EMISSIONS POSSIBLE 

The stalled economy may be a boon for land conservation, but it's not helping with environmental protection overall. [skipwords]As the Los Angeles Times reports, Republicans seem to be successfully blaming the economic rut on environmental regulations, pressuring the Obama administration to back off its plans to update the country's rules on ground-level ozone. The EPA has already missed a self-imposed July 29 deadline for issuing the new standards, and now it's also expected to miss another deadline, on Aug. 12, to file a court proposal related to the ozone rules, the Times reports. 

If the EPA misses this Friday's deadline, it would be the latest of several times the agency has delayed an environmental rule since last fall's midterm elections. This suggests the Obama administration is reacting to "emboldened critics in industry and the Republican Party," according to the Times, who have "honed their narrative that regulations kill jobs." In addition to attacks from lobbying groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute, two GOP senators have sent a letter to the EPA, the Times reports, questioning the competence of an independent scientific council that advised the EPA to update its ozone rules. Those rules had been set in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration, which angered public-health and environmental advocates by issuing weaker limits than its own scientific council had advised. President Obama pledged in 2010 to set tougher standards, and has been expected to set a new limit of 60 to 70 parts per billion, as scientists recommend. But ever since last year's elections, a haze of uncertainty has settled over the EPA.

"I don't know what is motivating these delays," says David Baron, a lawyer with Earthjustice. "But it's certainly not a need for further study of the science, which has been well-established for years, and was just reaffirmed by the EPA's science advisors at the end of March." Research has shown that living in areas with high ozone can worsen breathing problems like asthma, and the EPA has estimated the new rules could save up to 12,000 lives per year. In a sign of their fading confidence that the Obama administration will act on its own, several environmental and public-health groups filed a motion Monday in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, asking the court to set an immediate deadline for the EPA to issue the new ozone standards.[/skipwords]

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Reuters)

ILL WIND 

In the days after Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami this spring, thousands of people unwittingly evacuated into the path of a radiation plume emanating from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, even though a government computer system had predicted the plume would go there. According to reports by the New York Times and the AP, Japanese officials opted not to publicize the computer forecasts — even though doing so could have reduced the evacuees' radiation exposure.

"When I think about it now, I am outraged," says Hidenori Arakawa, the principal of an elementary school where evacuees gathered after the March 11 disaster, unaware that radiation was blowing in from the south. "Our lives were put at risk." While hydrogen explosions released radioactive materials into the air from Fukushima Daiichi, the evacuees spent three nights in a district called Tsushima, the Times reports, where children played outside and parents even used water from a nearby stream to cook rice. Meanwhile, winds were blowing the radiation directly toward them, and the government's computer system knew it. "From the 12th to the 15th we were in a location with one of the highest levels of radiation," says Tamotsu Baba, the mayor of Namie, which is about five miles from Fukushima Daiichi. "We are extremely worried about internal exposure to radiation."

Public anger has already been welling for months in Japan, where many blame the government for withholding information about radiation in the air, sea water and even the food supply. Several sources tell the Times and the AP that Japanese officials engaged in a pattern of secretive behavior regarding the nuclear crisis, hoping to avoid panic and to minimize disruptive evacuations in a country where land is scarce. But reports that officials ignored, downplayed or even suppressed forecasts from the computer system — known as the System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or SPEEDI — has elevated that anger to a new level. "In the end, it was the prime minister's office that hid the SPEEDI data," Japanese lawmaker Seiki Soramoto tells the Times. "Because they didn't have the knowledge to know what the data meant, and thus they did not know what to say to the public, they thought only of their own safety, and decided it was easier just not to announce it."

(Sources: New York Times, Associated Press)

FALLING SKIES 

Just in time for this weekend's appearance of the Perseid meteor shower, a new study suggests that meteorites likely carried some of the building blocks of DNA to Earth, the AFP reports. Funded by NASA and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study adds credibility to the theory that at least some of the ingredients for early life on Earth came from outer space. "This shows us that meteorites may have been molecular tool kits, which provided the essential building blocks for life on Earth," says study co-author Jim Cleaves.

The researchers used advanced mass spectrometry to scan 11 meteorites known as "carbonaceous chondrites," looking for signs of nucleobases, which help to make both DNA and RNA. The organic-rich meteorites turned out to contain three such nucleobases — purine; 6,8-diaminopurine; and 2,6-diaminopurine — that are "rare or absent in terrestrial biology," according to the study. There was no trace of these three nucelobases in soil and ice samples taken near where the meteorites landed, yet the researchers conclude they are "widely distributed in carbonaceous chondrites." Previous studies have found some nucleobases on meteorites, the AFP notes, but they shared traits with Earthly nucleobases, leading to speculation the meteorites had simply been contaminated after landing. Not so this time, Cleaves tells the AFP. "Finding nucleobase compounds not typically found in Earth's biochemistry strongly supports an extraterrestrial origin," he says.

As the descendants of those ancient meteorites' organic cargo, humans can catch a glimpse of another, more contemporary meteor shower this weekend, Space.com reports. August is dubbed "meteor month" in the Northern Hemisphere due to its frequent displays of crashing space rocks, and perhaps the best-known of them is set to peak overnight on Aug. 12 and 13. But a full moon could obscure the view for many skywatchers, so Space.com recommends looking during the predawn hours this week before the moon becomes full on Aug. 13.

(Sources: Agence France-Presse, Space.com)

LOST IN SPACE 

Earth's orbit is clogged with litter, posing a danger to astronauts aboard the International Space Station as well as governments and businesses that plan to launch more manned space missions in coming years. But as the BBC reports, a group of scientists is now proposing a "housekeeping spacecraft" that could dutifully orbit the planet, cleaning up space junk before it balloons into an even bigger problem.

There are more than 17,000 objects larger than 4 inches drifting around in low-Earth orbit, but each has the potential to fracture into thousands more pieces — which is dangerous, since even tiny pieces of space junk can cause serious damage to space vehicles. "In our opinion the problem is very challenging and it's quite urgent as well," says Marco Castronuovo, an Italian Space Agency researcher who authored the paper. "The time to act is now; as we go farther in time we will need to remove more and more fragments." The orbit-cleaning robot would work by locating and rendezvousing with a piece of space junk, then attaching a propellant kit that would send the debris careening toward destruction in Earth's atmosphere. While the satellite could perform this task relatively inexpensively, it would be slow going — the researchers estimate it could remove just five to 10 objects per year of operation.

Still, the urgency commands some kind of action, the researchers argue, pointing out that tracking down and disposing of space junk is no easy task. "The proximity operations and maneuvering talked about here is not easy, but the technology is getting there for that," one expert tells the BBC. "The idea that you go and attach yourself to something in orbit is becoming more credible." Plus, as Castronuovo admits, the technology could be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands: "This kind of approach could be seen as a threat to operative systems; if you have the power to go to an object in space and pull it down, nothing prevents you from going to an operative satellite and pulling it down, so it's really a delicate matter." 

(Source: BBC News)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Izaak Walton is born, Lassen Volcanoes National Park is established, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (smog over Salt Lake City): Aaron Gustafson/Flickr

Photo (Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant): ZUMA Press

Image (illustration of meteor in sky): NASA

Image (illustration of debris in Earth's orbit): NASA

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