Forbes Hall is being torn down and replaced with a 497-bed dorm that's expected to open in August 2016. The work is part of an $80 million building project.

Most of the material that's being recycled includes concrete blocks, masonry and metal. Furniture, doors, knobs, lights and water meters are being reused in other parts of campus.

The school also plans to save about 250 exterior bricks as keepsakes for donors.

July 01, 2013

Thar He Blows: Trump Tussles With Scots Over Wind Turbines

A fierce legal battle is under way in Scotland, involving U.S. tycoon Donald Trump. At the heart of the wrangle: wind.

Europe is leading the way in generating energy using wind. Huge turbines whir away on the hills and in the seas throughout the continent.

The roots of Trump's hatred for these turbines can be found, at least in part, in what was once a stretch of rolling dunes and grassland in northeastern Scotland, overlooking the North Sea.

He is spending hundreds of millions creating a resort there.

Last year, he opened its star attraction, a championship golf links. Now, a second golf course is in the works.

"It will be truly spectacular, and truly beautiful, and the first course has become such a tremendous success," Trump said during a recent visit.

Yet there is one big problem: the proposed construction of some wind turbines — in the waters overlooked by Trump's resort.

"The Donald" is not happy.

"Wind farms are a disaster for the environment," he said. "They kill the birds. They are very expensive in terms of energy. They're made in China."

Trump was planning to put a big luxury hotel here, too.

Now he is threatening to change his mind.

"I will not build this hotel if they are going to build this ridiculous wind farm," Trump said. "Who would build a hotel where the windows are looking right into an industrial turbine?"

Scotland's Renewable Energy Play

Trump's resort is a few miles north of the city of Aberdeen. The area doesn't have the dazzling beauty of the Scottish Highlands — their dark hills, salmon rivers and whisky distilleries are just over the horizon.

Here, amid the beaches and harbors of Aberdeen Bay, the landscape has a subtler charm: an iron gray sea, rolling sand dunes with bursts of yellow gorse and stone houses dotting the horizon.

Trump opened the Trump International Championship Golf Links course last year. He says it will be one of the best in the world.

The wind turbines he so detests will be visible from the course, about a mile and a half out to sea.

Scotland's government gave the go-ahead for the wind project this March; Trump's counterattacked with a lawsuit seeking to have that decision overturned.

It may sound like an unremarkable zoning dispute. But much bigger issues are in play.

Next year, Scots vote in a referendum over whether to secede from the United Kingdom. Their government is semi-autonomous — much like a state in the U.S.

The Scottish Nationalists who are currently in office want full independence. Green energy is part of their vision. They aim to use renewables to generate the equivalent of all of Scotland's electricity consumption by the year 2020.

Wind power is a big part of that plan.

"That's a hugely ambitious target," says Lindsay Leask of Scottish Renewables, an industry organization for Scotland's renewable energy companies. "It is one of the most ambitious in Europe, if not the world."

There will be 11 big turbines in the waters off Trump's golf resort.

Trump calls it a wind farm, but Leask points out that it is, in fact, a testing facility for different construction methods and technology aspects of turbines and installation techniques.

The Swedish company Vattenfall heads up the joint venture, officially named the European Offshore Wind Deployment Center.

Leask says Scotland needs it.

"If it's not built, we would lose what could be a world-class testing facility and that would be a great shame," she says.

A Relentless Anti-Turbine Campaign

Trump is fighting for his cause with typical aggressiveness and flamboyance.

He wrote a tirade in a British newspaper calling Alex Salmond, head of Scotland's government, "mad."

He says Scotland is going to end up erecting thousands of wind turbines that'll have to be junked.

They're unreliable, highly inefficient and require heavy subsidies, he says.

Trump appeared before the Scottish parliament's energy committee last year with this warning.

"Scotland, if you pursue this goal, of these monsters all over Scotland, Scotland will go broke," Trump told parliamentarians. "As sure as you are sitting there, Scotland will go broke."

Patrick Harvie of the Green Party sits in Scotland's parliament. He thinks Scottish energy party is "none of Mr. Trump's business."

"[Trump] doesn't live here. He doesn't vote here. He doesn't have
a say," Harvie says.

He hopes Scotland sticks to its energy plan.

"If the Scottish government was to be distracted from that by, frankly, an arrogant bully like Mr. Trump, I think that would be a terrible
shame, a terrible opportunity wasted," Harvie says. "We should be pressing ahead with turning that renewable energy into reality."

Plenty of others share Trump's dislike of turbines, says Linda Holt, spokeswoman for Scotland Against Spin, an alliance of groups campaigning against Scotland's wind energy policy.

"I think there are tens of thousands of people, if not hundreds of thousands of people," Holt says. "I think in rural communities, they are so against them now there are hundreds of local groups who think the policy is ridiculous, is uneconomic, has gone far enough."

A Long Battle Ahead

Trump claims wind turbines kill sea mammals and thousands of birds. That's another reason he doesn't want turbines anywhere near his resort.

Lang Banks of the Scottish chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, says the project was carefully scrutinized by nature preservation groups and government planning officials before permission was granted.

"They have even changed the set-up and configuration of that site to make sure it causes the minimal amount of environmental impact," Banks says.

There's another twist: Vattenfall, the biggest investor in the wind-testing center offshore from Trump's resort, recently had a slump in profits. It is not pulling out of the project, but it is significantly reducing its stake.

During a recent inspection of his resort, Trump took heart from that development. He thinks it's a sign he'll get his way in the end.

"Vattenfall's already taken a pass. Whoever buys it is going to lose a tremendous amount of money," Trump said. "So nobody's going to buy it, and I don't see it getting built, so I think we are very close to having that thing abandoned."

Anyone who's seen The Apprentice on TV knows Trump's a tough adversary. He says he's willing to fight the lawsuit against the Scottish government for as long as it takes.

This worries Banks of the World Wildlife Fund.

"It is a real shame that taxpayers' money is going to have to be used to defend a case against Mr. Trump," Banks says. "It's a real shame that one man may undermine an entire nation's ability to do the right thing in terms of cutting emissions and creating jobs from cleaner energy sources."

Banks fears this legal fight will consume a lot of time. And in the battle against climate change, time is in short supply.


June 30, 2013

Lake Decatur Dredging Project In First Steps

The city of Decatur is taking steps toward a multi-million project that would dredge parts of Lake Decatur.

The Herald and Review reports that the city is taking applications for a contractor until July 26. City Manager Ryan McCrady says the city estimates the project will cost about $60 million and take between three and five years. The goal is to dredge the lake to reclaim nearly 30 percent of its capacity.

Dredging would remove sediment that has collected on the bottom on the lake.

Decatur officials could approve a contract in the fall.

The Decatur City Council says funding will be available because there was a decision earlier this year to increase water rates.

Barack Obama
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
June 25, 2013

Obama's Climate Strategy Doesn't Require Congressional Approval

President Obama unveiled a sweeping plan Tuesday designed to deal with climate change.

For the first time, carbon emissions from power plants would be regulated. The policy, which can be implemented by the administration without congressional approval, calls for a broad range of actions, including steps to deal with extreme weather events that are already occurring.

It wasn't a coincidence that the president chose to give this speech to a young crowd — at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. And it may also have been deliberate to give the speech outside, as the temperature hit 92 degrees. The president said he is taking these measures to address climate change to protect the world that these young adults — and their children — will inherit.

"As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say, 'We need to act,' " Obama said. "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing."

And while the president made clear that his national climate action plan wouldn't come close to solving the problem, it's a step in the right direction, he says. First, and most controversially, it calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to develop standards for emissions of carbon dioxide from power plants.

There are already rules to restrict mercury and other toxic emissions from those smokestacks, Obama noted, "but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. That's not right, that's not safe, and it needs to stop."

His plan would encourage more efficient use of energy, and also lead to a transition toward cleaner sources of power. Obama noted that wind and solar energy supplies doubled during his first term in office.

"The plan I'm announcing today will help us double again our energy from wind and sun," he said. That includes opening up more federal lands so private companies can build wind farms and solar plants there.

A second major element of the plan calls for actions to help the nation cope with weather-related changes that are already taking place. That means preparing farmers to cope better with droughts, and to help local governments be better prepared for weather disasters.

"What we've learned from Hurricane Sandy and other disasters is that we've got to build smarter, more resilient infrastructure that can protect our homes and businesses and withstand more powerful storms," he said.

The final element of the plan is to step up international efforts, including a new climate treaty. Scientists project that carbon dioxide will continue to build up in the atmosphere even as the United States and Europe constrain their emissions. That's because China and India are rapidly pulling hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and they're burning a lot of fossil fuels in the process.

Obama anticipated resistance to his ideas. Many Republicans in Congress don't even acknowledge climate change as a serious issue. But all the particulars of his program can be implemented without involving Congress. Obama said he also would welcome measures from Capitol Hill if attitudes there were to shift back to the days when the concern about climate change was truly a bipartisan issue.

"Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem," Obama said. "But I don't have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society."

Obama also made passing reference to the Keystone XL Pipeline, saying the pipeline from Canada to Texas would only be approved if it does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.

The most controversial element of Obama's new policy is the new set of rules that would limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants.

The Obama plan simply directs the EPA to come up with those emission rules, but doesn't specify what they should be.

Scott Segal, a lawyer at Bracewell & Giuliani, a firm that represents power companies, says that with any policy, "the devil is in the details."

Make the rules too lenient and you don't restrict carbon emissions; make them too onerous, Segal says, and manufacturers might move overseas in search of cheaper power. And if they do that, he says, "the irony is the carbon footprint of the American economy gets worse, not better."

The president anticipated such criticism. It's the same argument industry has made about every clean-air rule, Obama noted, and it has never come to pass.

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, also sees the control of power plant emissions as the most important element of the president's plan.

"I think it's a major step forward," Beinecke says. She anticipates a fight to make those standards tough enough to make a dent in carbon pollution, but says that's familiar territory for environmental groups like hers.

"Our job is making sure [the standards are] as strong as possible," she says.

A draft of the new regulation is supposed to be ready in a year, and the White House hopes to see a final rule in 2015.


Effluent pond at the Industry Mine site.
(Scott Stuntz/IPR)
June 16, 2013

Illinois Coal Mine Violates Water Pollution Permit +600 Times

The Illinois Pollution Control Board found that the coal mine near Industry violated its water pollution permit more than 600 times.

Years ago, Kim Sedgwick and her fiancé decided to build a home not far from the mine, what she called “their dream-house” along Grindstone Creek.

Around that time they canoed up the Grindstone, and found a heron rookery. They were so afraid it would be disturbed that they did not tell anyone about it.

Then, in 2002, they became alarmed when they heard the mine was expanding toward that section of the creek. They wanted to save the birds, the forest and Grindstone’s whole “unusual ecosystem,” as they called it.

So they wrote a letter.

“The one letter was basically an ad in the paper saying that if anybody has concerns you can request a public hearing and so that’s what we did and from there it led to dozens of meetings and hearings and talking to professors and biologists and ornithologists,” Sedgwick said.

It is into Grindstone Creek that the Springfield Coal Company, and its predecessor Freeman United, poured runoff from the mine.

The mine was licensed to do that, but it had to keep pollutants in the creek under certain levels, and when it failed to do that, the Illinois Pollution Control Board cited it for the 640 violations through what is known as a "violation notice" sent to the company. 

The state is willing to establish an agreement with  companies to fix such problems, but if they are still not corrected then the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency refers the case the Attorney General’s office.

But in the Industry case, the attorney general did not initially take action. That is when the Environmental Law and Policy Center stepped in to help.

ELPC attorney Jessica Dexter filed a 60 day notice of intent to bring a citizen suit against the mine for failing to comply with its permit. That prompted the attorney general's office to launch a suit.

In a written statement, the attorney general’s office said it did receive a referral from the IEPA, but by that time it was already filing the suit because of the ELPC and other environmental groups.

Dexter said she combed through the records the mine sent to the IEPA. Dexter looked at 80 months of data and found violations in 79 of them, adding up to a total of 640 violations. Documents obtained  from the IEPA showed the state agency found a total of 47 violations at the mine during that time frame.

On at least two occasions, the IEPA sent letters to the companies saying the agency felt that all of the problems were fixed.

"There are a lot of outside actors that are passionate about the environment and we love the advocates, but at some point we just have to focus on our process and figure out what’s best under the law,” said IEPA spokesman Andrew Mason.

Kim Sedgwick said the herons still seem to be thriving and that she is pushing the Illinois Pollution Control Board to compel the Springfield Coal to donate the land the rookery sits on to a land-preservation.

A central Illinois farmer plants corn seed into the evening in Farmingdale, Ill.
(Seth Perlman/AP)
June 13, 2013

As Drought Turns To Flood, Farmers Get 'Weather Whiplash'

As Chris Webber checked the 40 acres of muddy field he wanted to plant on a recent morning, he worried about getting more rain, even as he worried about the lack of it.

"The drought is over at the moment," he says. "But in Missouri, we tend to say that in 10 days or two weeks, we can be in a drought again. That's how fast it can get back to dry."

Midwestern farmers like Webber, who has a family farm in central Missouri, are suffering from "weather whiplash," according to meteorologist Jeff Masters. In the past three years, there's been flooding, then record-setting drought, and now flooding again.

"It's a term I'm going to be using a lot in the coming years, I think, because the jet stream patterns that we're familiar with have changed in the last few years," says Masters, who co-founded Weather Underground. "They've slowed down, exposing us to longer periods of extreme weather, and they've gotten more extreme."

More research is needed, but Masters says the jet stream patterns may have changed because the polar regions are warming faster than those around the equator.

Such extremes have led to something other than classic drought, says Brian Fuchs of the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"We've seen drought jump around," he says. "Where typically we identify drought as a slow, creeping type of [phenomenon] that takes time to develop and takes time to improve, last summer was more of a 'flash drought,' where we saw this drought rapidly develop and rapidly intensify."

Fuchs credits his colleague, Mark Svoboda, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, with the term "flash drought." The flash drought of 2012 was brought on by a mild winter followed by an extremely warm spring with no precipitation, followed by a similar summer, Fuchs says.

Much like flash flooding, a flash drought can be dangerous, he says. The drought racked up $35 billion in losses, according to one analysis of natural disasters.

Will it happen again this year? Probably not, thanks to a cool, wet spring in most of the Midwest, Fuchs says, but the flash drought wasn't predicted last year, either.

"Mother Nature is always going to throw us that curve ball," he says. "As much as we think we have things cornered and we know what's going to be happening, you just don't know what will happen."

The most recent report from the U.S. Drought Monitor, released each Thursday, shows no drought conditions in most of the Midwest. But drought still affects 44 percent of the U.S., mainly in the West.

"I don't see any change from the pattern that we've had for about the last month or two: very wet over the central U.S. and Eastern U.S. and very dry over the West," Masters says. "There's just going to be a very sharp dividing line. There's going to be the haves and the have nots, right next to each other."

So what can farmers do if the drought suddenly does return to the Midwest?

Webber said many of his neighbors bought extensive irrigation systems this year. Although, he says, if the wells, ponds and lakes go dry as they did last year, the equipment will be useless.

Many can also count on financial protection offered through crop insurance — a national issue now being debated by Congress as part of the Farm Bill, as NPR's Tamara Keith reported.

Last year in Audrain County, Mo., where Webber lives, $60.7 million in crop insurance payments were made, according to USDA statistics. That's one of the highest in the country, rivaled by just a few counties in Illinois.

Meanwhile, as of last week, Webber had planted only 750 acres of what he hoped would be a total of about 1,200 acres in corn, scaled back from his usual 1,600. He's also started planting soybeans, which can go in a little later than corn, and that will fill out the rest of his 4,000-acre operation.

"We could still have a good crop," he says, "but not a record crop."

Peggy Lowe is a reporter for Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.


Chicago storm
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
June 13, 2013

So Far Not So Bad As Storms Head East, But Threat Remains

The good news is that "a massive storm system originally forecast to affect one in five Americans from Iowa to Maryland surged Thursday toward the Mid-Atlantic after largely failing to live up to its billing in ferocity through the Upper Midwest."

The bad news, The Associated Press adds, is that "while the Midwest dodged a derecho, several tornadoes, large hail and flooding did some damage." And "for Washington, Philadelphia and parts of the Mid-Atlantic the big storm risk continues and even increases a bit Thursday."

According to the National Weather Service:

"Ongoing severe weather Wednesday night will continue moving east from the Ohio Valley into the Mid-Atlantic on Thursday. The Storm Prediction Center continues a Moderate Risk tonight for the Mid-Atlantic for large hail, damaging winds and tornadoes. An area of Slight Risk surrounds it along most of the East Coast."

The D-word (derecho) seems to have been taken out of the equation, thankfully. The AP notes that some meteorologists had "warned about the possibility of a weather event called a derecho (deh-RAY'-choh), which is a storm of strong straight-line winds spanning at least 240 miles." And it reminds us that "last year, a derecho caused at least $1 billion in damage from Chicago to Washington, killing 13 people and leaving more than 4 million people without power."

But, the AP says, "by early Thursday, a derecho hadn't developed. And Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said, 'With each hour that goes by, it's less likely.' "

Of course, even a storm that's only "severe" instead of catastrophic can be serious. So it makes sense to stay alert if you're among the millions in the path of such a storm. The Weather Channel is tracking Thursday's storms here.

Illinois river flooding in peoria
(Seth Perlman/AP)
May 13, 2013

Several Counties to Get Federal Aid After Flooding

Eleven Illinois counties will get some federal money to recover from the flooding in the state that occurred in late April and early May.

In a news release, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency announced the White House has made federal funds available to supplement state and local recovery efforts. The assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs that help businesses and home owners.

The federal aid will be shared by Cook, DeKalb, DuPage, Fulton, Grundy, Kane, Kendall, Lake, LaSalle, McHenry and Will counties. And other areas might also receive assistance if the state requests it and further damage assessments reveal it is warranted.

For further information, contact http://www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call 1-800-621-FEMA(3362)

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