It has become fashionable lately to rail against EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, especially if you're a Republican in Congress. And as the embattled cabinet officer prepares to roll out a variety of new pollution rules in the coming weeks and months — covering everything from smog and carbon dioxide to mercury, mining waste and auto exhaust — she may be starting the toughest chapter of her already-grueling tenure, the New York Times reports.
The first of the new regulations is expected to be unveiled Thursday, with the EPA tightening standards on soot and smog emissions from coal-fired power plants in 31 states. It foreshadows several other new rules, including limits on vehicle exhaust and on industrial CO2 emissions, that have led many critics to decry the EPA's "job-killing" policies. Jackson, on the other hand, says it's all part of her job to keep Americans safe. "Any EPA director sits at the intersection of some very important issues — air pollution, clean water, and whether businesses can survive," she says. "No one knows this job unless they've sat in the seat." Someone else who has sat in that seat, former EPA Administrator William Reilly, tells the Times that Jackson not only faces an uphill battle on Capitol Hill, but also in the White House. "[T]he White House — any White House — doesn't want to hear an awful lot from the EPA," Reilly says. "It's not an agency that ever makes friends for a president." That may be especially true for President Obama, who doesn't want to invite any more criticism from the GOP, but Jackson says she's confident in his support — even though they haven't met privately since February. "All of us are mindful that he has a lot of things to do," she says.
A new report by the White House Office of Management and Budget does throw Jackson a bone, however, offering a cost-benefit analysis that suggests EPA regulations pay for themselves with their public-health benefits. Thirty-two major EPA rules issued over the last decade will lead to estimated benefits of $82 billion to $551 billion, according to the OMB, while the costs are estimated between $23 billion and $29 billion. The report acknowledges that EPA rules are among the most expensive of any federal agency, but it counters that the benefits of reduced smog, particulate matter, mercury and other toxins outweigh those costs over time.
A giant dust storm plowed over parts of Arizona Tuesday night, stretching more than 50 miles wide and generating sustained winds that nearly reached hurricane strength. Such dust storms, also known as "haboobs," typically occur over desert areas and can cause significant damage, even without the barrage of moisture that fuels traditional storms. Tuesday's dust cloud led to widespread power outages and flight delays throughout the Phoenix area, MSNBC reports.
The storm began Tuesday afternoon in the Tucson area before moving north across the desert, National Weather Service meteorologist Paul Iniguez tells MSNBC. Radar data showed its wall of dust was towering up to 10,000 feet high — almost 2 miles above the ground — before it neared Phoenix, where the cloud fell to about 1 mile tall. "This was pretty significant," Iniguez says. "We heard from a lot of people who lived here for a number of storms and this was the worst they'd seen." The fire department in Phoenix received 720 emergency calls during the dust storm, according to MSNBC, and fire crews responded to more than 320 incidents during that period. Winds knocked down live wires in Tempe that sparked a fire, and flights at the state's busiest airport were grounded for nearly an hour, but no major injuries were reported in connection with the dust storm.
Arizona has been battling drought and wildfires for months, and while the dust storm may seem like one more in a string of dry disasters, it was reportedly part of the fledgling Arizona monsoon season, which typically begins in mid-June. More than a dozen Arizona communities were also placed under a severe thunderstorm watch Tuesday during the dust storm, and with monsoon season set to last through September, at least some parts of the state may get some much-needed moisture in the coming weeks.
The Bahamas has become the latest nation to stand up for sharks, outlawing shark fishing in its waters and banning the sale, import and export of shark products, the BBC reports. The new law, passed Tuesday, will turn all 243,000 square miles of the country's territorial waters into a vast shark sanctuary, adding the Bahamas to the small but growing ranks of nations taking action about plummeting shark populations. Honduras, the Maldives and Palau have also recently outlawed shark fishing.
Sharks are ancient creatures, having changed little over millions of years while regulating marine ecosystems as "keystone predators," similar to lions or wolves on land. Yet they have suddenly begun to face a serious existential threat over the past century, as humans have decimated their numbers around the world. Some 73 million sharks are now killed every year, according to the BBC, largely to meet demand in China for shark fin soup. Like other island nations that have taken a stand against shark fishing, the Bahamas relies heavily on tourism — including shark-diving tourism, which earns the country $80 million a year in revenue. The Bahamas banned long-line fishing in 1993, but when a local seafood company announced last year that it would begin exporting shark meat and fins to Hong Kong, public sentiment shifted toward an outright ban of all forms of shark fishing.
"They desperately need protection if we're not going to drive them to extinction," the president of the Bahamas National Trust tells the AFP. According to shark expert Jill Hepp of the Pew Environment Group, the Bahamas' new ban is part of a global movement toward badly needed protections for sharks. "2011 is fast becoming the year of the shark," Hepp tells the Underwater Times. "Today's announcement permanently protects more than 40 shark species in Bahamian waters. We applaud the people and government of the Bahamas for being bold leaders in marine conservation."
Scientists in Australia have made one of the most important fossil discoveries in the continent's history: a virtually complete skeleton of a "diprotodon" (pictured), the largest marsupial that ever lived. Measuring more than 6 feet tall, 11 feet long and weighing 3 tons, the wombat-like creature was a monstrous, plant-eating marsupial that lived between 2 million and 50,000 years ago.
Diprotodons were relatives of modern-day wombats, and paleontologists believe this discovery could shed some light on why the species died out. It was one of many so-called "megafauna" that died out in Australia long ago, along with supersized kangaroos and giant crocodiles, mirroring a similar die-off in the Americas. The mass extinctions in both parts of the world have been blamed both on climate change and on overhunting by humans, and scientists hope the diprotodon can offer some insight on what killed off these gigantic herbivores. "What we're seeing here is the biggest marsupial that ever lived in the world; a three-ton monster that was walking around this land somewhere between 50,000 and 2 million years ago," paleontologist Michael Archer tells ABC Brisbane. "And this was its last stand."
"There's been a lot of debate about what killed the megafauna, and it's quite a hot topic in paleontology," Sue Hand, a professor on the team that made the discovery, tells the AFP. "It will be very interesting to see its age and if people came in first, for instance, from the north. There could be some very interesting data to be extracted from this find."
Oil rig explosion rocks North Sea, Kazakhstan starts Aral Sea rehab, and more.
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Photo (Lisa Jackson testifying before Congress in 2010): ZUMA Press
Photo (video still of Phoenix dust storm on July 5): telegraphtv/YouTube
Photo (gray reef shark swimming near coral): ZUMA Press
Image (drawing of a diprotodon): Dmitry Bogdanov/Wikimedia Commons