America’s Toxic Disasters-in-Waiting
You may never have seen them, but vast open-air pools of toxic water, from hazardous mining byproducts to diluted pig waste, are a common feature at thousands of industrial and agricultural sites across the country.
One of them, a giant wastewater pond at a former phosphate mining site south of Tampa, Fla., teetered on the brink of catastrophic failure for a while this week, and that’s brought the risks of these seldom-seen pools into sharp focus.
For decades, tailings — in this case, a noxious slurry containing traces of radium along with arsenic, lead, and other elements — were placed in the pond and left to evaporate. Recently, though, heavy rainfall, one of the hallmarks of climate change, has outpaced evaporation.
To relieve pressure on the pools’ walls, workers have been releasing about 35 million gallons of wastewater a day into nearby waterways. It appears that a catastrophic breach has been averted, but there’s still likely to be serious environmental fallout from all that polluted water, which also contains nutrients that could spur harmful algae blooms, and, potentially, widespread fish kills.
Quotable: “With climate change, we’re going to see more frequent and stronger storms that are going to impact these sites,” said Daniel Estrin, general counsel at the Waterkeeper Alliance, a clean water nonprofit group.
Making public transport a better option
Brad Plumer and
One of the big goals of President Biden’s new infrastructure and climate plan is to vastly expand America’s network of buses, subways and trains, in order to give more Americans an alternative to driving and help push down global-warming emissions.
But as we detail in a recent piece, making the country more bus- and train-friendly won’t be easy. It could mean reshaping cities that have long been built up to prioritize car travel, as well as overcoming some of the biggest problems plaguing public transportation, including high construction costs and low ridership amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Still, climate experts say it’s a necessary task: Transportation is responsible for one-third of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, and while electric cars can help, they probably can’t do the job alone. — Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich
By the numbers: For the past 65 years, the United States has spent nearly $10 trillion in public funds building out roads and highways, and just a quarter of that for buses, subways and rail. Mr. Biden’s plan is one of the biggest attempts yet to try to change that disparity.
Analysis: The president is betting that tackling climate change will create jobs, not kill them.
Listen: Michael Barbaro, host of The Daily podcast, takes a look at the Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plans.
Climate change and crushing debt
There’s a growing recognition that most countries need to spend a lot of money to protect their people against climate change. That’s hard when they are overwhelmed by debt. And that’s really hard now, when their economies have tanked because of the coronavirus pandemic.
So, there’s new attention to these two colliding problems of climate and debt. Economists have circulated several proposals for what they call green debt relief, and, lately, the leaders of international financial institutions are paying attention. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and country lenders are discussing what that could look like, and they’re expected to come up with a proposal in time for the big international climate talks, run by the United Nations, in November.
Why it matters: One recent study found that, in developing countries, the share of government revenues that go into paying foreign debts nearly tripled between 2011 and 2020.
Bike commuting is better for the environment than driving a car and comes with added health benefits. But for a lot of people, riding a bike is scary.
In 2016, researchers surveyed Americans on their bike habits and found that they fit into four groups ranging from “strong and fearless” to people who would “no way, no how” get on a bike. The survey found that about 50 percent of Americans were interested in cycling, but concerned about safety risks. This could help explain why most bike commuters in the United States are men under the age of 45.
I have raced road bikes for a decade, but sharing lanes with cars and buses in Midtown Manhattan is still nerve-racking. Roads are designed for cars, not bikes, and most of the cyclists I know (myself included) have been hit by a car while riding.
Now for the good news: New research shows that building more bike lanes during the pandemic encouraged more people to ride bikes. Compared with other transit projects, like building new bus lanes or expanding a highway, bike lanes are relatively inexpensive to build. Giving people a safe space to ride can help encourage more women, children and older residents to travel by bike.
Riding bikes alone won’t slash worldwide emissions enough to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change, but it could make a dent in transit emissions. If you’re interested in more bike lanes in your community, start by contacting your local cycling advocacy group or People for Bikes. Happy riding!
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