Christmas trees, global warming and tar sands: this week in environmental news

By Sally Zimmerman, MNA Intern

Every Friday, MNA shares recent environmental news stories from around the state and country. Here’s some of what happened this week in environmental and nature news:

A Christmas tree farm in Iowa. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

A Christmas tree farm in Iowa. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For U.S. Christmas trees, a festival of blights (Mother Nature Network): Christmas trees across the U.S. are suffering from a deadly soil disease, flooding, heat waves and other severe weather caused by climate change. North Carolina, the number 2 Christmas tree state, is losing $6 million every year because of a deadly water mold called Phytophthora root rot. Plant pathologist Gary A. Chastagner calls it a “national problem.” Oregon could lost $304 million due to the outbreak.

Panel says global warming carries risk of deep changes (New York Times): A scientific panel said continued global warming may lead to the possible collapse of polar sea ice, mass extinction of plants and animals, and vast dead zones in oceans. The panel wants to create an early warning system because they believe people have done little to prepare for the changing climate. James W.C. White, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, said the change is inevitable and the hope is that the change will happen gradually so society has time to adapt.

Report: Great Lakes ill-equipped to ship tar sands safely (WKAR): The Alliance for the Great Lakes released a report that said there are gaps in Enbridge’s oil spill response and prevention methods. The group is concerned because tar sands crude oil is extremely difficult to clean up, according to Lyman Welch, the water quality program director at the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Enbridge is still trying to clean up the tar sands crude oil in the Kalamazoo watershed from three years ago.

Study identifies obstacles to aquaculture expansion (Great Lakes Echo): According to the Michigan Sea Grant, fish farms could bring in $1 billion a year with better sustainability. Michigan’s abundant lakes and fresh groundwater give it the potential for growth in the industry. Dan Vogler, the president of Michigan Aquaculture Association, said we could see a $1 billion industry by 2025. Fish farms are still relatively new, making them mismatched with Michigan’s environmental regulations.

Rising ocean acidification leads to anxiety in fish (Science Daily): Researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and MacEwan University have shown that the rising acidity levels in the ocean are causing anxiety among rockfish. This species is an important commercial species in California. Martin Tresguerres, a Scripps marine biologist, said the anxious behavior is a concern because rockfish will not be able to adapt to their dynamic environment and will spend less time foraging for food.

Tar sands threat in Great Lakes region pipelines

The Great Lakes hold 20 percent of all surface freshwater on the planet, providing drinking water for 30 million people. The Lakes are home to a fishery worth $7 billion annually and multiple species, including threatened and endangered animals. The Great Lakes are crucial to the economies of the surrounding states.

The Mackinac Bridge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Mackinac Bridge. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Recently, the National Wildlife Federation wrote an article about the old pipeline that runs under the Mackinac Bridge under Lakes Michigan and Huron. The pipeline is 60 years old and carries 22 million gallons of crude oil and natural gas fluids daily across the Straits of Mackinac. The 60-year-old pipeline is part of the Lakehead Pipeline System that carries crude oil to refineries in the Great Lakes region.

“We are dealing with a 60-year-old pipeline in one of the most sensitive areas of the world, and it carries one of the dirtiest, most toxic types of oil on the planet – tar sands-derived crude,” said Andy Buchsbaum, director of NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center in Ann Arbor.

Tar sands oil is heavier than traditional crude, which increases the likelihood of ruptures because the pipelines are designed to transport lighter conventional crudes. Tar sands oil contains more cancer-causing chemicals, emits more greenhouse gases when burned, and is harder to clean up because it can sink in water. In the forests of western Canada, it has poisoned local waters, killed wildlife, and threatened human health.

According to government officials, the pipeline (Line 5) crossing the Straits has never leaked. However, there is good reason to believe a rupture is possible in the future. The pipeline is partially owned by Enbridge, Inc., a Canadian-based oil transporter. The company has a history of careless maintenance and frequent oil spills. Recently, an Enbridge Partners pipeline ruptured and dumped 1 million gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River. The spill sickened over 300 people, killed numerous fish and birds in the area, and disrupted the river’s ecosystem. The cleanup will cost an estimated $1 billion. Enbridge Inc. pipelines have suffered nearly 800 spills in the United States since 1999.

The National Wildlife Foundation wants Enbridge to replace the 60-year-old pipeline, and they have also filed a petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to stop shipments of tar sands-derived crude through any U.S. pipelines until safety regulations are improved.

If the pipeline were to rupture, it would cause significant damage to numerous types of wildlife in Michigan. For more information, see the article that appeared in National Wildlife magazine.