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The Daily Grist: March 11

Same #$%@, Different Use
Scientists Turn Excrement Into Electricity -- Really

Scientists in the U.S.
have developed a method to convert raw human waste -- or as the scientists call it, "number two" -- into electricity, putting a brown spin on the green-power movement. Oops, did we say "movement"? Okay, okay, we'll try to be serious: The process works by feeding the ... material ... into a microbial fuel cell (MFC) that uses bacteria to break it down -- much as the human body does -- but diverts the resulting electrons, which would normally power respiratory reactions in the bacteria, into a power generator. Even better, harmful organic matter is broken down in the process, so the MFC can serve as a kind of sewage treatment plant. The technology promises extraordinary benefits, particularly to developing nations that desperately need both sewage treatment and inexpensive energy. But, says microbiologist Derek Lovley, large-scale use is a ways off: "One way to think of this technology is that it is currently at the state of development that solar power was 20 to 30 years ago -- the principle has been shown, but there is a lot of work to do before this is widely used."

Dust Busted
Manhattanites Sue EPA Over Mishandling of Enviro Hazards from Sept. 11

The U.S. EPA mishandled the environmental hazards caused by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and put thousands of New Yorkers at risk,
charges a class action lawsuit filed by 12 lower Manhattan workers and residents yesterday in U.S. District Court. The suit claims the EPA submitted to political pressure to return the area to "normalcy," making misleading statements about air quality and allowing residents to return home before their safety was assured. It also claims that the EPA delegated the task of cleaning indoor spaces to the city and then failed to adequately monitor its progress, which led to residents being exposed to hazardous dust, asbestos, and other carcinogens. The plaintiffs want the court to force the EPA to establish a fund that would pay for long-term health monitoring and the cleaning of hundreds of buildings in the area. Former EPA head Christie Whitman comes in for particular opprobrium: The suit says she displayed "a shockingly deliberate indifference to human health."

Bark A'Lounging
Rising Carbon Dioxide Levels Messing With Amazon Ecology

Researchers have discovered that areas of the Amazon rainforest previously considered pristine are in fact undergoing drastic changes, likely due to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The discovery was a bit of an accident -- researchers tracked changes in plots of isolated rainforest to use them as "controls" against which to measure other areas directly affected by humans. "But suddenly the controls weren't acting like controls," said William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, whose findings were published in the latest issue of the journal Nature. Tall, fast-growing trees were accelerating their growth, while denser, shorter, slower-growing trees beneath the forest canopy were declining. Laurence speculates that the changes are fueled by atmospheric CO2. The results could be dire: As forest composition changes, dramatic changes in biodiversity could follow. Worse yet, the trees that are flourishing absorb less CO2, which means the forests' ability to serve as a "carbon sink," absorbing excess CO2, could be curtailed. Laurence urges a full-scale study of the problem.

Water Relief!
New Report Delivers Good News on Water Usage

Americans used 408 billion gallons of water a day in 2000, a number virtually unchanged since 1985 and lower (down 25 percent per capita) than in 1975,
says a report released yesterday by the U.S. Geological Survey. "Conservation," the report says, "is working." Though the public tends to be preoccupied with private water usage, homes and businesses account for only 11 percent of the total. Electricity generation accounts for 48 percent and irrigation 34 percent -- technological advances in those areas have allowed total water use to stay steady despite increases in population and electricity use. Agricultural acreage has more than doubled since 1950, but the percentage of the nation's water use it accounts for remained stable through 2000. Enviros hailed the report, hoping it would result in lower demand for large, power-intensive water projects, but encouraged the public not to take the bricks out of their toilets just yet.

For more environmental news and humor go to Grist Magazine.

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