DEVASTATION IN DIXIE 

radar cloud coverA deadly tornado outbreak swept through the U.S. South this weekend, killing at least 45 people from Oklahoma to Virginia. The storm system plowed eastward from the southern Plains to the Mid-Atlantic, spawning 23 tornadoes Thursday, 120 Friday and another 120 Saturday, according to preliminary National Weather Service reports. It saved some of its worst for last, with a barrage of twisters on Saturday night taking 22 lives in North Carolina and six more in Virginia. Both states have declared a state of emergency.

"This is one that will be seared in a lot of people's memories," an NWS meteorologist tells the Raleigh News & Observer. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received reports of at least 243 tornadoes in 13 states over the weekend, and even though some of those were likely double-counted, it's still an "astounding" number, Weather Channel meteorologist Jonathan Erdman tells USA Today. The outbreak rivals one in February 2008 that killed 57 people and spawned tornadoes across the Southeast — including the infamous downtown Atlanta twister. This weekend's storms were so severe in some areas that the scope of devastation was still unclear Sunday evening, says North Carolina Emergency Management spokeswoman Julia Jarema. "We still don't have a full grasp of what the damage is," she tells USA Today. "There is a lot of damage, and there are a lot of people who are hurting physically and emotionally right now."

The storm also caused a brief scare when a tornado touched down Saturday night at the switchyard of a nuclear power plant in Surry, Va., cutting off electricity and causing two reactors to shut down. It didn't hit the reactors directly, and no radioactive material was released, according to Dominion Virginia Power, although the company did notify the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission of the incident. "They shut down exactly as they are designed to do," says NRC spokesman Joey Ledford. "There is no danger." The weekend's powerful storms were triggered by cold air from the Plains colliding with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, USA Today reports, a scenario that may play out again in coming days. More thunderstorms, tornadoes, high winds and hail are forecast from Kansas to Kentucky Tuesday, later spreading out to the Great Lakes and Deep South by Wednesday.

(Sources: National Weather Service, Raleigh News & Observer, USA Today)

SPILL ILLNESS 

oil spillWednesday will mark the one-year anniversary of the explosion behind the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and as the Associated Press reports today, many scientists are cautiously optimistic the Gulf is already recovering. The AP surveyed more than three dozen scientists about the Gulf's overall health, asking them to grade it on a scale of 1 to 100. Their average score was 68, just slightly below the 71 the same experts said it rated before the spill, and three points up from the 65 they gave it back in October. 

But the take-home message is still that no one really knows what the spill's long-term effects will be. Several scientific voyages into the Gulf have revealed troubling evidence of ecological damage, including oily "graveyards" on the sea floor and dead deep-sea corals near the wellhead. Countless seabirds were killed, and unusually large numbers of dolphins and sea turtles have been washing ashore on the Gulf Coast for months. And as Agence France-Presse reports, the spill's toll on human health may also be more dire than previously realized. A local doctor in Louisiana tells the AFP he has seen as many as 60 patients in recent weeks who are suffering from rapid heartbeat, vomiting, dizziness, ear infections, swollen throat, poor vision and memory loss — many of whom spent weeks or months working on the front lines to clean up the spill. On top of the known toxic effects of oil, the patients often blame chemical dispersants BP used to break up oil slicks into more manageable bits. "I was exposed to those chemicals, which I questioned, and they told me it was just as safe as Dawn dishwashing liquid and there was nothing for me to worry about," says Louisiana resident Jamie Simon, who worked on a cleanup barge for six months during the spill.

While there's no definitive evidence linking the dispersants to health problems in people, many of the temporary workers employed by BP last summer are convinced exposure to the chemicals and/or the oil are to blame for their ailments. "I have just been sick for a long time. I just got sick and I couldn't get better," says one worker who was paid $1,500 per day to lay oil-collecting boom on the water. Louisiana has reported 415 cases of health problems related to the spill, and although BP tells the AFP that illness and injury rates among its Gulf workers were normal, local chemist Wilma Subra says something is definitely amiss. "As the event progresses we are seeing more and more people who are desperately ill," she says.

(Sources: Associated Press, Agence France-Presse)

FRACK ATTACK 

frackingMillions of gallons of carcinogens and other potentially dangerous chemicals were injected into U.S. natural gas wells between 2005 and 2009, according to a new investigation by House Democrats. The report says the chemicals were used in a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, in which pressurized water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep underground to loosen rock formations, thereby releasing more gas to the surface. The practice has already become a lightning rod for controversy, since critics say it may contaminate groundwater with hazardous materials, and the revelation of such a widespread release of toxins has already added even more fuel to the fire. 

"Questions about the safety of hydraulic fracturing persist, which are compounded by the secrecy surrounding the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids," says the report, which was written by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo. Released late Saturday, the report also accuses gas companies of sometimes "injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify." Many of the chemicals used in fracking operations are meant to reduce friction deep in the well, helping the water and sand penetrate deeper into the earth. Drilling companies have long protected the chemicals' identities as trade secrets, a veil that has begun to slowly erode recently in the face of increased pressure from lawmakers and regulators. The new report from House Democrats is aimed at ratcheting up that pressure even further, revealing that 14 of the country's most active gas-drilling companies used 866 million gallons of fracking fluids, not including water, during the four-year span. More than 650 of those chemicals are known or possible human carcinogens regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants, the New York Times reports.

The oil and gas industry regularly dismisses health concerns related to fracking, such as when it tried to have the anti-fracking documentary "Gasland" disqualified from the Academy Awards earlier this year. And as an attorney who represents several gas-drilling companies tells the Times, this new report is part of a broader campaign to tarnish fracking's good name. "This report uses the same sleight of hand deployed in the last report on diesel use — it compiles overall product volumes, not the volumes of the hazardous chemicals contained within those products," he says. "This generates big numbers but provides no context for the use of these chemicals over the many thousands of frac jobs that were conducted within the timeframe of the report."

(Sources: New York Times, AP)

FUKUSHIMA FALLOUT 

Remote-controlled robots navigating through Japan's crisis-stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have detected high levels of radiation inside the reactor buildings, the NHK news agency reports, offering some of the first information about conditions inside the structures. Health concerns have prevented human workers from entering the buildings ever since a tsunami swamped them on March 11, and readings from the U.S.-made robots now seem to confirm those precautions. Surveying the first floor of reactor No. 1 for about 50 minutes, the robots measured radiation levels of 49 millisieverts per hour — enough to reach the legal limit for human exposure, even in emergency situations, within five hours. The highest reading inside reactor No. 3 was 57 millisieverts per hour.

Meanwhile, plant owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. had some discouraging news Sunday, announcing that engineers will need six to nine months to bring the damaged reactors back under control. Three months will be needed to reduce radiation levels and restore cooling functions to the reactors and spent-fuel pools, TEPCO officials said. It will then take another three to six months to fully shut down the reactors and build new shells around their earthquake-damaged protective structures, the company added. In the interim, the Japanese government says it will try to decontaminate "the widest possible area" before deciding whether tens of thousands of evacuees will be allowed to return to their homes, CNN reports. "We have to go step by step in order to resolve the problems one by one," says Goshi Hosono, an adviser to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

The robot surveys were aimed partly at helping TEPCO in its search for locations where workers can enter and perform various decontamination tasks. That's critical to keeping to its six- to nine-month schedule for wrapping up the disaster, but information gleaned from the robots so far isn't generating much optimism. "Everything is a high-radiation area inside the reactor buildings," says TEPCO spokesman Hiro Hasegawa.

(Sources: NHK, CNN)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

A major earthquake devastates San Francisco, the [skipwords]EPA declares greenhouse gases[/skipwords] a "threat," and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (map of storm system on April 15): NOAA/ZUMA Press

Photo (Gulf of Mexico oil slick in 2010): ZUMA Press

Photo (close-up of fracking fluids): Ralph Wilson/AP

Photo (robot in Fukushima Daiichi plant on April 17): ZUMA Press

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