SMALL TOWN VS. BIG OIL 

A global oil giant was humbled Monday by a small-town judge in the Ecuadorian jungle, ordered to pay more than $8 billion in an epic, 18-year legal case that could have major implications for the oil industry. Judge Nicolas Zambrano issued the ruling in the town of Lago Agrio, where plaintiffs allege that Texaco — which Chevron acquired in 2001 — spent years illegally burying oil, drilling mud and wastewater in unlined pits and rivers (pictured). This led to hundreds of cancer deaths in the area, according to a court-appointed geologist who testified in the case.

But Chevron has vowed to appeal the decision, accusing the plaintiffs' attorneys of improperly conspiring with witnesses. "The Ecuadorian court's judgment is illegitimate and unenforceable," the company said in a statement. "It is the product of fraud." Chevron shares were up slightly on Monday, Reuters reports, with investors shrugging off the ruling as analysts predict a final judgment is likely still years away. Plaintiffs originally sought $27 billion in the case, which began in 1993, and have said they plan to seize Chevron assets around the world if victorious. But despite Monday's favorable ruling, those efforts are hindered by a U.S. judge and international arbitrators, who have both issued orders temporarily barring efforts to collect money from Chevron.

"This is an important step," plaintiff attorney Pablo Fajardo tells the Washington Post. "It sets a precedent, but the battle does not end here." Environmentalists and other plaintiff advocates acknowledge that Monday's ruling is far from the saga's final chapter, but many nonetheless took the opportunity to celebrate, however briefly. "In many moments of this long, difficult and costly battle, it appeared impossible to make the dream a reality," Fajardo said in a statement, "[but] apparently this story is beginning to change." Kevin Koenig of the environmental group Amazon Watch agreed that the ruling marks a turning point in the case. "The ruling today is, I think, a vindication of what these communities have been saying for almost 30 years," he tells the Post.

(Sources: Washington Post, Reuters, Guardian, BBC News)

BUILDING MOMENTUM 

Commercial buildings in the U.S. use about 18 percent of the country's total energy each year, and today's Science Times examines how one federal agency is trying to set a more sustainable example. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently moved 800 of its engineers, managers and support staff into a new $64 million building that aims to be the largest net-zero-energy office building nationwide. The 222,000-square-foot structure is like a big, meticulous experiment in how not to waste energy, but it does so with "off-the-shelf technology" that's already widely available. "It's all doable technology," says one NREL official. 'It's a living laboratory."

The building hasn't yet achieved its goal of zero energy use over 24 hours, and managers say it probably won't until early next year, when the third wing and a parking complex are finished. But it's still an enviable feat of energy efficiency, with a central computer monitoring every watt of electricity used along with outdoor weather conditions, calculating how dark to tint the windows, how to tilt the solar panels and when to open the windows. It's already generating more energy than it uses at certain points of the day, and it has sufficiently impressed many of its occupants. "It's sort of a wonderland," NREL support worker Jim Duffield tells the Times.

The building's bona fides go beyond mere energy efficiency — stones collected during pre-construction digging were reused as retaining walls, and lumber was taken from pine trees that had already been killed by mountain pine beetles. The superefficient ambience has even inspired some employees to take eco-friendly initiative of their own, such as Duffield's collection of indoor plants around his desk. And with plenty of refracted sunlight to go around, the plants seem to like the building, too. "The tropical trumpet vine in my house stops growing for the winter," Duffield tells the Times. "Here it has continued to grow, and when the days start getting longer it might even bloom."

(Source: New York Times)

WINGS AND A PRAYER 

North America's monarch butterflies seem to be bouncing back after a devastating drop last winter, the AP reports, offering some hope the iconic insects could be in the early stages of recovery. The number of monarchs migrating to Mexico from Canada and the U.S. has more than doubled from last year's record low, conservationists announced Monday — there were 9.9 acres of colonies this year, up from the 4.7 acres recorded in the winter of 2009-'10.

"These figures are encouraging, compared to last year, because they show a trend toward recovery," the director of the conservation group World Wildlife Fund Mexico tells the AP. WWF Mexico sponsored the study, along with the Mexican government and the cell-phone company Telcel. Despite the one-year turnaround, however, the recent monarch numbers are still well below average, experts point out. The butterflies covered nearly 20 acres during the winter of 2008-'09, and set a record high in 1996-'97 with 45 acres. 

Monarchs spend their winters in Mexico, where mountaintop pine forests serve as "blankets," protecting them from rain and cold. Their recent declines are widely blamed on deforestation in Mexico's western state of Michoacan, although other causes such as climate change, pesticides and genetically modified crops have also been cited as potential culprits. And while Monday's announcement marks welcome news following a year when monarch numbers fell 75 percent, a monarch expert in Florida tells the AP that every time the butterflies "recover," they tend to then suffer further declines. "What is ominous is that all of the last seven years have been below average," he says.

(Source: Associated Press)

SATELLITES VS. SALMONELLA 

Disease outbreaks like hantavirus, bubonic plague and salmonella can be predicted months before they start, according to a new study, thanks to satellites that monitor plant growth on the Earth's surface. Published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography, the study offers a novel and potentially life-saving way to outsmart viruses and bacteria that have been sneaking under our noses for millennia.

The trick is to know which types of plants are important to species that play host to disease-causing microbes, the study's authors say. For example, deer mice are carriers of hantavirus, and the researchers found they could predict the virus's spread simply by mapping the growth of vegetation that boosts deer-mouse populations. "It's a way to remotely track a disease without having to go out and trap animals all the time," says University of Utah biologist and study co-author Denise Dearing. "The satellite measures the greenness of the Earth, and we found that greenness predicts deer-mouse population density."

While the study focused on deer mice and hantavirus, Dearing points out that "it potentially could be applied to any animal that responds to vegetation." That means health officials could use this technique to fight many other rodent-borne diseases, including rat-bite fever, Lyme disease, Lassa fever, bubonic plague and salmonella, among others. "It would have to be calibrated against each specific species of rodent and the disease," Dearing explains, "but it's really powerful when it's done."

(Source: e! Science News)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

An oil rig capsizes, Iceland starts commercial whaling again, and more.

Russell McLendon

Photo (local women near a pool of oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon): Dolores Ochoa/AP

Image (artist's rendering of NREL's Research Support Facility): NREL

Photo (monarch butterfly): U.S. National Park Service

Photo (vegetation cover pictured by NASA satellite): NASA

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