The Daily Grist: March 31

Riders on the Storm
Massive Asian Sandstorms Threaten Environment, Health

Massive sandstorms in Asia are on the rise and
pose a growing threat to the environment and human health, say experts at the United Nations Environment Program. The storms -- which generally originate in desert regions of northern China and Mongolia and rage southeastward across the Korean Peninsula, Japan, Hawaii, and even as far as the western seaboard of the U.S. -- have been recorded for centuries, but have increased in frequency during the last 50 years thanks to desertification brought about by spreading deforestation. The storms suck up pollutants over China's heavily industrialized northeast and settle like fog over urban areas, where the combination of high concentrations of dust particles and storm-borne pollutants poses a serious threat to respiratory systems. The problem is difficult to address because it crosses national borders; UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer cites the storms as an example of "the globalization of environmental problems."

We Just Don't Have Chemistry
Bush Administration Hampers Crackdowns on Toxic Chemicals

For decades, the U.S. was a key player in international efforts to regulate the use of highly toxic chemicals, but under the Bush administration the country is acting
mainly as a roadblock to these efforts, say critics. President Bush started off on the right foot with an announcement shortly before Earth Day 2001 that he would sign a global treaty banning 12 of the most dangerous such chemicals. "We must work to eliminate or at least to severely restrict the release of these toxins without delay," he said. But three years later, the U.S. still hasn't ratified the treaty, and in the meantime the Bushies have repeatedly sought to weaken or delay multinational efforts to tackle other toxic threats. The State Department has been lobbying heavily against a European Commission plan to have chemical companies that do business in the E.U. test the safety of their chemicals and submit the safety information to the commission. And just last week, the U.S. sought and won an exemption from the Montreal Protocol -- the international treaty governing ozone-depleting chemicals -- that will allow increased production of the highly toxic pesticide methyl bromide.

LEEDing Light
Green Building Is Booming

Once a fringe movement, born of the 1970s energy crisis, green building is going mainstream with a vengeance. Through its four-year-old
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, the U.S. Green Building Council has certified 149 million square feet of commercial and high-rise residential space as green, up from 8 million in 2000. The economic benefits are clear: According to a recent study by the California Sustainable Building Task Force, green building raises upfront construction expenses by 2 percent, but yields tenfold savings over 20 years by reducing energy and waste costs. Even those upfront expenses are decreasing as companies like Home Depot jump into the market with more eco-friendly, sustainable materials, driving prices down. Green building techniques range from the high-tech, like installing motion sensors that turn off lights when no one's in a room, to low-tech, like situating buildings to receive maximum natural light. More and more cities require new government buildings to meet LEED standards.

Stop Us If You Think That You've Heard This One Before
Clean Water Act Violations Widespread, EPA Enforcement Down

Violations of the Clean Water Act are rampant, but enforcement of the act by the U.S. EPA is down sharply in the last three years.
According to a new study by the U.S. Public Research Interest Group, more than 60 percent of all major plants and factories in the U.S. exceeded the Clean Water Act's mandated limits on discharges into waterways at least once between January 1, 2002, and June 30, 2003 -- some by as much as 600 percent. A separate report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility found that enforcement actions by the EPA have decreased sharply during the Bush administration. In 2000, the agency made 105 criminal referrals to the Justice Department; in 2002, there were 26.

For more environmental news and humor go to Grist Magazine.

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