EPA opts not to delay controversial Alaska mine for now

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Juliet Eilperin 3-4 minutes

A top official at the Environmental Protection Agency informed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska late Thursday that the EPA would not formally object at this point to the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive gold and copper deposit where mining could damage the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Christopher Hladick, the EPA’s regional administrator for Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, wrote to the Alaska district engineer, Col. David Hibner, that the agency still has serious concerns about the plan, including that dredging for the open-pit mine “may well contribute to the permanent loss of 2,292 acres of wetlands and … 105.4 miles of streams.”

But Hladick said the EPA would not elevate the matter to the leadership of the two agencies, which could delay necessary approvals for the project to advance. The EPA “appreciates the Corps’ recent commitment to continue this coordination into the future,” he wrote.

The move marks the latest chapter in a years-long battle that has pitted a Canadian-owned mining company against commercial fishing operators, native Alaskans and conservationists determined to protect the unique and economically critical sockeye salmon fishery in Bristol Bay.

The Corps is set to decide this summer whether to grant a federal permit to the Pebble Partnership to move forward with the project. The EPA could still veto such a permit. Last year, it sent the Corps a letter saying the project slated for southwestern Alaska “may” harm “aquatic resources of national importance.”

But the EPA had to determine by Thursday whether the mine “will” cause such harm, and it opted not to do so — an indication that the environmental agency does not appear likely to block the mine.

Pebble Partnership chief executive Tom Collier, whose company has proposed a 20-year plan to extract copper, gold and molybdenum from a deposit worth hundreds of billions of dollars, hailed the decision in a statement as “another indication of positive progress for the project.”

Rich Nolan, president and chief executive of the National Mining Association, also welcomed the EPA’s determination. “It is encouraging to see the permitting process proceeding as intended on this important project, especially after so many years of delay and inappropriate overreach,” he said in an email.

But opponents of the proposed mining operation — located in a watershed that supports a long-standing Alaska Native subsistence tradition, as well as a lucrative commercial and recreational fishery — noted that the EPA and other key agencies have raised concerns the Corps has yet to address.

“There are still many substantive issues with the project proposal that have yet to be resolved,” said the vice president of Bristol Bay Native Corp., Daniel Cheyette, whose Alasksa Native corporation opposes the mine, which would be the largest in North America.

Mark Ryan, a lawyer in private practice who served as regional counsel in EPA Region 10 between 1990 and 2014, said in a phone interview that the EPA’s letter appears contradictory.

“It’s a very odd letter,” Ryan said. “It points out the mine’s very serious environmental damage but then does not invoke EPA’s powers to elevate the issue for further discussion.”

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Chesapeake seagrasses help fight ocean acidification

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By Alejandra Borunda 12-15 minutes

PUBLISHED June 2, 2020

A crab swims above a waving seagrass bed in the Chesapeake Bay.Photograph by Jay Fleming

When scientist Wen Jun Cai and his colleagues boated across the pea-soup-like waters of the upper Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 2016, water sampling kits and pH sensors in hand, they didn’t expect to find chemical magic at play.

The scientists were taking stock of a looming problem facing the 200-mile-long bay: the acidification of its waters, a human-caused phenomenon that threatens the health of the crabs, oysters, and fish iconic to the large estuary.

They started collecting their samples in the recently restored, vibrant underwater grass beds of the Susquehanna Flats near the top of the bay, and motored their way some 60 miles downstream to the deep central channel.

When they rounded up their hundreds of data points and analyzed them, they found evidence of something surprising and encouraging: Gently waving seagrasses in the bay are performing a magnificent chemical trick. As they photosynthesize in the beating sunshine, they produce tiny granules of a carbon-based mineral that acts like a miniature antacid tablet.

And those acid-neutralizing “micro-Tums” don’t stay put. They’re swept miles down the length of the bay, eventually dissolving into the deepest waters, which have long been soured by acidification caused by human sources like agricultural runoff and untreated waste.

“It’s like the seagrasses are producing antacids that counter the indigestion of the bay,” says Jeremy Testa, a marine ecologist at the University of Maryland and an author of the paper in Nature Geoscience describing the newly discovered phenomenon.

Without this acid-neutralizing trick, the bay’s waters and shelled creatures would be even more vulnerable to the human-caused threats, he says.

Acid waters run deep

The Chesapeake gets its name from the Algonquin word for “great shellfish bay.” For thousands of years, its rich ecology depended on the ways its shellfish, grasses, fish, and other species interacted; each influenced the chemistry and biology of the others, in a delicate biological dance.

Seagrasses and other underwater plants packed the bay’s shallows, stilling and smoothing the surrounding water, leaving it clear and clean for baby fish, crabs, and shellfish to populate. Vegetation stabilized the muddy bottom during storms. And it absorbed the brunt of wind and waves, protecting shorelines against erosion.

But as more and more people populated the land around the bay, the grasses took hit after hit. A steady flow of nitrogen-rich pollutants overloaded the waters; the grasses and other underwater plants died off en masse. Between the 1950s and 1980s, vegetation coverage across the bay plummeted. Only 10 percent of sites in the upper bay had vegetation when they were surveyed in 1980.

The nutrient overload also spurred enormous, suffocating algal blooms at the water’s surface. When such blooms happen, the algae die off and sink to deeper water, where they’re eaten by bacteria that use up any oxygen in the water and breathe out carbon-rich acid waste, creating “dead zones.” Almost nothing can survive in such corrosive waters. Worse, during strong winds or at certain times of the year, currents can sweep that deep, super-acidic water into places populated by creatures like oysters and crabs, potentially eroding their ability to maintain their calcium-carbonate based shells.

“Acidified waters can be really challenging for oysters, especially in their larval stage,” says Allison Colden, a biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

In other coastal regions, particularly along the U.S. West Coast, acidification has already damaged shellfish populations, thinning their shells and messing with their offspring’s ability to mature. But scientists aren’t totally sure if those same effects have hit the East Coast. In estuaries like the Chesapeake, natural acid levels vary a lot, so shell-forming creatures have a built-in ability to deal with some amount of ups and downs. The worry, for some scientists, is that there might be a tipping point beyond which the iconic species of the bay might not be able to adjust.

“We don’t have enough data anywhere in the world to tell us exactly how those creatures are going to meet the thresholds of acidification,” says Doug Myers, a scientist also with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

They’re particularly concerned because there’s another force, besides nutrient overloading, that’s making the bay’s water more acidic: human-caused burning of fossil fuels. That leads to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the air, which gets pulled into the surface waters as ocean and air make their way toward equilibrium, where it dissolves and makes the water more acidic.

During the early 2000s, states bordering the bay collaborated to rein in polluting runoff, putting the bay a “nutrient diet—” and in response, it began to heal. Old seagrass seeds, long buried in the gooey sediments, started to sprout as the water above them cleared. By the mid-2010s, underwater vegetation covered expanded over an extra 65 square miles of the Bay, more than 300 percent more area than was covered in the 1980s.

Those grasses, like the ones in the Susquehanna Flats, can offset some of the acidity. But they’ll have to work harder and harder as carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere grow.

“This is one of the big questions for us all,” says Emily Rivest, a biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “What’s going to happen to our oysters, our blue crabs, all the things that live in our waters, as the waters get more acidic?”

Grasses to the rescue

It’s obvious just from looking at the Susquehanna Flats that they’re doing something special, Testa says. Outside the beds, the water often looks pea-green. But inside, it’s crystal clear and much warmer than the water outside the Flats. When they looked closely, they found that even the chemistry was different.

As they photosynthesize, seagrasses and other vegetation pull particular forms of carbon out of the surrounding water, making that water less acidic. They use some of that carbon to build their plant bodies, but turn some of it into tiny crystals of calcium carbonate, a chemical variant on the material that shells are made of. The plants hoard these crystals—which are essentially tiny antacids—both inside and on the surface of their leaves.

The crystals are big enough to feel with your fingers, like a fine grit coating the leaves, says Myers. When a grass dies, it disintegrates, releasing the built-up crystals from its inside as well as out.

The crystals make a big difference for the water chemistry and biology up near the Susquehanna Flats. But they also make a big difference far downstream, demonstrating with unusual clarity how interconnected the ecology of the bay can be. In total, the team calculated, the seagrass-sourced crystals reduced the acidity of the down-bay waters, some 60 miles away, by about 0.6 pH units. They reduced the acidity of the water by four times than it otherwise might have been (because the pH scale is logarithmic, small changes in the numbers on the pH scale mean big changes in terms of acidity).

“If not for the dissolution [of the tiny crystals], the pH downstream would be even lower,” says Cai (a lower value of pH signifies a more acidic environment). “So the vegetation upstream provides a more stable environment for what’s living down the bay.”

Seagrasses and other vegetation do this chemical trick elsewhere, as well, and scientists have seen similar local chemistry shifts in places where grasses have been restored, like the estuaries fringing the Loire River and Tampa Bay. But they haven’t seen this long-range effect before.

It’s not yet clear exactly what impact the seagrass-driven help has on the blue crabs or the oysters. But it does seem clear to many scientists that the whole bay can benefit from the effect as the grasses spread their little acid-neutralizing crystals far and wide—also serving as building material for the shell-growers downstream.

“The dissolving of last year’s grass beds is helping to feed this year’s oysters [to help them build their shells],” says Myers.

The new discovery makes a strong case for restoring even more of the seagrasses in the bay, says Jonathan Lefcheck, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Maryland. “You just see so clearly that there are these knock-on effects [from the seagrass restoration],” he says.

“Everything is connected. Something that was happening under our noses—this big unintended benefit, this added value—it turns out we’re solving two problems by attacking just one.”

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Information needed…help bring Justice for the murder of Captain David Dorn

Project Veritas INFILTRATES ANTIFA: “Practice things like an eye gouge…injure someone’s eyes”

Massive 3,000-year-old Maya ceremonial complex discovered in ‘plain sight’

An enormous pyramid-topped platform, unnoticed until detected with the help of lasers, is the oldest and largest structure in the Maya region.

By Tim Vernimmen PUBLISHED June 3, 2020

A 3D image of the monumental platform at Aguada Fénix (in dark brown). The structure, built some 3,000 years ago, was detected by an airborne laser tool known as LiDAR.Photograph by Takeshi Inomata

An enormous 3,000-year-old earthen platform topped with a series of structures, including a 13-foot-high pyramid, has been identified as the oldest and largest monumental construction discovered in the Maya region, according to a paper published today in the journal Nature. It’s the latest discovery to support the emerging view that some of the earliest structures built in the Maya region were significantly larger than those built more than a millennium later during the Classic Maya period (250-900 A.D.), when the empire was at its peak.

The discovery took place in Mexico’s Tabasco State at the site of Aguada Fénix, about 850 miles east of Mexico City. It is in a region known as the Maya lowlands, from which the Maya civilization began to emerge.

In 2017, researchers conducted a LiDAR survey that detected the platform and at least nine causeways leading up to it. The groundbreaking laser technology typically is used from aircraft to “see” structures beneath dense tree canopy below, but in this case it revealed a stunning discovery sitting unnoticed in plain sight in Tabasco’s semi-forested ranch lands for centuries, if not millennia.

An aerial view of Aguada Fénix without LiDAR shows how the monument “hides” in semi-forested ranch land.Photograph by Takeshi Inomata

So why was such a big monument at Aguada Fénix not identified earlier?

“It’s fairly hard to explain, but when you walk on the site, you don’t quite realize the enormity of the structure,” says archaeologist Takeshi Inomata of the University of Arizona, the lead author of the paper. “It’s over 30 feet high, but the horizontal dimensions are so large that you don’t realize the height.”

“Rituals we can only imagine”

The initial construction of the platform is believed to have began around 1,000 B.C. based on radiocarbon dating of charcoal inside the complex.

But the absence of any known earlier buildings at Aguada Fénix suggests that at least up until that period, the people living in the region—likely the precursors of the Classic Maya—moved between temporary camps to hunt and gather food. That has researchers speculating over how and why they suddenly decided to build such a massive, permanent structure.

Inomata estimates that the total volume of the platform and the buildings on top is at least 130 million cubic feet, meaning it is bigger even than the largest Egyptian pyramid. He also calculated that it would have taken 5,000 people more than six years of full-time work to build.

“We think this was a ceremonial center,” Inomata says. “[It’s] a place of gathering, possibly involving processions and other rituals we can only imagine.”

No residential buildings have been found on or around the structure, so it is unclear how many people may have lived nearby. But the large size of the platform leads Inomata to think that the builders of Aguada Fénix gradually were leaving their hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind, likely aided by the cultivation of corn—evidence of which also has been found at the site.

“The sheer size is astonishing,” says Jon Lohse, an archaeologist with Terracon Consultants Inc.who studies the early history of the area and was not involved in the report. He does not think, however, that the structure itself is evidence of a settled lifestyle. “Monumental constructions by pre-sedentary people are not uncommon globally.”

What it does unmistakably show, Lohse adds, is an advanced ability for people to collaborate, probably in the strongly egalitarian fashion that he believes was typical of early societies in the Maya region. Inomata agrees, and thinks the platform was built by a community without a strong social hierarchy.

As potential evidence, Inomata points to the even older ceremonial site of San Lorenzo, 240 miles to the west in a region that was settled at the time by the Olmec people. Built at least 400 years earlier than Aguada Fénix, San Lorenzo features an artificial terraced hill that may have had a similar function. But it also has colossal human statues that may indicate that some people held higher status in society than others.

It may seem likely that the people who built Aguada Fénix were inspired by San Lorenzo, but archaeologist Ann Cyphers of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, who has worked at San Lorenzo, considers the sites “quite distinct,” adding that the pottery found there is also very different from that found at Aguada Fénix.

A checkerboard of colored soil

So what might have been the purpose for undertaking such a massive communal building project? Study coauthor Verónica Vázquez López of the University of Calgary believes that it might have been a statement of intent: a formal collaboration designed to bring different groups of people together over the course of several generations.

Some features at Aguada Fénix could suggest this collaboration, such as a cache of precious jade axes that may have symbolized the end of the collaborative construction project. Archaeologists also have noted that some of the layers of soil used to build the platform were laid down in a checkerboard pattern of different soil colors, which may have symbolized the contribution of different groups.

“Even today, people who live in different quarters of some Mexican towns each clean their part of the central church plaza,” Vázquez López observes.

By 750 B.C., the monumental structure at Aguada Fénix was abandoned, and by the Classic Maya period more than 1,000 years later, people in the region were building higher pyramids that became accessible only to the elite atop much smaller platforms with less space for broader communities to gather.

“In the early period, people got very excited,” Inomata says. “Later on, they became a bit less enthusiastic.”

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