Scientists On A Quest For Knowledge About Coal Dust Risks

By Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

WASHOUGAL, Wash. — Coal had been transported around the country by rail for decades before the recent push to bring it by train to ports in the Northwest.

And yet, scientists don’t really know how much coal dust could escape from rail cars, how far it might travel, and what coal-borne mercury and other contaminants might do to aquatic life.

With the permitting process moving forward for two large coal terminals in Washington, a team of scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey is trying to find out how the chemicals in coal might interact with the environment.

“We really don’t know what the effects are and whether it is an issue,” says Bob Black, a scientist with the USGS.

Black is the lead scientist on the new study, which has him squelching through the muck at the Steigerwald Wildlife Refuge near Washougal, Washington. The refuge is sandwiched between the Columbia River to the south, and train tracks to the north.

Black and his team are gathering data for a first-of-its kind scientific study of coal and its potential impacts on wetland ecosystems. As he sloshes through the shallow marsh’s waters to plant minnow traps, Black says he knows that he’s also wading into a controversial issue.

“There are communities that are economically interested in this and then there are suggested environmental impacts and ultimately I can have my own personal views but I can’t let those come into play and essentially that’s our role. We can’t let that be part of our science,” Black says.

The team fans out across the marsh as a BNSF Railway train screeches along tracks less than a quarter-mile away. This train is not hauling coal. Right now, roughly one coal train per day travels along the Columbia River before turning north and following the shoreline of Puget Sound to service Canadian coal terminals. But if terminals are built in Longview and near Bellingham, that number could jump to more than 20 coal trains per day.

Some coal does escape from trains, as BNSF has testified publicly in the past. Environmental groups have sued BNSF Railway for violating the Clean Water Act by allowing coal and coal dust to escape from trains and get into waterways along tracks in the Northwest. A judge ruled this month in favor of local groups in Seward, Alaska after they sued a nearby coal terminal for similar Clean Water Act violations. However, supporters of coal exports have called the coal escapement issue a red herring, used by anti-coal environmental groups to spark public alarm.

Looking For Coal Clues

The USGS is gathering samples of muck, fish and insects from two sites in this wildlife refuge, one close to the tracks, the other farther away. The goal is to find out whether more mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are showing up near the train tracks and how those contaminants are behaving in the environment.


Collin Eagles-Smith hunts for dragonfly larvae at Stiegerwald
Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Ashley Ahearn


Collin Eagles-Smith, an ecologist with USGS, stands thigh-deep in the marsh, net in hand. He’s sifting through handfuls of black muck, looking for dragonfly larvae. When he finds one, he opens his palm to display the specimen before putting it in a little plastic baggy to take back to the lab for analysis. Eagles-Smith says dragonflies can serve as vectors to transmit mercury contamination out of the aquatic environment and into land-based ecosystems because they feed on all kinds of plankton and other tiny organisms. When they grow up and fly out of the muck they are in turn eaten by birds, frogs, fish and other animals, potentially transferring mercury contamination up the food chain.

“So what we’re looking at is essentially, is there mercury in this dragonfly and then we’re going to be using a fairly sophisticated approach to fingerprint the isotope ratios of the mercury to see if we can say whether the mercury in this dragonfly was from coal dust,” he explains.

By comparing dragonfly larvae, sediment and fish samples from this site with those from another site farther from the tracks, the team hopes to see how far contamination from coal trains could travel. But Eagles-Smith says there are still a lot of questions about how active the mercury in coal might be if it gets into the environment. Mercury is believed to be inert and less harmful to the environment until it goes through a complex biological process known as mercury methylation.

“I like to think of it as activating the mercury, and it makes it more biologically available, more toxic. Do you smell that rotten egg smell?” Eagles-Smith asks from his mucky perch. “That is the smell of tiny organisms breaking down organic material. Those same organisms are the ones that take the mercury, the less toxic form of mercury, and convert it into the methyl mercury.”

Once it’s methylated, mercury has been shown to be a potent neurotoxin, Eagles-Smith explains. “It can influence stress hormones, thyroid hormones, and sex hormones so it can impact wildlife reproduction, fish behavior, their survival, their ability to hunt for prey or their ability to avoid predation.”

The unique rotten-egg decaying process that takes place in low-oxygen marshy environments like this means that wetlands could be hotspots for transforming inert mercury from coal into a more toxic and biologically-available form that can then make its way up the food chain, the scientists worry.

Emerging technology is helping scientists zoom in on more specific sources of mercury pollution in the environment. Mercury can travel in air pollution for thousands of miles. But scientists want to know if coal trains that pass through wetlands like this might serve as a sort of direct deposit of mercury pollution.

The USGS expects to have preliminary results within the next 6 months, though the researchers caution that this is a small sample size and more study is needed. The results will be shared with the state and federal agencies that are studying the environmental impacts of the two proposed coal terminals in the Northwest.

Scientists Discuss Long-Awaited Scientific Volume On ‘Kennewick Man’ Skeleton

By: Anna King, NW News Network


A skeleton that’s about 9,000 years old is giving up a few of his secrets today. Monday, scientists who have a new book about the ancient remains found near Kennewick 18 years ago spoke to the press.

A new book about Kennewick Man is due to hit bookstands in mid-September.
Credit Texas A&M University Press


The volume titled, “Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton,” is due to hit bookstands in mid-September.

Kennewick Man was found resting in the shallow water of the Columbia River 18 years ago. His early story was that of some strife. A rock-point is buried in the bone of his hip.

The Northwest tribes that want to rebury the ancient remains, and the scientists that want to study him fought for years in court. This new book reveals the studies that were ultimately allowed by federal court.

The book explains that Kennewick Man was likely a coastal sea hunter from the far north. And he hadn’t been in Washington’s desert too long.

“He lived most of his life in coastal locations, north of the state of Washington,” said Doug Owsley, the book’s co-editor. “And in keeping with these findings you know if you look at Kennewick Man’s dental wear its reminiscent of working hides, and similar to really wear that we see in early Eskimo skeletons.”

Owsley says there’s still one question he’s dying to answer: What kind of rock is the stone point made from that’s buried in K-man’s hip? That would give clues to his routes across the North American landscape.

Buzzworthy Breeding To Bring Back Bumble Bees

Preparing to inseminate a queen bee.Megan Asche
Preparing to inseminate a queen bee.
Megan Asche


By: Tom Banse, NW News Network


Some scientists are going to great lengths to help the agreeable Western bumble bee make a comeback.

You might not have noticed, but this important pollinator of both flowers and greenhouse crops has nearly disappeared from the landscape. An introduced fungal disease is suspected of decimating populations of the fat and furry Western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis).

Researchers with the U.S. Agriculture Department have identified some surviving colonies that show disease tolerance. Now a federal bee lab in Utah is collaborating with experts at Washington State University to reestablish the native pollinator. USDA entomologist Jamie Strange is leading a captive breeding project to improve stock fitness. That even includes artificial insemination of the small insects.

“We have this instrumental insemination that we’re working on developing at this point,” explained Strange. “It is still in its infancy, but we hope that we can actually remove sperm from the males and then inject it into the females like they do with certain honey bee breeding programs.”

Strange says commercial pollination companies that truck bee colonies from farm to farm are eager for him to succeed.  “As honey bees become more limited and more expensive, they’re looking for alternatives. We’re here to help them,” said Strange. “Growers are interested in using bumble bees to supplement pollination in berry crops, orchards and other places.”

“When you have both honey bees and wild bees present, you have improved yields from both working together,” observes collaborating entomologist Steve Sheppard at WSU. “There are certain crops where bumble bees are much better” pollinators, he said during a telephone interview.

Sheppard noted that British Columbia’s large industry of hot house tomato growers relies on non-native bumble bees for pollination. He said honey bees typically fly to the ceiling if released in a glass house.

In any event, sooner or later either species tends to get out. “If Jamie can develop a regionally more appropriate species… there could be a lot of interest to use it in Western states,” said Sheppard. Non-native imports “could displace or harm native bumble bees. That’s the logic to not take a species that does not occur in West and put in glass houses.”

Some states, including Oregon, do not even allow the import of non-native bumble bees to minimize the risk of unleashing disease or unwanted competition with native species.

Bumble bees and honey bees can be fairly easily distinguished. Bumble bees are fat and furry. The smaller and slimmer honey bee more closely resembles a wasp. Honey bees live in large hives, while bumble bees tend to cluster in smaller nests which do not produce surplus honey.

New Report: Oso Landslide Rooted In Long History Of Slides

A photo taken immediately after the March 22 slide that killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes in Oso, Washington. A new scientific reports says a history of landslides and a huge volume of precipitation were big contributors to the slide. | credit: Washington Department of Transportation
A photo taken immediately after the March 22 slide that killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes in Oso, Washington. A new scientific reports says a history of landslides and a huge volume of precipitation were big contributors to the slide. | credit: Washington Department of Transportation


By: Ashley Ahearn, KUOW

SEATTLE — Scientists have concluded that rain, groundwater seepage and a long history of big landslides likely contributed to the massive landslide of March 22 that killed 43 people and destroyed dozens of homes near Oso, Washington.

Those findings came out Tuesday, the result of a scientific team’s rapid-fire assessment of geology and localized factors.

Joe Wartman, a University of Washington associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and a co-lead author of the study, said rainfall very likely played a key role in the slide.

“It mobilized as the water entered the landslide mass. It raised the water pressure in that mass,” Wartman said, “And as a result the landslide mass lost its strength and it became a fluidized mass of earth and material.”

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 7.6 million cubic meters of earth slid down across the Stillaguamish River, spreading out for more than a kilometer.

The researchers also looked further back in history, reviewing evidence from a number of large landslides in the Stillaguamish Valley around Oso during the previous 6,000 years. The team estimated that, based on a review of carbon dating and maps of 15 similar historic landslides nearby, slides such as the March event have happened in the same area as often as every 400 to 1,500 years historically.

“The real different thing about that particular spot was how much it had failed in the very recent past,” said Dave Montgomery, a geomorphologist with the University of Washington and co-author of the report. “It had been chewed on a lot by prior failures.”

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 3.07.16 PM
A 2003 lidar map of ground conditions where the Oso slide occurred.


The report authors said the landslide occurred in two phases. The first slope failure was a repeat of previous slides that had been documented as far back as the 1950s at that site. The most recent one to contribute to the March slide took place in 2006.

The second phase of the March 22 event tapped into a much deeper landslide history at the site.

“You have the really big ones from thousands of years ago,” Montgomery said, “But why did the piece of the slope fail that did? It was different from some other areas up and down the valley due to the history of failure in recent decades, which exacerbated the stability problem.”

The report raised a question that was brought up in the immediate aftermath of the slide: what role did logging play? But the authors said that they were “not in a position to answer the question of what degree forest practices contributed to this slide.” Any conclusions would require further modeling and were beyond the scope of this four-day reconnaissance effort, they said.

Logging can contribute to weakened root strength, allowing hillsides to slough off in heavy rain. But Montgomery said the team was pretty comfortable ruling out that idea because the slide was too big and roots would have been too thin to make a difference in preventing the massive amount of earth from loosening.

Another potential connection to logging is from the removal of trees that would otherwise have absorbed some of the precipitation, preventing it from seeping deep into the soil and loosening it. Groundwater seems to have been a key contributor to the destabilization of the slope near Oso, the report authors concluded. Montgomery said the team saw seeps of water coming into the exposed face, or scarp, of the landslide from neighboring creek basins to the east.

“We located five or six groundwater seeps where water is coming out of the wall of the slide and forming a little stream that is running across the scar,” Montgomery said. That stream could have destabilized the earth far below the surface of the slide, contributing to its size and extensive runout zone.

The authors concluded that methods to identify and predict potential landslide runout zones need to be revisited and re-evaluated. The use of LIDAR imagery could also provide a great deal of assistance in gathering historic evidence that landslides of this magnitude have run across the valley before, said Jeff Keaton, a principal engineering geologist with AMEC Americas, who contributed to the report.

“That would be a really helpful step in understanding how widespread this kind of process actually is,” he said.

But there’s more digging to be done, literally, said Joe Wartman.

“The hole we have at this point is understanding what was going on underneath the ground surface,” Wartman said. “I think the next big thing is drilling holes into that landslide and the nearby vicinity to get an understanding of what is underneath that large landslide.”

The authors called for further modeling in order to better understand to what degree logging or the Stillaguamish River, which was eating away at the toe of the slope, may have contributed to the catastrophic slide.

The USGS and others will be conducting field research in the coming months. You can read the full report here.

Watching Fox News makes you distrust climate scientists

Media Matters/Fox News

By Chris Mooney, Grist

In the past several years, a number of polls have documented the huge gap between liberals and conservatives when it comes to their acceptance of the science of climate change. Naturally, then, researchers have increasingly turned their attention to trying to explain this dramatic divide over what is factually true. And it wasn’t long before they homed in on the role of conservative media in particular — thus, a number of studies (e.g., here [PDF]) show that watching Fox News increases your risk of holding incorrect beliefs about the science of climate change.

Now, a new paper [PDF] just out in the journal Public Understanding of Science takes this line of inquiry further, beginning to unpack precisely how conservative media work to undermine the public’s acceptance of science. The paper shows that a distrust of climate scientists is a significant factor underlying the modern denial of global warming, and moreover, that watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh both increase one’s level of distrust of these scientific experts. Or as the paper puts it, “[C]onservative media use decreases trust in scientists which, in turn, decreases certainty that global warming is happening.”

The study, conducted by Jay Hmielowski of the University of Arizona and colleagues at several other universities, relied on a large polling sample of Americans in two phases: 2,497 individuals were interviewed in 2008, and then a smaller sample of 1,036 were reinterviewed in 2011. The respondents were asked about what kind of media they consumed — conservative choices included Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh Show; “non-conservative” media outlets included CNN, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and network news — as well as about how much they trusted or distrusted climate scientists. They were also asked about their belief that global warming is happening. (The study controlled for variables like political ideology, religiosity, and other demographic factors.)

The results showed that conservative media consumption led to less trust in climate scientists, even as consuming nonconservative media had the opposite effect (leading to an increased trust in climate scientists). Between people who said they don’t consume any conservative media and people who said they consume a large amount, “we see a 13 percent difference in the amount of trust in scientists,” according to study coauthor Lauren Feldman of American University.

The authors then proposed that distrust of scientists is a key link in the chain between watching Fox (or listening to Rush) and coming to doubt climate science. The idea is that because most people don’t know a great deal about the science of global warming, they rely on “heuristics” — or mental shortcuts — to make up their minds about what to believe. “Trust” (or the lack thereof) is a classic shortcut, allowing one to quickly determine who’s right and who’s wrong in a seemingly complex and data-laden debate. Or as the paper put it: “The public’s low level of knowledge and the media’s conflicting, often value-laden messages about global warming lead people to use heuristics to make sense of this complex issue.”

Evidence of Fox and Rush Limbaugh raising doubts about climate scientists — in a way that could generate distrust — isn’t hard to come by. Limbaugh includes scientists in his “four corners of deceit … government, academia, science, and the media.” As for Fox, there are myriad examples of coverage that could be said to cast doubt on climate science. For instance, there’s the 2009 memo, exposed by Media Matters, in which Fox Washington editor Bill Sammon instructed staff to cast doubt on climate research in their coverage.

It seems unlikely, however, that conservative media alone can account for the distrust of science on the right. In a major 2012 study [PDF], the sociologist Gordon Gauchat showed that conservatives have lost trust in scientists across the board over a period of many decades, dating all the way back to 1974. Fox News only launched in 1996, however; Rush Limbaugh started national broadcasts in 1988.

Clearly, then, other factors must be involved in sowing distrust as well — including a long history of left-right policy fights in which scientists seemed to be on the “liberal” side, with a canonical example being the battle over Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program in the 1980s.

As a result of these conflicts, politically attuned conservatives today are well aware that scientists and academics rarely seem to come out on their side. Perhaps Fox News and the Rush Limbaugh Show are, in the end, simply the media reflection of that long-standing conservative perception.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Chris Mooney is host of the Point of Inquiry podcast and the author of four books, including The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality.