Editors' picks: Our top topics of 2013
China's smog worsens, fueling anger, cleanup plans
Editor in Chief
Environmental Health News
Do not venture outside. If you do, wear a mask.
Throughout much of the year, those were common warnings in China’s smoggiest cities. In 2013, dozens of cities across China began revealing data showing just how dangerous their air had become. Just last month, fine particulates – considered the most dangerous air pollutant – reached record levels from Beijing to Shanghai. Pollution exceeded 400 on the universal Air Quality Index, which signals “hazardous,” the worst possible ranking.
2013 also was the year that people demanded action, and began to look beyond their filthy skies, seeking a new, cleaner horizon. In September, the Environmental Protection Ministry unveiled its 5-year action plan for reducing air pollution by at least 10 percent.The potential cost? $300 billion (U.S.) for just the years 2013 through 2017.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world watches with pessimism; don’t hold your breath, critics say.
Is China’s pollution so severe, so widespread, that it is insurmountable?
The answer rises, clear and strong, from half a world away in California.
Smog sieges similar to China’s were commonplace in Los Angeles a half-century ago. Ozone, the main ingredient of smog, was measured at levels in the 1950s that would have hit nearly 500 on today’s Air Quality Index – comparable to last month’s fine particle levels around Beijing and Shanghai. Gray smoke used to be so thick on some summer days in downtown Los Angeles that people thought it was an eclipse of the sun or a World War II gas attack. Anyone who ventured outside was greeted with stinging eyes, sore throats and chest pain. No one has even tried to estimate how many Southern Californians – asthmatics, heart patients, the elderly – died during those dangerous decades from diseases exacerbated by smog and soot.
Today, after seven decades of regulating factories, vehicles and consumer products, the Los Angeles region still suffers many days when ozone or particulates reach unhealthful levels. But the intensity and extent of the exceedances have shrunk, despite a doubling of the region’s population since the 1950s. In 2013, Southern California's highest particulate levels were about one-tenth of the levels set in Shanghai last month.
Perhaps government officials in China would benefit from these words of wisdom from Southern California’s air-quality agency: “A look at the past fifty-some years of air pollution control shows how far we've come, and yet how far we still have to go to achieve clean air. It demonstrates that victory over smog can be achieved and that all residents of the Los Angeles Basin can breathe air that meets public health standards,” wrote the South Coast Air Quality Management District in a 1997 essay on the 50th anniversary of the smog war.
As in Southern California, virtually no source of air pollution can remain untouched in China. Every business, every consumer, must play a role. China plans to launch its costly effort by tackling black smoke pouring out of coal-fired plants, factories and vehicles. But, as Los Angeles knows all too well, it can’t end there if the goal is healthful air.
Seventy-four China cities now issue air-quality warnings, with several hundred more expected to start monitoring pollution over the next two years. Armed with this information, and buoyed by California’s success, China’s citizens can now join Californians in waging their decades-long war on smog.
By Brian Bienkowski
Staff Writer/Senior Editor
Environmental Health News
One of the world’s largest crude oil reserves shaped North America’s energy debate in 2013, stoking concern about health impacts, tribal rights and climate-changing emissions.
Oilsands in Alberta, Canada, spurred employment and prosperity in First Nations communities, but at the expense of their culture, traditions and possibly health. The government is investigating inflated cancer rates among two tribes. In nearby Fort Saskatchewan, studies last year confirmed people have elevated blood cancer rates and the air is tainted with cancer-causing pollutants from refining of oilsands crude, an extremely dense and viscous form of petroleum.
From coast-to-coast for much of the year, First Nations communities protested oilsands and related pipeline projects, citing reports of fish deformities, elevated birds’ mercury levels and lost biodiversity.
In addition, after six years of decline, last year’s estimates suggested that greenhouse gas emissions are again rising in Canada, with all signs pointing toward the booming oilsands region.
Oilsands made headlines in the United States, too. President Obama’s mid-summer speech on tackling climate change was vague on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Alberta crude south. Obama vowed during that speech that he would approve the pipe "only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." His administration’s continued waffling throughout 2013 prompted jabs from both environmentalists and pipeline supporters, including Canada’s prime minister.
The saga will bleed into 2014 and beyond. The southern leg of the pipeline will begin shipping crude oil to the U.S. Gulf Coast later this month. The main segment – from Alberta to Nebraska – remains under review by the U.S. State Department. Meanwhile, the oil industry is increasingly turning to shipping by rail, no less contentious after July's derailment and explosion of a train in Quebec carrying Bakken crude from North Dakota.
And rock n’ roll? There’s that too, as Canadian crooner Neil Young, who has scheduled concerts this year to support the oilsands protests, compared parts of Alberta to Hiroshima.
Our 2013 coverage of key developments: Mercury increasing in birds downstream of Canada's oil sands.
And more from our archives.
King coal's reign ending in U.S.
Environmental Health News
Coal has been losing its grip on the United States for nearly a decade, but in 2013 a sharp shift in energy economics coupled with new regulations have further diminished coal’s clout.
In 2012, coal provided 37 percent of the nation’s electricity, down from 51 percent in 2003 and 67 percent in the mid-1950s. New England leads the way in phasing out coal. Plans were announced in October for the shutdown of the region’s largest remaining coal plant.
Utilities around the country are trying to figure out if it makes sense to keep burning coal when natural gas is so cheap. Gas prices have been steadily dropping, due largely to increased supplies obtained through fracking.
Even in coal country, the outlook for coal is bleak. The nation’s largest public utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority, announced it would close eight coal plants in Alabama and Kentucky over the next few years.
The cost of burning coal also is rising as U.S. plants prepare to meet new 2015 pollution standards for mercury and other toxic air emissions. Already, 51 plants in 31 states have requested one-year extensions for costly emission-control upgrades.
New coal plants also may face more hurdles if the Obama administration presses ahead with the nation’s first carbon limits on power companies. The Environmental Protection Agency announced in September that it would propose rules requiring new coal plants to nearly match the carbon footprint of gas-fired burners, which no coal plant can do now.
But the coal industry isn’t giving up just yet. Last month, the Supreme Court began reviewing a new federal rule for air pollution that drifts across state lines, while an appeals court is hearing two challenges to the mercury and air toxics standards. Both rulings will have important implications for coal power generation and public health in 2014 and beyond.
Our 2013 coverage of key developments: Coal's slipping grip: New England, virtually coal-free, leads the way, Death of a Georgia coal plant.
And more from our archives.
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